Art for science’s sake

Two art galleries in Philadelphia are jointly hosting a science fair created by artists. Curators at the Esther Klein Gallery in University City and the new Little Berlin in Fishtown asked local artists to have a go with the scientific method.

As artists often kick-start their craft and their inspiration by means of a method, many participants took to the scientific experiment like fish to water.

A performance artist did a sociological and psychological experiment based on what happened when he attempted to do everything his Facebook page told him to do. A sculptor created an immersive wall installation in an effort to mimic the effect of being inside a black hole. A watercolorist made inks from various plants.

Angela McQuillan, a cell culture technician at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., is a painter in her spare time. For this exhibition project, called VASST (Very Amateur Society for Science and Technology) she and her creative partner April Aguillard, a cancer research technician at Thomas Jefferson University, created a video showing the cellular development of the zebrafish.

Fish as fish

Normally, McQuillan and Aguillard work with genetically altered zebrafish. The fish are drugged and modified and mutated in the lab, and then observed intensely to see what happens to their development. “We get cyclops zebrafish and all kinds of crazy things,” said McQuillan.

The results are to further cancer research. But for this video the pair didn’t do anything to the fish. They just get to be fish, doing fishy things. That was the point.

“In my day job, we never paid attention to the animals as beautiful forms of life,” said McQuillan. “That’s why I wanted to do this, to let other people know how cool and beautiful this is.”

McQuillan’s presentation was accompanied by a lecture on bioethics, delivered by her mother, Camille McQuillan, a biology lecturer at Delaware Valley College who is married to another scientist. Their daughter Angela graduated with a degree in biology, but then wanted to go to art school.

“She told us, ‘Scientists are really boring, Mom,’ ” said Camille McQuillan. “And I said, ‘You knew that years ago. Did we have to send you to college and pay for all that before you really realized that that was a boring field?’ “

Art and the scientfic method

Still, the mother believes her daughter’s art plays an important role in the scientific process.

“Science evokes a lot of emotional issues that we should be concerned with,” she says. “And that passion that the artist can conjure up by their interpretation of nature is very necessary.”

As small, cheap, transparent vertebrates, labs need zebrafish as model organisms. They can be genetically poked and twisted into all kinds of mutant ways. Camille McQuillan hopes art like her daughter’s can help fuel a conversation about genetic modification.

But does the art qualify as science? No, says Camille McQuillan. She says she doesn’t see the zebrafish video yielding any useful data.

But like the provocative “transgenic” work of Eduardo Kac, who famously created a neon green bunny, art can show how science will impact us.

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