This blog post will continue through a series of monthly posts by Dr Gemma Anderson over the next three years about a new Art/Science/Philosophy project called ‘Representing Biology as Process’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council
Gemma Anderson, 'Mitosis projection', Watercolour and pencil on paper
The project, based at the University of Exeter and at The Natural History Museum in London, focuses on drawing as a way of knowing, specifically of microscopic biological processes, aiming to develop a fully ‘processual’ view of the living world.
Gemma Anderson and Berta Verd, 'Somitogeneis/Oscillations', Collaborative drawing (Konrad Lorenz Institute, Vienna)
Processual here means that rather than observing and thinking of a biological entities as ‘things’ or ‘objects’ that can be studied in isolation, we consider the multi-dimensional, connected and interrelated nature of living processes that change through time. As philosopher of biology John Dupré writes, ‘coming to terms with new developments in our understanding of biology requires that we take more seriously the ways in which life is dynamic at all levels, and that what we think of as living things - genes, cells, organisms - are more fundamentally processes, maintained in relatively stable conditions by yet further processes’ (Dupré, 2017).
Adopting a processual view also means that we also want to move away from images that compare living organisms to machines, (for example the mechanical duck pictured below) because unlike machines, which begin to function upon completion of manufacture - living organisms function from their first heartbeat (or vibration).
Historically drawing has been an essential way of knowing in science, for example Watson and Crick’s drawing of DNA (pictured below left) and Ramon Cajal’s drawing of nueron’s (pictured below right). Recently, however, this drawing practice has fallen, almost undetected, into critical decline.
With a strong focus on mitosis and cell division this project aims to re-introduce drawing into the scientific lab in a new way through practices of care and attention to create a ‘feeling for the organism’ (Fox-Keller, 1981). Instead of copying nature or illustrating science, we aim to draw images that reflect and embody the processual nature of biological life.
“When artists have tried to learn direct lessons from science, copying the visual phenomena turned up by scientific research or technically based industry, not much of value or profundity has been produced. The notions which have been more fructifying are those which have been absorbed by empathy, through the pores, as it were. And they have been expressed again by the artists not so much in any explicit exposition or diagramming of scientific ideas, but rather by living a life of implicit incorporation into a work of art—an artifact—from which the spectator again absorbs them by in-feeling more than by analysis. It is at the deep levels of the human psyche, where these kinds of communication operate, that there is the closest unity between science and art.”(Conrad Waddington, Biologist,1957)
Gemma Anderson, 'Development through analogue 3D projection', Pencil and pen on paper, 2016
Dr Gemma Anderson : Gemma is an artist and researcher, and Big Draw research associate. For years Gemma has used drawing as a way of knowing in collaboration with the life sciences and mathematics. Gemma has written a book called 'Drawing as a way of knowing in Art and Science' that will be published by Intellect Press in September this year. You can find out more about her work here.
Professor John Dupré : John is a philosopher of science, with a main focus on philosophy of biology. Since 2013 he has led a major project at Egenis, University of Exeter, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). “A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology” aims to rethink central issues in the philosophy of biology by elaborating an ontology for biology that takes full account of the processual nature of living systems.
Professor James Wakefield : James is a biologist at the Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, whose research interest has always been that of mitosis and cell division, stimulated by the fundamental beauty of the process as viewed using a fluorescence microscope, and its key role in diseases such as cancer.
Dr Peter Olson : Olson is a biologist at the Natural History Museum whose research is directed at understanding the patterns and processes underlying animal diversity and focuses on flatworms, a group of more than 50,000 free-living, symbiotic and parasitic species, including pathogens that have a major negative impact on our health and economy.
For the next three years, we will be based at Egenis (the centre for the study of the life sciences) and the Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, making regular visits to the Natural History Museum, where we will work between the lab, the studio and the library. Each month, drawings and reflections of the project will be shared here on the big draw blog.
Soon the project will have its own website – look out for more info in future posts.
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