Diorama 1 – the finished piece!

The final piece, called Diorama 1, was finished at the end of 2020, but because of the coronavirus situation it has not yet been possible to take the artwork to Leeds to be displayed at St James’ Hospital. However, we decided it would be good to start sharing online rather than waiting until it goes on physical display, so here is a selection of pictures….

Images are by Robyn Manning Photography, who can be found on Instagram as @robyn_manning_photos. I am extremely grateful to Robyn for her patience in setting up everything so that the Diorama looks its best – thanks Robyn!

I thought it might also be interesting for people to see an example of the transition of lighting of the vesicles – this video was taken on my phone, so don’t blame Robyn for the ‘blown out’ exposure of the illuminated vesicles….

A timelapse video showing one variation of the lighting transitions from a full day

All Lit Up

From quite an early conversation with the team, the intention had been for the vesicles to be lit up, but what was less clear was how this was to be achieved. We had discussed how it would be great for the lighting to change throughout the day, both to compensate for the piece being placed in a position without natural light (the CRF waiting areas are not naturally lit) and also to add interest to the piece.

I liked the idea of internal lighting and a transition across the day, finding it wonderfully consistent with the idea of a traditional diorama, as these often included their own interior lighting to draw in the viewer. One of the big questions for me, though, was how to programme the timings on the lighting, not being particularly competent in that area.

I did briefly learn how to use Arduinos, but it was a while ago and I would have had to start again from scratch to make it work. Also, all the restrictions of Covid made it harder to contemplate outsourcing this part of the project, as did the available budget. The answer came in the surprising form of aquarium controllers. These controllers are designed to make sure that aquarium fish are not shocked by the sudden switching on of the lights in the morning or the switching off in the evening and allow you to programme a series of sunrises and sunsets across the day.

Constructing the stands so that the glass elements were lit internally was initially a case of testing lots of different types of 12V lights of the kind often used for caravans or countertops. Eventually I found some that I was happy with and set about mounting them so that the lights would be correctly positioned within the vesicles. Lots of cases of trial and error as I went along and once again aquarium supplies came to the rescue, this time in the form of clear flexible tubing that holds the lights in the right place.

Finally, after wiring, soldering and finishing the full construction of the piece, I could programme the lights in the vesicles. They can each be set to gradually come on at different intensities across the day to draw attention to different parts of the diorama.

Meanwhile, another challenge was to light the Z Stack. I achieved this through feeding an LED strip through the length of the stand I had created for the stack, with holes strategically drilled to let light through. For me, this layered lighting enhances the analogy of the Z Stack itself, and how the microscopy and computation processes build a whole form from slices of data.

The final lighting for the Z Stack

To see a timelapse of one lighting scheme for the finished artwork, have a look at a forthcoming post of images of the final piece!

The Z Stack

As well as the vesicles, a major glass element of the sculpture was the Z Stack, as I like to call it. This is a form made from ‘slices’ of glass, each with a different colour or texture, that when mounted together suggest a three-dimensional form.

The Z Stack was an element that came to mind very early in the process during my visit to the labs, when Arindam explained to me how the images of the ‘spheroids’ of cells were constructed. The confocal microscope could be instructed to scan multiple layers of a three dimensional object, and would then build an apparently three dimensional image from the slices it had scanned. The number of scans that go into constructing the image would then affect the resolution of the object and also the time to create as well as the ultimate file size.

A non-glass mockup of a Z Stack – my first experiment with the idea

There are two main textural types of slice in the Z Stack – those with ‘miniature vesicles’ on the surface, and those which have a honeycomb structure. The honeycomb is the one reference in the piece to the original source of the peptide, the Amazonian wasp.

I wanted to create an analogue analogy for the Z stack, to create a 3D form from slices, and from that my Z Stack was born. Initially I thought it might be interesting to make the slices ‘floppy’ to accentuate the departure of the analogue from the digital counterpart, but aesthetically I found it confusing and cumbersome. I also wondered about offsetting some of the slices from the horizontal, but again this appeared to confuse the communication of the idea.

In the later stages of construction, I continued to experiment, but this time with the number of slices to see what worked best in creating an outline form. Below is the version with 9 slices.

I ultimately settled on 11 slices as giving the most pleasing form.

Working with research materials

As soon as the idea of a diorama came to mind, I felt that the backdrop should reference the research project itself, not just the scientific concepts and phenomena that were the subject of the research. When I discussed this with the team, they were all enthusiastic, so I started working on the kinds of materials I wanted to include.

During my visit to the lab, I had been very struck by all the handwritten calculations that formed an active part of the experiments that I was viewing. For me, this not only references an important research activity, but the handwriting also emphasises the human hand involved in the process.

Andrew kindly agreed to provide me with some of his calculations.

I also wanted to use images of cells that forms a central part of the research, so trawled through a number of different types of microscopic images searching for the ones I thought would work as part of a diorama. My intention was to create a layering of information and data that reflected different parts of the research process and different stages of development of the project.

During various conversations with Paul and Tom we had talked about issues in scientific publishing. This was something I had an awareness of since my involvement with the Royal Society’s Research Culture project that had spawned the Museum of Extraordinary Objects, but it was brought home to me the critical role that science journals play in the dissemination of knowledge, and the complex and – to me – unsavoury considerations that can determine who gets to see the outcomes of research. As an independent researcher I am only too aware of the paywalls that inhibit people’s access to information and the high cost of getting hold of many articles. See this Guardian editorial if you want to be horrified by the economics of the science publishing industry model.

I was delighted that one of the articles that sets out the initial premises of the project was Open Access (although I was disturbed to learn that academic institutions have to pay publishers to have their articles Open Access). I determined this would form another element of the diorama backdrop.

I discussed with Paul the issues around editing and processing the research images to create the effects that I wanted, and he was sanguine with the images being changed as this was for the purposes of creating an artwork rather than for scientific purposes. So I set about processing the images and ended up with three elements for the backdrop.

The backdrop images were printed and mounted on transparent or translucent acrylic sheets. This mounting would allow different levels of visibility and layering from different angles and under different light conditions…

Construction

Once the vesicles were underway, one of the major considerations in creating the piece was the relationship between all the different elements. I had already, obviously, committed to creating the ‘vesicles’ and ‘z-stack’ at certain sizes and imagined them situated in relation to each other, but there was still quite a lot to be considered in getting the relationships right. There was also a lot of planning and experimentation in creating the fixings to hold the glass in position.

Once I had a sense of the sizing and spacing, I set to constructing the base and the stands that would hold the glass elements. I was also trying to take into account that the piece would need to travel from my studio to the hospital in Leeds, so my aim was to make the piece so that it could be deconstructed again for transport.

Meanwhile, the case I had ordered to contain the diorama had arrived. This meant that I could make sure that all the measurements I had made were accurate and that the base and the case would fit together properly.

The slats at the back of the base would hold the acrylic sheets used to mount the backdrop images. These had to be carefully measured so they would hold the sheets firmly in place.

Eventually the base was built, and I could mount the stands that I had created to hold the glass elements and acrylic sheets. At this stage, I was working with the acrylic sheets still in their protective wrap – that only came off close to completion as acrylic scratches very easily. In fact, the case for the piece has been treated with an anti-abrasive coating to try and minimise exterior scratching, although it can’t prevent it altogether.

And now, all that was left to do was to spray paint the base and mount all the interior elements!

Making vesicles

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.

‘Spotty’ vesicle showing phase separation – image captured by Andrew Booth

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.

The three final vesicles before I started drilling

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…

Working, working, working

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!

Thinking about texture, surface and edges

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….

Using mesh to wrap the inside and edges of a form. The beginnings of an approach?

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.

Creating and curating cabinets and vitrines

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.

Taxidermy display of Australian birds

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

Carsten Holler’s meditation on chanterelles and the colour orange.
Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer
Fiona Hall
Fiona Hall

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)
  • Integrated lighting

I already have my eye on a specific vitrine / display case so am going to be thinking about those things in light of that….