Borked Brain, 2018

Image credits: Photography by Ashley Campbell, Alessio Strano, Lewis Evans and David Blandy, courtesy of the Gurdon Institute and Seventeen Gallery

Experiments in Art & Science
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

An experimental project with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and artists working with the Gurdon Institute to develop projects inspired by scientific research

Scientists collaborated with each artist over a period of several months from Jan to May 2018.

The artists:
David Blandy - worked with the Livesey lab
Rachel Pimm - worked with the Miska lab
Laura Wilson - worked with the Zegerman lab

Curator Harriet Loffler and Scientist & Public Engagement Manager Hélène Doerflinger discuss the project at Kettle's Yard.

Artist David Blandy shares his research:

I have been working with the Livesey Lab at the Gurdon Institute, specifically scientists Alessio Strano, Ashley Campbell and Lewis Evans, observing their visualisations of human brains grown from stem cells, using this research as a way to think about consciousness, identity and technology.

The Lab is primarily looking for ways to understand (and limit) Alzheimer’s Disease, seeking to discover how neurons (brain cells) act and develop differently in a brain being affected by Alzheimer’s and in one which is not. As it is impossible to do these sorts of tests in living subjects, they have to grow the neurons from scratch, using stem cells produced by taking a sample of living tissue (often from the subject’s arm), stripping them of information then “re-programming” the cell to develop as a neuron, through flooding it with particular chemicals in a solution.

This work clearly has huge scientific importance and I have been trying to think about what the work at Livesey Laboratory might mean, in a philosophical and speculative sense. It has also been a process that is self-reflective, thinking about what it might mean to be an embodied subject (a human), looking at something that might have its own consciousness. That has been the rabbit-hole. There still isn’t a satisfactory scientific understanding of what human consciousness actually is. So how do we discover whether this bundle of neurons has something that doesn’t even have a definition? The work became about what the very act of looking at something means, what we choose to look at, and what we choose to understand from that act of looking.

Before meeting with the team, I assumed that the kinds of material that I would be looking for, detailed scans and three dimensional models of neurons, would be commonplace and easy to access at the lab, but in fact the team have had to work really hard to produce new material for me to work with. The detail, especially in the two-dimensional images, is incredible, creating intricate and frankly beautiful pictures. So I have a lot to thank the team for.

The process of collaborating with the Livesey Lab has made me think a lot about the ways that artists and scientists work. Both are lead by close examination of detail, both interested in deconstructing things in order to better understand how they work. But we speak very different languages. I have learnt a great deal from our conversations, both from the scientists’ observations and methodologies, and from our misunderstandings. I hope that maybe the scientists have been able to think about their practice in a new way too.

The Gurdon Institute
Kettle's Yard