Interstitial: an artistic exploration of the complex dynamics of gender in science fields

Interstitial: Science Innovations by Canadian Women was a Curiosity Collider exhibition at the Beaumont Studios, running from June 8 to June 21, 2018. The theme of the exhibition revolved around work by women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), profiling work and achievements by Canadian women in all fields of science. At the core of the pieces from all three artists was an exploration of the complex dynamics of gender in supposedly objective scientific industry. Why are women notoriously underrepresented in STEM fields? In what sense are women accepted into the male-dominated world of professional science? How can we ensure that women get equal opportunity and recognition? Questions like this, and many others, were raised and examined by the three artists.

Ele Willoughby is an ocean-going marine geophysicist by day and printmaker by night. Her work in the exhibition consisted of six portraits, profiling six of Canada’s most decorated and noteworthy women scientists:

Each of these portraits is intended to bridge a gap between the achievements of these women and their place in history. Ele created these elegant portrait prints by carving the images into the negative space of the linolium. This means that the representations are faithful once dipped in ink and stamped. Along with the prints, QR codes provided a more in-depth biography of each woman, to help with Ele’s aim of education through art.

Cheryl Hamilton, who also presented at last month’s Collider Cafe, is a conceptual artist and professional sculptor. The inspiration behind her work comes from a deeply personal place. Her genetic lineage contains a certain gene that greatly inflates the risk of cancer, and she has lost several family members, including siblings, due to this. Cheryl is now the president of Hannah’s Heroes Foundation, a research partnership with scientists at B.C. Children’s Hospital, through which she supports cancer research in B.C.

Her experiences dealing with helplessness, modern medicine, and grief came through in her drawings and paintings. The imagery that she created blends emotion into complex biological structures, inspired by the microscopic scenes viewed by cancer researchers. Her ability to explore her turbulent relationship with these tiny actors so intimately gives us some insight into both the pain of loss, and the beauty of coming to terms with that loss. While Cheryl’s work did focus less on scientific women and more on personal stories, the power in it is undeniable.


 
Paige Blumer is a medical illustrator, and this unique perspective gives her insight into the world of medicine, and medical professionals. Capitalizing on this unusual position as both outsider and insider, Paige used her digital imagery to explore the spaces that women are carving out for themselves, which are often outside the public eye. Just as she is able to exist in her uncommon role as a medical illustrator, Paige’s work shed light on the blossoming variety of positions and opportunities for women within the scientific industry, and the bright future inherent in this.

As an interesting side note, Paige met Katrina, the model for her work, at a previous Collider Cafe, which is a wonderful testament to the opportunities for collaboration between talented, curious individuals in this multidisciplinary unity.
 

 

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank eng.cite and WWEST for their generous support for this exhibition and associated events.

 

Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Chronicles. On coping with devastation through art and creativity

This month’s Collider Cafe showcased another multidisciplinary group of local creatives, each providing their own take on the blending of art and science. As seems to always happen, a theme organically arose from the five presenters. What tonight’s presentations left me with was a more nuanced understanding of the power of creativity and sharing vulnerabilities to help move us through periods of grief. Several of the speakers gave us a glimpse into deeply personal situations, and an idea of how they coped with potential devastation through their art.

The evening’s first presenter was Rachel Rozanski, a visual artist whose work is heavily influenced by her background in science. Her portfolio of photography and drawings examine a strange space where organic and biological components mingle with the inorganic, plastic influence that we have on our environment. The central tenet of her work is to identify and explore the unnatural synthesis between the natural world and the impact of industry. Within her presentation was work from several series, mostly based around field work that she had undertaken in different locales. One collection, inspired by work in Iceland, depicted various sea creatures gathered from tide pools, their decay, and the damage done to them by plastics in the ocean. Another, from an Artist in Residence stint in Nunavut while studying the impact of invasive species, explored the impact of pollution on even the most isolated areas. Overall, Rachel’s art exhibits a stylistic similarity to scientific illustration, but with an alien, slightly dystopian, alternate biological timeline as its subject matter.

Next up was Armin Mortazavi, a science cartoonist, who uses cartooning as a means of both education and introspection. Armin began his presentation discussing his own struggles with depression and anxiety, as well as the difficulty of initiating and maintaining a creative work ethic. He described the importance of balancing optimism and pessimism in the creative process, and the value that comes from doing and sharing work, as opposed to relentless self-criticism and editing. After this, he recounted his experiences producing several educational comic strips for school children. The first two comics were successful, helping kids learn about the importance of sleep and mental health, respectively. Armin’s main anecdote revolved around the creation of his third comic, about nutrition. While he was supposed to be developing his pitch for it, he suffered a broken ankle, and the loss of his grandmother. In this time of grief and helplessness, he found inspiration in his grandmother’s courage and self-confidence, which she has used as an Iranian immigrating to France. The drive to, as Armin put it, “actually do sh**,” led to his developing a completely interactive, cross-cultural, pirate-themed nutritional education game, which wowed the children and adults who experienced it.

Cheryl’s work inspired by p53 genetic mutation and Li-Fraumeni syndrome

Our third presenter of the evening was Cheryl Hamilton, a conceptual artist and professional sculptor. She expounded on the impact that an extremely rare syndrome caused by the mutation p53 gene, called ‘Li-Fraumeni,’ had had on her family, and how she used drawing to come to terms with the consequences of this mutation. Li-Fraumeni puts carriers at an extremely high risk of cancer, up to 90% by the age of 60. Cheryl’s family had been devastated by this mutation, and she coped with the loss through drawing, or as she calls it, ‘dreaming while awake.’ After losing her brother while he was just a child, her sister while in her 30’s, and her young niece, Cheryl, who luckily does not carry the mutation, became deeply involved with ‘Hannah’s Heroes,’ her sister’s research partnership with scientists at B.C. Children’s Hospital. They raised money to purchase equipment for imaging glial (brain) cells, and these images are the foundation of Cheryl’s work. Each drawing is an artistic study of the various emotional relationships that she experienced during her sister’s battle with cancer. The work explored aspects of neuroanatomy, such as the brain stem, frontal cortex, and even individual strands of DNA. One of the most powerful pieces came from Cheryl’s working through the discovery that she was a bone marrow match with her sister, and the fundamental bond that these transplants created between the two of them.

Following Cheryl was Marlene Swidzinski, a comedian, humorist, and technical writer/editor. Her talk flowed organically and expansively, touching on many subjects throughout her life, education and career. She began with her youth in Saskatchewan, going to ‘bush parties’ in the Duck Mountains. This early exposure to rugged terrain instilled a geological interest throughout her early life. In university, she began to wonder about life’s big questions, explored through her degree in philosophy. This led into several writing projects, including science fiction work, several published papers on the history of science, and work on ontogeny versus phylogeny, during her pregnancy. Her combination of writing aptitude and scientific knowledge led her into a career as a technical writer, along with her stand-up comedy pursuits. Marlene’s comedy plays with fluid language concepts that link the mechanical world of science and engineering, with the lust and sexuality of human bodies. She concluded by showing a video of one of her jokes, a sexually-driven bit about Schrodinger’s Cat and quantum mechanics.

The final presentation of the evening was a personal story told by Kayla Glynn, a science communicator and researcher, who is involved with Story Collider, an organization that holds story-telling events. Kayla’s story was about the journey through an unusual but excruciating back pain problem. She walked us through the first occurrence of it, as well as the physical and mental drain of ongoing back problems. Tied up within her story were several misdiagnoses, including for an incredibly rare spinal fusion disorder. Throughout this painful, disillusioning process, Kayla fortified herself mentally, always prepared for another terrifying misdiagnosis. When her condition was finally nailed down, as fibromyalgia, she found little relief in having a label for her pain, and her anxiety settled in. Now, older people slap her on the back, telling her that she doesn’t know real pain, or call her a hypochondriac, while she frequently has to turn down the opportunity to surf or hike with her friends. Kayla left us, and closed the evening of presentation’s, with one final question: who else around us is suffering silently?

Thanks to Cafe Deux Soleils for once again hosting Collider Cafe! Collider Cafe will be back in September to bring you more mingling of art and science.

Quantum Futures: an artistic journey into the realm of quantum mechanics

Quantum Futures, hosted by Curiosity Collider at Museum of Anthropology with support from UBC Physics and Astronomy, and the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute, took us on an artistic journey into the counterintuitive realm of quantum mechanics. Before the evening’s main show, guests were encouraged to explore and experience the audio-visual performances, and scientific and virtual reality demonstrations.

At the entrance of the Museum of Anthropology, Matt Horrigan created an audio-visual performance, based around his understanding of the study of quantum physics as an art of subtraction. His piece came to life by excluding more and more elements from the viewer/listener’s perceptual field, until only its generic components remained. By examining and analyzing the interactions of the foundational sounds and images, the piece offered a glimpse into the axiomatic structures of the universe.

Niel McLaren‘s virtual reality experience was a play on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory posits that there are multiple alternate realities, possibly even an infinite number. In Niel’s work, we were transported to a parallel universe where we can question our idea of reality. What possibilities could alternate timelines hold? What makes our universe more real than others? What makes the physical universe more real than a digital one? These are the kind of provocative questions that this incredibly immersive technology will help us discuss in the future.

Virtual Reality Experience via Niel Mclaren

Curiosity Collider also worked closely with physicists from the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute, to develop hands-on activities that engaged people’s creativity, in order to engage them in discussions about the quantum world. Attendees learned the symbolic language that physicists use to describe the behaviour of subatomic particles, and were taken through a guided activity to learn how quantum materials are constructed. The guiding physicists presided over the activities, while answering any questions that the attendees had about the weirdness of the quantum world.

Within the Great Hall of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, we were treated to an evening of performances involving spoken word, projection sculpture, and dance, all of which confronted the border between our humanity and quantum peculiarity. The evening’s first performance involved the spoken word poetry of Angelica Poversky. Her three poems, all presented with great enthusiasm and energy, brought personality and relatability to the nano-scale of the subject matter. Angelica’s first poem, called ‘Strands,’ was a look into the invisible threads that influence our behaviour and interactions, and help to create the personal, subjective worlds that we each experience. Within her exploration of both the infinite and infinitesimal, she ended with a call for community and humanity between us all. This was followed up by her second poem, which gave a look at love through a quantum lens. In the contradictory feelings that we experience when lovestruck, a metaphor with the superposition of particles was formed. Capturing the ‘definite indecision,’ of our brains ‘on love,’ we got a chance to imagine how we can dive head first into the indeterminacy, and find meaning and peace in the uncertainty. Her reading concluded with ‘Stillness,’ a reflection on the role of observation and meditation. We are constantly trying to comprehend and analyze, yearning for the ‘tiny floating answers we seek.’ This final poem was a plea to both the acknowledgment of the things that we can’t know, as well as how our observations help to shape reality.

Next up was Kathryn Wadel, and her projection sculpture, entitled ‘Particle Wave.’ This piece was based on research that she had undertaken at TRIUMF, Canada’s premier particle accelerator, located just off the UBC campus. Her intention behind the work was to explore light as a medium for particle detection in physics, and for illumination in all contexts. In the 8 minute and 20 second video, which is the exact time required for a photon to travel from the sun to Earth, the viewer begins situated on a train car, traveling backwards as the tracks and platform recede. Throughout the increasingly psychedelic journey, the train tunnels warp into particle colliders, as we take on the photon’s eye view of its path through an accelerator. Accompanied by the ominous, electronic drone of the soundtrack, this projection sculpture created a hypnotic effect, along with feelings of timelessness.

The final performance of the night was a contemporary dance act, choreographed by Lesley Telford (Inverso Productions), and inspired by the mysterious phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Beginning with a tableau featuring the six dancers, movement, as well as interconnection and feedback between them, initiated slowly. This swell of ballistic movement brought the dancers to life, and they were soon flying back and forth across the performance space, in complexly connected patterns. As the dance moved through periods of chaos and grace, the stage was occupied by varying combinations of soloists, pairs, and groups, each with a unique bond within a pattern of entanglement. With a narrative structure driven by a voiceover monologue, we lived out the struggle of a quantumly entangled pair, exploring their strange connection, as well as the meaninglessness of time brought on by entanglement.

As a whole, the evening was a fascinating look at the many wonderful aspects of quantum mechanics, with great insight into how we can integrate them into our own lives and experiences. Thanks to the UBC Museum of Anthropology for hosting the event, and for all of the contributions from the artists and scientists alike.

Project Highlight – Eclipse Metacycles

Curiosity Collider - Eclipse Total Alignment - Niel McLaren

Niel McLaren is a creative technologist based in Vancouver, BC. With a background in Computer Science and Psychology, he explores topics like distortion of time and space, geometry in nature, and how technology changes human interaction. His artwork often takes the form of interactive animations, video projections, and light sculptures and has been displayed in Your Kontinent Festival, the HR MacMillan Space Centre Planetarium, and Integrate Arts Festival. He was awarded Best in Innovation at the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire in 2016.

For our event Eclipse: Total Alignment in 2017, Niel created a couple spinning tops with which you can use to create your own alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. 

Niel also runs the Vancouver Creative Technology meetup and taught creative coding for a youth mentorship program for emerging artists at VIVO Media Arts Centre and Tangible Interaction. You can follow Niel on instagram and see what other projects he has been working on.

Feature image by Alina Sotskova (Voirelia.com).