Science Gallery - Page Title (for print only)

Back to Science Gallery

Visceral: Lab out of context

02/24/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

As the exhibition draws to a close and the exhibits are prepared for Visceral: The Funeral - which happens today at 6:30 pm -I'm taking a look back at Visceral's Lab out of context. The living elements of several of the exhibits were grown in a laboratory that was custom-built for the exhibition. The Visceral lab is a biosafety level 2 lab, meaning that access is limited to trained personnel and experiments are limited to non-dangerous life forms. Having seen the lab being built and installed a week before Visceral opened, I can safely say that creating it was a colossal achievement.

Lab before painting

Lab after painting

In a matter of days, the tilted tissue culture lab became functional and artists began to prepare experiments and culture cells. The human fibroblast cells of The Vision Splendid, and the pig mesenchymal stem cells of The Semi-Living Worry Dolls were grown (and continue to live) in this restricted area. It was also the location for Blood Wars, with a spy-cam in the corner of the lab providing visitors to the Science Gallery Café with close-up views of phlebotomy, immune cell isolation, and fluorescence microscopy.

Lab entrance

Alicia King and Svenja Johni Kratz

[Alicia King and Svenja Johni Kratz work in the Visceral lab]

It takes an extensive collection of equipment to make this kind of work possible. This is a (possibly incomplete) list of the biotech tools currently being used in the Visceral lab: 

  • Laminar flow cabinet
  • Bench-top incubator
  • CO2 incubator
  • 4 °C refrigerator / -20 °C freezer
  • Stereomicroscope
  • Inverted microscope
  • Inverted fluorescence microscope
  • 14 L water bath
  • Micro centrifuge
  • Refrigerated centrifuge
  • Orbital shaker
  • Ceramic hotplate / stirrer
  • Bench-top pH meter
  • Acid and alkali cabinet
  • Digital balance
  • Pipette fillers
  • 25 mL / 10 mL pipettes
  • 1000 µl / 100 µl micropipettes
  • Pipette tips
  • Pasteur pipettes
  • 25 mL / 10 mL syringes
  • Filters
  • 50 mL / 20 mL / 1.5 mL tubes
  • 1000 mL / 500 mL / 125 mL conical flasks
  • 500 mL / 250 mL glass bottles
  • Petri dishes
  • 25 mL / 75 mL tissue culture flasks
  • Microscope slides
  • Parafilm
  • Tris / Borate / EDTA (TBE) buffer
  • Dulbecco's modified eagle medium (DMEM)
  • Foetal calf serum
  • Penicillin / streptomycin solution
  • Phosphate buffered saline (PBS)
  • Nessler’s reagent
  • Potassium hydroxide
  • Copper (II) sulphate
  • Potassium permanganate
  • SYBR safe DNA gel stain
  • Ficoll solution
  • Phenolpthalein
  • Agarose
  • Ethanol

Visceral: Mobile Cryolibrary

02/22/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

Cryobook Archives by Tagny Duff uses human and pig tissues to create cryopreserved books that are reminiscent of an archive that exists in the -80 °C freezers of labs throughout the world. Tissues taken from humans and other animals are preserved at temperatures so low, it prevents biochemical reactions from killing the cells. Stored in this archive, is biological and chemical information so complex that it could never be written as text. The books of Cryobook Archives are bound in these same tissues, and so must be frozen in the same way. Before they were displayed in their mobile freezer unit, the cryobooks were kept at -80 °C by Dr. Conor Buckley at TCD. I accompanied Tagny as she transferred the books to their display cabinet; something that very few people get to see. 

-80 freezer

biohazard bag

cryobooks closeup

Tagny Duff cyrobooks


Visceral: Feeding The Semi-Living Worry Dolls

02/15/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to accompany Oron Catts as he fed The Semi-Living Worry Dolls, a project that he created with Ionat Zurr. The degradable polymer that originally gave these dolls their form are slowly being replaced by living cells; cells that need heat, oxygen, and food. In this post, I've documented the feeding process for anyone who hasn't caught this rare event in person.

Worry Dolls Feeding Process

Visceral: In the lab with Abhishek Hazra

02/12/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

The Visceral production blog has been quiet of late but I promise that I have been spending that time productively (pun genuinely not intended), collecting photographs, interviews, and behind-the-scene observations that I'll post over the coming weeks. This is an interview I filmed with artist Abhishek Hazra just before the opening of Visceral as he worked on Let A Thousand Proteins Bloom.

Milk 1

Abhishek spoke to me at his fume-hood as he worked on a seven hour experiment to extract ammonium nitrate from human breast milk. While the experiment didn't yield the expected chemical results, it suggested the narrative to his piece about an imagined future where this life-giving material is being used to create explosives. 

Visceral: Interview with Nigel Helyer

02/10/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

During the installation of Visceral - while the exhibition (literally) came to life - I spoke to artist, Nigel Helyer, as he fed members of the Gryllidae family that play a key part in his Visceral exhibit, Host.

Hi Nigel, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Tell me about Host.

Host was a piece I did with SymbioticA as part of a residency there. The piece is about our relationship with the natural world and how we tend to anthropomorphise everything. At the same time, it deals with the different levels of empathy we have with different kinds of beings – it’s much easier to empathise with animals that are like us, and that seems to be mirrored in the scientific world in terms of where ethics cuts in and cuts out.

Nigel Helyer - Host

In a sense, the piece plays a little bit with that. In a physical sense, the installation has two DVD projections, which are projected through an array of insect cases with crickets inside, who are basically the audience; the human audience is outside the event. One projection is a scientific lecture on sex, in which the talking head of the scientist is heavily pixelated. The other projection is drawn from the aural nerve of a cricket, where the cricket acted as a microphone for the lecture and the electrical signals from the nerve were sent to an oscilloscope. The lecture itself talks about a vast range of insects’ sexual activities, taking you completely out of the frame of human sexuality, which is rather bland by comparison.

Crickets - Host

Has the idea of taking ourselves out of our human-centred perspectives been important throughout the rest of your work?

I don’t work solely with biology so it doesn’t occur constantly throughout my work, but a lot of my work involves the environment and natural history so I think it would be a theme in those cases. I’m very aware of anthropomorphism, or any dominant thought of one culture abutting another.

Stay tuned for another blog post on how the crickets from Host have been maintained and cared for during the exhibition. 

Visceral: Time-lapse

02/01/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

This is a time-lapse recording of the Visceral build in our upstairs gallery space made by Science Gallery's Ian Brunswick. It's about one minute of footage per day and really demonstrates the number of people and the amount of work that went in to creating this incredible space.

Visceral: Interview with Kathy High

01/26/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes to speak with artist Kathy High today about her exciting new work, Blood Wars, which will be one of the pieces on show at Visceral: The Living Art Experiment. The noise you hear in the background is the Science Gallery team building the final [intentionally] askew walls that will help shape this incredible exhibition. 

Visceral: Interview with Boo Chapple

01/24/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

This week I got to ask artist and researcher, Boo Chapple, a few questions about her Visceral installation, Transjuicer. As is to be expected from Visceral exhibits, Transjuicer features a strange and unique element – in this case, audio speakers created from bone tissue. The reason bone can be used to create this unusual stereo experience lies in its piezoelectric nature. Piezoelectricity is the electrical charge that is generated in some materials [crystals, ceramics, bone…] when they are put under mechanical pressure.

We last saw piezoelectricity at Science Gallery in the form of a Green Machines exhibit that converted the pressure from footsteps into useful electricity. Now, for Visceral, the bone audio speakers in Transjuicer will exploit another feature of piezoelectric materials; that when an oscillating voltage is applied to them, they vibrate.

Boo was kind enough to tell me about how Transjuicer relates to her ongoing development of these speakers, how residencies at SymbioticA have influenced her work, and what she thinks about the public discussion that may ensue.

Bone audio speakers

Hi Boo. So, first of all, what point of your journey to develop bone audio speakers does Transjuicer represent?

Transjuicer represents that moment, some time after the journey's end, when one is far enough removed from the experience to be able to stop and reflect upon it. What did I do? Why did I do that? What does it mean that I did that? The installation is less an exhibition of the speakers per se and more an outcome of this retrospective reflection upon the process and its embeddedness within a larger cultural-economic sphere.

Why did you choose to do a residency at SymbioticA; and how did this residency influence your work?

I was really drawn to the combination of material practice and philosophical investigation, hands-on lab access and critical reflection on the life sciences, that Symbiotica represents. Before my residencies at Symbiotica (2004 and 2006) I worked primarily in digital media. Being in the labs gave me much more of a feel for material process and practice and work that I have done since this time is indicative of this influence.

During my time at Symbiotica, I was struck by how difficult it was to make work about technology without producing instrumentally focused outcomes, that is without becoming caught up with the operation of the technology at the expense of the art. This led me to change my focus and begin making work that had less concern for function and was more concerned with narrative and fiction.

Do you think that work like yours helps to open up science to public discussion and debate; and does this interest you?

I'm not sure that Transjuicer is so much about science as it is about belief, the economy of human-animal relations, and the politics of material transformation. These are all things that are inherent to the practice of science but perhaps not what one might think of when one thinks of public debate around particular scientific discoveries, or technologies.

While I am interested in the philosophical parameters of these debates, I do not see my art practice as an instrument of communication in this respect, nor is Transjuicer engaged with any hot topics of the moment, or designed in such a way as to reveal the technical processes that were employed in making the bone audio speakers.

Visceral: Interview with Michael John Gorman

01/19/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

As Science Gallery prepares for the installation of Visceral to begin, I had a chat with the gallery’s director, Michael John Gorman, about the exhibition, its origins and what we can expect when we visit this uniquely living show.

Thank you for taking time to speak with me, Michael John. What was the initial inspiration for Visceral?

I have been in touch with Oron Catts for a while now, since we exhibited his semi-living jacket in our Technothreads exhibition. He and Ionat Zurr lead SymbioticA, a research lab for artists in the University of Western Australia. The idea for Visceral came about when they invited me out to SymbioticA for a visit last year. SymbioticA is 10 years old this year and they were really keen to do a major exhibition to recognize that fact and to bring together some of the interesting work which had never before been brought together in a single space.

Science Gallery is all about bringing together ideas from different disciplines and this is one really nice example of how artists and scientists can collaborate. I think SymbioticA’s work is sometimes quite provocative and controversial and that’s part of its nature when you’re working with living tissue. This show, called VISCERAL: The Living Art Experiment, is an experiment in the sense of a scientific experiment but it’s also an ethical experiment-- it’s an experiment on how people feel about these new and controversial technologies of tissue engineering, and an exploration of the ethical and social implications of these emerging technologies.

Do you think that there’s something that we can get by engaging with these issues through an exhibition of contemporary art that we couldn’t perhaps get by discussing it academically or in the media? What is it that Visceral will stir, that nothing else will stir?

Encountering one of these tissue culture works face-to-face means you have an emotional response which is different from what you would have from a discussion in a newspaper article. And at Science Gallery we have fantastic mediators in the gallery who meet the public. Rather than telling people what to think, you can ask them questions, you can come up with your own opinions. There’s no right and wrong – it’s really up to you to decide what future directions science should take.

I see artists, in a way, a little bit like the canary in the coalmine-- they help us think through the consequences of new technologies. Some artists, particularly these kind of artists working with new media, help us to kind of play out scenarios of the future in a way that is much more emotionally impactful than just reading a dry text, so I think that’s something you achieve from actually encountering this in the flesh, so to speak – and there is something a bit flesh-crawling about this whole experience.

Is that the tone you’re trying to set – that kind of uneasy feel?

I think ‘uneasy’ is a good description. I mean, it’s not Dr. Frankenstein. We’re not trying to scare people. It is an exhibition that is in a sort of ambiguous place-- it’s a little bit uneasy, and it’s not strongly propagandistic in either direction. It’s really about having people grapple with these ideas themselves and trying to peak curiosity. Get people thinking, get people asking questions.

Delivery of Silent Barrage

Do you think it’s a good example of how art informs science and how science informs art?

I think it is. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is called “Silent Barrage”. Steve Potter, a scientist from Georgia Tech working on neural engineering, is collaborating with two SymbioticA artists – Guy Ben-Ary and Philip Gamblen. They have hooked up these robotic poles to cultured neurons in Steve Potter’s lab. The robotic poles have cameras on them that are responding to the way visitors move around the exhibition, and they are sending signals back to the neurons. The neurons are then firing, depending on what stimulus they get, making the robotic poles jitter and shudder up and down so, depending on how visitors move around the exhibition, they could send the neurons into what’s called a “barrage’ – when they start firing in this chaotic fashion –the same as what happens in an epileptic seizure. The visitors could effectively experience what it is like being inside a brain during an epileptic seizure as the poles oscillate up and down. That’s somewhat disturbing, but it’s also fascinating and revealing in terms of the nature of the brain and the nature of epilepsy.

Is the name of an exhibition important to you?

Names I find very very important and you have a feel when you hear the right one. With Visceral, it was actually Oron Catts who suggested the name. It’s called “VISCERAL: The Living Art Experiment”, so there are two key things there: the idea of “living art”, and the idea of “visceral”. There’s something a little bit uncomfortable about “visceral” but, equally, it’s about this sort of instinctive, gut reaction that you might have to something.

It sounds like Visceral will be an exciting start to the year at Science Gallery.

I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s a provocative exhibition. What I would like it to do is kick off some interesting and informed discussions around the future of biomedical science, and involve artists in that discussion because I think they bring something else to the picture. They can help articulate the consequences and bring those home to us. It’s a unique chance to see some of the most engaging, cutting-edge work in the world in this particular area, and it’s great to be able to launch it here in Dublin.

Visceral: Unusual delivery #1

01/20/2011 posted by Shaun O'Boyle

I hovered around Science Gallery this week, in the hope of witnessing a delivery that would be unusual even by SG standards. The hovering paid off, and I managed to watch as Science Gallery’s Maria Phelan and Carolyn Rutherford opened a white box that had travelled from Co. Fermanagh, its contents kept frozen by a layer of dry ice.

Maria and Carolyn

[Science Gallery's Maria Phelan and Carolyn Rutherford]

Milk delivery 1

Fittingly, the delivery came by express post from The Human Milk Bank, who provide safe and screened donated breastmilk for the care of premature and sick infants. They have provided Science Gallery with unusable human milk that hasn't passed quality control tests; milk that will play a central role in one of Visceral’s exhibits – a piece that will examine the explosive nature of breastmilk. In the meantime, however, the milk will be kept at a constant -20°C... to keep everything stable.

Milk delivery 2

Visceral on Twitter

Tag your tweets with #visceral to join the conversation...