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.

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!

 

Introducing: Science On A Postcard

As well as my PhD I’m a freelance copywriter, currently working with 5 clients on a weekly basis. For some reason I decided that I just wasn’t busy enough, so I’ve also set up a little Etsy shop where I’m selling science postcards and prints. That little Etsy shop is called ‘Science On A Postcard’ and it’s also got its own Instagram page too.

How did Science On A Postcard start?

When I was younger I didn’t think I’d be a scientist – I planned on studying graphic design. I still like to doodle, and even throughout my science life I’ve injected creativity. I find drawing really relaxing. At the start of the year I started drawing, scanning drawings in to my laptop, and then messing about with them using Adobe Illustrator. Fast forward to a month or two ago, and I found myself really, really wanting to do this more regularly. Nothing career-changing, I just found it a really enjoyable way to get some head-space whilst communicating science at the same time. I bought an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and decided I should probably do something to encourage myself to keep up this little doodling habit I’d built up – and Science On A Postcard was suddenly a thing!
In fact, I was at London City Airport waiting for my flight back to Aberdeen after the ABSW’s Science Journalism Summer School when I set up the Instagram account and started making things a bit more solid.

Currently I have two prints/postcards designed and listed in my shop. I opened the shop last night and I had a whole 2 sales before I went to bed! Super exciting. I’m not looking to turn this into a job, or a substantial money-maker, I just really like doodling science. I also really love getting mail so this seemed like a cute little hobby to keep going in my spare time.

Over the next few months I want to design more prints/postcards that show other types of scientists – qualitative researchers, chemists, geologists, geneticists, planetary scientists.. etc etc. Eventually I’m hoping that there’s a whole range of postcards that can be used to briefly show what different scientific careers are like.

To see more from Science On A Postcard visit the Instagram page, or take a look at the Etsy shop. If you have ideas for science careers that you’d like to see presented in postcard format, please do get in touch and let me know!