Shining a Light on Unity: The unlikely story of a SciArt collaboration involving a complex instrument of physics, a zebrafish embryo, and interactive art, all in the middle of the Canadian prairies.
By Erin Prosser-Loose (University of Saskatchewan), guest contributor
For those who have never seen a synchrotron facility, it might be imagined through the lens of a sci-fi film, dark and cool, sterile and clinical, a sophisticated labyrinth of lasers and robotics. So when artist Jean-Sebastien (JS) Gauthier first stepped foot into the Canadian Light Source (CLS) in early 2014, he felt comically disappointed. It was so…industrial. The facility is impressively large, but is essentially a ring of pipes and concrete surrounded by individual work stations, and feels, looks, and sounds very much like a factory. At first glance, one would not imagine an artist finding inspiration here, but fascinating things were happening just under the surface.
The synchrotron is a marvel of science, so it is perhaps surprising that the CLS is located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a small city of about ~270,000 in the middle of Canadian prairies. The CLS is the only synchrotron facility in Canada and one of only 40 worldwide. Its job is to produce brilliant light so materials can be studied in new ways, including seeing detail at high-resolution. Light is given off when electrons are accelerated and turned from their straight paths within the ring by magnets. The light is directed down beamlines and onto samples, where researchers in laboratory endstations can observe the interaction. So even though the appearance of the synchrotron was not what he imagined, JS realized its astonishing capabilities and began to dream what could be done with it.
The Artist and the Scientist
JS Gauthier is a new media artist and sculptor from Saskatoon, who pursued his interest in the footsteps of his grandfather, sculptor Bill Epp (1930-1995). He has worked in foundries in Europe and the U.S., working with bronze, making sculpture, public art, and video art. JS had taken up a casual interest in science and physics literature when he signed up for a tour of the CLS. He says he was quickly convinced that he wanted to make art with this instrument and so approached the CLS to request additional tours and gain more knowledge. “Early on I must have seemed like some ultra-persistent grade school child to staff at the CLS, which in some ways isn’t that far off, I try to keep in touch with that curious grade 5-6 kid as part of my art practice.” This persistence would be necessary, given that access to the CLS is difficult and often tightly scheduled, reserved for synchrotron scientists and industry partners. JS realized he needed to partner with someone within the field and so he prepared a call for collaborators in the CLS newsletter. The same day the newsletter went out he received numerous replies, but one especially well-articulated response stood out to him.
Dr. Brian Eames is a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, College of Medicine, in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, who uses the synchrotron, imaging techniques, and molecular approaches to study how cells turn into bone and cartilage. His work in the field ranges from examination of small scale embryonic development to bigger picture animal evolution. The good fortune of having access to the synchrotron locally is not lost on Brian: “As a scientist, it’s exciting to do things at the synchrotron all the time that no one else in the world has ever done before.” This attraction to distinctiveness was ignited further when Brian came across JS’s call in the CLS newsletter. Perhaps uncommon among scientists, Brian recognized there was an entirely different approach to his work that had been untapped: “There are two sides to a brain, and my science doesn’t do enough for both.”
After their first meeting, it was clear to both JS and Brian that they could develop an exceptional collaboration. JS regularly visited Brian’s lab where they continuously discussed intersecting interests and what could be possible. Based on their talks, JS drafted grant applications, one of which was accepted by Canada Council for the Arts, allowing JS to commit full time to the project for well over a year.
Dans la Mesure/Within Measure
The result of the collaboration is the "Dans la Mesure/Within Measure" exhibition, which explores developmental biology, evolution, and the complex unity between humans and other life forms, specifically the zebrafish. Using synchrotron radiation imaging techniques, interactive representations of the tiny zebrafish and an immersive video installation were created.
The zebrafish is well known among biological scientists as a model organism for the study of developmental and genetic vertebrate biology. Using zebrafish in the project began for practical reasons as Brian had access to a large quantity of the embryos, which would be important for trouble shooting imaging techniques and for use on the synchrotron. From his perspective, JS liked the idea of using a well-characterized, scientific model organism for his art, “As an artist, I believe that anything can be significant to my art practice, that I don’t need to have reasons beyond curious engagement to undertake explorations. Zebrafish were there and in learning about them greater meaning could unfold, I adopted the zebrafish as a model for my art.”
The first step was to image the zebrafish embryo in 3D. As Brian explains, “the basic idea is that you stabilize the sample (the zebrafish embryo) by embedding it in a thick gel, so that it doesn’t move, put it on something like a record player, and take a series of X-rays, rotating the sample slightly each time.” From these 2D images, JS utilized software to make 3D models. For the interactive piece project, the 3D images were further processed through a mix of sculpting and rendering software, which made them useable in an interactive game engine. JS worked with musician and sound artist Andy Rudolph to produce the interactive elements as well as the sound scape.
Gleaning New Perspectives
While Brian and JS may have had different motivations and hopes for the project, they both agreed early on that the result needed to be relevant to art AND scientific practice. From a scientific standpoint, Brian was able to show concepts of unity among animals in a new way, and was also able to communicate his research to different audiences. “My research is funded largely by public tax dollars, so I feel strongly about going out of my way to communicate that the people’s money is revealing concepts that can ultimately benefit them, if not amaze them.”
From JS’s perspective, his hopes of growing as an artist and following through on a project that was in a wholly new and personal direction, was accomplished. “This project was kind of an art miracle because we actually achieved every single goal we cited in our proposal and it had also opened up many new directions of inquiry. I have a lot of gratitude about this work we are doing as it is feeding something profound in my understanding of the world. What else could one ask for?” JS also feels a responsibility as a new media artist to be involved with technology and its uses. “In this way just gaining access to the synchrotron is an achievement for new media arts and it is my hope it will increase the dialogue between disciplines in the arts and sciences as we have done with the project.”
Jeff Cutler, CLS Chief Strategic Relations officer, agrees that the collaboration, has indeed heightened the conversation “Art and science are natural collaborators. In the same way that art alters a perspective, or provides an unexpected revelation, so does science. Researchers from around the world come to our light source in order to see things differently, and their findings often change how we look at the world. It’s this search for a new way of seeing things that brings art and science together, and that’s why it’s important for us to work with artists like JS. Not only does his work introduce the CLS to a new audience, but he has also challenged us to see our own work differently.”
Opportunities and Advice
Brian and JS feel like they’re just getting started and are gaining momentum with hopes of securing an artist-in-residence position for JS at the University of Saskatchewan, and a new collaborative grant, All Forms at All Times. The new project would include specimens from other species that could be used to illustrate different concepts of evolution throughout history. Of particular interest is making an interactive model of the recapitulation theory made popular by 19th century biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, as well as developing interactive representations of newer concepts of evolution and development.
On advice for scientists and artists who might be interested in collaborating, JS says “Make sure you really click with a collaborator first and foremost. Know what you are trying to achieve, even if it is experimental. In my experience, the process we engaged in was really slow and I had to be able to check in with my own goals as well as our collective goals often to ensure I wouldn’t get distracted. Try to find routes for mutual benefit whenever possible. Be comfortable asserting your artistic skills, respectfully, collaboration is an exchange. Enjoy yourself, be present in the space. Lollygag about and observe things as they are.” Brian’s advice for scientists, “artists might be much more used to working by themselves, whereas scientists must collaborate deeply in today's research world. So it really can take effort on a scientist's part to become truly involved in the art show and have a voice in the art direction, although of course that voice needs to be restrained and subservient to that of the artist, whose career is at stake.” He suggests scientists just give it a try, “…all the cool kids are doing it.”
Genuine and successful collaborations in any field are not easy to establish, so the working relationship and friendship that JS and Brian have formed, and the unique art produced using an extraordinary scientific instrument, in the centre of the vast Canadian prairies, is indeed special, and should serve as inspiration to others.
"Dans la Mesure/Within Measure" will be presented on September 30th in both Toronto and Saskatoon simultaneously at two separate Nuit Blanche events and they are also actively seeking new spaces for exhibition of the project. They will also be exhibiting new 3-D printed sculptures created from synchrotron scans that were made in November 2017 at AKA Artist Run in Saskatoon and again in Montreal in April of 2018.
Erin Prosser-Loose has a PhD in Nutrition/Neuroscience and has an interest in art as a vehicle of science communication. She currently works as a Research Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan, where she is interested in engaging children in science and research, research ethics, and sex and gender issues in research. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/erinjprosser.