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The Social Life of Cells: Lockdown creativity during scientific engagement projects

With a background in biosciences and currently studying an MA in Art and Science at the University of Arts London, Himarni is part of the Assemblage Collective writing group and active in creative projects. Her personal work spans weaving, acrylic painting, photography and collage poetry. 

We worked together on the first issue of the Assemblage Collective zine, where she had the great idea of collaborating by circulating a set of images and text to each project member in turn, to ensure everyone had their input. 

Loosely based around a Q&A, we discussed her projects in representing science, how she’s been keeping busy and what she’s looking forward to in the coming months – both within the Collective and in her free time. 

Her current work: 

At the moment, Himarni is developing a ‘cellular architectures’ project which arose partly in response to an interdisciplinary science workshop development project she participated in with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to make research into the Shigella bacteria more accessible. It is a water-borne bacteria responsible for ‘travellers diarrhea’ but can be fatal in children under 5 living in parts of Africa and Asia. Cases have also been detected in Flint, Michigan.

The theory is relatively new and still uncertain around one particular way that the immune system detects and battles this bacteria, but current ideas based on microscopy suggests that a sparse web of nanometre scale septin filaments (part of the cell’s ‘skeleton’ and can be imagined as short protein threads) surrounds the bacteria – caging and sequestering them, preventing them moving around within or between cells to cause further harm.   

 To fulfil this role, these filaments are believed to somehow detect the shapes in their environment such as the characteristic physical features of this dangerous bacteria.

Shigellosis, drug-resistant intestinal illness, spreading ...
Shigella bacteria. Image credit: CNBC.com

When representing its form, she wanted to think outside of the box – while others also represented septin filaments with thread, she wanted to consider the subsequent steps by which these features can sense shape, by thinking of how it intersects the bacterial form and exploring what can be deduced from these tangents. She modelled this using a variety of simple shapes intersecting an observation tool made of a string net representation of a ‘septin cage’.

One of the symbols was of a classical pillar which, due to its symmetry, is a fairly ‘predictable’ shape compared to the helical shapes common to proteins which make up the biological architecture. 

This response was part of a board game making workshop her group designed for children to make a Shigella using materials found in the household, and she used string and a tissue box, which she said pushed her to think more creatively in how to represent science. 

Art as engagement:

During the Zoom workshop with the children those of younger ages were able to understand the basics of an immune response to the bacteria, and children developed maze-like games modelling the gut environment, or catapult games where the immune system takes aim at its adversaries. She said that the game format is a good way of modelling a biological environment, which is ‘like a multiplayer game’ with bacteria and various other types of cell. 

Whereas microscope images and film of cells are more predetermined because they take place over a certain time frame, a game introduces chance and various circumstances, a bit like the Game of Life  which models cell survival in different environments. 

The lab scientists they interviewed discussed Shigella ‘sociology’ and how different strains of the bacteria interact, as they don’t seem to recognise that they are ‘the same’: ‘they’ll avoid each other and try to kill each other if they can’.

The research aims to make understanding of immunology accessible to secondary school aged children through interactivity. 

How do you feel that art intersects with science in research like this?

Commenting on how her degree topic spans both disciplines, Himarni said that the choice of Masters programme was a ‘bridging’ subject, since she wouldn’t have been able to study an MA In Fine Art immediately after a biosciences degree, but ‘why not find your own niche’

She also mentioned that art and science used to be far more closely linked, for instance in the Vedic scriptures, ancient Hindu texts, science (physics, medicine, and architecture among others) and spirituality were intertwined.

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Image credit: chakranews.com

The ‘fragmentation’ of the two subjects was due to a ‘Western colonial way of categorising thought’.

How do you find working at home digitally is affecting your creativity and the way you work?

She described the ‘moment of realisation’ that the ‘transition to peach-coloured Golden Hour’ inspired creativity and energy, and the links between getting Vitamin D and motivation, especially as someone of colour. 

For two or three years she had struggled with working digitally and using social media, instead sourcing opportunities and exhibitions through her university, but noted that she felt she was missing out on ‘resources that are networked within communities’.

She mentioned Nearest Neighbour theory, which I hadn’t heard of before, which is the basis of an algorithm such as Spotify making predictions based on proximity of ‘taste’ – i.e. suggesting the music that people with the most similar music preferences to you are listening to even if they are on the other side of the world.

No longer having to commute, she has regained many hours and is channeling them into creative projects. She has also benefited from having more time to absorb the learning from her degree, and created an Instagram account during the first lockdown. She has found that following her community is a more ‘cohesive’ way of understanding information – by interest rather than motivated by the commercial projects at university. 

Do you feel that your work has changed over lockdown?

She noted the importance of the working environment on her creativity and the link to aesthetics. Being from Sri Lanka, time spent there would feel very close to the climate, birds, trees and provided a well of inspiration. However, during lockdown, being away from London and gentrified public space designed from within capitalist and patriarchal hierarchy, and within the ‘feminine’ domestic space where she can select her influences and environment, has allowed her to be much more focussed on her true interests and priorities, away from loud distractions and directives. 

What kind of work do you hope to make over the next few months, and into the summer? Do you have any particular plans or projects?

Himarni’s interest in architecture extends from cells to the city – and she mentions that she has recently become more interested in the social role of architects. 

When thinking about potentially returning to an office environment, she reflects that many buildings she has worked in have been badly designed – basements with no natural light, and that post-pandemic, workers will have to be ‘seduced’ back into a workplace (quoting Michele Ogundehin, who presents our shared guilty pleasure TV show, Interior Design Masters). 

It may be that we start to see what Himarni calls ‘diverse microenvironments’ – sections within a shared space for example with seating pods, which can assist those who desire more privacy in a communal space. 

Her research proposal for her dissertation will centre around how architecture can draw upon cell biology – from structure and specialised functions of cells to the circulatory systems they provide the structure for. 

How do you feel about spring, does it inspire you?

Living in suburban Epsom, Himarni has been influenced by nature from growing up close to green spaces which is ‘part of [her] style’.

Her local area is closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites who emphasized the importance of working in nature to capture hyper-detailed  realist imagery. On her way to school she would pass Hogsmill River, where John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-2) was painted – though the exact section which appears in the painting is near Tolworth, so slightly further away.  

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Image credit: Theculturetrip.com

We can see from her work that nature during Spring and Summer is an inspiration:

In this collage for an Assemblage collaboration with Anita and Tascha, she was inspired by the contrast between the suburbs and the city – where life is more ‘mediated’, meaning more impacted by the role of the media. 

Having attended a lecture from MST Futurism, an Indigenous group of three tribes (Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nation) currently living on land occupied by Vancouver, they have used traditional craft methods for activism to protest the city being settled and the increased pollution. 

They use a ‘blanketing’ approach to set the stage for discussion, by spreading woven blankets across the floor to gather upon as a process of establishing a safe, sacred community space, and highlighting the traditional role of scientific and cultural practices in weaving. 

Image credit: @mstfuturism on Instagram.

Caption text:

Introducing panelist, master weaver and traditionalist Angela George @anggeorge_weaver (qʷənat, sits’sáts’tenat) Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw & səl̓ilwətaɁɬ

[View the full caption with the original post]

The group also ‘wallpapered’ over buildings (in a way that reflects the values of the blanketing tradition) in the city as an intervention to protect sacred and cultural space. 

In Himarni’s work, she also draws upon tradition such as in this appliqué using her grandmother’s fabric, and in loom weaving. 

Some of last year’s work include acrylic painting from her home and garden, when she thought of people alone with houseplants: ‘the only living being you see is a houseplant’.

This collage of photos from Sri Lanka  is inspired by the book Brixton Beach, by Roma Tearne. The author is Singhalese and Tamil and grew up in the UK. Himarni recognised some of the settings from a beach on the West coast of Sri Lanka familiar to both the author and her, and wanted to replicate some of the ideas from Roma’s other work, as a fine artist. 

Centering around semi-autobiographical themes of being from a diaspora community, Himarni described the process of the novel’s character Alice collecting washed up items from a beach and using the driftwood to make a box. Inside the box she housed a shell, but the box could not be opened – as an expression of a part of herself that she cannot access after migrating.

And finally, how has being in a collective impacted on your work? What are you most looking forward to working on next?

Having really enjoyed working on the zines for their collaborative nature, and with Tascha and Anita for the poetry pieces she feels excited to continue working on the upcoming projects. 

She particularly admires Charlotte’s work, which is ‘embedded in nature’, but is grateful to Tascha for founding the collective as a safe space, valuing her inclusive attitude and adding that she’s a ‘good energy person’. 

Further, the opportunity to learn about herself and explore new ideas has been good for her creatively, such as the dreams project for the Reconnection zine where her group explores the politics of dreams and how some dreams can be an intense emotional experience. 

She doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to do group work on her course, because for academic study people have often been working on and researching themes for years, so areas of interest don’t always cross over.  

We look forward to working on the exhibition together, and perhaps incorporating some more nature-based practice and workshops to the Collective’s projects!

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Josie lives near Durham and has a degree in French and Classics. She is currently working in admin but really enjoys contemporary art exhibitions and also ‘Modern’ art more broadly. She particularly enjoys Surrealism and the Avant Garde, but also likes sculpture and performance art in a wider sense.