November 25, 2013
There are tribal tattoos, photorealistic tattoos, celtic tattoos and biomechanical tattoos. Then, there is a whole genre called anatomical tattoos. Chris Nuñez, a tattoo artist and judge on Spike’s TV show Ink Master, has said that this style is all about “replicating a direct organ, body part, muscle, tissue, flesh, bone in the most precise way you can.”
Danny Quirk, an artist working in Massachusetts, is doing something similar, only his anatomical tattoos are temporary. He creates body paintings with latex, markers and some acrylic that appear as if his models’ skin is peeled back.
The project began in 2012, when Halloween provided the occasion for Quirk to paint his roommate’s face and neck. From there, he made other anatomical paintings on the arms, backs and legs of willing friends, and his photographs went viral.
“The paintings started off very rough around the edges, having a ripped skin aesthetic,” says Quirk, “but as they grew, I started making them more anatomical, showing the adipose around the cuts and proper layering of nerves and vessels. I really started making medical illustrations in a new and different way than what was done before. I made ‘living lectures’ for lack of a better term.”
Quirk has his sights set on a career in biomedical illustration. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2010, with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration, and then applied to medical schools. Without having some of the necessary science prerequisites, he wasn’t admitted, so he got a little creative. Kathy Dooley, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, asked Quirk to do 10 to 15 illustrations for her class, and he did a little bartering, trading the artwork for a spot in her doctorate-level gross anatomy course. It was in this class that the artist got to dissect a cadaver.
“Let’s just say, the books are much prettier than the real thing. In the books, everything is color coded and pretty, where as in the labs, everything was grey, with the exception of tendons, which have a beautiful, silvery iridescent shine to them,” he says. “I learned first hand that despite its drab hue, the body is a fabulously constructed machine. It’s like lace that can stop bullets—the intricacy of its inner workings are so fine and delicate, and yet the strength and durability behind each structure is unreal.”
Quirk likes to say that he now dissects with his paintbrush. To some extent, the subject of a painting is determined by the model, and his or her features, he explains. If he has a volunteer with a particularly muscular neck, he’ll add his flourishes there.
“When you find bony landmarks, it’s just a matter of hooking the right muscles up to the right places on the bones, and coloring it in from there,” says Quirk. Of course, the time he spends on any anatomical painting depends on its size and complexity. A full rendering of a model’s back, with not just superficial musculature but also the deep intrinsics, can take up to 14 hours to complete, though the average illustration demands about four to six hours.
One of the advantages of Quirk’s anatomical body paintings is that they dynamic, compared to other biomedical illustrations, which are static images. ”I paint my anatomy very precisely, making sure to match up origins and insertions, so that when the model moves, the painting moves with it, really illustrating what happens under the skin,” he says.
Quirk is trying to arrange some guest speaking gigs at schools, where he’d use his body painting to teach anatomy. He is also working on a timelapse video of a painting in progress, overlaid with educational notes.
“Aside from that, I really want to find a bald head,” he says.
November 19, 2013
In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published a book of remarkable images that captured the honeybee in an entirely new light. By using powerful scanning electron microscopes, she magnified a bee’s microscopic structures by hundreds or even thousands of times in size, revealing startling, abstract forms that are far too small to see with the naked eye.
Now, as part of a new project called “Topography of Tears,” she’s using microscopes to give us an unexpected view of another familiar subject: dried human tears.
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss—so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
When she caught one of her own tears on a slide, dried it, and then peered at it through a standard light microscope, “It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane,” she says. “Eventually, I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.
All tears contain a variety of biological substances (including oils, antibodies and enzymes) suspended in salt water, but as Fisher saw, tears from each of the different categories include distinct molecules as well. Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables—there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
As Fisher pored over the hundreds of dried tears, she began to see even more ways in which they resembled large-scale landscapes, or as she calls them, “aerial views of emotion terrain.”
“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”
Closely studying tears for so long has made Fisher think of them as far more than a salty liquid we discharge during difficult moments. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”
November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
November 5, 2013
Circus performer and Mongolian-trained contortionist Inka Siefker practiced moving like a giant Pacific octopus at home. “I wiped off kitchen counters like my arm had tentacles, or used my leg to get something from the top of the refrigerator,” she says. “I have long legs.”
Siefker is one of seven performers in Okeanos: A Love Letter to the Sea, a live dance/cirque show created by Capacitor, a group that fuses art and science to connect people to their world. Capacitor performs Okeanos on stage, with dance, music, sculpture, aerialists and underwater film as a backdrop, in the Aquarium of the Bay‘s 255-seat theater at San Francisco’s Pier 39. It premiered with four performances in 2012 at Fort Mason’s Herbst Theater and then opened at the aquarium in August 2013 to play through the end of September. The show’s run has been extended and shows are scheduled for most Thursday and Saturday nights through December.
Jodi Lomask, artistic director of Capacitor, took three years to research, design and create Okeanos. She learned to surf and scuba dive and found inspiration in Capacitor Labs, where California Academy of Sciences oceanographers and marine biologists gave informal lectures to Lomask and company. Senior science advisor Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Explorer, explained the dynamics of tropical coral reefs and California kelp forests. Thys helped the dancers find narratives and move in ways that resembled the movements of marine plants and animals. Siefker learned from Thys that an octopus is floppy, and that it has nine brains, one for each arm that can move independently of the central brain.
Thys explained that tiny ocean creatures like copepods live in a completely different flow regime than larger animals like whales and dolphins. Flow regimes are described by an equation called the Reynolds number, which characterizes flow as laminate (smooth and parallel) or turbulent (disruptive with vortices). Animals that are millimeters in length operate at low Reynolds numbers, where water acts more like thick honey. Viscosity is a factor in the Reynolds equation, and Lomask and her dancers experienced the challenges of water’s viscosity by practicing their movements underwater. “It’s hard to hold onto someone while water moves and the weight of it is on top of you,” said Siefker, who practiced her seahorse dance with her contortionist partner, Elliot Goodwin Gittelsohn, in pools.
Lomask choreographed the seahorse dance (or so I call it) after Healy Hamilton, a biodiversity scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, described her work. “Seahorses are some of the most romantic creatures alive,” says Lomask, who invented a movement style to imitate the extreme posture of the seahorses. She hired contortionists who were better able to stylize the seahorse’s extended bellies, locked tails and daylong mating dance (which, for the seahorse, ends with the female transferring her eggs to the male’s pouch where the babies grow). In the show, the seahorses dance in front of Great Barrier Reef footage by filmmaker David Hannan. San Francisco cinematographer Joseph Seif shot the underwater dance film.
In another piece, Siefker swings from a hanging spiral structure. She could be a coral polyp, an anemone or a diatom. She swings in the same current, or beat, as a dancer on the floor below who is on his back with arms and legs swaying as if he is sea grass or kelp. The movement is familiar to anyone who has scuba dived, snorkeled, surfed or, actually, even walked through the glass-walled tunnels of the 707,000-gallon tank in the Aquarium of the Bay (next door to the theater) where sea kelp sway with bat rays, white sturgeon and sprays of silver sardines.
Lomask grew up with strong influences in both art and science. Before she was born, her father, Morton Lomask, was one of the scientists aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste when it broke deep-ocean diving records in the Mediterranean Sea. (The Trieste broke another record three years later after it was redesigned by Americans and sent into the Mariana Trench.) Jodi grew up on 85 acres in the woods of Connecticut where her father built and ran a biomedical research equipment lab. Her mother, Joan Lomask, was a printmaker, sculptor and painter. “Science is the way I learn about the world. Art is the way I process what I have learned,” says Jodi.
The collision of art and science is apparent in the name of Lomask’s company. A capacitor is an electrical device that accumulates and stores electricity for a given release. “It’s a metaphor for the life of a performer,” she says. “You spend a long period of time creating work and then you release the energy all at once in the form of a performance.”
Lomask, who has also explored a forest canopy and the reproductive life of a flower through performance art, created Okeanos because she wanted to learn about the deep ocean. In the process, she realized that the health of the ocean is in crisis, with coral reefs being destroyed twice as fast as rain forests and plastic accounting for 90 percent of all pollution in the ocean. Lomask changed her habits as a consumer. She eats less seafood, and when she does she makes sure it is sustainable, and she no longer uses single-use plastic. She hopes that her audiences will do the same and lists ten things on the program that people can do, such as supporting Marine Protected Areas and lowering carbon footprints, to protect ocean life.
“All living things are sea creatures, including humans,” says Sylvia Earle, an advisor on the project, in the show’s narration. ”Imagine Earth without an ocean. Imagine life without an ocean. The single non-negotiable thing that life requires is water. Take away the ocean and take away life.”
September 25, 2013
As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, Samantha Dempsey made a series of 18 watercolors about humankind’s relationship with infectious diseases. She enjoyed the project but realized in the process that the artwork failed as a communication device. People, she says, didn’t quite understand that one painting, for example, was about Oliver Wendell Holmes discovering the communicability of childbed fever.
“I realized that I wanted to be making art that didn’t describe science but could actually affect the science that was out there and affect our relationships with that science. I guess it’s more science communication activism,” says Dempsey. “I wanted to make art that could do things instead of just talk about what already existed.”
So, while earning her BFA in illustration, the artist took classes at both RISD and Brown University to fulfill a science communication minor of her own design.
By this past spring, Dempsey, a senior in her final semester, was thinking like a true activist. She had identified a problem: when it comes to endangered species, people seem to only care about animals that are cute and charismatic, like the giant panda or some exotic bird. “It is upsetting that, though other animals are just as important to our genetic diversity as a planet, no one pays attention to them,” she says. So she devised a solution: the Extinction Tattoo Project.
For her project, Dempsey designed tattoos of an oblong rock snail, a St. Helena giant earwig and a Pasadena freshwater shrimp—three extinct, and rather ugly, creatures. Like commemorative tattoos for loved ones who has passed, Dempsey’s designs include references to the species life spans. She writes “in memoriam 1881-2000″ next to the oblong rock snail, for example, which is thought to have died out due to habitat loss in the Cahaba River in Alabama, and “R.I.P. 1798-2000″ for the ill-fated giant earwig.
With the designs, she then launched a campaign to make the public aware of these often ignored animals. She created posters, photoshopping the tattoos onto portraits of models, and hung them around her campus, and she distributed temporary tattoos to students and faculty.
“They went like candy,” she says.
For this first foray into temporary tattoo production, Dempsey chose animals that, in her eyes, had at least one redeeming physical quality despite their otherwise homely appearances. For the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, it was its curly antennae, and with the St. Helena giant earwig, it was the sweeping shape of the insect’s pincers. “I tried to find what was beautiful about each of the ugly animals,” she says. Guided by this endearing feature, Dempsey determined the overall layout of the tattoo.
“Because they were extinct, there aren’t a lot of photographs of them, or the photos are hard to find,” Dempsey explains. Some of the tattoos are drawn directly from images but others are a blend of scientific illustrations she could find of both the particular species and of modern animals related to it. “It was a little bit of sleuth work,” she says. “There is slight artistic interpretation as well, because it had to fit into the tattoo style.”
Dempsey distributed nearly 100 temporary tattoos, mostly around RISD, to gauge interest. “It was mostly people looking at them and being sort of whaaa, not really sure how to feel, and then deciding, wait, this is great!” she says. Her inventory vanished in just 30 minutes or so. “I would love to produce them at mass scale,” she adds. “There are a lot of ugly animals. The blobfish is pretty awful, but important.”
In her projects, Dempsey aims to make science accessible, to make it hip, mainstream and fun. “Design can really affect the public’s relationship with science and how we view it. Instead of some lab coat, old, white man telling us ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Eat your vegetables,’ the science that is out there should really be as exciting to everyone as it is to the scientists themselves,” she says. “That is what drives me.”