Collisions Festival – collaborations between artists and scientists

I’ve been collaborating with a group of scientists on a new project that will be exhibited at Curiosity Collider’s Collisions Festival: Invasive Systems. Opening night is on November 8th

After learning that bacteria communicate much like how our nervous system does, I became intrigued. My long interest in how energy and messages travel had me wondering how much microbes behave like our nervous system and what kind of interactions there may be between the two. Particularly, I wondered what happens when there is an imbalance of microbes and when they cross both physical and functional boundaries? What is the impact and to what extent are our intentions and efforts for acquiring and maintaining good health in conflict with the microbes that invade?

Then, upon hearing Linda Horianopoulos’s presentation on brain eating fungi at a Nerdnite event in Vancouver, I was eager to share with her my interest in microbes and brains. She gathered more microbiologists and immunologists researching similar questions and together we explored these ideas. The result of our conversations is Crossing, a multi-panel sliding puzzle painting.

Remember those little grid plastic puzzles with one missing square? You got it. Now blow that up to something almost 2 feet by 4 feet, with the solution being an abstracted image examining the relationship between microbes and our nervous system! Yes, it will be a little more challenging than those road trip puzzles from your childhood, but don’t worry – there will be hints to help you out!

Linda Horianopoulos, Kylynda Bauer, Mihai Cirstea and Nina Radisavljevic first met with me at a donuterie to see what possibilities could arise from a collaboration. This proved to be a very fitting location to start. As we revelled in these ring shaped delights, it was revealed to me that in essence, humans are shaped like donuts, and our gut, although usually perceived as our ‘insides’ is actually still our ‘outsides’.

This was an important perspective shift for me, particularly in considering the ideas of microbial invasion. Typically, alarms ring when microbes cross such barriers as our gut lining, our lungs and our blood-brain-barrier into the brain. They cause diseases that are life threatening. Otherwise, many microbes are expected to be there. They help us sense and inform us of our environment, break down food and the harmful ones are kept in check by our immune system. But sometimes, even without crossing these protective barriers, they can have a negative impact.  Researchers are finding that our microbiome has an impact on our behaviour, our perception of pain, our mood, our mental health, our biological processes such as digestion, energy production, and immune function and it may also be linked to diseases such as Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease and Schizophrenia. So without even crossing those protective barriers, microbes have a significant impact and a way of invading our wellbeing.

Initially I had proposed to simply create a painting for the exhibit, but I was struggling to convey the complexity of these relationships in a single image. Then one sleepless night, while my brain was working hard at problem solving instead of taking time to rest and recover, I started seeing all the different pieces floating around and had an aha! moment. The puzzle became a metaphor for the complexity of these relationships, and our understanding of what promotes health and what leads to illness. Each puzzle piece is like a signalling molecule shared by both nervous system and microbes, the link and communication channel between the two. In order to solve the puzzle, the pieces have to move back and forth, dancing around each other until each finds its place.

I look forward to seeing how people will interact with the piece and how they will react to the challenge. In anticipation that the piece will reflect the level of difficulty of this problem, and how scientists have yet to solve this health puzzle, I will be providing some hints to help you along!

I hope you will be able to join us at the opening night of Invasive Systems on November 8th!

Other collaborative projects exhibiting include DNA sonification by Laara Cerman and Scott Pownall, and a projection sculpture by Kat Wadel and Garth Covernton. As well, there will be a number of artists exhibiting work considering the theme of invasive systems. It will be a fantastic night and show. Don’t forget to check out the workshops and tours also being offered over the weekend!

Here is a link for more information and for tickets: Invasive Systems

Through Crossing, an interactive puzzle painting, examine how microbial colonies that communicate like our nervous system can impact our behaviours and the processes in our body. Invasion alarms ring – when their interactions with our bodies, particularly our brains, become undesirable or a threat.

Hope to see you there!