Published by Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, ISBN 1-899837 59 0
Professor Gavin Renwick, Professor Brian Robertson, Jim Pattison
Channels of Communication
‘We see that the branches of a tree cannot live unless they all alike suck their juices from a common trunk with common roots’
From a 17th Century text by Comenius (as referenced by Professor Murdo Macdonald in
‘A Note on Interdisciplinarity’)
Looking at the image accompanying this text one might question who is the artist and who is the scientist (as it happens the left-hander drawing with the pencil is the scientist). An illustration of the perpetual motion of collaboration that fed the optimism that propelled, in practice, Pattison’s visual thinking to a logical conclusion. Defying specialism’s and negating individual egos both participants seem to have truly worked in unison. Consequently, the material within this exhibition has an important sense of joint propriety.
To originate intuition across boundaries one must have a degree of trust between participants. In the case of Pattison and Robertson a mutual confidence developed early. Upon first meeting the scientist Pattison was taken by the degree to which his hands were to used in a performative way to supplement the communication of complex biological data. For Pattison the scientist was already envisioning - and the knowledge being conveyed was literally being embodied.
In my own practice collaborative activity has played an important developmental role. Working in the late eighties with artist, now anthropologist, Wendy Gunn our collaboration formalised and gave focus to our intuitive necessity for creative interaction across specialised boundaries. This contributed plans and actions that could incorporate different methods and points of view. Using the sketchbook as the tool of negotiation ‘we began to work with the technique of collage as a way of drawing, tearing and pressing down each layer of paper, translating thoughts, memories and ideas from one type of language to another’. (14) The shared sketchbook also played a vital role for Pattison and Robertson.
As universities increasingly utilise the modus operandi of business the opportunity for the type of interdisciplinarity (never mind creative serendipity) exemplified here cannot now be assumed. The ‘detailed accounting for time and space within higher education has removed common, flexible spaces, in which non-programmed communication could take place’. This exhibition is therefore timely and should not only be appraised for its content but be considered as an opportunity to reflect upon its method. As with my own collaborative activity the success of this project is parted based on a relationship that has had time to develop out with of prescribed channels of communication. As Macdonald has commented, for this to happen proximity is vital - a truism that cannot now be assumed. Pattison’s project succeeded as a result of recognising this and consequently developing its dialogue accordingly between studio, laboratory and research centre (not forgetting the public house).
Most existing narrowly defined disciplines can be seen to be manifestations of past problems but, unlike such disciplines, art does not necessarily have, or evolve from, a prescribed subject matter, i.e. art can create its own subject matter (perfectly exemplified by the highly subjective origin of this exhibition within Pattison’s own experience of dialysis). The work of Pattison and Robertson shows how practice-led research through art can proactively provide both depth and breadth. By facilitating the crossing of strict disciplinary divisions they show how such procedures can incorporate. Einstein recognised this when commenting ‘it is not enough to teach a man a speciality’.
Some may presume that science would have problems with art research. Yet the opposite seems to be true, at least in life sciences. This shouldn’t surprise the sceptics, both disciplines have ‘open systems’ that, as Roy Basher has stated, have a ‘complete absence of universal empirical generalisations of any cognitive import’. In essence within both art and science ‘propositions [can] replace experiment ... [and] explanation [can] replace prediction’.
Historically science and art had the anatomy class in common, they also share contemporary concerns. The gradual loss of visual acuity in science, and particularly medicine, has paralleled the undermining of drawing in the modern art college. Yet, in Scotland, there has been a tradition of ‘visual thinking’ as an integral tool of intellectual enquiry and Pattison’s project merely re-discovers this. In addition, as with other such projects linked to the Visual Research Centre in Dundee, the Scottish epistemological tradition of democratic intellectualism is implicit to this project. The essence of Pattison’s method demonstrates what R.D. Anderson says of the 19th century Scottish university curriculum, which ‘enabled students to choose between intellectual interests and vocational needs’. As we can see from this exhibition such methodology allows for a dialogue where none would otherwise exist, while acknowledging a commonality, where superficially none may exist. Murdo Macdonald refers to this as ‘mutual illumination’.
This project also defies the idea of technical rationality that has both dominated modern European thought and helped assimilate the non-European world. It challenges the academic orthodoxy within which ‘a philosophy emerged which sought both to give an account of the triumphs of science and technology and to purge mankind of the residues of religion, mysticism, and metaphysics which still prevented scientific thought and technical practice from wholly ruling over the affairs of man’. As theoretical physicist C. David Peat has said; ‘it is not so much the questions themselves that are the problem, but the whole persistent desire to obtain knowledge through a particular analytical route’. The nature of interdisciplinary collaboration requires that not one worldview dominates in this manner, it requires one to understand ‘that there are times when it is better to listen than to ask, better to feel than to think, more appropriate to stay with a silence than to seek answers’. Robertson recognised this as essential if the magic of evolutionary complexity, both the mystical and the physiological, was to be fully conveyed. He also lamented that prior to this collaboration he has been constrained by visual metaphors. Maybe this is why the work presented has developed an extensive anthology of motifs that can communicate such complexity (and maybe that’s why Robertson also sees the pedagogic potential for this work as visual teaching tools within science).
Boyer states that discovery ‘should be understood in terms of process and passion, not just outcomes’. Commenting on the process of researching he identified four interrelated categories; discovery, being ‘the exhilaration of the new idea’; integration, which gives ‘meaning to isolated facts [and] puts them in perspective’; application, the interaction of theory and practice; and communication, which acknowledges that research ‘becomes consequential only as it is understood by others’. In addition, if we assume Seago’s description of research undertaken specifically through art as ‘a systematic investigation through practical action calculated to devise or test new information, ideas, forms or procedures, and to produce communicable knowledge,’ Pattison’s exhibition presents a paradigm for being an artist-researcher. His exhibition challenges how we understand printmaking as a 21st Century discipline, and in his work we can see an emerging life force. A series of developing forms that present a multi-dimensional framework for envisioning the essence of life.
Professor Brian Robertson
Art is the shortest route from one man to another.
Claude Roy, 1958.
I certainly welcome the free interchange of terminology between any branch of science and any raceme of art. There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.
Vladimir Nabokov, 1967.
The publication in your hands is merely part of the results of Jim Pattison’s intense activity over the last few years. This book accompanies many pieces of art that Jim has made as part of an exercise in public communication of science funded by the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest biomedical research charities. But this is much more than a set of ‘results’, as I hope to try to convince you.
I’ll start at the beginning, if only for convenience and precedent, but I think it tells the story better.
Two men meet in a bar, no ordinary British bar, but one in the centre of Glasgow, and one that has no jukebox muzak, no arcade games and no television, but one as rich in banter and debate and discussion as it is in the variety of characters that come through its doors. Jim is the main protagonist in this story, and I’m the other. Jim is an artist of considerable skill and reputation and, as you will see, dazzling visual imagination. At the beginning of our tale he was just completing his project ‘Translations’, which was his first foray into making pieces about biology and medicine. In that project (2005/6) as in the present work, Jim employed his extensive artistic skills to unravel and understand complex medical phenomena. Making art is Jim’s way of understanding what’s going on in the world of science and medicine. However, the science bit is only perceived as complex because it often isn’t explained properly; more of which later. I’m the other person in the bar, then a neuroscientist at the University of Strathclyde enjoying a quiet pint and a chat with my wife, who was visiting for the weekend. This bar gets busy at the weekends, and Jim and his studio colleague and friend John Taylor asked if they could share our table. One thing leads to another, the ice is broken, we chat, and the talk turns to what we all do for a living. Jim remembers me describing my research using my hands to try and explain in lay terms how synapses in the brain work, how channels open and close, how some drugs work….. all the time hands going ten to the dozen, with pauses for raising the glass. This is the problem in a nutshell. Scientists, sadly in my experience, are usually very poor at explaining their research to members of the public. (Indeed, many of us are bad at explaining it to each other, even with Powerpoint presentations and a whole library of visual tools at our disposal.) We end up presenting the same tired cartoons and diagrams to each other, simply because we understand their shorthand message and we are too lazy, or our imaginations are too limited, to come up with better metaphors. Eventually we become limited by this small collection of images or examples, so that our language becomes constrained. I know I’ve used the same images hundreds of times to students, fellow researchers and the poor unsuspecting public. When explaining what an ion channel is (see below), words can be such blunt tools, and I either draw or make hand signals for the same tired old thing.
So, back to our story; the talk goes on, and Jim and I agree that the following week he should visit me in the laboratory at University and I visit him in his studio near Barrowlands. (I know at this point I stand to gain more than he, since I’ve long been interested in art and artists.) When Jim comes to see us in the lab, I pull some of my books out, draw some sketches (those old cliché diagrams and cartoons again) and show him our various pieces of apparatus: microscopes to look at nerve cells in very thin slices of brain, electrodes that we stick into these cells, computers and electronic amplifiers that measure and display the tiny fast signals we measure from nerve cells. I explain how these wavy lines on the computer screen are captured digital shots of events that occur in fractions of seconds, and are the basis of how nerve cells connect and communicate with each other. Jim finds this new knowledge all fascinating and thought provoking, he has lots of questions, and we end up talking and talking, pulling more books out, with me both infected by his enthusiasm and wonder, and annoyed at myself because I can’t explain things better - I’m literally tied up - bound - by the same scientific imagery and language I’ve been using for years. It shouldn’t be like this! I, or rather we neuroscientists, need new images, better metaphors and a fresh and talented pair of eyes to help us explain our work. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal (I cannot find the reference), about Lord Rutherford, who said to one of his bright students - “A physicist’s theories are worthless unless he can explain them to the barmaid at the local pub.” (Note the pub again. What should be the perfect hub for human discourse.)
To cut a long story short (and you know the end anyway) we agree a plan. We would collaborate. Jim would explain my research using a variety of media, and I would help him with the ‘science bit’ as much as I possibly could. This has been a deal out of which I know I’ve gained an inordinate amount. It’s been incredibly intellectually stimulating working with Jim; his intelligence, rigour, thirst for more and more information has been not only challenging but also great fun. I’m simply blown away by his artistic skills (in all sorts of media) which is coupled with his deep thinking about artistic solutions to explaining some fairly difficult scientific concepts (Jim had no scientific training, but I’ve seen him explain what was my research to schoolkids.) His genuine passion for all he does and brings to that which he seeks to know has been a breath of fresh air not only for me but also for all the colleagues in my lab; they would do anything to help him in his quest.
The science bit.
Jim has asked me to write a short piece about the science behind this book and his artworks, and I’m more than happy to oblige. However, I think his work speaks better, and the following paragraphs should only be looked on as setting the broad landscape, which Jim has with skill and imagination populated with brighter and more useful images.
My lab has worked for many years on potassium ion channels, especially those present in nerve cells in the cerebellum. Starting with the largest structure, the cerebellum (‘little brain’) sits at the base of the brain in mammals, and in sections it looks a little like florets of cauliflower. The cerebellum is involved in co-ordinating movements (and much else) and movement is something we tend to take for granted. But every slight movement of your eye across this page, every keystroke on the computer, every tiny step, involves massive computation, feedback and comparison in the brain; some clue as to the complexity of movement is the fact that there are more nerve cells in the cerebellum than any other part of the brain. The cerebellum contains some of the largest (the Purkinje cells) and the smallest, simplest, nerve cells. Zooming in, we can see that the cells are arranged in what’s been described as an ‘almost crystalline’, regular structure. Some cells collect information, work with it a little, and pass it on to the next type of cell in the cascade. The subsequent cells work with information arriving from many other cells, make some ‘decision’, and in turn, pass their message on. The sheer numbers involved are impressive. Each Purkinje cell can receive around 200,000 inputs on its enormous branches (the dendrites). The fabulous Spanish neuroscientist Ramon y Cajal correctly inferred that the more complex a nerve cell’s dendrites, the greater the amount of neuronal information it received and ‘computed’. The granule cells on the other hand which are some of the smallest in the brain, have very short stubby dendrites, meaning that they get only few inputs (synapses- see below) from other nerve cells. However their power comes from sheer numbers, as they are the most common nerve cell in the brain (perhaps as high as 70% of the total).
Nerve cells collect information and pass it on to other nerve cells (or muscles) via synapses, which are tiny gaps between each cell. These small gaps are specialized to release particular chemical substances onto their ‘target’ cell, once a certain threshold has been reached. This substance, or neurotransmitter, will in turn modulate the activity of the next nerve cell, exciting it or inhibiting it. In our lab, we work on one particular type of cerebellar neurone called a basket cell, which makes synapses with the Purkinje cell. Since the job of the basket cell is to ‘switch off’’ the Purkinje cell, it releases an inhibitory transmitter called GABA. You can see the electrical effects of packets of GABA release onto a Purkinje cell in the digital prints on canvas, Control and With Alpha Dendrotoxin.
Using our microscopes and electrical recording apparatus, we can measure this synaptic activity in a thin slice of mouse brain, and see what’s occurring between two nerve cells, this being a snapshot of what’s happening trillions of times every fraction of a second in our brains. So much for the ‘cellular’ level. Jim’s pieces give some idea of the sublime beauty of nerve cells, with their often complex, wonderful architecture. Most of our research focussed on how cells make the electrical signals that control their activity and synapses.
Nerve cells are specialized for electrical and chemical communication by virtue of a large set of ion channels. Channels are tiny proteins present on the cell’s surface, and they open and close (like little gates) for thousands of a second. These proteins have a specially tailored hole in the middle, which will only allow certain types of ion (like potassium, or calcium) to pass through. Ions move from one side of the cell to another, and since these are charged, tiny electrical currents flow. We measure these currents. The main ones we’ve researched over the years are potassium ion channels, one of the largest ‘families’ of ion channels present on nerve cells, and the ones we think are the most interesting, for all sorts of good reasons. (Others have their favourites, a view to which they are of course entitled….).
We now know the structure both in terms of what amino acid building blocks go into these potassium channel proteins, and more recently, what shape they are in the cell’s membrane. We have a good idea which parts of these proteins move, allowing their little gate to open, and potassium ions to flow from the inside of a nerve cell to the outside. Jim has made sculptures of these, focussing on the main protein we worked on, the imaginatively named Kv1.1. (Capital ‘K’ for potassium, small ‘v’ since it is switched to open by certain voltages in the nerve, and 1.1 because it was the first completely identified.) Different types of K+ channel are grouped into families, based on their molecular similarity. Like all families, members look alike, but the differences are crucial- they can behave quite differently as individuals, and are sensitive to different things. For instance, in Jim’s work, you will see that ‘our’ Kv1.1 channel is highly sensitive to a component found in mamba snake venom! Since these potassium channels act as brakes on the excitability of nerve cells, blocking the brakes (whether by a toxin, another drug, or in some human disease, like some epilepsies) makes these cells get more and more crazy, till they can become hyperexcitable. Jim has illustrated this nicely in Control and With Alpha Dendrotoxin. (P58/59) taken from real experiments when Jim was present. Most interestingly, Jim shows in KV1 (1) Mutations (p48/49) which parts of the Kv1.1 protein go ‘wrong’ in some unfortunate genetic diseases. It’s fascinating to think that a simple single change in one tiny part of the overall structure of one ion channel can lead to such profound consequences for the affected individual.
Now some of my colleagues in the research world will talk about the ‘accuracy’ in some of Jim’s sculptures. Certainly, they are not like the 3 dimensional figures of the crystal structure of ion channels available in scientific journals and databases. I would argue that they are perhaps even more valuable, since they are clever visual metaphors for what these little proteins do. These are images that will live in the viewers mind, and, importantly, can be reconstructed when the viewer wants to tell another. We will never ‘see’ potassium channels with our senses, what we see in the Nobel Prize winning images of their structure are the results of painstaking work with the most powerful technologies and computer modelling, and even then they are static ‘snapshots’, since the real structures are jiggling about constantly. Accuracy is a construct, and in this case, the visual metaphors that Jim has made are more effective. Indeed, I’ve used several of his figures with success to specialists in my field from Princeton to Shanghai.
I would also suggest that we forget that some of our latest ‘scientific-type’ images are also subject to the fashions and culture of our time, and will eventually be as outmoded as those in 50-year-old textbooks today. Therefore I feel optimistic that some of Jim’s pieces will remain.
I hope the above goes some little way to providing the background to Jim’s work. His descriptions are better than mine. He has the skill, talent and imagination to turn dry words (albeit of deeply fascinating processes) into elegant and lucid works of art. I think this is important. Certain scientists (and sadly reader, I know them) don’t see the value of ‘Art’ in explaining science. They would rather keep their mysteries to themselves, and take no interest in human cultural affairs, seeing Science as having some kind of separate existence, with only nodding to Public Communication when coerced by their research funders. Luckily, we are fortunate in having the Wellcome Trust and clever intermediaries like Jim Pattison to bridge this artificial and dangerous gap. For my own part, I feel privileged to have been involved in this with Jim; I hope you enjoy and appreciate his work as much as I do.
Die knowing something. You are not here long.
Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Paintings and drawings are a 40,000-year-old record of experiences in neuroscience, exploring how depth and structure can be best conveyed in an artificial medium. Discrepancies between the real world and the world depicted by artists reveals as much about the brain within us, as the artist reveals about the world around us. Patrick Cavanagh, 2005.
Professor Brian Robertson and I first discussed the possibility of working collaboratively on this project in November 2005, and the area of focus for this series evolved through a number of studio and laboratory visits and continuing discussion. In 2006 we attended a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science Workshop in Edinburgh and in March 2007 we were awarded a Wellcome Trust People Award to fund this collaborative research.
In earlier conversations Professor Robertson and I discussed the problems associated with visualising and communicating his areas of focus – the artificial description of organic matter, and how our view of the way things might look can be constrained by historical models or mathematical and cartoon explanations; perhaps due to the fact that scientists are often hampered by poor visual training and limiting metaphors.
The challenges in this project were to harness the use of new and existing technologies and approaches within both our subject areas through discussion, collaboration, and awareness of historical context, in order to create images that might be understood more easily.
Professor Robertson’s research seeks to unravel the roles of specific potassium ion channels in the membrane of a neuron. The cell membrane is one of the key interfaces in biology, (or indeed the universe) separating the inside of the cell, with all it’s genetic material, life support systems etc., from everything else. These potassium ion channels (of which there are many different types) are specialised transport proteins in the cell membrane, coded by different sections of the cell’s DNA. Each channel protein has a slightly different physiological function in the nerve, and has its own unique behavioural ‘fingerprint’ and sensitivity to different drugs. A major challenge is to locate precisely where these channels are in the brain, and within single nerve cells. What does this location tell us about function? How do these different channel proteins shape the activity of nerve cells? How can we modify their function with drugs? How do changes in these ion channels cause nervous disease and disorder?
The flow of potassium through ion channels is central to many different cellular processes; potassium currents in the brain, for example, are involved in every thought, perception and movement, and the heart’s contraction relies upon the steady ebb and flow of potassium. Professor Robertson’s research focuses on one of the most important signalling molecules in the brain. The proteins studied are involved in some major disease processes that impact on the health and welfare of many thousands of UK citizens. One type of K+ channel defect causes a type of epilepsy: Epilepsy affects approximately 1% of the population; it is a life-threatening, poorly-treated condition which can dominate victim’s lives, affecting their education and employment prospects, as well as limiting their sense of personal freedom. Another series of defective K+ channels leads to deafness, convulsions in newborns, and in adults, death through sudden heart attack. This latter condition can be as frequent as 1 in 5000 to 7000.
My own recent research has focussed on the translation, manipulation and visualisation of complex information and data using a range of digital and autographic visualisation processes. The aims in this instance were to identify appropriate autographic and digital realisation methods to describe known and unknown aspects of Professor Robertson’s study. These incredibly small channel forms have been depicted and modelled using a range of 2 and 3D approaches from data, images, clues, and intuition. Regular fact finding and information gathering visits, along with continued dialogue, have introduced key concepts, issues, and illustrations, and have provided interpretation of existing images.
I am interested in how the media employed might affect the communication and understanding of the information conveyed. Does it make any difference if the information is in painted, printed or sculptural form? Annabel Jackson will address this issue as part of the evaluation process and the results will be included on the project website – Title/address?
This research relates to the previous series Translations, which investigated ways of translating my own experiences of dialysis and kidney transplantation into visual forms. (see - www.ahrc.ac.uk/awards/casestudies/jimpattison.asp)
A series of key ‘milestones of visualisation’, which highlight ways in which the technology, and aesthetics, of the time have affected historical descriptions and illustrations of this area of neuroscience, have been crucial to my understanding of this subject area and in establishing the scientific context and framework for this study:
1. Ways in which areas of the brain have been visualised.
These range from Camilo Golgi’s discovery of the silver staining technique in 1873 and its exploitation by neurologist and artist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, to Roderick MacKinnon’s first atom by atom mapping of an ion channel using x-ray crystallography in 1998.
2. Brain activity recording methods.
Of specific relevance to this study is the ground breaking work by Hodgkin and Huxley in the early 1950s which first recorded ion transport across the membrane of the giant squid nerve, and Neher and Sakmanns’ introduction of the single channel recording technique in the early 1980s – for the first time it was possible to measure in real time channels opening and closing, passing their microscopic amounts of ions.
3. Research into how the brain perceives form.
Hubel and Livingstones’ research into how the brain explores and explains the world, and therefore itself, is of real significance to this investigation into methods of translation and visualisation. Their research suggests that each species, including humans, have their own ‘sensory windows’ or ways of seeing, which may limit the ways we have of visualising.
This series of two and three-dimensional visual proposals considers the location, form, and function of voltage gated potassium ion channels - specifically KV1 (1). Using the potential of visual art to communicate complex ideas, in this case free from the constraints and interpretive demands of scientific recording methods, they might be seen as metaphors to aid understanding, or as potential visual mnemonics.
The research and output has taken place at my studio in Glasgow, Professor Robertson’s laboratory at the University of Leeds, Glasgow Print Studio, the University of Dundee’s Visual Research Centre, and the DMEM department at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. In addition to the exhibitions in Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow works from this project have been included in Professor Robertson’s lectures and seminars to healthcare workers, pharmaceutical companies in the UK and US, students, researchers and institutes in the UK, US and, most recently, in China.
The public have had access to the work at various stages of the development and production of this research. The WASPS open studio days in Glasgow in October 2007 and 2008, the Brain Awareness week at Leeds University in March 2008, and the open access print project at VRC Publishing in Dundee, (coinciding with the exhibition at Centrespace in March/ April 2009) have provided the opportunity to see, and discuss with me, the work in progress. Hopefully this has provided an insight into the problems and solutions of visualising aspects of these channel forms, and has helped achieve a greater awareness of the rich visual potential within this area of neuroscience.
To envision information is to work at the intersection of image, word, number and art. We envision information in order to reason about, communicate, document, and preserve that knowledge.
Edward Tufte, 1990.
A good drawing as well as a good microscope preparation are pieces of reality, scientific documents that indefinitely maintain their value and whose examination will always be useful, whatever the interpretation they might inspire.
Santiago Ramon y Cajal. (1852-1934)