Illuminating the Self
One of the wonderful things and one of the curses of being an artist is that you can't stop noticing things. Every day I'm feeding it. My brain. All of these billions of neurons, all the synapses are working away on this problem that I have of coming up with some piece of work in a year and a half that cements my experience of being exposed to this project and its technologies. You get led by your sensibility and that's what's exciting. It's a really interesting thing isn't it? I'm relying on something that I have no control of to come up with the solutions. But know that from past experience it will.
It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of people, a lot of experimenting. I'm not even sure I can pull it off. (laughs) The CANDO project came out of an attempt to try to develop a new treatment for epilepsy. A combined gene therapy and brain implant that would allow suppression of seizure activity in that part of the brain without damaging its function.
The technology is based on making brain cells respond to light. Now normally obviously brain cells don't respond to light but we can use a gene therapy. We can make those brain cells express an opsin which is the same protein that's in your eye. And now we can get them to respond to light. So we need to engineer a brain implant that will deliver light stimulation. And the principle is that as the brain activity becomes abnormal, as you begin to start to go into a seizure, the device is recording that activity, the light will come on and that will serve to silence the neuronal population and hopefully suppress the seizure before it goes into a full seizure for the patient.
Andrew and Susan have spent some time embedded with the project having conversations with researchers and clinicians in the team and really the artwork is their own response to the conversations they've had and the information that they've found. And it's been very interesting for us to see the ways that they've taken those scientific themes and developed them into something that whilst well sort of relating to that has really taken the work in in new directions. We're incredibly early on. I mean we've, you know, my view with, the practical work has
started in terms of research. You know almost it's like not just exploring the optogenetics. It's exploring another topic where something, some word or some idea or some process might think "Oh that overlaps. What if I mix those two things up?" This is at St Thomas's hospital watching an epileptic patient having a EEG scan and then, when I was watching the EEGs they began to go a bit rogue. And this was when the sort of peaks of the epilepsy were beginning to happen. So this is what I would call sort of money in the bank because I don't know how I'm going to use any of this. I don't know if I will use any of it but I can feel a rhythm. Maybe this will feed into the soundtrack for my work. I don't know. I can just,
there's something about this that feels very real. It's really interesting, I have lovely days where I'm, or maybe a couple of hours, where just the blank piece of paper and your brain and your thinking, you just spill things out. And I like to work loosely because then I can have all sorts of sheets kind of around me, kind of working things. This was kind of just drawing
the kind of light maybe going into some hole or lacuna in the, in the brain and lighting it up. These are photographs from George Armstrong's collection of electrical activity and they are just unbelievably beautiful. You know for a printmaker it's like being given a pot of gold. Look at that! So I think about epilepsy maybe this is a sort of visualization of epilepsy. I will think about how I can translate and transform but I want it to have a scientific authenticity on some level. And also I have to have a human story. So I don't know where I'm going with it all.
All I know is that these are marvellous bits of research and that I'm very excited by them. Yeah, collections of things of stencils and ways of working. Things of putting things together. Some of them I'm going to repaint onto. This is a piece from another project. This is, you can see here that there's nodes. This is the lymphatic system. I was working with a lymphatic system on a piece. But maybe for this I'd have to
work for the nervous system or the, and the connections in the brain in some kind of way. I'm starting to organize a very complicated installation which is going to involve 100 people embroidering and 100 people with epilepsy giving their testimonies about their condition and how they live with it. This is my list of clothes where how many items of each sort of clothing. So I've got 40 petticoats. This is my ingredients. 20 night dresses, eight pairs of big knickers, five skirts, eleven shirts and blouses, two pairs of trousers and one apron. I wanted this correlation between the testimonies from 100 people and 100 pieces of clothing and then I would find 100 artists to embroider onto the clothing. So it has the touch of lots of different people.
I started working with luminescent paints. Then I thought, well how do you light them? How do you operate? And I went on Amazon and bought a UV black light to make it work. And I don't know if you can see this. It flashes every so often. That's what I like. You know you go on Amazon, you buy something
and then you see oh it's affected by sound. Maybe the light comes on and you see the image when you hum and continuously have to hum one particular note. Ooh I quite like that. You see it's like that, that kind of thing. That might be, that might be really interesting. So for one work it's, it's only there if you are making a noise in a gallery where you'd normally be respectful and maybe have to be quiet. That's yeah, that's something. Yeah, kind of like that. I've just had an idea that I want to see if it will work but I have to get all the elements together to see if it's possible. The kinetic element of the sculpture will be not only
the movement but also when the lights come on it will be a transformative piece of work. It will go from being 100 pieces of clothing with embroidery on them to 100 ghostly pieces of clothing. I don't know if it's going to work or not. Something will come of it, something beautiful will come of it because the ingredients are so good. I mean you can't,
you can't, I can't make this go wrong but it might not be what I think it's going to be. It's about having an idea or having an object or producing an object in the world that's like a thinking point or almost it's like a way of describing 'I am thinking about this topic in this kind of way and will you as an audience join me in this conversation?' And what, and being kind of open to that significance and finding that thing. But it's a very, it's a very difficult thing and I find it extraordinary I have the audacity to think that I as an individual can do that. But that's what I've done for 30 years I suppose. Put, pitched things into the world's ideas. The ideas of what is being done at the forefront of science are really ideas that do cut to the heart of questions that artists have for a long time been very interested in. What's going on in the brain? What is this sort of first person perspective on the world that is produced by effectively the coordinated activity of large numbers of brain cells inside your skull? So hopefully this will provide a space for many more interesting and illuminating conversations to come out of this project.
Having an artistic insight into a project and taking an artistic view can actually be really informative. As scientists you tend to be very involved in the science and all the technical details and you can sometimes forget the bigger picture. I've set up and started on a four projector video piece that reflects the ideas and the things that I've kind of embodied. So what I've been trying to do is make a response. In a way a kind of embodied response to the things that I've seen and heard and then making something visual.
Time is pushing on really and after all of the kind of research phase, it's, it's really, I need to kind of make work. I mean traditionally a lot of the video pieces that I've made can take a year to produce and now I've kind of got maybe six months to make one. I've been buying a whole sets of kind of things that do active things. Sensors and things that kind of make lights of different
formats. Some of them will fall by the way. They they won't work as pieces and that's fine. As long as I can get three or four things come out of it that operate. I'll be, I'll be pleased. These are first and second year BA students at the Royal School of Needlework who are as part of their course embroidering the testimonies of people with epilepsy onto pieces of Victorian underwear. I wanted the testimonies to be sewn because I felt they would have a very individual personal quality. And I wanted them to be sewn on underwear because underwear is hidden underneath your clothing. Or its night dresses that are worn in bed when you're not seen by other people. And epilepsy is something that is a lot of stigma. It's very hidden. So the idea that these words,
these testimonies are being brought out into the light is very important. I want each garment to be a unique artwork really, and a unique testimony. Both by the embroiderer, by the person who wrote it and on the piece of fabric that's been worn by someone over many years. They have a history. They have a soul. And it's about them all being together. I want them to look human.
Hopefully I've got over a big milestone which was basically kind of getting the first and second edit of the video out. The videos are constructed from a series of images that are then converted into kind of a black and white outline image. There's scenes of landscapes. The landscape of the brain and an external landscape. A landscape, a kind of bucolic, a beautiful landscape that's then kind of slightly damaged or something happens and then there's a kind of correction. There should be this one large video in the Hatton Gallery shown continuously in a loop and some kind of sculptures in the background might be set off by sensors. The notion is that people in the gallery will not know where the sensors are and not be able to work with them because the sensors are going to go dormant for quite a while. So they might go dormant for five or ten minutes.
We also have some weather balloons that I've been drawing on. Again that they will be in a sort of state of stasis, of settleness, that will then be disrupted by a fan going on and one of them blowing up, going off, and then settling back to kind of normal. When the fan goes off, I really like the kind of silence of it and then the drifting is so like the video and this, this sense of slow dissolve that that's maybe more of what I should be talking about in the work. This kind of coming back to normal. This hiatus of an epileptic attack almost happening and then it all coming back to normal. Yeah I suppose the most enjoyable bit is when you see a quality in the work that has a kind of magic about it. You've kind of realized something and often it's a kind of
thing that you don't know quite will work and then it does something that you didn't quite expect. What I first think of is never what it ends up as. So it changes in the making. And for me the making process is the real creative stuff. Every object that I use has to have this sort of meaning and resonance. I care incredibly about the look of something, the way it works, the ingredients, what
I've made it on. And so if any of those elements aren't right I would be very unhappy to show it. I'm ironing some rather beautiful Victorian night dresses, under clothes and christening robes. This is a Victorian all-in-one with bloomers and the rather special thing about this is, yes they are bloomers, but they are crotchless. So, um, these are the fascinating insights you get into people's intimate lives in Victorian times.
(hammering noises) I rushed out of the studio and I've locked the keys in the studio. It's changed over to being a performance artist. This is not my studio. I've got this list of other artist studios. I just break in and use them for the day when they're away. Well I'm just setting up the big projection piece Blue Matter. It'll be a bit longer
in the gallery but it gives an approximation. I wanted something that suggested a forest and I kind of always, kind of applying myself to kind of local things as well. And I was thinking of what I see in the forest. So I wanted this notion of the neurons picture to become this arbor. This place, this forest, in a way. It was a lot of work and now I've seen it a few times I can't see it anew. I kind of think in general it's good and I think when the other pieces are on in the space and bring the space together, particularly the laser piece. So these are all the, uh, well the three modified lasers that go inside.
So the lasers will go on and off with the sensor and they'll all come on. Three, two, one. I think, I think it's quite interesting how the laser brings the whole space into play. You know,
all of the walls and it will go round the columns and everything. And then there'll be the other two tubes with different things happening in them as well. It could be that the pieces is projected through it in part. I'm just not sure yet. I think it's a matter of kind of um, you know working it all out.
I've got all the embroidery done. Got the team together. Got Alan over there working on the electronics. Will built this frame and made all the spools for the clothing to hang off and now it's a matter of putting it all together. Making sure it works, getting the choreography going. Each row has five sets of clothing on, so 10 pulleys, and each row has a motor. The motors bring it to life in a very particular way. A slow motor has a very sad sound to it, a very deep sound, and a faster one begins to sound like a, must feel like the motion of breathing in and out. And that's what I want the main rhythm of it to be. I suppose it's three, three breaths in,
three breaths out so that the audience when they're watching it will somehow breathe with the installation and feel more sort of connected to it. As a still piece it will be beautiful to look at but then suddenly they'll start hearing the noise of the motors and the sort of movement of the clothes start up and I think, and the lights will come on and off at that time too. So I think it will suddenly build up to a crescendo and then the idea is it to synchronize and have a sort of seizure and then it will just stop. These sort of projects, although it's technically my work and
my idea, only come together through a huge amount of collaboration. Everybody who comes to work on the project gets sort of drawn into it and gets to talk about epilepsy. You know I think that's one of the things that even amongst the group is that you know we've discovered we've all got family members or we know somebody with epilepsy and it brings you very, very close to the subject. There's a lot of things that come into play in making a show. There's the ideas and the
making work and there's the content of it and then the space in which it's going to go in, and what does that bring to the pieces of work? I'm showing in this room which is prints and Andrew's showing his installation in the dark room next to us. I'm going to tailor the works to the space really and it's fantastic that, you know, been offered this chance at Vane to show and to do it in this way. I wanted to work in cyanotype, one because I like to learn a new technique but mainly because I wanted to reflect the project which was about blue light and it was about light changing something. I
spent a long time with three people with epilepsy. I'm not a portrait painter, I didn't want to just either photograph them or paint them, but I wanted to try and capture something of the problems of living with epilepsy within the portraits. In 2015 Andrew and I were commissioned outside of this project to make some joint work about optogenetics. It was a kind of exciting collaboration where I brought some ideas to the situation and she brought some ideas and playing with the ideas about the intrusion, the taking in of the opsin into the cells via a virus, via a viral vector, and then how that would be stimulated by shutting down particular cells. They represent, I think, both of our methods of working in a peculiar way. I mean, I think you could look at them and see them as
Andrew's but not quite, and you can look at them and see them as my work but not quite. And I think the success came through the collaboration. At Vane the principles and what it's about are kind of all the same. They're about the optogenetics project. This way of potentially altering and controlling epilepsy through light and affecting neurons in the brain and calming them down basically. A lot of the work is interactive and that's been the main part of it about the notion of works being sensed and then switching on and switching off or things happening. A lot of the work has been and come out of, that kind of,
the experience of having been, you know, being embodied in the research for three years. The work is site-specific in the sense that the gallery space is incredibly important. It's the most complicated installation I've ever done and it's the most exciting piece of work I've ever done. It's like a sea of brain activity. It's big, it's dynamic and slightly religious really, sort of awe-inspiring. The clothes are embroidered so they have a long narrative going down the front and this one has beautiful threads hanging down.
So on the front a whole story and on the back just one word and this one says bruised. They're very powerful the one words because I think sometimes you can say so much in one word. We've had the most amazing installation team here at Hatton who have worked flat out to make it work. I'm moved and overwhelmed by the fact that although it, you know, I've got my name to it. It's my work. But the honest truth is that I'm dependent on a lot of other very talented people
to bring it together for which I'm enormously grateful. I've been thinking about what I want the audience to take away from it and I think that art unlike medicine can't cure people. It can open up people's minds to things. So there's two things I want from the installation. One is for people maybe to have a better understanding of the
experience of living with epilepsy. But also I want the artwork, it's so monumental and it's so dramatic, that I want them to be, have a sense of awe about it really and maybe through that reaction to the artwork to then come to think about what the artwork's about and to think about your brain really and how important it is to you and what an awesome object that is. Here at the Hatton we seem to be doing very well. Technicians are on the job, the screens are finalized and the projection just to finalize today. Quite a lot of the pieces I've not had up
fully or they've been partially up and now it's like putting them up properly. So in terms of, you know, how I envisage the show and how it's come out, I remember now in the early drawings I had these, these big images of trees and I'd forgotten about them. But the trees have still come back into the work and I think it's quite strange how it's come back to how I envisaged it.
Blue Matter's a large scale video piece projected onto two layers of black voile and a white screen at the background. So it has this kind of strange and eerie spatial effect of kind of falling into a kind of world of being mesmerized. Where I live in Winchester and in the surrounding areas there's a lot of mistletoe and I kind of thought they were analogous to this kind of epileptic centre, this focal epilepsy in the brain and they reminded me of a kind of, something going awry.
Scientists in a way never have a way of getting in our brains. We haven't fully conquered that and one of the ways that we do have of envisaging the brain or what we're like or how we think and how we associate things is through artistic practice. We can make pictures of that that we see. That we might understand and I think that's kind of a really interesting aspect of the work. In the space nobody knows quite where the sensors are that switch things on and off.
So there's a sense of, kind of, mystery about, kind of understanding that relationship to the sensor that will be in people's brains. Of not really understanding what goes on and when it goes on because the algorithm is set by a group of scientists outside them. I'm kind of interested in that whole kind of dilemma or point of interest. I think when I presented my ideas to the scientists and they all went yeah fantastic go ahead with it, I hadn't really thought it through if I'm honest. And it's only in these latter stages that I realize quite what I've taken on. And that's why without this fantastic collaboration I've had with everybody it would never be what it is now.
It represents in a way the science because the clothing is moving, it becomes more synchronized. The whole thing starts to move and then the blue light comes on and everything is settled and it kind of is supposed to represent the sort of build-up of activity in the brain and the onset of a seizure that is then controlled by the light coming on. I think Andrew's work is particularly relevant and interesting to this project because he's interested in notions of hybridity about what happens to the self when we think of biological and medical processes that perhaps add or remove parts of the body, play around with what we normally consider to be the boundaries of the self. I also particularly like the interactive nature of his artworks and that really reflects the idea that the CANDO implant that we're developing is in a way communicating in both directions with the brain, sensing patterns of activity in the brain and then delivering light back to the brain to change that to what we often call a closed loop interaction between the brain and the implant. This is probably the first time that I've brought the human experience together with the science in a very poetic and a very intellectual way. So I'm hoping that that integrity will show through the work. It's really allowed me the way it's worked to be
very playful. That playing with stuff, that's what the Wellcome funding for this and the engagement money has really allowed. Time and effort into that. And of course, really appreciated the time and effort of the scientists to give up their time for us to be in their labs and to talk to them and to work with them. It's just amazing really. It's been a real focus, a very good focus. It's very complementary to have Susan's work with the kind of more of the personal experience from the point of view of patients and then Andrew's work which is kind of looking more at the technology and the implications of that technology. And so I think they
complement each other very nicely and I think they're very, very impressive pieces of work. you