Here's the science: six artists collaborate with six biologists for illuminating show at QUAD

By Mark Sheerin | 26 February 2016

Science and art combine in a meeting of cells, code and more at Derby QUAD

CGI landscape filled with floating points of light
boredomresearch, AfterGlow (2016), video still© boredom research
Towards the end of Samantha Moore’s film Loop, a scientist tells us that his cell research is difficult, even impossible, to visualise. Fortunately, Moore is a visual artist and, like her colleagues in this show, visualising is her strong suit. As a result there are six compelling visual treatments here, but without a bit of scientific background most will remain opaque.

Loop is a sketchy and cheerful animation about cell structure. You might take out the fact that cells can be any shape. You might take out the fact that tiny organic scaffolds hold them together. And you will certainly pick up on some of the wonder and excitement that research scientists experience at the best of times. (Moore has collaborated with Dr Serge Mostowy, so we can be sure that the film sticks to the facts).

Virtual landscape with bubble-like cells and an explosion of pink dye
Eric Schockmel, Immunecraft (2016)© Eric Schockmel
But artists being artists, there are very different approaches on display here. For instance, Eric Schockmel compares cellular operations to the game play of a virtual arena, complete with zombie cells and violent conquests. His CGI renderings look like one moment like sugary confections, the next like a psychedelic knitting project. Strange to think that at any given moment, such battle-like processes are taking place within us.

The dark side of biological fact has also inspired boredomresearch. The artist team of Vicky Isley and Paul Smith have visualised a nocturnal landscape which grows steadily more and more populated by bright points of light represented packets of blood carried by flying insects. Given that malaria kills half a million people around the world each year, fear is an apt response to this mesmerising film.

Meanwhile, in another visual universe, Charlie Tweed draws a parallel between genetic code and computer code. This raises the intriguing possibility that we might one day program living organisms, or hack our own susceptibility to disease. Once again the speculation is based wholly on fact, thanks to Tweed’s close collaboration with Dr Darren Logan.

Pastel shaded representation of beadlike cell structure
Samantha Moore, Loop (2016)© Samantha Moore
It was interesting to see that even performance can convey biochemical activities, in particular dance, in the hands of Genetic Moo (Nicola Schauerman and Tim Pickup). Performers in a film set have been set to music to illustrate the lifecycle of an insect bite, of the immune system up against bacteria. The silhouetted dancers proliferate in repetitive forms. The trippy qualities of this are broken at the end by the live action film of one of the dancers.

The most straightforward animation here is Sleepless by Ellie Land. The North East-based animator has used black and white images to illustrate the experiences of mental health service users who all share a complicated relation to shut-eye. Five nights without sleep sounds like a nightmare, but this film has a light touch that reminds you that day always follows night.

Ultimately, that’s what science brings to disease and disorder and surely most of us are grateful for that. And even though none of the artists have let the facts get in the way of a good film, the depth of their collaborations ensure the merit of Silent Signal is scientific as well as artistic.

  • Silent Signal runs until March 6 2016. Admission free. Open 11am-6pm daily (from 12 noon Sunday). Follow QUAD on Twitter @derbyquad and Facebook. Silent Signal is devised and produced by Animate Projects, supported by a Wellcome Trust Large Arts Award and Garfield Weston Foundation.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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