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When worlds collide

The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)

The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)

Artists from the new interdisciplinary MA Art and Science programme at Central Saint Martins have been working with researchers at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit at the University of Oxford to produce an exhibition called A Nervous Encounter. Here artist Aga Tamiola tells us what she got out of the project, and shows us the artwork she produced.

Prior to visiting the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, I had never been to a biomedical research lab before. Excitement and curiosity come to mind when I recall my response to that very first visit in November 2011.

We visited a lab which focuses on research into the basal ganglia, a region deep in the brain involved in the initiation and control of movement.

I became fascinated with the slide boxes that were kept all over the lab. I wanted to find out what was inside them, and about the people who created them. The scientists were extremely generous with their time, showing me that the boxes contain glass slides on which thin slices of rat brain tissue are preserved. By looking at the slides under the microscope, the researchers can learn about the nerve cells (neurons) that make up the tissue.

Aga produced numerous sketches and prints early in the creative process (Copyright: Aga Tamiola)

Aga produced numerous sketches and prints early in the creative process (Copyright: Aga Tamiola*)

I created a questionnaire to which both current and previous lab members responded, providing illuminating accounts of their work and lives. The conversations, the questionnaires and the slide box that I borrowed from the lab determined the way in which my piece developed.

I often think through drawing and making, and so I started with a series of sketches to get familiar with some of the ideas coming out of the questionnaires. It became clear that a scientific discovery is a joint effort, and that projects often draw heavily on previous discoveries. I made a decision to create a see-through 3D object that would capture the essence of the interconnectedness involved in many research projects.

An Emerging View is made of scaled-up slides with screen-printed images of sections of rat brain. The piece can be looked at from different angles, invoking the importance of looking ‘outside the box’ in research.

An Emerging View: oversized glass slides with images of rat brain sections (Copyright: Aga Tamiola)

An Emerging View: oversized glass slides with images of rat brain sections (Copyright: Aga Tamiola*)

In another artwork, Beyond the Microscope, I chose to highlight the various facets and layers involved in a research project, including the importance of improving the quality of patients’ lives.

I combined representations — photo-collages, prints and drawings — of the physical space of the lab, personal stories of scientists behind the research, and a particular symptom of Parkinson’s called ‘freezing’ where people find that their feet feel stuck to the floor or they freeze while performing other everyday actions.

Scientific imagery can be extremely seductive and I don’t want to fall into the trap of simply re-creating beautiful images and data as I continue to explore science in my work. However, I do aim to participate in interdisciplinary projects that approach ideas in innovative ways.

In the future I hope to make a body of work addressing the HIV epidemic, and am planning to collaborate with epidemiologists, scientists and clinicians, as well as getting in touch with patients, non-governmental organisations and policy-makers to avoid one-sided representations of the issue.

Aga Tamiola

A Nervous Encounter runs at Arts at the Old Fire Station, Oxford from 6–20 October 2012. Find out more about Aga’s work on her website.

 

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