Article categories: Issue 68
June 4th, 2009

Interview with Synapse Residency recipients Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey.

Normal islets with insulin, by Shane Grey

Sound artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey find musical inspiration in the most surprising places. Diabetes, genetics, and DNA sequencers are their latest sources of sonic delight. Their long friendship with medical researcher Dr Shane Grey inspired their current residency at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, supported by ANAT’s Synapse program. Shane’s lab aims to improve the success of organ transplantation in the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, by determining the genetic fingerprint of a good donor organ.

N: Do you see any particular synergies between the creative cognition involved in doing science, and in making art? Do the artistic and scientific minds share ways of working?

M & T: The creative process of intuition, supported by education and rigorous thought, really describes the process that both artists and scientists take. What’s surprising with scientists is the element of emergent outcome, and often quite creative readings of results.

Shane: I often think of myself as an artist, particularly in the sense that when I stand on the edge of knowledge looking at the blackness ahead, I have to take that plunge into the unknown with the creation of a new thought or concept about how the world works. For both art and science, I see the ultimate goal as being the discovery of the truth behind, or within, the things of our world. Perhaps the only difference is the types of truths we’re seeking, or worlds we’re exploring.

N: Labs can be quiet places, with just the mechanical whir of a centrifuge, slosh of an incubation bath or the gentle squeak of a pipette dispenser (and lots of conversation amongst the white coats) as an acoustic backdrop. Where have you turned to in the lab for sonic inspiration?

M & T: The lab is full of potential sonic material. Not necessarily literal sounds, rather, directions for compositional process, based on both cultural reference and re-mapped data. There is a great freedom in walking in with open ears to somebody else’s context.

N: What sorts of data are you trying to translate into compositions?

M & T: We are translating data obtained from the processes within the living cell. This is measured in a variety of ways, ranging from the broad-scoping initial microarray analysis (which surveys the activity of thousands of genes at once), to the more fine-grained, focused examination of the function of a single strand of messenger RNA (mRNA).

N: Bio-art has taken off in recent years, with artists drawing on the tools of biology to generate new interpretations of the science, and even new lifeforms. Increasingly, there’s a need to grapple with the ethical consequences of this artistic manipulation of biological information and forms. Is this something you’re confronting with your residency at the Garvan?

M & T: This is right where we are at the moment. We’re at some kind of line between science and art, determined both by the ethical guidelines rigorously applied in medical research and by the greater cultural resonance of tissue donation and tissue culture.

A composition based on genetic data has, as it’s source, material that belongs to someone else. As an artist, can I use the donor material to create a sound piece? If I donated my tissue, would I be happy for an artist to use this material in artwork? Currently our own personal answers are no… At this stage, we don’t think we can ethically do this.

N: It’s one thing to use human tissue in research, but to what extent have you had to consider the ethics of making music from real clinical data, associated with real patients?

Ethics guides good science. Our main aim with this collaboration is to use the data obtained from analysis of human tissue to generate a new way – a musical algorithm – to interpret the complexity of the human genome. This is a serious scientific exercise with very practical outcomes if successful. The musical algorithm won’t be ‘performed’ or ‘played’ in any forum. Music is a complex interpretive language and might represent a fantastically powerful analytical tool with which to understand complex data sets such as the expression of the human genome within an individual tissue or organ.

As artists, Maddie and Tim are free to use our research as inspiration to explore the real human drama of discovery, to identify the significance of what we’re doing and then represent that as artists have always done. In a sense there are two aspects of the work here, and we are very careful to keep these separated – to do otherwise would be unethical.

Organ transplantation represents an intersection of the most important aspects of life. The ability to cure serious illness is dependent upon the death and generosity of an organ donor – suffering and hope are intertwined. I think these sensibilities must govern how we represent, through the arts, the emotional and internal journey of all those involved. Medical science is under strict ethical governance in the way it navigates this process, as should be the arts.

N: Being an artist-in-residence can be challenging. Some artists say it can feel like they’re the work experience student or an interloper, while the scientists buzz around and get on with the real business of the institution. Have you had moments of feeling like that?

M & T: Yes we have had moments of feeling like this, and due to space and time constraints, it limits the time that we can spend ’hanging around‘. We do think that displacement within contexts can be productive on both sides.

Obviously, we cannot be a part of the core process within the laboratory. But we began the residency with the idea that our sonification might turn out to be useful because it points towards the display of data in a new way.

Natasha Mitchell
Natasha Mitchell is a multi-award-winning radio broadcaster, science journalist, and host of All in the Mind with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 2005–6, Natasha was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, based at MIT and Harvard. She regularly hosts public events exploring the wonders and idiosyncrasies of the human condition, science and art.

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