Visualisation, materialisation and affect

This is Luke Jerram‘s glass sculpture of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, from his gorgeous Glass Microbiology series, which includes E. coli, SARS, smallpox and HIV (in order, below).

“These transparent glass sculptures were created to contemplate the global impact of each disease and to consider how the artificial colouring of scientific imagery affects our understanding of phenomena. Jerram is exploring the tension between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent, their impact on humanity.”

“The question of pseudo-colouring in biomedicine and its use for science communicative purposes, is a vast and complex subject. If some images are coloured for scientific purposes, and others  altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly coloured? Are there any colour conventions and what kind of ‘presence’ do pseudocoloured images have that ‘naturally’ coloured specimens don’t? How does the choice of different colours affect their reception?”

“In response to these questions, Jerram has created a series of transparent, three dimensional sculptures. Photographs of these artworks will be distributed to act as alternative representations of each virus.”

“The sculptures were designed in consultation with virologists from the University of Bristol using a combination of different scientific photographs and models. They were made in collaboration with glassblowers Kim George, Brian Jones and Norman Veitch.”

This is a video of glass blower Kim George, working on Jerram’s HIV virus design. Choosing glass as his sculptural material is really interesting, not least because it’s difficult to work with:

“I’m also pushing the boundaries of glassblowing. Some of my designs simply can’t be created in glass, Some are simply too fragile and gravity would cause them to collapse under their own weight. So there’s a very careful balancing act that needs to take place, between the limitations of current scientific knowledge and glassblowing techniques.”

But the translucency of glass is also important: first, because the actual viruses are transparent organisms, and second, Jerram is colour-blind so he has a different, even idiosyncratic, relationship to colourised representations, and this impacts the way he works.

But the matter of authenticity, or authentic representation, is quite complex in this case. While his sculptures may be “truer” representations precisely because they are not coloured, they are even more distanced or abstracted from the “original” viruses in the sense that his designs are based on other pictures and models. Nonetheless, in the Guardian article on Jerram’s work, it’s suggested that the clear glass sculptures look “less threatening than popular scientific imagery would have us believe” and this gets straight to the question of affect.

A quick Google image search yielded these two representations of the HIV virus. While the basic shape is similar, the different colours and textures suggest slightly different—if equally vivid—organisms. I’m not sure I find either one particularly “threatening,” but the one on the right is a bit creepier because it seems to have little hairs or tentacles (which, obviously, creep me out).

But back to the matter of colour. The top image is one of Jerram’s HIV sculptures and the one underneath it is David Sayer’s coloured photograph of another one. While both objects are effectively the same, the artificially coloured one appears more dramatic—which must surely be part of the reason the photo received an award from the Institute of Medical Imaging in 2007. But drama (or fear) is not the only way to move people, and isn’t beauty really just the ability to move and be moved?

For example, Jerram posts a letter he received from a stranger:

Dear Luke,
I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.
I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.

This person was clearly affected by Jerram’s sculpture, and did not find it easy to resolve the emotional conflict arising from seeing some sort of beauty in his/her killer. And I wonder, was this affect/effect easier or harder to come by without colour?

But I also wonder if we’re just more effectively convinced by three-dimensional material objects? This becomes particularly interesting in the area of (scientific) data visualisation, which quite simply is not data materialisation. I’ve written many times on the importance of objects in social interaction, and Jerram’s sculptures bring to mind Elias Canetti’s crowds—but those are connections which I’ll have to flesh out another time.

Lucky London-based folks have the opportunity to see all of Luke Jerram’s virology sculptures at The Smithfield Gallery from 22 September to 3 October, 2009 and his H1N1 sculpture was recently acquired for the Wellcome Collection.


Update 16/09/09: I can’t believe I forgot about GIANTmicrobes – here are the plush versions of E.coli, H1N1 & HIV. Talk about different affective potential!

Update 12/10/09: My favourite science mag, Seed, has a short article on Jerram’s work and his focus on “the animation of otherwise hidden phenomenon.” David Ng also chimes in with some thoughts on the “complicated relationship between science and art” – something that might be of particular interest to designers making “conceptual” pieces and the challenge of answering the more empirical or technical concerns of scientists and engineers.

[Cross posted at PLSJ, with comments]