A computer generated or enhanced microscopic image of human tissue. light pink and purple strands, knotty and with fine tendrils seem to float in a dark blue space. the microbial strands glow with a mysterious light and stand out against the murky backdrop. Similar material is floating in the background, out of focus. The image is etherial and fantastical.

One Cell At A Time

Stacey Pitsillides, 'Donate Yourself', part of the One Cell At A Time exhibition, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

The online exhibition One Cell At A Time is a culmination of a public engagement programme that draws upon the international scientific work of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) research initiative, dedicated to creating a map of every cell type in the human body. It aims to bring HCA’s research to the wider public through the collaborative efforts of scientists, artists and multidisciplinary creatives. The eight major projects in the exhibition use interactive and time-based media, including augmented reality (AR), film, poetry, sound art and animation. The exhibition website acts as a virtual repository of biological knowledge re-interpreted into vivid, visual languages.

My exploration of the virtual exhibition began with an AR experience called ‘Donate Yourself’ (2021) by artist Stacey Pitsillides, created in collaboration with design collective Body>Data>Space. It is the only piece in the show that encourages outdoor access and engagement, so it caught my attention during the opening preview on Zoom, where the participating artists took turns to give presentations on their commissioned works. ‘Donate Yourself’ emerged from public workshops and interviews with members of the HCA research group, and continues to evolve from and be shaped by socially engaged dialogues.

Despite being a project rooted in scientific discourse, the use of specialised scientific parlance is minimal. Instead, the project adopts approachable language to discuss what body donation entails, as well as people’s concerns surrounding it. The work pinpoints five themes which form the basis of its narratives: care, trust, immortality, consent and futures. These inform the creation of five corresponding digital objects, which the public can interact with via AR through their mobile devices, either in their own space or on a walking tour of Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle upon Tyne.  

Wanting to be out and about, I chose to encounter ‘Donate Yourself’ against the backdrop of Ouseburn Valley, a place which, in the artist’s own words, ‘combines the natural with the urban’. Pitsillides told me in an email conversation that she was drawn to the use of AR because it allowed for ‘the layering of the imagined, through the virtual, with material architecture and environments’. This resonates with my own journey through the walking tour, where surreal 3D visuals of scaled-up human organs and cells popped up on my screen, juxtaposed against real-world scenery captured by my phone’s camera. Complemented by audio stories, the sci-fi inflected tour created a unique space for contemplating our physical selves in relation to scientific discovery. 

Back home, I continued to view the online exhibition in-browser. I visited ‘Sensory Cellumonials’ (2021), an interactive animation devised by the creative duo Baum & Leahy. The work was intriguing in its intricacy. It placed me within an undulating digital landscape which represents the human ‘inner cellular sensorium’. The crystalline landscape gently swirled to the accompaniment of a hypnotising audio guide, and gradually revealed five portals linking to different meditative ceremonies, which are guided by imaginary guardians of the five human senses. Baum & Leahy call these guardians ‘olcks’ (Our Living Cellular Kin).

I first clicked on the portal at the very centre, not knowing where it would lead me. I found myself in the ‘sensory realm of scent’, an almost kaleidoscopic mass of green hues and purple accents, dissolving between scenes of oozing, jelly-like substances and cellular imagery. The ‘olck’ before me repeatedly broke down into molecules before reshaping into a different form, guiding me through an introspective sensory process. It prompted me to fetch a houseplant, inviting me to smell its earthy scents while noticing my olfactory senses in action. 

Each of these meditative ceremonies delves into a single human sense and lasts around six to eight minutes. I enjoyed my experience with the first one, which was well-paced and straightforward to navigate. Although, I do realise I’m speaking with the privilege of being a ‘digital native’. From an accessibility point of view, I imagine some viewers would not find it easy to locate certain interactive features within the animation, such as the ‘portals’ and the ‘wishing pool’. Layered on top of a light and visually complex background, white subtitles and less obvious elements like the ‘skip’ and ‘return’ buttons are rather obscured. Perhaps the animation’s interface would benefit from additional signposting and tech support features (e.g. hover-help text), which would help to make the overall experience more accessible.

Amanda Baum and Rose Leahy, ‘Sensory Cellumonials’, part of the One Cell At A Time exhibition, 2021. Image courtesy of the artists.

Given the length of each ‘ceremony’, I decided it was best to save the others for later dates, allowing myself time to fully digest the message in the one I had encountered. This could be said of the exhibition as a whole; it feels quite natural for me to just go away and come back again to engage with it at my own pace. This is an advantage that an online exhibition format can offer. Each of the exhibits has multiple components and can arguably be viewed as micro exhibitions on their own. Some of these works also contain essays and texts, which naturally require a longer process of reading and participation. 

After the online preview, I was able to speak with the curator of the programme, Dr Suzy O’Hara, who talked about how the project was conceived. It was only then I learned that the programme was originally designed in an entirely physical way. The artworks were intended to be showcased in empty shops in Newcastle upon Tyne, London, Cambridge and Oxford, which would act as pop-up exhibition spaces. However, because of the third UK lockdown and the ongoing risks of the pandemic, it was decided that the show must go online. I would be curious to see how the physical version of this programme would have played out, but also feel that the digital format is ideal for the many multimedia artworks on show. 

While I’m still in the process of exploring the One Cell At A Time website, I’m delighted to see all these ambitious sci-art collaborations coming to fruition. I appreciate how the artistic outcomes of these collaborations have lent new lenses to scientific concepts and insight into vast microscopic cellular worlds. They have demonstrated that even though art and science play very different roles in the public sphere, the intersection of the two disciplines can be constructive. The results of these creative collaborations can be empowering to members of the public, who are enabled to recognise the protocols, ethical issues and individual rights as they relate to scientific research. In anticipation of more cross-disciplinary collaborations and exchanges in the art world, I wonder what further catalysts would be required. In this regard, O’Hara offered some food for thought based on her experience running One Cell At A Time

Facilitating equitable environments that encourage artists and scientists to spend time getting to understand each other’s values, motivations, processes and interests is a key factor in a productive collaboration. We did this through a series of virtual artist-led workshops, scientist-led lab presentations and Q&A sessions during the early stages of the project.

With this in mind, creating platforms for conversations to take place – to find common ground while respecting differences – will always be a good starting point.

The One Cell At A Time exhibition is online now at www.onecellatatime.org, complemented by online and offline events in four cities across the UK.

Christie Yung-hei Chan is a curator, writer and artist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently based in Tyne and Wear.

This review is supported by Crystallised.

Published 10.12.2021 by Lesley Guy in Review

1,270 words