A leading medical research facility in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (QMRI) provides world-class laboratory facilities for scientists at the forefront of cardiovascular science, inflammation research, reproductive health, and regenerative medicine. While the institute and its facilities cater more towards scientists than creatives, the organization’s artist residency program welcomes collaboration between the selected artists and in-house scientists.
SAiA sat down with the three artists-in-residence to discuss their experience working with QMRI, unearthing revelations about the contingencies and differences of creative practice and laboratory methodologies.
By Allison Palenske
In collaboration with the Edinburgh College of Art, and supported by the British Heart Foundation, three artists were able to collaborate with the researchers at QMRI over the past six months, ultimately producing works to be housed in the organization’s buildings. Stephanie Ghetta, from Italy, explored the hand movements of research professionals, producing a language of gesticulation to be displayed digitally and through flipbooks. Javier Vidal Aguilera, from Spain, used different imaging methods of the cardiovascular system of the zebrafish to create a multimedia installation. Jonathan Hemelberg, from the USA, mimicked MRI scanning technology into the creation of a 3D printed sculpture.
SAiA: Prior to your residencies at QMRI, is SciArt something you had explored in your practices or anticipated exploring?
Javier Vidal Aguilera (JVA): No, but I didn’t see it as something different, I approached it as any other project that could present itself. But just the context was different. There’s always some collaborative aspect to my projects, and QMRI is just another context. And we didn’t have to try to be scientists, we just did our role, which in this case is the artist. So we didn’t need to feel pressure from the scientists, we didn’t need to try to be scientists.
SAiA: Do you feel like the scientists benefit from the collaboration and your final output?
Stephanie Ghetta (SG): Yes, I think it makes them feel a bit more imaginative; it makes them see things differently. The scientists have no idea what we are doing you know, but I think in general, anybody would be quite honored to have somebody doing a piece of art about your practice.
Jonathan Hemelberg (JH): They are interested in looking at outside perspectives of their work. I was actually speaking to one of the researchers that I hadn’t met before at the opening. He was looking at my model and talking about how he is working with data sets that deal with veins, and he wanted advice as to how to get that 3D printed. And I guess in that sense, I kind of designed the model so that it could be inspiration, but also a way that they could also picture their own work in a three-dimensional, very physical way. A lot of them seemed really keen to think about 3D modeling and printing, so in that sense I’m happy I got those comments because it seems like the work made somewhat of a difference.
SAiA: How do you feel the practice of the residency differed from your normal studio practice, and how did you approach creating something under the genre of SciArt?
JH: One of the things we were told going into the residency was that the one thing they didn’t want was an illustration; they didn’t want us to just explain to people what they research. They wanted an interpretation essentially, something that could present their research to the public so that it would peak their interest. So in a way, it is to publicize the institute but it is also to bring in an artist perspective on what they do.
JVA: To me it is interesting, because sometimes the research concepts are really complicated. You go into a process and you step back, and you see the whole thing and it is really abstract and it is really inspiring actually. For me, it’s another context, but I didn’t necessarily have a different approach, I was interested in the fact that we were put there, for the residency. And we did research in something that we otherwise probably wouldn’t do, so it is interesting to have to develop something. Instead of giving us a brief, they gave us a context and a place, and we were surrounded by all of that.
SG: I really liked their attitude to the whole thing. And passion, I think that was the thing that got me the most, seeing how much they really believe in what they are doing. They do it because they feel they need to discover. They are kind of explorers you know? One of the first questions I asked them was why are you a scientist? And for a lot of them the answer actually was that it is their personal need, they really enjoy the mindset that’s behind it. I think they are explorers.
SAiA: What were some commonalities and differences you saw between the way scientists work and the way artists and designers work?
JH: I guess our job as artists is to pose more questions than to find answers. And the scientists are just looking for answers. But at the same time, they are kind of driven by something; like you said Stephanie, they are explorers. I think artists are too. If you were just going to paint the same picture over and over to sell, its one thing, but I think if you are an artist you want to do something you are passionate about, which often means you are constantly looking for that something. And as a scientist, if you find an answer, you are just going to keep diving deeper; it doesn’t end. It doesn’t just stop. It’s kind of short sighted to say there are no parallels, because if you take someone like Da Vinci, he was a scientist and an artist at the same time. I think to say that there are no parallels is a bit limiting. You use science to make pigments. And as an example in my own piece, my piece couldn’t have been created without science and technology. I designed that model as an art piece, but 3D printing is a technology that was developed through a scientific process. Maybe art and science aren’t the same, but they are inseparable. There are different types of science just as there are different types of art.
SG: In my piece, I worked with stop motion, and I felt like a scientist. It was very repetitive, and required a lot of patience, and I needed to do a lot of the same actions with the same result.
SAiA: Do you see yourselves working in the science field in the future?
JVA: I could be, if the opportunity comes up and it is an appealing context. In this case one of the appealing things was that I could find a parallel with the line of previous work that I was developing, related to the concept of filters and human perception, and working with zebrafish really gave me a broader understanding of the concept. So if the concept next time makes sense, I would be up for it, you never know.
JH: The reason I was attracted to MRI scans was because it is a visualization of 3D in 2D, so it is not so dissimilar to drawing, it is just done by computer. One of the things that I kept coming back to is this whole idea of trying to find something or make a work that is somehow beneficial to both parties, because that always comes up within art science. Obviously we benefited the most in this case, but the output doesn’t always benefit the scientist. Hopefully we can work to change this dynamic in future projects.