How poets and filmmakers construe complexity at the Crick Institute

Philip Ball tours a cross-disciplinary exhibition exploring patterns in bioscience.

The cells of a nematode worm (Caenorhabditis elegans) transform from symmetrical to asymmetrical.Credit: The Goehring Lab

Deconstructing Patterns Francis Crick Institute, London. Until 1 December.

In 2016, a steel-and-glass spaceship landed next to St Pancras railway station, London’s gateway to Europe. From the start, the biomedical powerhouse that is the Francis Crick Institute set out to put its stamp on a district already home to University College London, the Wellcome Trust and Nature. But how to carve out a cultural niche in an area buzzing with scientific and artistic activity?

Deconstructing Patterns is part of that endeavour. This collaboration between the Crick’s scientists, established artists and young people from a community arts programme has created works inspired by what’s going on in the institute’s labs. As curator Bryony Benge-Abbott told me, the theme of patterns was chosen because a quest for order and regularity underlies the Crick’s research into various extremely complex systems. These range from genome-sequence analysis to Drosophila neurology and the development of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

It’s not clear how much of that comes across in the exhibits. A discussion of, say, the role of transcription factors or forces in myosin–actin networks in guiding development presents a communication challenge, no matter how beautifully illustrated with micrographs of stained cells. But the displays’ pedagogical ambitions are also undermined for the right reason: artists have other agendas. However laudable the efforts to suggest that artists and scientists share a goal of making sense of life’s complexity, this exhibition reveals that they ask different questions and find different answers.

Stills from a film about the development of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, by artist Helen Pynor.Credit: Helen Pynor

This is most evident in the collaboration between the C. elegans team in the Polarity and Patterning Networks Laboratory, led by Nate Goehring, and young filmmakers from the 1A Arts project. This partnership began last year with a one-day workshop in which the scientists shared their work with a group of teenagers aged 14 to 17, some without a science background. “Our aim was to get them thinking about how animals develop, and expose them to some key concepts,” says Goehring. “That is, symmetry and asymmetry, the importance of breaking symmetry to generate different types of cell and specifying geometric axes, the need to assign different cell identities, and how simple spatial rules can give rise to complex form.” The researchers devised exercises using building blocks connected in different ways to illustrate how morphology and symmetry can arise from local, algorithmic rules.

What the 1A Arts team came up with was quite different: a short, metaphorical narrative film about the transformative experience of an office worker caught in a repetitive regime. Despite the absence of explicit scientific content, Goehring was pleased with the result. “It was great to see them take advantage of their artistic freedom to come up with something entirely their own,” he says, adding that the young people nevertheless “clearly internalized the core concepts — the importance of disrupting uniformity, defining identity, rules”. In that regard, he says that he sees aspects of the principles of developmental morphology reflected in the film.

Deconstructing Patterns showcases two other collaborations. In the more evocative of these, Australian artist Helen Pynor — a biology graduate whose work explores, often viscerally, themes relating to living matter such as human organs — filmed Crick researcher Iris Salecker describing the development of the Drosophila neural circuitry for vision. Only Salecker’s hands and arms are visible, and there is no soundtrack to explain what we’re seeing. This silent, manual choreography is mesmerizingly beautiful. It also captures the eloquence and sophistication of the unconscious gesture — and the limitations of language alone for expressing scientific ideas.

“The scientific story is about the movement of things in space, and hard to convey in words,” says Pynor. Salecker’s use of body and gesture, Pynor adds, “fills in some of the gaps, even metaphorically, between verbal language and spatial meaning”. Viewers learn nothing about fruit-fly vision from this film, but they do learn a great deal about the roles of spatial conceptualization and the sense of dynamic process involved in thinking about this complicated system.

As Pynor notes, science does not take place in some abstracted universe where the observers have a disinterested distance from their subject. Instead, as she puts it, “the love of scientists for their subject, the presence of their own bodies in dialogue with the bodies they study, and … their aesthetic sensitivity, are all layered into their research”. Salecker, meanwhile, says the film revealed that her team’s research is “in essence a 3D dynamic structural problem, and that we are limited by our imagery and language. This insight will influence how we present data in the future.”

Suspended sound pods play a poem by Sarah Howe and a soundscape piece by Chu-Li Shewring at the Crick Institute.Credit: Fiona Hanson, Crick Inst.

The exhibition also brought together award-winning poet Sarah Howe, sound artist Chu-Li Shewring and Greg Elgar, former head of the Crick’s Advanced Sequencing team. The team’s quest to “find meaning in noise” had an obvious appeal to Shewring. Her installation allows viewers to experience a sound composition within acoustic “hoods” that are suspended from the ceiling; included is a reading of Howe’s poem ‘A New Music’, inspired by conversations with Elgar.

“Alphabet of us, cipher deciding the exact moment genes flip on and where”, Howe’s poem begins. The words, fugitive in Shewring’s soundscape, suggest that representations of the genome are moving beyond the static, deterministic metaphors of a ‘book of life’. Shewring was keen to keep interpretation open and uncertain, aptly reflecting the dance between prescriptiveness and contingency in the dynamic unfolding of genetic information. As a first step towards a more sophisticated public image of the genome, I’ll settle for that.

Nature 554, 298-299 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01810-y
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