Throughout 2017, digital artist Alex May was given unprecedented access to the Crick. He collected, juxtaposed and overlaid hundreds of film clips to create an intriguing glimpse into Europe’s largest biomedical research institute under one roof.
Facing outward towards St Pancras station, the interactive digital installation sensed when it was being closely observed, revealing more about itself as viewers approach it. It focused on three key elements: the scientific research taking place on site, the infrastructure of the landmark building, and the scientists who work inside.
Inside the building, a light installation animating the screens followed the molecular patterns of the yeast genome. Many Crick scientists work with yeast as a model organism, including the Cell Cycle Laboratory, which is headed by the institute’s director Paul Nurse.
The physical artwork was deinstalled in September 2020. Watch the films by Alex May here and read on to learn more about the commission project through a Q&A with the artist.
Flow State videos
Q&A with Alex May
What are the ideas behind Flow State?
Flow State is an interactive video sculpture that was designed to aesthetically communicate a sense of the scale and complexity of the research and development that goes on in the Francis Crick Institute to the public outside of the building.
The shape of the sculpture is based on phylogenetic tree diagrams that are used to show the evolutionary relationships among biological species, and was chosen to reference the fundamental links between all the different types of research within the building and the fragmentation of human knowledge: i.e. we don’t know all the answers so we don’t have a complete picture.
Playing across the screens, there is a main video artwork that is about 15 minutes long. I created it out of imagery generated in a wide range of labs that the public would normally never get to see as they are only used as part of a process for extracting data for further analysis. I liked the idea of including the public in the journey of science, even if it is on an aesthetic level, and not just benefitting from the final results of the work.
As one physically walks towards the sculpture, the internal camera detects your presence, and the videos change and begin showing collages of video I filmed around the building and in the labs. A key message I wanted to convey was that the closer you look, the more information is revealed. This is in reference to processes such as whole genome sequencing, where we can now routinely and quickly decode DNA resulting in massive amounts of ‘big data’, which creates challenges of how to crunch such huge sets of information down to extract new insights.
Finally, I wanted to show the hands of the scientists doing their real day to day activities. To generate and process all the data required for research, people spend an enormous amount of time doing repetitive manual actions such as transferring tiny but accurate amounts of various fluids from one place to another. The scientists who have to do these processes describe entering into a ‘flow state’, which is where the name of the work comes from.
What drives you to create?
In my art practice, I’m fascinated in how digital technologies impact our ability to study the processes of reality and beyond, and how this affects the dynamics and cohesion of society and the recording of culture. I fell in love with programming computers early in my life, and knowing how these systems work gives me an understanding and common language enabling me to work in a wide range of subject areas. Much of science, even biological science, is facilitated or at least augmented by digital systems, so even as an artist I can have a conversation with scientists about their processes because I can understand them on that technical level.
What intrigued you about working with the Crick?
The scale of the institute, the building, and its range of activities presented a huge challenge to get my head around. Generally my experience of art/science projects is that you deep dive into a particular area of research, whereas the Crick covers a lot of different and varied subjects. For me, it was the first time working across the entirety of a large science institution. It was also an amazing opportunity to see around this purpose designed building – I’ve definitely seen more parts of it than most of the people that work there – and experience many of the labs with scientists who were very generous with their time and provided me with the wonderful imagery from their research.
What was your impression on returning to the building in 2017 when it was fully occupied, following your building tour during construction in 2014?
It reminded me of the short film by Charles and Ray Eames called ‘Powers of Ten’ which is about the relative scale of the universe. In it, the camera zooms into the skin of a human hand and doesn’t stop zooming until you see a single atom. During the project, it struck me that a great deal of science revolves around scale: the seeing beyond the physical limitations of our human senses by employing increasingly sophisticated technology to reveal structure and new data that provides new insights and deeper understanding. My original impression of the building was just marvelling at the huge scale and complexity of it. Returning to the Crick when people were working was a journey to the microscopic and beyond. As a whole, the Crick contains both macro and micro systems existing simultaneously. That experience directly informed aspects of the final artwork.
What was it like working with Crick scientists?
There were specific areas of research, especially ones that require extensive equipment like the electron microscope department, where I was able to see the tools that they use to do their work and see the data they produce first hand. It’s informative to see how real science is done and talked about, rather than the sensationalised version in films and TV. In one lab they asked me if they should get the coloured dyes out as people who come to film in their labs usually want images of scientists thoughtfully staring at pretty liquids in test tubes. They were slightly taken aback when I said I wanted to film what they really do all day.
Why do you think it is important that artists and scientists collaborate?
I think that scientists and artists are exploring the same general topics, just with different methodologies. The best art/science collaborations are when the scientist and artist share a common passion for the same subject and are interested in what the others’ perspective is. Artists are highly sensitive to piecing together connections across disciplines and a wider historical context. When in conversation directly with the scientists, an artist can produce works that talk insightfully about and around the subject without losing the complexity of it. I believe even highly technical topics can be understood by anyone if they are presented in the right way.
What do you hope viewers of the installation took away from their experience of it?
I wanted to instil a sense of curiosity as to the nature of the work. I combined the various images and videos that were supplied to me by the labs in the Crick in ways that suggested other natural forms such as fields of flowers and stars in the sky. The intention was to give viewers something they could recognise and latch onto within these complex, abstract, and highly specialised images. From there I hope they would wonder what the parts might actually be, and it is that transition from passive viewer to active questioner that I felt summed up the inherent force behind science, and indeed art: to wonder at existence and try to understand the universe and our place in it.
What was the biggest challenge in creating the artwork?
There were many challenges. The physical form was a complicated jigsaw of unique interlocking parts that I made by hand. Writing the software to synchronize video playback over 28 screens in different dynamic layouts, was a good challenge, too. Probably the biggest was working with an institution as big as the Crick and trying to represent the important work that is taking place there in a respectful way, while balancing my own aesthetic and artistic narratives that developed over the course of working on the project.
Finally, what are you working on now and where else can the public see your work?
I’m working on some exciting EU art/science residencies at the moment. One with the CHIC consortium, who are exploring new plant breeding techniques for chicory as a multipurpose crop. Another is a residency with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna who are working with synthetic biology methods to create new yeast strains with exceptional capabilities to make our lives better while preserving the planet.
Earlier this year I finished a major virtual reality artwork called “A Mirror For Remembering” commissioned by The Amelia Museum in Tunbridge Wells that highlights the challenges around digital preservation. The trailer for the artwork can be seen on the official Oculus Experiences website and there is more information about it on the project website.