|Photography by Erika Stevenson|
From January – May 2017 I undertook a micro-artist-in-residency at the laboratory of Professor Sara Brown, an eczema genetic research facility, within the School of Medicine, University of Dundee, organised by ASCUS Art & Science, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, with additional support from the Arts & Ethics Research Group.
The work I created, evolved through a period spent observing the day to day activities of the lab, from carefully nurturing skin cultures, to the precise, complex and delicate processes use to analyse these samples. The resulting projects ‘We began as part of the body’ (a 6minute sound piece), ‘Exhume’ (a series of 3D printed skin cells) and the ‘Atopic’ images (360 degrees photography from the lab) were intended to be a series of experiential works, that immerse the viewer in the work of lab, but also embody the poetic, human and ethical issues that it’s work raises.
The script for the sound piece was written in response to a series of interviews with staff from the Brown Lab, and follows the cells journey from theatre to lab, to disposal, and is written from the point of view of the organotypic, artificial skin samples. What is so fascinating to me about these cells, is that they are real but synthetic, taken from an actual person, but then processed and maintained outside of the body. They are other. Almost indescribably similar and different from the cells that exist within our actual body. Are they better, worse or just different? And what does that difference mean? Does it affect how we understand our own bodies, not just in medical and scientific terms but in terms of what it means to be human?
My approach also involved experimenting with various imaging technologies that are used within and around the lab, in particular, microscopy. I was interested in how these methods of staining, capturing, slicing and processing, provide meaning about the cells, cultures and their behaviours. I used these methods to create the series of 3D prints of skin cells, to give what are otherwise somewhat abstract, image based representations, a tangible, physical manifestation, and explore their made-ness. These objects attempt to challenge our understanding of scale within the body and medical imaging software. The 3D prints I created are 2000 times bigger that the real-life cells, blown-up in size, into objects that fit in the hand. The objects were made by capturing a culture of skin cells, which are a group, but are also individual cells, each different to one another. They are also going through a process of differentiation, and are therefore in the process of changing, not in themselves fixed shapes or forms. They are active, responsive and precious in their short 3 weeks lifespan.
A series of three 360 photographic images accompanied the above works, which present the viewer with an immersive experience of the different environments of the lab; a VR window into a world not normally accessible to the public. Here we are presented with a somewhat ghostly version of the lab environment, without researchers or technicians, which now appears to only be inhabited by specimens; the organotypic, artificial skin.
The works were exhibited as part of the Beyond Skin exhibition at the LifeSpace: Science Art Research Gallery, University of Dundee from 27 June – 2 September 2017, at the Slessor Gardens, Dundee from Sept – Dec 2017, and as part of the AERG organised Fieldworks – Arts and Ethics Research Group, at the Berlin Blue Gallery, Berlin, Germany from 18 – 21 July 2017.
The work will feature in an upcoming lecture Positively Squishy – creative research in the lab, which I’m presenting as part of the Mason Institute Lunchtime Lecture series on 22 February 2018, and then as within the paper We began as part of the part of the body – a sound artwork as creative correspondence at the Design Anthropology panel at Art, Materiality & Representation conference at the British Museum, London, 1-3 June 2018.