Living Artwork and Questioning the Ageing Process – a Visit to STATE Studio Berlin

I’m fiiinally making some time to write blog posts about all the wonderful places I’ve been as part of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship over the last few months, so if you’re interested in science communication/how science can be communicated using art, then be sure to check back over the coming weeks. Last week I talked about a fantastic exhibition that I visited at the Red Dot Design Museum in Singapore, which was more data visualisation than art, so today I thought I’d highlight something that’s more obviously in the art sphere; STATE Studio in Berlin, Germany.

STATE Studio, Berlin

In between Fellowship trips (I did two legs – North America and Asia), I sneaked in a
weekend in Berlin. This wasn’t strictly Fellowship-based travel as it wasn’t in my itinerary, but STATE Studio’s work merging art and science is the reason I went to Berlin, so I’m counting it as part of the Fellowship
experience.

STATE Studio is a public gallery, showroom and event space that was established on the back of STATE Festival; Berlin’s festival for open science, art and society. The team also have an agency made up of a collective of artists, designers, scientists and cultural producers, to create innovative experiences to engage the public with science. The Studio part of STATE opened in October 2018 (after my Fellowship was funded, hence the last minute addition to my itinerary!), and is home to various exhibits that focus on cutting-edge scientific research, innovation, and creativity. In the words of STATE, “It’s a place for creative synergies between science, art, and innovation to discover and explore the breakthrough developments that shape our future.”

For me, the two standout exhibits were, the Living Canvas installation, and ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR.

Living Canvas, Fara Peluso with biotech start-up Solaga
Artist Fara Peluso with her Living Canvas exhibit. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

The Living Canvas is the first thing you see when you walk into the STATE Studio space – at first glance it looks like a regular painting, but on closer inspection it’s clear that it really is living. Within a chunky glass frame is a growing algae biofilm, and it comes complete with external circuitry that supplies that algae with life-giving saline solution. What I found super interested is that the algae biofilm inside the Living Canvas is actually in constant interaction with the exhibition space itself; the algae is filtering the air around it, removing carbon dioxide and pollutants, and releasing oxygen and water – which you can see as little bubbles on the inside of the glass, giving the impression that the piece is sweating.

The Living Canvas was designed by artist Fara Peluso, in collaboration with Solaga, a Berlin-based biotech start-up which specializes in the development of innovative solutions for air filtrations and regenerative energy production based on algae biofilms. In interviews since the exhibition opened, Fara has explained that she wanted to initiate a discourse on sustainability and new technologies, and so created a work of art that will continue to develop over the course of the exhibition’s lifetime.

As part of the Living Canvas exhibit, Fara Peluso also runs an algae cultivation workshop at STATE. The Algature workshop combines DIY Biology and speculative design, giving attendees an opportunity to develop their own algae cultivation tool that they can then take home to purify the air in their own spaces.

ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR, Emilia Tikka with the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)

After admiring the Living Canvas exhibit I headed upstairs to a bigger space which included the ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR exhibit (I originally found out about STATE Studio from a piece that Nature did on this exhibit). This was one that I found really interesting because it’s a photography exhibit, and therefore something that could be translated into the format of a blog post with relative ease.

Photographs by Zuzanna Kaluzna form part of Emilia Tikka’s ÆON. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

STATE has a residency program, where artists spend an extended period of time within a scientific research environment. A residency is designed to provide an intimate link between artists and research institutions, in the hope that the artists can produce innovative work that defies convention and provokes curiosity, whilst also enabling scientists to reflect on the potential impact that their work may have on wider society. This exhibition was a result of Finnish artist and designer Emilia Tikka‘s residency at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). There, she worked on uncovering the molecular hallmarks of ageing, and exploring the potential of CRISPR gene editing technology to reverse the biological clock. According to STATE, “ÆON- Trajectories of Longevity and CRISPR – addresses philosophical and societal dimensions of the desire for eternal life.”

The main body of the exhibit is made up of photographs, styled and conceptualised by Emilia Tikka, and shot by Zuzanna Kaluzna. The photographs tell the fictional story of a potential future; a couple are given the choice to defy the ageing process – the man agrees to, and inhales the CRISPR therapy, the woman does not. The resulting images are confronting as you see the consequences of their decisions; the man ceases to age, and the woman continues to do so. The fictional inhaler that Tikka designed is also part of the exhibit.

Emilia Tikka’s speculative design for a CRISPR–Cas9 inhaler. Image credit: Anne Freitag Photography

Clearly, Emilia’s work is speculative; you absolutely cannot take CRISPR gene editing technology via an inhaler, and then never see another wrinkle again, but the potential for CRISPR to be able to do something like this isn’t actually that far fetched. The world’s media recently exploded when a scientist from China revealed that he’d used CRISPR to edit the genomes of human embryos so that they would be immune to HIV infection.

CRISPR is a perfect example of the speed that science is moving at, and just how far the ethical and societal impacts of that are lagging behind. In my opinion, this exhibit at STATE Studio is a great way to stimulate conversation around these complex scientific topics.

Advertisements

A Day in Data – SPREAD’s Life Stripe Exhibition

If you were to look at your day in 24 blocks of one hour, what do you think the biggest block of time would be spent doing?

Right now I’m in the thick of some of the worst jet lag I’ve ever had, so I’d hazard a guess at 50% of the time being asleep (usually in the middle of the day), a further 20% of the time spent in bed wishing I was asleep, and the rest doing, y’know, life (read: in search of food).

This idea of visualising a day in terms of blocks of activity has been used by a design collective called SPREAD. SPREAD, established in 2004, is made up of two Japanese designers, Haruna Yamada and Hirokazu Kobayashi. Their ‘Life Stripe’ project aims to “find patterns in our everyday existence by using bands of color“.

Haruna Yamada and Hirokazu Kobayashi

I saw the Life Stripe exhibit at the Red Dot Design Museum in Singapore; a relatively small museum that includes a beautiful design shop and cafe on the ground floor, with the exhibits on the floor above. I hadn’t planned to go to Red Dot at all, I’d spent the day at Singapore’s ArtScience museum (more on that in a later blog post), and had some time to kill in the Marina Bay area. After wandering around the bay and having what turned out to be the best salad I’ve ever eaten (from now on I’m putting watermelon and pistachios in every salad, ever), I caught sight of the Red Dot sign. I figured I’d go in and have a wander around, thinking that if it wasn’t great then at least I’d be out of the heat and in the comfort of decent air-conditioning for at least an hour. Turns out, it was one of my favourite places in Singapore; the Life Stripe exhibit being a main reason.

When you head up the stairs to get to the upper floor of Red Dot, the first thing you see is this:

SPREAD’s Life Stripe Key

A rectangular block striped with colours, that you then figure out correspond to the key below. Along with a few other museum visitors, I couldn’t walk away from this first image before deciphering what the coloured box was telling us – spoiler alert; this 24 hours is filled with a lot of work/study, some sleep, intermittent housework/chores, two mealtimes, and a spot of shopping.

In SPREAD’s words: “Life Stripe lets you see your daily, weekly or monthly routines in an exciting way, and helps you discover something about yourself. A Life Stripe work is a “pattern of life” made by replacing one’s everyday actions such as sleeping, dining, relaxing, and working, with 21 colors selected based on research, and recording them along a 24-hour axis.”

The striking thing about Life Stripe came later; a wall filled with 88 of these rectangles, each showing a different colour pattern. On closer inspection these blocks reflected the activity of different people, with different jobs and lifestyles.

Photograph of the Life Stripe exhibit, taken by Heidi on Sunday 10th February at the Red Dot Design Museum, Singapore

SPREAD collected over 150,000 life records of both well-known and ordinary people of various careers, circumstances, genders, age, as well as animals, and made Life Stripe works based on them. They continue to collect data to this day, and the work on show is just a small collection.

In the squares above you might be able to make out that a Graphic Designer has a pretty rigid routine, spending most of their time working, some emails and then sleep, whereas (perhaps unsurprisingly) a Pet Sitter has a more varied day with short time slots spent doing different things. As well as the job titles, the brief description underneath each of the coloured rectangles also gives age, gender and location.

They’re not all human either – this one for a cat got a lot of laughs as people uncoded the sleep-meal-hang out routine; though there was some discussion about whether this could have been a teenager or not..

 

I got thinking about this exhibit and how useful it would be to communicate what the day to day life of a specific career might look like to someone who isn’t familiar with it. I’d bet that if different types of Scientists made their own coloured blocks no two would be the same!

 

‘Science Has No Gender!’ …But Does It Have a Race?

Today, February 11th, is International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Today is a day to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. I’ve talked about women in science on this blog before, and honestly, I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post at all today. I figured I’d just be repeating myself, and at the same time I’m sort of thinking that I’m preaching to the converted – most of the people that read this (as far as I know), are pretty happy with initiatives to improve working environments and opportunities for women in science.

(A note before I start – when I refer to ‘women in science’, I mean every person that identifies as a woman, whether that’s the gender they were assigned at birth or not. To be honest, celebrating and encouraging non-binary people in science should be included in the International Day… title too, but I don’t think the world (i.e. the UN and UNESCO) have come that far yet. That’s a fight for another blog post, but know it’s something that we as a community should be aware of.)

So, why am I writing this blog post at all? Well, today I had a bloody brilliant day. I went to We’re The Furballs – the dog petting cafe that I mentioned in a blog post a few days ago. I was feeling pretty happy with myself because yesterday I did lots of cool science/art related exploration for my Fellowship, and today was a break day that featured a corgi called Waffles, a toy poodle called Lulu, and a sausage dog called Slinky. I also went book shopping, and found the local Sephora – all in all an excellent Monday. That being said, I stopped for ice cream on the way home from the dog petting cafe, and checked Twitter. At the top of my timeline was a post from Hana Ayoob (if you’re not following her, I suggest you remedy that immediately – she also has a wonderful Etsy store) drawing attention to this:

Does anything about UNESCO’s tweet look a little off to you?

No, I’m not talking about spelling errors or unfortunate hashtags, I’m talking about the fact that every single woman in their graphic is white. This made me really, really frustrated. So frustrated in fact that I pretty much forgot about the whole dog petting cafe thing for about 10 minutes.

The whole “we need more women in science” thing is one thing that irritates me on a consistently low level – telling women that we need them in science is not going to make them build a career in science. When I was a teenager choosing my options for subjects at school, the fact that I might be selecting subjects that would push me into a field where there would be less women than men did not encourage me to choose STEM subjects. I wanted to know that women in science were given the same opportunities as men, and the fact that there was (and still is) a shortage of women in science did not fill me with confidence on that front.

ANYWAY. Back to the issue with the graphic above. It’s terrifying that I feel the need to say this, but all women are not able bodied slim white women. This fact should not come as a shock.

If the 7.5 billion people in the world was represented by just 100 people:

50 would be women
50 would be men

60 Asians
16 Africans
14 people from the Americas
10 Europeans

1 would be dying of starvation
11 would be undernourished
22 would be overweight

So if we’re going by what the world looks like, even 1 out of the 5 women in the graphic being white would be an over-representation.

The representation of women in science in the media needs to change. It’s really not that hard – look at the image below.

Image credit: Intersectional Rosie the Riveter Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Every single young girl should be able to find someone that she identifies with, and that she can look up to.

If you’re asked to name a woman in science, only being able to name Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, isn’t a good thing! All of the women in science that I’m seeing being held up as champions and ‘inspirations’ to get girls interested in science are white. That’s not ok.

I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white women just like I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white men. I want to work in an environment that is multicultural, heavily diverse, and full of passionate people of all genders, shapes, hues and sizes, feeling supported in the work that they are doing.

I’ve just written 300 words to explain why working in diverse environments is good for science, but I’ve deleted them because we should not be pushing for diversity because it’s good for science. We should be doing it because it’s human decency. As a cisgender able bodied white woman, I am absolutely done trying to explain the advantages of diversity to other privileged people; opening science up to everyone is just fucking ethical.

From UNESCO’s website: “This Day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened. The celebration is led by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners that promote women and girls’ access to and participation in science.

UNESCO, here’s a reminder that all women and girls play a critical role in science, not just the slim able bodied white women that you have used your sizeable platform to highlight. Do better.

Image credit: Nevertheless We Persist Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Some Pre-Adventure Thoughts

I’m currently sitting in Aberdeen airport waiting to board my 9th flight of 2019. This time I’m heading to Heathrow and then on to Singapore, where I’ll stay for a week before leaving for Hong Kong.

This travel thing has become almost second nature; I’ve got packing down to a fine art (if you don’t own packing cubes, then I suggest you buy some before your next trip), my travel outfit is now a signature combination of comfort, warmth and don’t-talk-to-me chic, and for the first time in my life my suitcase is 5kg under the baggage allowance.

I’m feeling good about this leg of my Fellowship adventures. I’m glad it’s only a two and a half week trip because the few days I’ve had at home disappeared way too quickly, and honestly, I spent a lot of time on the sofa doing accidental naps between the hours of 4pm and 9pm. The time I spent at home was a bit weird in terms of my thoughts too – I’ve had a lot of ~feelings~, including but not limited to: exhaustion, anticipation, surprise, dread, anxiety, pride, nostalgia, and excitement. At one point I was genuinely thinking about not going back to work in March – for no reason other than I didn’t think I’d be very good at it because I’ve been working on a different project for the last 6 weeks. HOW RIDICULOUS. Anyway, I’m pleased to report that my brain has calmed the F down, and I’m now excited for the 13 hour flight I have ahead of me (long haul flights are one of my favourite things), and I’m also excited to be getting back to real life on March 1st.

I do plan on making a few changes to things when I get back from my next adventure, but they’re little things that I want to allow myself time for. Things that got lost in the pre-Christmas rush, the pre-thesis hand-in rush, and the oh-my-God-it’s-2018 rush before that. 2018 was good, but I want my 2019 to be less frantic and more evenly paced.

I plan on implementing that even pacing into my Singapore/Hong Kong trip. There are a tonne of places I want to visit, people I want to speak to, and facets of my project that I want to explore further – but there is also a dog petting cafe 20 minutes from my hotel, and in the name of self-care, I will be visiting at least once.

If you have any recommendations for science, art, things to see, things to eat, or just places where I can interact with dogs without looking like a weirdo, please leave a comment below and let me know 🙂

Good Things: January 2019

My last post was a bit of a downer, so today’s blog post is intentionally designed to combat that. It’s all about good things, and I think I’m going to make this a monthly thing. If you enjoy it, let me know – give it a like, leave a comment, or perhaps think about ending your months by focussing on the good things.

As I’ve been exploring creative science communication techniques over the last few months I’ve been consuming a lot of online ‘content’ – YouTube videos, blog posts, Instagram and Twitter posts etc etc. A big focus of the Fellowship that I’m currently on involves exploring how science bloggers and micro-bloggers can learn from people doing creative things in other fields, and it’s becoming more and more obvious to me that science bloggers focus on science. That sounds dumb, but hear me out. People that blog about science tend to focus purely on science; often they’re not opening up and talking about their other hobbies and things they want to achieve in their personal lives for example. Clearly that’s a sweeping generalisation, but I think it holds at least some truth. In contrast, other fields of bloggers – usually ‘lifestyle’, ‘beauty’ or ‘fashion’ bloggers tend to open up a bit more, and that in turn makes it easier for people to engage with the content they produce. Ultimately these bloggers become sort of virtual friends to their viewers, and I think that’s a really nice way to improve engagement. I think we should be doing more of that it the sciences. Lots of these ‘other’ (clunky word, but basically I mean non-science bloggers) end each month with content that involves reflections on the best products they’ve used, books they’ve read or experiences they’ve had, so I’m bringing that to my blog for 2019.

So, enough waffle! I’m going to split things into 5 broad categories for now, mainly as a reminder that every single good thing about a month should not be related to food.

Good things about January 2019:

Excellent humans
Heidi with Dawn Bazely

This is the biggest category because I’ve been travelling and having so many incredible conversations with so many incredible people. I’ve chosen to highlight the 3 people that have made me think, inspired me to do better, and made me laugh, in that order:

  • Dawn Bazely – a powerhouse of a woman. I met Dawn in Toronto to talk all things science communication and engagement, not only did she spend time recounting her experiences with me, she boosted my confidence, made me laugh and invited me into her home. We need more people like this in the world.
  • Kyle Marian Viterbo – another incredible woman. Kyle is working hard to change the landscape of science communication; to make it inclusive, diverse and valued. After speaking to her I was simultaneously angry at the state of things now, and hopeful that there are people like her (and now me!) making a conscious effort to improve things.
  • Krishana Sankar – I’ve been following Krish on social media for aaaaages and we finally got to meet when I was in Toronto earlier this month. It felt like catching up with an old friend; lots of shared experiences and laughter, and I’m so glad that she’s part of the science communication community I’ve met online.
Cool places
Street art at Blagden Alley
  • Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, Washington DC – wonderful book shop that opens late and has a restaurant that serves incredible desserts. If I ever go missing, look here first.
  • Blagden Alley, Washington DC – two blocks of incredible street art with loads of good brunch places nearby.
  • ARTECHOUSE, Washington DC – a brilliant immersive art/science/technology experience.
  • STATE Studio, Berlin – teeny art/science studio that explores big science questions using art.
Book(s) of the month
Online media
One specific moment
  • Seeing my friend Lacy in New York after 5 years of communicating via very sporadic Skype sessions. We had a huuuuge catch up which was well overdue, when I was ill she brought me noodles and medicine, and she didn’t get too embarrassed when I shouted ‘I looooove youuuuuu’ down the hallway as she was leaving.
Work thing
  • Being invited to present work from my PhD at a conference later this year – this sounds like something really small, but being invited to talk anywhere still feels massive for me.

Writing all of that down makes it clear just how hectic and wonderful January was. Not every month will be so jam-packed (at least I hope not!), but I think it’s important to take some time to reflect and celebrate the good things, however big or small.

What have you loved about January? Leave a comment below and let me know 🙂

 

Depression Doesn’t Just Go Away When You Go on an Adventure

This is a weird post to write, but I think it’s important so I’m sitting down to write it in the hope that it helps someone else.

I’ve lived with depression for a few years now. In reality it’s probably been more than a few years, but a few years ago a Doctor told me that I had depression, so that’s where the ‘official’ timeline started. I’ve spoken about having depression before, and I genuinely thought that I was ok with things, I thought that I understood my depression; how to manage it, how to spot the signs that I wasn’t doing too well and needed a break, etc.

Now, I’m in the USA on the trip of a lifetime, and it turns out I wasn’t actually ‘ok’ with the whole depression thing at all. The last few weeks have been incredible, mind-alteringly, life changingly brilliant, and I’ve felt like someone without depression. Even when I got snotty-gunky-gross sick, I was still pretty happy, just miffed that I was in New York being snotty-gunky-gross sick. There was a little part of me that thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe it wasn’t depression at all! It was stress, burnout, a series of unfortunate events that were making me sad – I probably don’t have this weird lifelong mental health thing at all, how brilliant!‘ That little part grew without me even realising it, until I woke up earlier this week with the familiar feeling of numbness. That heavy blanket feeling that makes getting out of bed too difficult.

Unsurprisingly to just about everyone else in the world, it turns out that just because you go on an adventure to explore a subject you’re passionate about, depression doesn’t just go away. Even when you’re not stressed, worried or under pressure, that whole depression thing – it’s still a thing. That realisation surprised me.

I’m aware this sounds really naive, but I think it’s important to talk about. The issue of burnout and stress in relation to the PhD process is talked about so much, but it’s not always stress that makes life difficult for people. Some of us are living with the knowledge that at some point we’ll be right in the middle of a brilliant week, and the heavy blanket feeling will return with little or no warning.

All of that said, I’m still feeling pretty lucky to be lugging my heavy blanket around Washington DC rather than Aberdeen. Travelling has always been something I’ve enjoyed, and so I’m going to spend my weekend exploring new places around DC. That is potentially the most privileged form of self-care I’ve ever planned, but I’m here and me and my heavy blanket are determined to make the most of it, gently.