Blog posts

Blog #01: SMQB IncUoBator Artist-in-Residence

In February, the SMBQ kicked off our first artist-in-residence programme, bringing together four artists with four new research projects. These research projects are part of the SMQB’s seed-corn scheme, which sees researchers from across different disciplines paired with an SMQB Fellow and supported to collaborate for six months to testbed new research ideas and ways of working. The hope is that at the end of this period, research groups will be better placed to apply for external funding or investment as they will already have some pilot data/proof-of-concept evidence in their back pockets.

One of the most unique aspects of this scheme is our research ‘incubator’ – a two-day retreat (this year held in Bristol) that brings teams together for in-depth planning and development at the very onset of the project. This provides teams with dedicated space and time – both physically and mentally – to focus on their projects, with minimal distractions from other commitments. Importantly, key leads in professional support also take part to help catalyse decisions into action there and then, avoiding the need for teams to waste time organizing individual meetings to do this later on.

Particularly thrilling was that for the very first time we included artists as part of this incubator retreat, embedding them at the very beginning of the collaboration process. The enthusiasm and excitement in having the artists join us was palpable, both from the researchers and professional staff, as well as from members of the public involved in our advisory group who seemed especially interested in how these scientist-artist collaborations would reach new audiences through creative public engagement outputs. The two days were quite full-on and intense for all involved, as plans started to get locked into place, but there was also plenty of time to get to know each other more informally over lunch and dinner, which made the experience an enjoyable one.

Each of our artists is profiled on our webpage where you can find out more about them and see examples of their previous work. We are only part-way through the collaboration now, and in light of everything happening globally due to COVID-19, there are a few hurdles to overcome, but we thought that we’d take this moment to check-in and see how teams are getting on. I’ve also retitled the Artist-in-Residence programme ‘SMQB IncUoBator’ playing on our research incubator and the creative artist connections being made with University of Birmingham (UoB) research. Each of the artists has sent through a little update below. It’s been great to see such a diversity of artistic mediums and interpretations explored, even just at this early stage. We’ll aim to write a few more blog posts every couple of months as part of documenting SMQB’s IncUoBator, so do check back again! Until then, I hope that you are doing well and taking good care of yourself in these unprecedented times.

With very best wishes,

Caroline Gillett, Community & Public Engagement Manager
SMQB IncUoBator: Artist-in Residence Programme Lead

Artist updates

Carol Breen

I am working with the research team investigating beta cell heterogeneity. This project combines state-of-the-art Ca2+ imaging, molecular biology, chemogenetics, gene editing protocols and mathematical modelling. I am re-using cellular information, beta-cell imaging and data visualization – translating this content into new forms. At the research incubator in Bristol, I was interested to learn that oscillations play an important role in cellular processes. The team have created code which converts signals such as islet voltage traces in to sound waves and I look forward to incorporating this in to my work.

The scholar Johanna Drucker notes how a bias often exists toward assuming knowledge represented in mathematical form is an unambiguous representation of thought. Scientific data is often perceived as ‘objective’, I am fascinated by the alternative histories that might be created from this information. The nature of my work is typically abstract, as such I am thinking about the relationship between abstraction and found beauty in science. Working with the, charts, schematics, plots and the scientific models I want to defamiliarize these aesthetics and re-contextualize them for a new audience. During a tour of the labs at The University of Birmingham I had the pleasure of learning more about the live imaging techniques used in this process. I include a picture from my time at the lab and a frame of my work progress…

Fig_1. Frame from – science fictions – work in progress | Fig_2. Photograph taken from my lab research tripFig_1. Frame from – science fictions – work in progress | Fig_2. Photograph taken from my lab research trip.

Mellissa Fisher

Papilloedema is caused by intracranial pressure which creates optic disc swelling and can be a symptom of other health problems like brain tumors or brain conditions. The research I am responding to is with the POP study group who are creating an algorithm for an OCT machine to be able to diagnose Papilloedema in your local opticians, rather than being sent to A&E to go through unnecessary and traumatic procedures. My collaborators are Opthamologist Dr Susan Mollen and Mathematicians Leandro Junges and Wessel Woldman who are working with machine learning (AI) to develop algorithms to transform the diagnosis process of Pappilloedema.

The reason I applied for this project is because I was already researching similar areas of science and technology. My research has been focused on a rare brain condition, Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension (IIH) which cause and cure are unknown. My interest in this condition comes from first hand experience and having a traumatic diagnosis, as well as experiencing symptoms like pulsatile tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe migraines and double vision. I came into this event excited to learn more about my collaborators and work together on ideas of how to visualise the research.

The work I am creating involves data, imaging science, sculpture and technology with an overall goal to make science accessible to a wide audience and to start discussions and raise an awareness and understanding of invisible illnesses like IIH.

Before the project began I started to establish a connection with IIH UK Charity who have helped thousands of people in the UK with information about managing IIH. With the charity I am planning to run focus groups and phone consultations to enable others to share their experiences and use their data to formulate a collective representation of what Pappilloedema looks like.

My current artistic practice is understanding the human body by life casting and sculpting skeletal structures and digital MRI imaging. This stage of the residency is about experimentation and I am currently developing my understanding of algorithms with Leandro which could lead me down a different route and I am working with materials like plaster, silicone, latex, 3D printing. I look forward to sharing what happens next.

Collage of photographs and drawings from Mellissa's Installation

Pietro Bardini

I’m developing a multi-channel sound piece that mimics the interaction model between hormones and inflammatory mediators during cardiac surgery. Together with the researchers I designed an approximated version of this model, which highlights the feedback cycles and the dynamic interactions of each part (Image 1). The resulting composition will be made up of five voices with each voice allocated a distinct output, the sound sources will be arrayed following

the diagram below (Image 2). At the centre of this diagram we find the hormones ACTH and Cortisol, which make up the harmonic centre of the piece. The outer triangle is made up of the inflammatory mediators TNF-α and IL6 and an Inflammation voice. During each composition cycle the outer triangle will move the inflammation harmony from a point of dissonance towards consonance with the harmonic centre. This composition will be generated in real time using Cycling74’ Max.

Pietro Bardini Image 1

I recently finalised the programming of the model which now self sustains, but it’s only outputting numerical values (Image 3). Currently I’m designing the sounds using Modalys. Modalys is a physical modelling synthesis program by IRCAM, which can be controlled using Max. By using a digital physical modelling synth I am able to easily manipulate in real time complex sounds which are not easy to produce with standard sound synthesis methods such as additive, subtractive or frequency modulation, or by manipulating samples.

Pietro Bardini Image 2Pietro Bardini Image 3

Vicky Roden

As an artist with lived experience of extreme thyrotoxicosis I’m acutely aware of the effect it has on a person’s physical and mental health, and the far reaching repercussions on the rest of one’s life. I have a hundred stories, from embarrassing to hilarious to tragic, which I now understand as being closely related to my condition. Being part of this project has only increased that understanding, and given me a genuine opportunity to contribute to research that could quite literally be life changing. In making this work I’m using both my own experiences and exploring a variety of other aspects of the thyroid, with my initial focus being on it’s shape.

Named for it’s resemblance to an ancient Greek shield, I’ve been exploring this particular shape in relation to my own experiences. Firstly with an embroidery designed to echo the curves of the shield and the nodules of the gland, next with a recreation of the sweet pink tablets I took to manage the condition and thirdly using gold leaf suspended in resin to explore both the classical shield shape alongside the more realistic, visceral appearance. These experiments relate back to my own experiences, such as the visual metaphor of smooth neat stitchwork with a mass of tangled threads behind and the pills recreated from the sugary fondant crème which was a staple of my diet while my metabolism was racing.

My next phase is to establish links with other patients with this condition to share experiences, and to create works around visual indicators of hyperthyroidism (such as goitres and bulging eyes) together with historical references and remedies. I’m also exploring the idea of the treatment of this condition as being a combination of chance and chess including moves, countermoves and fortuity.

Collage thyroid installation art by Vicky Roden

Blog #02: Artist Residency in “Lockdown”

It seems unbelievable that we are already headed into August. But here we are, already five months into lockdown…

When we first launched our Artist-in-Residence programme, we could have never envisioned the world we’d now be living in and to some extent this new reality must itself be shaping the collaborations and the nature of the artistic work being produced. How could it not? For a start, some of our artists have been without access to their studio spaces, requiring them to skilfully adapt to working in their home environments.

For others, the spotlight on the NHS has prompted a period of self-reflection regarding their own interactions with healthcare services and personal experiences of illness or caring for others. This isn’t unique to our artists or researchers, of course. I think we have all in some way reflected on these themes. The SMQB aims to transform lives through quantitative biomedical and clinical research. Each of our incubator research projects focuses on a healthcare condition(s) and perhaps the sense of wanting to do justice to those professionally dealing with or personally afflicted by a condition is all the more heightened now. In particular, two of our artists have lived experience of the conditions under investigation by the researchers they are collaborating with. This naturally makes these projects more personal.

One of our goals was to host an exhibition of the combined artists’ works in October and this was already pretty much in place before lockdown began. Given the uncertainty surrounding just about everything right now this plan now seems rather too hopeful and I’ve been discussing options with our artist cohort. Even if we could physically host an exhibition this year, would people feel safe and secure enough to come visit it? Undoubtedly many cultural venues and arts organizations are troubleshooting these same scenarios on an even more intensified scale. It must be an incredibly challenging time for this sector – however, given their creative capacity, this community is perhaps at an advantage in dreaming up innovative solutions!

Whatever happens we will be aiming to share our progress and the collaborations with you. At the moment our intention is to exhibit the works together early next year, when safe to do so. However, we are thinking through plans for online activities later this year to bring our artists and researchers together alongside a public audience within a virtual space. To this end it would be really good to know what type of activities people would find valuable. Certainly, we hope to be able to showcase progress of the artworks themselves, but we hope that people will also be interested in hearing about the collaboration process itself – how the research is informing the art and vice versa. I’m currently on a bit of a reconnaissance mission to see what others are doing in this space, so please do get in touch if you see any innovative and effective examples of scientist-artist collaborations in the online world. Take good care of yourself and I hope you enjoy reading our artist updates below.

With very best wishes,

Caroline Gillett, Community & Public Engagement Manager
SMQB IncUoBator: Artist-in Residence Programme Lead

Artist updates

Mellissa Fisher

It has been challenging to get the project moving because of the pandemic and also as collaborator Dr Susan Mollen was deployed to work on COVID until June/July so the research project was put on hold for three months. So in July, I find myself beginning the residency again, in a different way.

So far I am finding being an artist through lockdown a double edged sword. I began with the excitement of having a huge amount of time to get work done, but I did not factor in the stress of the world during a pandemic and how uninformed the government has left us, mixing in with losing the majority of my income as events/exhibitions/jobs were cancelled. Mentioning this, I feel I have used the time as best I can to revisit previous work, make new works surrounding the current climate and developing ideas for this project.

I have taken the time to experiment with a variety of materials and to learn new techniques with materials I haven’t used before which has been incredibly rewarding and to be honest, has kept my mind moving during this surreal time.

 Mechanical heart

Over the last four months I have experienced two IIH (Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension) migraines, one was worse than the other, but I paid attention to the areas of my body that were affected and started to draw how the symptoms felt. The image below is a type of mind map of the symptoms and how they feel to me. I see the image as a map of a future installation I want to make about IIH.

Throughout my research and development I noticed certain words crop up, such as pressure, prediction and pulsing. Pressure because of increased brain pressure causing Papilloedema, or pressure relating to the NHS. Prediction because of the algorithms collaborator Leandro is working on for the project and pulsing which relates to the symptoms of IIH.

I have also been working through results of a sensory questionnaire I sent out at the beginning of lockdown to the IIH community, to gather descriptions of each person’s symptoms. I am now working towards visualising this data and planning further investigations with virtual focus groups.

Overall, the project is moving at a different pace to what I anticipated, which is good as it allows more time to develop ideas, as always I am looking forward to sharing what happens next.

Melissa’s website | Instagram: @mellissafisherartist | Twitter: @MellEJFisher

Vicky Roden

This project has led to a lot of experimentation and exploration and recently I’ve been focussing on two aspects of hyperthyroidism. Firstly, the challenges of managing an overactive thyroid from a medical perspective, and secondly the actual effects of the condition on the patient’s life.

The way treatment was discussed within the research group felt to me like a mixture of chance and chess – while a doctor can see test results and prescribe medication accordingly there are a myriad of other factors at play and it can take years of testing and adjustment to get the patients levels to a semblance of normality. I’ve begun to develop a board game reflecting the difficulties of managing this – the prototype is completed and available on my website.

Vicky’s website | Cantess Facebook | Instagram: @vicky.roden | Twitter: @VickyRoden

A game of chess a game of chance board game diagramThe effect on a patient’s way of life has been a more emotionally difficult area to explore – the condition absolutely took over my life and the recovery felt nothing short of miraculous. I have few tangible memories from that time but found an old photograph that survived the intervening years. My feelings towards the person I was back then, together with the difference in my reaction to the world events at that time compared with my reactions to the very real dangers of the present day made me both realise how far I’ve progressed and be more empathetic to the woman in the photograph. I’ve always described the effect of the radioiodine treatment as being like a static filled TV screen suddenly jumping back into focus, and have used this as the basis for a short film. The first cut is viewable on YouTube below: 

First version of a discussion of hyperthyroidism centred around an old photograph


Carol Breen

Bursting Rhythms, Oscillations and Silent Phases:

Oscillations play an important role in the cellular processes that the research team is examining. I have been working with sound waves, derived from islet voltage traces and using these sounds to develop ideas for a visual score as well as re-using and re-purposing elements from schematic representations – and videos of calcium traces related to cell activity, created by the researchers. The language used to describe cell behaviour is beautifully poetic: bursting rhythms, silent phases, rapid voltage, coupling currents, fast and slow bursts, these descriptions have the potential to be re-used as dynamic indications for musical arrangement.

Digital representation of bursting rhythms, oscillations and silent phases

The team and I have talked a lot about how, as researchers, we might learn from each other, and what an audience could gain from our collaboration. We talked about what the general public might associate with the pancreas; many only learn about the diseases associated with this organ, like pancreatitis or diabetes, or for example how the endocrine functions in the pancreas are needed to regulate blood sugar.

My artwork aims to tell a more experimental story about this part of our bodies, as well as illuminating a core feature of the research – that being, how important ‘rhythmic activity’ is in both the artistic and scientific research process. My piece aims to allow the potential for the audience to experience an audio-visual response –to see and hear hidden rhythms active in our own organ. I’ve been researching visual scores created by Iannjs Xenakis, Morton Feldman and Stockhausen. Orchestras are often asked to simply interpret visual scores, musicians sometimes come at these abstract maps without any instructions relating to what these visuals imply for the player, and so the orchestra interprets shapes and patterns through sound. Other times visual music scores come with instructions or keys that gives more information about the visual elements.

In Bristol I remember one of our team saying that organs are essentially orchestras, this stuck with me, because it gives an insight into the complexity and beauty of our bodies, how inner temporalities are happening unbeknown to our everyday temporal experiences. This score will allow for potential conversations to arise surrounding some of the key elements of both the scientific process and the artistic process. I’ll begin teasing out the details of this score over the coming weeks.

In my own research I examine the malleability of data. I am fascinated by digital images, how digital images are all reduced to binary code, yet also function as visual copies in motion. I think about how the resolution of images relates to where and how images are circulated. Hito Steyerl the artist and theorist points out that when digital images are copied they accelerate, and the quality deteriorates. Steyerl reminds us that copies can be ghosts, or previews, thumbnails or errant ideas and that these itinerant images can be distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution (Steyerl 2009). This time I am working with a totally new economy of digital images – scientific, and this has brought up many different questions about access and circulation. I have thought about how we rarely see inside our own bodies until the orchestra is playing badly. Working with a mix of digital images, copies of high-resolution scientific imagery and schematic representations that derive from modelling predictions, allows me to think about, how complex – digital ontologies of the body are. Technology is blurring distinctions between the human and its others. No longer can we define human existence by unique temporal and spatial coordinates. Digital interfaces disrupt relationships between once separate spaces and increase the complexity of the digital temporal. It is interesting to think about the role rhythm plays on a number of different levels in relation to this research project, to try to understand more about how pattern and rhythm is used in understanding cell activity, while also thinking about rhythm in relation to the algorithmic, the circulation of the digital images, as well as the rhythms of my own methods of re-making in digital space.

Digital representation of bursting rhythms, oscillations and silent phases

Pietro Bardini:

Since the last update, I’ve been optimising the sound design of the audio channels that will be representing the cytokines TNF-α and IL6, and the overall Inflammation. Since these sounds are generated in real-time through the use of complex algorithms which simulate the sound of metal plates (a synthesis technique called physical modelling ), it can be quite hard on the CPU. To solve this, I removed all user interfaces from the code and some unnecessary frequencies from the sounds.

As well as this I’ve been designing the harmonic centre for the piece. 

The harmonic centre functions as the pivot of the composition. As the piece proceeds, the cytokines and the inflammation channels will move from dissonance to consonance with the harmonic centre (pic). The harmonic centre represents the hormones Cortisol and ACTH, its movements mirror the internal feedbacks that occur between Cortisol and ACTH as shown in the study.

I am currently fine-tuning and adjusting the movements of each channel. After this, I will proceed to generate a real-time visual representation of these movements which will give an insight to its inner workings. This will be shown alongside the sound piece. 

digital representation of an harmonic centre