WEDNESDAY, 20 DECEMBER 2023Q: What is ASCUS Art & Science?
A: ASCUS Art & Science is a non-profit organisation dedicated to bridging the gap between art and sciences. It started in 2008. At that time, it was an association where researchers and artists could come together and mingle ideas, and in 2015 through a people award from the Wellcome Trust, we began work on establishing the ASCUS Lab. We wanted to challenge the notion that ‘a lab is somewhere you can’t go unless you’re a scientist’, through our belief that a laboratory should be accessible to everyone. It is the only publicly accessible lab in the UK. This space is a mix between a research lab and an art studio: the great thing about that is that scientists and artists are seen as equal – the stereotype that scientists would be perceived as smarter or “better” doesn’t exist here. Everyone is valued. We encourage conversations, explorations, development of new skills and satisfying curious minds.
Q: Can anyone come to the lab?
A: The lab is publicly accessible so yes, anyone and everyone can use our facilities for independent projects or as part of the workshop we run from time to time. The only limitation is that we are a biosafety level 1 lab so we can only work with what’s considered safe microorganisms. We also avoid working with harmful chemicals that could lead to dangerous reactions like concentrated acids, as we sometimes have people coming to the lab who have no scientific background at all and try to make the space as user friendly as possible. Despite the limitations, we encourage people to enquire regardless as there might be ways to work around certain issues or alternatives we could implement to reduce certain risks.
Q: What is your background?
A: My background is in microbiology so I’m mainly a scientist. I completed my PhD a couple of years ago, but I’ve always been a creative person. Initially I wanted to become a film composer, and the only reason I didn’t go down the creative route was because the university lost my application! I also wanted to do research to create solutions to help people, but I felt in the end the only people who would read or understand my work would be other scientists or people who would pay for access to journals. So, after my PhD I wanted to take a break from academia, reassess what path I wanted to follow and that was when I stumbled across Ascus, fell in love with their values and was lucky enough to join the team.
Q: Can you give examples of past projects at ASCUS?
A: Yes, for instance the G-lands project. A university researcher, Dr. Elaine Emmerson, joined up with the artist Emily Fong, and asked us to mediate this collaboration. Radiotherapy is used to treat head and neck cancer patients however, in the process it can damage the patients' salivary glands. As a result of this damage, these patients struggle to speak, swallow and to eat. Dr. Emmerson’s research focuses on the regeneration of salivary gland function to improve the quality of life for those affected by head and neck cancer. She is really interested in getting feedback from patients to make sure she’s researching in the right direction. The artist came in and learnt about the science behind Dr Emmerson’s work through discussions with scientists, medical doctors, surgeons, pathologists, and patients. She then created illustrations and sculptures to represent her observations. One of the ASCUS’ roles in this project was to set up a workshop with different hands-on experiments for people with lived experience of head and neck cancer. These included extracting DNA from saliva and looking at salivary glands under the microscope for patients to approach the biology behind their disease, create artwork about it and reflect together about their own journey. It was a very moving experience as despite the difficulties of the treatment, patients remain so adaptable and able to make a way around it. Another programme at ASCUS was designed for younger people who struggle in a normal school environment, having to sit behind a desk and look at a chalkboard. This program is collaborative with a community project officer who is all about green spaces, biodiversity and ecology. The kids collect samples and take them back to the lab to look at them with the microscope. We follow their curiosity and intuition: they choose the items found in nature they would like to look at and then they decide the questions they would like to ask and which experiment to do. The idea is that I’m not a teacher showing them things, we are all equal in the playfield. Art is necessary for science as it promotes creativity.
Q: Conversely, would you have an example of experiments that create art material?
A: One that comes to mind is using slime mould, which is a yellow slimy organism that is neither a fungus or a bacteria. It finds its source of food with chemotaxis, and if you place food sources at different places in a petri dish, the slime mould finds the most efficient route to the food sources, creating a network that connects them all. It has been used in city planning after researchers showed the organisation of the network created by this unicellular organism is so well-structured that it closely resembles the underground rail system surrounding Tokyo, (for more details, see https://www.wired.com/2010/01/slime-mold-grows-network-just-like-tokyo-rail-system/). We have slime mould at Ascus and have used it in a similar way, placing a printed out map of a local park underneath a petri dish, placing food sources on parts of the map we would like to explore, and letting the Slime mould tell us which route to take to get there. Some of the artists that use our facilities are also exploring the patterns slime mould makes on textiles.
Q: And maybe a project involving a form of art one could consider far from science?
A: Most people think of fermented tea with health benefits when they hear “Kombucha”. However a fashion design student came to Ascus to grow Kombucha and used the part of it that is called SCOBY, which is the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, to create a sustainable eco dress! She now has her own company, Mykko, where she uses mycelium to create eco-leather. Science serves society but the communication between the two is often indirect, and sometimes even absent. Through collaborations between art and science, ASCUS Art & Science builds a necessary two-way bridge: patients, who are the ones experiencing the pain, the doubts and the fears of a disease inform the science. Furthermore, at ASCUS, science comes to creative people of all ages and backgrounds through inspiring new ways of teaching and obtaining knowledge.
Pauline Kerekes is a post-doc in neuroscience at the Physiology, Development and Neuroscience department at Cambridge who helps coordinate the art behind BlueSci. Pictures provided by Emily Fong and Ascus team.