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Interview with Scientific American

By Kalliopi Monoyios | March 12, 2013 |
KM: What inspired your glass microbiology collection? Are you generally interested in science communication?

LJ: Because I’m colorblind, I’m interested in how we see the world and in exploring the edges of perception. Early on in my research I discovered that viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light. Viruses are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope (EM) as quite undefined grainy images. The virus sculptures are approximately one million times larger than the actual viruses.

For me the transparent and colorless glassworks consider how the artificial coloring of scientific microbiological imagery affects our understanding of these phenomena. See these examples of HIV imagery. If some images are colored for scientific purposes, and others altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly colored? Are there any color conventions and what kind of ‘presence’ do pseudocolored images have that ‘naturally’ colored specimens don’t? How does the choice of different colors affect their reception?

KM: What has the public reaction been to your viruses?
LJ: For some people, the sculptures are personal. Here’s letter from a stranger I received in Sept ’09 about the HIV artworks:

Dear Luke,
I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.
I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.
Thank you.

KM: How is glass uniquely suited to depicting viruses? Are there any ways in which you have to compromise accuracy because of the sculpting medium?
LJ: Creating them in glass shows viruses as they actually are – colorless. By extracting the color from the imagery and creating jewel-like beautiful sculptures in glass, a complex tension arises between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent. But working in glass is also restrictive in that my virus artworks are hard and impermeable, unlike real viruses.

We work within the limitations of both scientific understanding of a virus and the craft of glass blowing. Sometimes I come up with designs that are simply too fragile to create in glass; the force of gravity would cause them to collapse. But since we first started making these works in 2004, what we can achieve in glass has become far more complex. We’re now creating objects which are held inside objects, inside objects, like this Malaria artwork.

KM: How do you collaborate with scientists to accurately depict these viruses?
LJ: The sculptures are designed in consultation with virologists from the University of Bristol. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams. I liaise with the scientists and ask questions about a model. How is the RNA packed in? Does it actually look like this or that? Often scientists don’t know the answers for sure and scientific understanding of a virus also changes year by year.

Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with Professor Richard Condit at the University of Florida about his research on the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.

As a part of my research I create technical drawings for my glass blowers which are effectively signed off by the scientists before anything gets made. I often take on commissions by universities to visualize their microbiology research. My work can help raise the public profile of a virus and the institution’s research, as it did with the virus Ev71.

KM: I understand you employ professional glass blowers in the making of these sculptures. What is your role as intermediary between scientists and glass blowers?
LJ: I have a basic understanding of microbiology and also of what can be practically achieved in glass. I create technical drawings for my glass team to follow. We often have to make several prototypes before the final artwork gets made.

As well as liaising between the partners and creating drawings from research, I also take responsibility for employing the glass team, photographing and exhibiting the artworks, promotion, admin, etc. All works are signed by both the glassblowers and me. Its very much a collaborative process.

The artworks are made through a process of scientific lamp work. Its the same skills you use to make distillery or test tube. There was a time that every university would have a glass workshop where glass blowers would be making equipment for the chemistry department. Most of these department have gone now as more and more glass components are being manufactured abroad. Here in the UK these skills are being lost as the craftsmen with these skills slowly move into retirement.

Interview with the Wellcome Collection, London 2009.

The series is a reflection of my interest in how images of phenomena are represented and presented to the public. I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception.

Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive.

The problem is that you end up with a percentage of the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects. These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. Viruses are so small they have no colour. They’re smaller than the wavelength of light.

Originally, I made a glass sculpture of HIV that people could hold in their hand and contemplate the global issues of what that virus is doing to the world.

What’s interesting is how the imagery of a virus, say HIV, has changed and developed as scientists’ understanding of the virus has improved, along with ways of visualising/imaging a virus has improved with finer and finer detail.

Also, with viruses you can very quickly come to the edge of scientific understanding. We can photograph a virus with an electron microscope, but it’s sometimes difficult to see what’s going on inside it because the technology is at the very edge of its capability and the resolution isn’t quite good enough. So you end up having to jump from what you can see to what you can infer from chemical modelling. There’s sometimes a gap in understanding and (even for virologists) a certain amount of guesswork in what a virus looks like. Exploring the edges of scientific understanding is really interesting for me.

With 3D sculptures, there’s also a tangibility you can’t get from flat pictures. There are diagrams of a virus and then there are photographs of a virus from electron microscopes. The purpose of a diagram is to communicate details in a very clear and concise way, whereas the scientific photos of viruses do something different. And a 3D representation makes you look at it in another, different, way.

When did you decide to add Swine Flu to the series?

At the beginning of the outbreak I was diagnosed with swine flu. It was strange designing the sculpture with a fever whilst swallowing my Tamiflu tablets every few hours. I remember there was a lot of confusion as to whether the virus was going to wipe out a third of the global population. There were lots of different scientific imagery and diagrams flying around in the media. The reason I made the Swine Flu sculpture is because people care about it. What I’m doing is providing an alternative representation of the virus for the public to consider.

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