The art of the matter
Last month we chatted with Dr Iris Salecker of the Visual Circuit Assembly Laboratory to find out what happened when she let an artist loose in her lab… this month we meet that very artist. The brilliant Helen Pynor tells us about new perspectives, imagination and performing biology
Tell us about the exhibition…
The section of the exhibition that I was involved with was sub-titled ‘transforming connections’. It explores the unfolding developmental process of the Drosophila visual circuit, a visually and scientifically beautiful story, which leads to the unlikely miracle of sight. I was commissioned to make a number of artworks, including photographic panels mounted to acrylic sheets that hang from the ceiling, a video work, and a small sculptural work. My works accompany detailed scientific material that allows members of the public to gain an informed sense of the work of the laboratory and the scientific content I was responding to. The exhibition curator Bryony Benge-Abbott designed the exhibition to allow viewers to engage at multiple levels – scientific content, sensorial experiences, and conceptual content - and to synthesize this together in their own ways.
When art and science are combined in this way - other than the beautiful results - can they tell us anything?
Works made by artists that draw on the processes and intellectual material of scientists can operate at different levels. At the most basic, they might be visually compelling ways to tell the science story. However the most interesting works, from an artistic perspective, are ones that take the scientific content and re-contextualise it into a new framework. This framework might be ethical, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, psychological etc. So the artwork encourages audiences to think on a different level, and can prompt different questions, to that of the scientific content. It’s useful and exciting for a broader public to be presented with material that is thought provoking and prompts a deeper reckoning with a complex subject. In some cases the work may encourage members of the scientific community to think from new perspectives about the ethical or philosophical tangents of their work. In other cases, the work may offer a sensory experience that allows scientists to experience their work re-framed, which may not have direct correlates to feeding their scientific research work, but it nourishes the broader creative imaginary in which their thinking takes place.
Science and art are both trying to explain the world in some way; do you think the practice of the two forms can learn anything from each other?
For artists who are working in this area, scientific content and the scientific imaginary offer a rich and inexhaustible source of wonder. In my case, I frequently work with ‘wet biology’ as a material in the making of works. The presence of these biological entities, who sometimes ‘perform’ in my work, offers a deeper sense of truth, wonder and reality to my work. Scientists, scientific processes, and the biological entities I work with, offer me a way to continue to learn and test my ideas about the ontological reality of life, which is one of the core questions my practice is concerned with.
What was it like working with Iris for this process?
I formed a rapport with Iris almost immediately. Iris has a very well developed aesthetic sensibility, which meant it was very easy for me to connect with her around the sensorial and aesthetic dimensions of the project. She is an inspired scientist who has an obvious passion for her animal model, and a keenly intellectual and rigorous mind, that it was wonderful to engage with. One of the works I produced was a video in which Iris is the performer. By the use of lighting we see only her arms and hands as she describes in detail the neurological events that takes place during Drosophila visual circuit development. The audio in the video is turned off, so we focus only on the rather mesmerizing choreography of her gestures, beautiful and strangely precise. It speaks to the way gesture and the body are called upon to fill in the gaps between language and meaning, especially in this science story that is so spatial and sculptural. I also spent a good deal of time with Iris’ PhD student Emma Powell, who was instrumental in the lab being involved in the commission. I learnt a great deal from her too through watching her perform numerous skilled dissections and confocal microscopy experiments.
Outreach has become a very important within science; do you think residencies like this should become more widespread?
Outreach is a question for the scientists! I can say, from the ‘art’ side, that giving artists access to labs and great scientific minds can only benefit both, and benefit members of the public who can enjoy, be intrigued by, and provoked by such works – members of the public are also the beneficiaries of this rich and complex creative process.