Without three graduate students at Columbia University Medical Center, Anicka Yi’s “Life is Cheap” exhibition at the Guggenheim (April 21 – July 5) may have looked, and smelled, a lot different.
Yi’s art draws concepts and techniques from science, and she is known for creating work with biological material to challenge the primacy of vision in the response to art. As the recipient of the 2016 Hugo Boss Prize, a biennial award for contemporary art, she began preparing for her Guggenheim exhibition last fall and reached out to Filippo Mancia, PhD, professor of physiology & cellular biophysics, for scientific advice.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you interested in science, and how did you start to get involved with science?’” Yi told us in an interview. “My response to that is, ‘If you are embarking upon any kind of art-making, science is just already embedded into anything that you will do.’
“I had a lot of urgent questions that I needed to get to the source through certain chemists or biologists. I was introduced to Filippo, and he wanted me to meet his team and pitch some ideas. I met some people there, and then we went to another lab, and it just sort of grew from there.
“With Hunter Giese, Frank Cusimano, and Ross McBee, something just kind of clicked,” Yi said. “They seemed interested in my strange, unformed hypotheses, and we’ve been working together for the past six months.”
We recently spoke with the three students; the interview has been edited.
Q: How did you get involved with working with Anicka?
Hunter: I’m in Wayne Hendrickson’s lab, but I’m also an adjunct member in Filippo Mancia’s lab, and in one of his lab meetings, Anicka Yi gave a presentation about her work and some ideas she was playing around with.
She came to us with a question of how to design a drug that induces perception. It’s a fun thing to think about, but it’s totally impossible. We started talking after that, and she came up with some other things that she was interested in, and our conversation continued. We’ve been working together on the Guggenheim project for about six months now.
Frank: I first got involved in this project through a friend in Filippo’s lab. They were trying to discover a way to deal with bacteria and create a project she had envisioned. Because of my work with bacteria, my friend said, “Let’s reach out to Frank and see if he has any ideas.”
Ross: I got involved through Frank. I’m not sure how he got involved, but he was playing around on the lab’s 3-D printer, which can print cells. He came to me to ask some question and I was nosy and prying and worked my way into the project from there.
Q: What was it like working with an artist? What did you actually do?
Ross: Frank and I have been working on the bacterial side of things. We’ve worked through picking some of the materials we’re going to use and how to keep everything stable and alive. I’ve been helping out with the more mechanical stuff. Right now, we need to generate some fog, and none of the commercial machines seem to be doing the job, so I have parts in my bag over there for a DIY fog machine that we’re building.
It’s an interesting project because there’s a class of problems that are foreseeable and you have a plan for them. And then there’s a whole lot of problems that are just like, “Something has come up, it’s not behaving the way we want it to, it’s not doing what we want it to do.” So, we have to work our way through that stuff.
Frank: We had a series of meetings in Harris Wang’s lab last fall, and we sat down and asked, “How can we build something that no one has ever seen before, something that would be really fascinating?” It started with coming up with color palettes, ideas of what color bacteria that would be interesting, how we could isolate them, where we could get some of them, and how do they work with humans and what they do for the metabolic functions of humans.
I think it was important for her to learn the science about what these bacteria on our body do, so she could better tailor her approach. I always tell her that we’re simply her consultants, but I think in the end, it’s become more of a collaboration. She would ask us questions, trying to understand the biology of what’s happening in these bacteria. We answer them, and then she would come up with an idea. She would give us some sketches, and then we would try to figure out how to actually make it happen and how to do this on a massive scale.
Hunter: We had a small colony of ants that we were working with for trial experiments.
Anicka is very interested in scent, and ants really live in a scent-based world. Some have decent vision, but most of their communication is done through scent. There’s also this idea of power in numbers. Each individual ant can make mistakes and is imperfect, but when you put all of these ants together and they cooperate the net sum is synergistic. In some ways that ties into how our brain may work. Each individual synapse and each individual neuron have imperfections, but together, everything works. So [the ants] are tied in to perception and how things are perceived.
I think part of the reason we have been pretty successful in this collaboration is that I [ignore] my ideas of what should be shown and really function as a problem solver. I try to distance myself from what she is trying to communicate and really just focus on the individual elements and getting them to work together.
Q: As you worked with Anicka, did you find any similarities between art and science?
Hunter: I think one thing that I’ve learned in this collaboration is that artists and scientists are very similar in the way they approach things. We basically ask questions and try and answer them for a living. The personalities can be tremendously different between artists and scientists, but fundamentally we think about things in very similar ways, and that’s been the biggest revelation for me.
Ross: A lot of science is about making connections between things. It’s noticing something weird happening in an experiment and realizing it’s not just an error that you made. It’s looking at other people’s work and at the work you’ve done and synthesizing them in some new and interesting way. In that way, art does resemble science a lot. The artist doesn’t draw from experimental results, but is looking for sensory and aesthetic and experiential connections in the world and then works to bring those together in a new and interesting and illuminating way.
Q: What do you do in your day jobs?
Frank: I am currently a second-year PhD student in the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. I study nutritional and metabolic biology and I focus on the gut microbiome. Currently I work with Dr. Harris Wang, and we’re studying the bacteria that live in the GI tract and their link to metabolic issues, disease, nutrition. We’re trying to come up with some cool new technologies to answer fundamental questions about how the bacteria in our stomach interact with the cells in our GI tract. The bacteria in our stomach play a role in a host of different things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, not just digestion, but even things like anxiety.
Hunter: My normal work is definitely not playing with artists. I’m a PhD student in physiology & cellular biophysics and I’ve been doing my thesis research in Wayne Hendrickson’s lab. I’m a structural biologist, and that means I study what individual biological molecules look like. We can’t just put [molecules] in a standard light microscope and see the structure of, say, a protein. We have to come up with fancier ways of teasing out what they actually look like. For me that includes making crystals of these proteins so they’re all stacked and ordered and then shooting X-rays through them. The way they scatter those X-rays [gives us information about] what the molecules look like.
If we have really high-resolution images of these molecules, that can help us with structured drug design and hopefully give us better pharmaceuticals in the future.
Ross: I’m a biology PhD student at Columbia University, supervised by Virginia Cornish and Harris Wang, working primarily in Harris’s lab. I’m training to be a synthetic biologist, which means I study biology almost like an engineer, working to change it, to build new systems that do what we want them to do.
Right now, a lot of the synthetic biology work happens in bacteria and yeast. We think there’s a lot of room to grow into more complicated [mammalian cells]: They have more complicated systems that you can use to build more interesting proteins. What amazing things can we get it to do? But ultimately [we want to know], how can we help people with it? How can we make new tools, new drugs, new compounds, new technologies that will leverage this amazing thing that we call life?
Q: What would you like people to get out of the exhibit?
Frank: I would say, the best thing to do is come with an open mind and realize that the bacteria you’re seeing is all over your body. It’s all over the people around you and it’s not something that is in a test tube. I think that coming with an open mind and an open perspective can show people that it’s actually a very beautiful thing.
[I hope] we can start to open the public’s eyes that bacteria is not all bad. We always see the negative connotation of germs and bacteria that it’s bad and it’s going to get you sick. When in reality, it’s all over us and it’s something that is fundamental to our life.