I am starting this blog at a strange time, with the world variously locked down in order to manage the spread of Coronavirus. Much of my art practice focuses on how we visualise health and disease in our bodies, often at a microscopic level. At present we are being bombarded with images with most news stories and programmes accompanied colourful and intricate representations of the virus, embellished to work well in the media environment. Implicitly or explicitly we are being invited to imagine the virus entering our own cells, with all that implies. If it weren’t all so grim, this would be a bonanza for an artist who is concerned with how we imagine disease at a cellular level.
But at the moment everything is, in fact, pretty grim, and I am hearing every day from friends and their families how badly affected they are by the virus or the measures in place to suppress it. So instead of dwelling on Coronavirus, just now I will be writing about the projects that I already have underway. And maybe I’ll come back to thinking about the visualisation of viruses in relation to my practice at a later date. (Who knows? At the moment, nothing is certain).
So, the two projects on my radar at the moment are also both about health and the body.
My main focus at present is a collaboration with researchers at Leeds University who are investigating the possibilities for using a membrane disrupting peptide to develop new cancer treatments. They have commissioned me to make an artwork inspired by their research which will take up residence at St James University Hospital in Leeds, ultimately in their new Clinical Research Facility. You’ll find most of my initial blogs are about how this project is developing, both in terms of learning some of the science from the very patient team in Leeds, to starting to make creative work.
My other project is at an earlier stage of development, although I have been thinking about it for longer. This is a project to create a body of artwork exploring the experience, incidence and implications of pressure ulcers. Incredibly prevalent, pressure ulcers are little talked about but have a fierce impact on those who experience them, and they can life-threatening to the elderly and vulnerable if their ulcers become severe.
Over the coming weeks and months, I shall be writing about my thoughts, research, creative exploration and development for these projects and maybe some others. I would love it if you would join me by subscribing, commenting, or just reading along and enjoying.
I knew from quite early on that I wanted my ‘natural history’ diorama for the peptide/membrane project to feature several globe forms which inspired by the vesicles / cell membranes under the influence of the peptide. (The peptide itself would be invisible – only detectable in its effects).
The vesicles were not intended to be a scientific representation, but more something between an evocation and an abstract sculpture. Having said that, there were a number of concepts that I had found really interesting from the time I spent in the lab that I wanted to inform the development of the vesicle elements, so I set about playing with ideas and techniques that would take on those ideas.
Creating Surface: While I was in meetings and labs with the team, I kept hearing about phase separation. In fact, to begin with i wasn’t sure if i was hearing about ‘phase separation’ or ‘face separation’, but that was soon cleared up! During my time in the labs i looked at images and heard more about this phenomenon in cell membranes and was fascinated by the confocal microscope images that illustrated it.
I started to play with frit balls as a way of creating different surface effects within pate de verre. Frit balls are small granules of glass which are heated in the kiln to contract into little balls. I started to incorporate different sizes of frit balls into pate de verre samples in different ways – mixed in or adhering to the surface in groups. It was fun and I got some effects i really liked.
Once I had settled on some textures i liked, i started making vesicles. Initially I used rough textured spheres around which to make moulds, but I then moved onto using wax spheres that were smoother and easier to work with.
Colours: The first vesicle I made, i mixed up my colours and ended up with a vesicle with big pink patches which i hated. The plan had been for a much more subtle transition from white to a pale fleshtone, not only to evoke the biological but also in keeping with the overall palette that i’d talked to the Leeds team about, having seen the space and the way colours worked in the CRF area. This first patchy vesicle made a good test piece to try out the effects I wanted to develop using perforation, poration and metal mesh.
Through further experimentation and refining my process I finally got the three colours and textures of vesicles that I wanted.
Drilling: I decided to make the perforations in the vesicles by drilling into the globes rather than making the holes through the mouldmaking. Several reasons for this, including the likely strength of the ultimate vesicles and also the accuracy of the holes. I did, however, for the darkest vesicle, identify where i wanted the perforations to fall and created bulges around them as part of the model and mouldmaking process. Luckily the drilling went well and there were no breakages at that stage, which would have been heart-breaking as well as vesicle-breaking, as by this point, each vesicle represents many hours of work. Now they have been drilled, the white vesicle has no pores, the pale flesh vesicle has small pores, and the larger darker vesicle has extensive perforations.
So that, in a nutshell, was the development of the vesicle elements of the pieces. There’ll be more vesicle chat when I get to posting about the process of making the mesh elements that emerge through the perforations to create the overall effect of leakage, inspired by the action of the peptide…
It’s been a long while since I last posted – which is not to say that I haven’t been busy moving forward with the project, just that I’ve been focused on the studio rather than the laptop! So this and future posts will start to bring things up to date, slowly but surely, to the point where I am at present, with all the glass elements made and about to start construction of the piece in earnest.
The first major landmark since the last post was bringing the team up to speed in May with the way I wanted to go with the composition of the piece. Having settled on the idea of a natural history vitrine, I took them through my initial ideas for a diorama based around the developing perforation of a series of vesicles by the peptide.
I felt somewhat hampered by the necessity to have the conversation by Zoom rather than being able to talk in person and bounce about ideas and look at samples; we had initially imagined that I would go back to visit them in Leeds during May, but as lockdown was still very much in place, that was not an option. So Zoom it was.
I constructed a brief presentation to take Paul, Andrew and Arindam through my thinking and to show them some of the samples that I had been making. It culminated in a rough and ready construction collage of the basic elements of what I was proposing. Here are the slides from the presentation to give you a sense of what I was thinking. There’s no text, so it’s not totally self-explanatory, but it does give a sense of the elements that were coming together in my thinking in May.
We had some great chat as a result of talking through my ideas which have led to more concrete developments. Arindam uploaded some images for me from his research process – some spheroid experiments and some cell images – which i am working on to be a backdrop to the piece. Andrew has provided me with some more of his handwritten calculations, which I want to collage into the backdrop and possibly use in other ways.
In terms of my glasswork, we had some productive thoughts about my ‘Z stack’ element (my very rough prototype is in the image at the top of this post) – which I shall post about separately. We also talked about a potential ‘wasp nest’ element, but agreed that the emphasis needed to be on the science/ research rather than wasps. By the end of the conversation I felt things had definitely moved phase from ‘what am i making’ to ‘how will i make it’. So I went on from there to making vesicles – more of that to come soon!
When I was initially thinking about my approach to the Peptides project, before my first visit to Leeds to present my pitch for the project, I was thinking very much about metaphors for the process by which the peptide acts on cell walls. Here are a couple of slides from my pitch, outlining my thoughts:
Since starting the project for real, I’ve returned to those slides and that thinking to see how it might guide my approach now I am actively creating samples to help me shape the work. From the conversations with Paul about how the peptide acts on the cell membrane, I keep coming back to the word perforate. I also keep visualising the process expressed in this image below, from one of the slides that Paul shared with me quite early in our discussions on my research visit in March.
From this, and from the previous images of vesicles and cells through the microscope, I am developing a series of samples with different textures and qualities. So far the samples are not perforated, but more ‘frayed’ at the edges (they are quite small) but I envisage that I will develop more punctured surfaces when I scale things up.
Punctured surfaces and interesting edges also give me scope for another idea that I am developing, of wrapping edges in aluminium mesh to mirrors the process suggested above where the peptide seems to ‘edge’ the emerging perforations in the membrane….
The image here was a first experiment, using a complete form that I had to hand, but I will be experimenting further with edging and wrapping.
So, for those of you who have read my post on placing the artwork, you know that there are some major advantages to placing the artwork under glass (even if it is itself made of glass!).
I know that I don’t just want to make an artwork and pop it into a standard cabinet – often glass art does not fare well when placed inside a glass case. So my plan is to create an artwork where the cabinet or vitrine is an integral part of the piece.
When thinking about how to use cabinets or vitrines in this artwork, I am very much drawn to thinking about natural history exhibits. A lot of natural history museums in particular evolved complex settings for displaying their flora and fauna specimens in their vitrines during the late nineteenth century and enduring well into the twentieth century. This approach also spilled over into more general taxidermy.
Various artists are also known for using vitrines in their work. Here are examples from Carsten Holler, Anselm Kiefer, and an artist new to me Fiona Hall. They have used vitrines in different ways, creating types of taxonomy, mises en scenes and
Reviewing how curators, collectors and artists use of vitrines, some of the key things I know I want to think about going forward include:
Backdrop – coloured and or sandblasted
Drawing or writing on the case
Mise en scene inside the case – including narrative elements
Composition of main elements as specimens (or not)
I already have my eye on a specific vitrine / display case so am going to be thinking about those things in light of that….
While visiting St James Hospital, I spent some time in the Bexley Wing looking around where my artwork might be placed, both temporarily and on a more permanent basis.
The idea, if all goes according to plan, would be for the artwork to spend its first three months once completed in the Atrium Gallery of the Bexley Wing. This is an amazing, huge, high-ceilinged and light-filled space which already has a considerable number of artworks on display at any one time.
Following that it will move to the Clinical Research Facility (CRF) which had just opened for business when I was on my visit to the hospital, although without inpatients. Chris and Debbie showed me around the space and pointed out a couple of options for where my artwork might be placed, depending on which I preferred and what kind of artwork i would be making. We also looked at what else would be in the space, including the lightboxes (the edge of one of which you can see below) and some watercolours which had been commissioned for and donated to the CRF.
While we were looking at the space, Chris also shared that the CRF might be converted into a coronavirus treatment unit if required by the hospital for providing care during the pandemic.
This heightened our existing awareness that the artwork would need to be easy to clean, or possibly sterilise, as well as allowing the walls / floors near it to be cleaned effectively. For that reason Chris and Debbie were both very much in favour of having the artwork housed in some sort of a cabinet that would allow for external cleaning without disturbing the piece itself, and would enable the artwork to be moved to allow the areas around it to be cleaned.
I hadn’t really considered the artwork being encased in any way up until that conversation. We had talked about the requirement for the artwork to be safe for patients and staff, and I had been thinking about how to finish rough or sharp edges so that they would not present any difficulties, as well as how the piece could be kept clean. But most of my creative ideas had to that point been for an installation where the component parts were not contained, and so this represented quite a change in creative direction for me to contend with.
I mulled for a short time about whether I could happily create a work which would conform to the necessary cleaning requirements without being held in any form of container or cabinet, but quite quickly decided that this would be both limiting and complex, determining what kind of finishes and materials that I could use – probably mainly shiny and smooth surfaces, which does not fit well with my usual aesthetic or approach.
However, constraints can be very positive, and my first thought was to find a way to make the ‘cabinet’ part of the piece itself, which would be an interesting and challenging way forward. My mind immediately went to my ‘Blood Morphology’ pieces which have integral bell jars containing the blood cells.
Bell jars or glass domes would definitely be a possibility for this artwork, but currently i am much more drawn to the idea of specimen cabinets or vitrines, especially as I don’t want to find myself repeating myself. I will be doing some research about the aesthetics of specimen cabinets and vitrines as well as looking into other artists who have used these, and will post about that separately…
If you haven’t already read my account of days one and two, you might like to scroll down and start at the beginning of my trip. If you have, or like to start things in the middle, read on!
Day three of my visit saw me heading for St James University Hospital in Leeds, rather than the University. After I walked past a very picturesque Victorian chapel and restored Tom met me in the Wellcome Trust Brenner Building. This University building on the hospital campus houses many of the Biology researchers and their labs.
After a lightening tour of the labs and offices, Sarah gave me an induction about the basics of lab safely and etiquette for my role as an observer. I learned where and when to wear a lab coat, what not to touch (basically everything in the lab, including not leaning or propping my notebook on any lab surfaces), when to wear gloves and when to wash hands. With all the current advice, I have already got a lot more skilled at handwashing, so that stood me in good stead.
After that, I was handed into Arindam’s care. He had been prepping some experiments that we could run through the flow cytometer, part of the three day protocol that he had started before I even arrived in Leeds. The flow cytometer is an instrument which can differentiate very quickly between different cell states – which are tagged with different fluorescent labels – by passing them one by one through a narrow channel, shining a laser at them and assessing their luminosity, before chucking them back into the main sample. Amazing. Oddly, it made me think of counting sheep by making them jump over a gate.
The read out from the cytometer is shown in a graphic display on the cytometer’s monitor. Here we are looking at the percentage of cells that have died as a result of being treated with the MP1 peptide. The four box model on the screen shows living cells, early apoptosis, late apoptosis and necrosis after treatment with a particular peptide concentration.
The team are regularly working with a number of different cells line. There are four in particular that the team are using as their ‘core’ cell lines. Three of these are different breast cancer cell lines, and one is a ‘normal’ cell line (although modified so that it will continue to grow in a lab). I am really interested in how the cell lines were chosen and some of the complexities and ethics of working with cell lines, so expect to hear more about this in a separate post. My initial reaction, though, to the normal-but-immortal cell line is this: if what distinguishes a normal cell from a cancer cell is that is a cancer cell will grow and reproduce without being properly programmed to die, then the existence of a normal-but-immortal cell line is something of a conundrum – not a total contradiction but not straightforward either.
Later in the day Arindam showed me some spheroids to be treated with the peptide which we could then view through the confocal microscope to see how the peptide affected cells in a 3D configuration. In the previous experiment, the cells had been standalone, but if you are to treat cancer effectively, you are much more likely to have to treat clusters of cells. Using the normal-but-immortal cell line, Arindam had prepared the spheroids of clusters of cells – apparently the cancer cell lines don’t make good spheroids, just random bunches of cells that aren’t useful for testing.
After Arindam and I had looked at various spheroids treated with different amounts of peptide, I went to spend some time with Dagmara. Using a simple optical microscope, we looked at samples of GPMVs that she had been creating from all of the different cell lines.
Dagmara is studying for her PhD as part of the project. One of her priorities so far has been to develop ways to create GPMVs that can be used as part of the peptide testing process. GPMVs are, to me, like a halfway house between testing on GUVs (or LUVs) and testing with actual cell lines. A GPMV is a vesicle created from an actual cell, so the membrane has the same (or similar) composition in terms of naturally occurring lipids etc that the cell has. It is therefore a much more complex membrane mixture than a GUV. But it doesn’t contain all the active gubbins of a real live cell, so there are fewer variables with testing GPMVs than there are with real cells.
However, it turns out that creating GPMVs – which are Giant Plasma Membrane Vesicles – are not easy things to create. Dagmara has been using two approaches – oscillation and chemical. Both techniques are tricky and oscillation only seems to work with one cell line. And even where she has been making GPMVs successfully, there are problems with them being ‘leaky’. This is a proper problem as the action of the peptide – as i understand it – is to create pores in the membrane that creates leakiness and causes the cell to expire. If you start with a leaky vesicle, that’s hard to test for.
Nonetheless, we spent a happy hour looking at the GPMVs that she had created from the different cell lines. One of the interesting things for me was not only to see the GPMVs themselves, but also to see the very different appearances of the different cell lines under the microscope.
So that brings us more or less to the end of the trip. I did also spend a bit of time with Chris and Debbie in the Bexley Wing and Clinical Research Facility looking at the potential spaces for the piece, but will post separately about that.
Overall it was a wonderful, stimulating visit. I am still bursting with ideas for tests and approaches to making the artwork, even though everything has been disrupted by the Coronavirus spread and the lockdown, which, frankly, has made it much harder to focus on this, or indeed anything.
If you haven’t seen my post about my first day visiting the labs, it’s probably worth starting there. If you have, welcome to day two!
On my second day I went back to meet Andrew at the School of Chemistry. We chatted while he prepared a lipid mixture to ‘grow’ some GUVs (Giant Unilamellar Vesicles). He prepared two mixtures. One he knew would make it quite tricky to grow the GUVs but would give us the chance to run a new experiment if we got good GUVs, the other was a more reliable but less exciting mix so that we would have something to look at through the confocal microscope later if the first mix failed.
Making GUVs is not done using the same technique as preparing Large vesicles (LUVs), which is what Luke, a Masters student in the lab, was involved in, alongside us in the lab. (The ‘Giant’ and the ‘Large’ are all relative of course – we are talking microns here). He recounted how he had been trying for months to create GUVs of a certain type and over those several months it had only worked well once – on a day when, atypically, he didn’t have the info to replicate the conditions. I compared that to trying to repeat firings to try and find a good programme for my pate de verre sacks – my Imperfect Vessels – which in the end took about 12 firings to get a programme that worked the way I wanted it to. That conversation made me feel a good deal less patient or diligent than I had.
Having wired up the GUVs and popped them into the oven to form, we went to look at the chemical robot. This is a machine for setting up plates with multiple samples at a time according to whatever is programmed for a specific set of experiments. It was strangely mesmerising – whoever had developed the machine had programmed in a set of elegant flourishes – not obviously functional, but very engaging. As the pipettes dipped towards the plates they each dropped down in turn, creating a lovely wave of pipettes heading into the wells with their samples. Similarly, there was a moment’s dramatic pause before the used pipette heads were all knocked off and the sequence started again. A kind of magic.
In a quiet moment between experiments etc, we started talking about the Brazilian wasp from which the MP1 peptide is drawn. It’s called Polybia Paulista and it’s massive!
Later in the afternoon we took a look at our GUVs through the confocal microscope. Here are some of the images I snapped off the screen
The images are super-seductive, with the bright coloured labelling (this is showing phase separation – more of that later). But although the temptation is to leap into making bright, spotty, luminescent glass forms, I am not sure that’s where i should ultimately be headed.
In the evening, Paul and I continued the conversations over dinner, and then met up with some of his colleagues from The Superposition, an amazing art/science collective in Leeds. It was a lovely evening and brilliant to chat, but everyone’s anxiety about Coronavirus was already surfacing, and i headed off feeling a bit sombre.
So, last week I travelled up to Leeds to visit the team doing the research into membrane disrupting peptides that is behind my commission. This post is really a brief skip across my time spent in the labs, the basic narrative of the three days spent in the lab environment. There will be other posts about some of the conversations, some of my impressions and my thinking as it develops – in these days of Coronavirus isolation, I am taking my time to process my thoughts – it appears there’s no rush at the moment so I am going to make the most of that!
I arrived at the Uni around midday to be met by Paul, and we had an hour or so to catch up before he had organised a group meeting so i could get to know the rest of the team and start to try and understand the project, the research and the basics of the science behind what they are doing. Before I go any further, I should say that everyone was welcoming, super-patient with all my (often daft) questions and bent over backwards to help me understand and be inspired. Everything that follows in this post (and others) is my interpretation of what I learned, and I must say that any mistakes or strange extrapolations are all mine.
Over a sandwich, Paul took me through some of the very basics about the science of membranes and the chemistry of lipids. We talked about morphology, hydrophobia and hydrophilia, and heads and tails. We wandered through the basics of peptides, the specific peptide they are working with (which I now know as MP1) and peptide variants. We talked about the effects of soap on membranes – super topical in the developing Coronavirus context. And then we went to the group meeting.
The group working on the project on a day to day basis is the coming together of two perspectives. Paul and Andrew, based in the School of Chemistry, come from what I think of as the ‘molecular point of view’, focusing on the behaviour of the lipids, peptides structurally and chemically. Tom and Arindam focus on the ‘biological perspective’, working with cell lines and 3D cell clusters (spheroids and similar), testing the peptide on live cells rather than vesicles created out of specific cocktails of lipids. That’s actually quite a simplistic way to look at it, but at present it provides me with a mental framework that sparks ideas. But more of that later.
That evening, Tom and I went out to eat pasta and chat about science, art, northern towns, biology and the funding of scientific journals – a bleedin’ shocker as far as I’m concerned, which I am sure I shall come back to in due course. If anyone is interested in some of the background in the meantime though, I would recommend reading this Guardian Long Read about the history and development of science publishing.