Vasia Hatzi: Confronting Science from a different perspective

Even the simplest scientific ideas can be difficult to communicate, especially to lay audiences. Sometimes, a sense of urgency exacerbates the problem. Strong emotions are seldom the foundation of clear arguments. Just look at the vaccination crisis spreading across the globe. In a word, science can be very off putting to the people who need it most.

Vasia Hatzi is a scientist and artist whose work distills scientific concepts down to their essence. Her choice of medium — jewelry– plays a role in this. Her portrayals of cellular organelles and genetic material is a case in point. The taut material twisted into gentle curves. The subdued colors. They capture the delicate, fragile, and resilient nature of the biological subjects they portray, better than words ever could.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: What is your scientific background?

VASIA HATZI: I have studied Biology (BSc) in the University of Liverpool, applied genetics in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece (MSc) and have nominated with a PhD in Cytogenetics from the Medical School of the University of Athens. During the last decade, I have worked full time as a collaborate researcher in the National Centre of Scientific Research “Demokritos” in Athens. Recently, I have started working at Benaki Phytopathological Institute, Athens, Greece. Inside the scientific laboratory I investigate the effects of chemicals on chromosomes and living organisms and have published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on these subjects. These biological phenomena are invisible to the naked eye and are only revealed by means of sophisticated methods and microscope. Inevitably, these worlds of admirable complexity and rare aesthetics are also triggering my interest. So, outside the lab, I explore the intersection of biomedical sciences with arts and the interface between them through various SciArt activities.

SI: Tell us about your SciArt activities. What inspired you to combine your research knowledge with Art?

VH: In biology, as in art, the Image plays an important role. Biological images constitute a visual language that retains both logic and aesthetic values. However, in science, the logical interpretation of the images sometimes overlaps their aesthetic charm. In 2012, I introduced audiences the “LaB. – bio-conceptual creations” (www.La-B.gr), a series of sophisticated jewelleries that are inspired by the biological structures, images and concepts. Through LaB., I engaged with biological images primarily aesthetically and philosophically and embedded them in another framework that elevated their biological role to a universal symbol. My jewelleries have been presented in international medical art exhibitions around Europe and the USA.

I realised then that although many artists and scientists are interested in the intersection of science with art, there was a lack of an accessible art-platform that would link these artists in a wider context, and would explore the interface between biomedical sciences and arts. So, I created MEDinART (www.MEDinART.eu), a continuously growing global platform/gallery of artists inspired by images, concepts, ideas, technologies and methodologies of the biomedical world.

SI: Turning to your jewellery what are its aims and what are the main messages you wish to deliver to the audience?

VH: Biomedicine and its practices in the laboratories are traditionally regarded as an authoritative discipline and the public has little to no access to participate within its framework of meanings. Through LaB. bio-conceptual creations, I aim to familiarise people with images from the unseen worlds and conceptualise the biological microcosm by creating new references and metaphors of human expression.

I enable the audience and the scientists to confront the unseen biological structures not only as part of a materialistic universe but also as a world of philosophic and symbolic implications. For example, the ability of the 2.5m DNA molecule that manages to fit inside the cell nucleus though specific levels of sophisticated packaging redefines the meaning of “plasticity”. The endoplasmic reticulum, with the countless chemical reactions and events that take on its surface, sets a new metaphor for “creativity”. And the elegant and precise, yet non-infallible, way that the mitotic spindle separates the chromosomes in the poles of the novel cells, redefines the term of “justice”.

Through my creations I perceive the concept of Beauty, not as a social constraint but as a field of self- liberation and acceptance. My creations appeal to those who are seeking for beauty in all of their forms and conquer elegance without underestimating their Intelligence.

I consider LaB. as an “act of liberation” for two main reasons. It detaches the basic structures of life from the strict premises of the scientific laboratory and gives to them a new form and meaning in the extracellular space. Moreover, in LaB., the different aspects of my creative thinking, science and art, find a common ground and allowed me to liberate my unique voice of expression. Each one of us hides similar unique and unexplored points of self-liberation. We can only reveal our unique voice and feel complete when we manage to reconcile all our different natures, in one.

SI: Was it natural to bring art and science together? How did you reconcile one with the other?

VH: Art and Science are both aspects of human creativity and every individual has the potential to develop both. Higher education tends to perpetuate a dichotomy between the Arts and the Sciences. However, our intellectual exploration of any topic flourishes when we consider various perspectives.

I have been lucky enough to grow up in a “hybrid” intellectual environment, where there were many influences by both bio-medical Sciences and Arts. This multi-dimensional environment became the fertile substrate of my growth. My academic path has been oriented toward biological sciences, and therefore, the major stimuli arise from science. However, art has always been my second nature. By the time I started to merge Science with the Arts through various independent and collaborative projects, I’d become more integrated and balanced.

SI: What are the biggest challenges you had to face during this process?

VH: The biggest challenges are the creation of a new verbal and aesthetic code, the construction of a narrative and the choice of appropriate mediums and materials. The familiarizing the audience with new terms from science, like for example macromolecules, DNA chromatin, nucleosomes, cytoskeleton etc. is a challenging process. Often, it is quite funny too!

Willing to “domesticate” the audience with macromolecules, I have created a new dipole terminology that reflects the connection of science, art and design, for example: molecular elegance, bio-conceptual framework, bio-inspired fashion, glamour geekness, wearable science, etc.

Using these verbal tools, I create a short narrative for every creation in which the jewel is introduced in the first person, as if it had its own voice, and talks about its materials, the source of inspiration and its bio-symbolism. This little story is written in a card/identity that takes the form of jewellery and always ends with the urge to care, respect and love, that is, the triptych that should govern our relations with others, the physical elements, and ourselves.

SI: How did you choose which biological structures to feature?

VH: I tend to perceive the biological molecules and structures as autonomous creatures. I usually chose them according to their origin, character and its role within a living system. The most attractive for me, are the ones that have clear strengths, contradictions and an interesting story to narrate. For example, DNA, the molecule of life, is a very interesting molecule, as it is sophisticated and elegant and at the same time dynamic and complex, with many unexplored aspects of its character. It is probably the most mysterious molecule; and mystery triggers inquiry and inspiration.

SI: What was your process in going from microscopic image to finished artwork?

VH: The creative process is a journey. Innovation is born when we develop new combinations of old elements in a way that has not been done previously. So, the ability to generate something new hinges not upon the ability to generate something new from a blank state, but rather upon the ability to see/visualise the relationship between phenomenally different concepts and as a further step to take action and combine these individual pieces. The steps of the creative process from science to wearable creations is not easy to describe. In my case, there was an extended state of preparation that included acquisition of unconscious knowledge from the worlds of science, arts, emotions and experiences from the everyday life.

SI: What’s your relationship with fashion?

VH: I confront fashion like every creative field that explores the relationship between the human body and its environment. I perceive fashion as an everyday art form; and fashion design as a communication tool between the designer and the audience. Fashion is a type of language that interprets reality through wearable objects and has the power to challenge the social patterns of beauty.

In the case of LaB. bio-conceptual creations, reality is approached through the creation of jewelries inspired by images and concepts of science. Science and technology are the evolutionary catalyst of fashion. At an international level, this experimentation and co-operation between fashion, art, science and technology bring forth innovative “hybrid” projects. Science-inspired clothes, biomimetic design, 3D printing technology, laser-cut fabrics, clothing from biodegradable materials, fabric hybrids and living organisms, appear in fashion and create new realities. “Wearable science” is a way to embrace our intelligence and change the meaning of fashion and beauty.

SI: What is MEDinART and what prompted you to start the organization?

VH: Driven by the desire to associate biomedical sciences with art in a wider context and to explore the internal landscapes of the human body, both in their form and function, as well as in their philosophical and symbolic implications, MEDinARΤ was born. MEDinART (www.MEDinART.eu) is a global platform that links bio-medical sciences with arts and presents the work of more than 160 artists from 30 countries that are inspired by all the aspects (images, concepts, practices and technologies) of biomedical sciences.

Its aims are to link the worlds of biomedicine with the arts, to unite the biomedical-inspired artists, scientists and society through the universal language of SciArt, and to globalise the biomedical-inspired art movement. Until today, MEDinARΤ content has been presented through exhibitions, video projections and invited talks in International events and conferences in Europe (Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Spain), Kazakhstan as well as Saint Louis and Atlanta, USA.

SI: Can you describe the aesthetic landscapes in the world of MEDinARΤ and their role in the society?

VH: The aesthetic landscapes in the world of MEDinARΤ derive from the human body and its physiology, from living worlds that are unseen by the naked eye and different from those encountered in fine arts. The artists of MEDinARΤ have gained access in the framework of meaning of the scientific world. Through the images, concepts, discoveries and technologies of the scientific world, they pose many profound questions about the complexity of human body, its abilities and its limitations. They can raise questions about the purpose and role of science in the society, present different ways of looking at research outcomes, highlight ethical issues of scientific practices (e.g. animal testing, organ transplantation, genetic modification, pharmaceutical usage) and conceptualize the biomedical world into art.

The artworks of MEDinARΤ, address the scientific advancements that have allowed humans to perceive the inner body universe beyond the senses. As such, MEDinARΤ, in its unity, abrogates the boundaries between the outer world and internal universe, changes the perception of society for the beauty of the human body and re-defines aesthetics providing novel forms of inspiration.

SI: Do you feel the label Sci-Art is necessary or even helpful? Shouldn’t it just be called Art?

VH: Art influenced by ideas and images of Science is not something new. Andreas Vesalius and Leonardo Da Vinci sought anatomical precision in their depictions of the human body; and Michelangelo’s and Albrecht Dürer’s artistic talents were elevated from their fascination with the science of the human body. Later on, the influence of science is also obvious in the works of Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian. However, all these artists have used the ideas of science but not the mediums themselves.

It was from the late 1950s that artists began to incorporate into their work not only the images of science but also more systemically, methods, tools, new technologies and even living organisms. This revelation has profoundly influenced artists, providing them not only access to the unseen but also access to novel technologies.

The artists in SciArt are engaged with subjects, media, tools and ideas that are very different from the ones encountered in fine arts. They are often collaborating with experienced scientists for an artwork or they are scientists themselves. So, it is not a surprise that the so-called “SciArt” is considered to be a new art-genre in its own right that continues to flourish through the work of scholars and artists, like the ones of the MEDinARΤ platform. It seems that SciArt is becoming a driving force behind both scientific and artistic achievement and continues to broaden the answers on the whole “what is Art” argument.

SI: How important is the role of the artist in the biomedical sciences?

VH: Art had always an essential role in the biomedical sciences. The primitive form of art contribution in biomedical sciences is as a tool of education and science communication. The anatomical illustrations of Andreas Vesalius, the botanical drawings of John Ruskin and the drawings of Ernst Haeckel are just few examples that have aided scientists to visualise the scientific results and make them more understandable. Art also contributes in science through medical simulations and art-therapy practices. However, art should not be considered as a handmaiden of science or a sterile tool for creating more effective communication of the scientific issues but rather as a lens to confront science through a different perspective.

Artists might not be involved in the ways science is conducted. However, they have invented several classes of novel geometrical objects and structures that have been appropriated by scientists and have also contributed in the better understanding of living processes including consciousness and the brain. Artists can re-form the highly metaphorical language of science.

In biology we use experiences of everyday life to understand and interpret the biological phenomena. For example, Robert Hooke, named the cell, using the term “cell” when an image of cells under his microscope reminded him the small rooms occupied by monks in monasteries. Using similar approaches, the DNA is perceived as a “helix”, genes as “blueprints”, the neurons as “trees”, the genome as “the book of life”, viruses as “agents”, body as a “machine”.

A growing body of literature suggests that the metaphors have the power to shape the mind, structure our experiences and influence the way we perceive the world. The choice of the right metaphors in science that better aligns with contemporary values and goals of the scientific community and society in general, are therefore essential.

Arts and sciences are, indeed, similar enough that the methods of one can usefully be employed to make breakthroughs in the other. So, scientists should have an open mind to collaborate with artists and be encouraged to engage with them in the right context.

SI: Having worked in labs and also spent time creating art, can you compare the two processes?

VH: Science and art are both creative acts of the mind that have great similarities in their creative and performing process. Both fields require a space of action, a Laboratory. The biomedical laboratory is an excellent playground of inspiration and creative expression and the scientific practice in it resembles all the forms of performing and visual art.

A scientific experiment can last from some hours to days, months or even years, like a kind of performance art. Moreover, both the artists and the scientists have an idea or a problem that wishes to solve and express, they think imaginatively about the process and creatively design the final outcome. They gather research to enhance understanding, they are experimenting with some chosen media/techniques and they present the final outcome in their communities and the public. Images and metaphors are the basic communicative tools not only in arts but also in science.

In biology, the images constitute a type of visual language that is unknown to the non-trained individuals. For example a red dot on an image under the microscope could represent indirectly a gene deletion, a band on a specific place on an agarose gels might represent a genetic polymorphism etc. The scientific images can be decoded only by the experts in the field and the ideas that are implied from these images are considered more important than the image itself; as it happens in conceptual art. Scientists and artists share a common goal: to perceive the world beyond the senses and to elucidate the profound mysteries of the human body and its inner space. The combination of science with art represents the enormous desire of human beings to understand the highly complex world we are live in; a process that will eventually lead to a new understanding of life itself.

For more information about Vasia Hatzis visit her LaB website or MEDinART.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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