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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.