A Cellular Landscape
The human body can be thought of as an environment, a landscape that harbours whole ecosystems of life. Our bodies are home to communities of microbes – trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses reside on our skin and in our guts. These environments within and outside our bodies intertwine, influencing each other from the moment we are born.
The connections between the external and internal environments are explored in a new experimental short film, Call of the Silent Cell, created by artists Vicky Isley and Paul Smith, collectively known as boredomresearch. They worked with scientists who are part of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) – a global project to map the 37 trillion cells in our bodies co-founded by Dr Sarah Teichmann at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Dr Aviv Regev, then at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Vicky and Paul took inspiration not just from the science itself – the problems, questions and the methods that researchers use – but the emotional connections scientists have with their work.
The film is one of 13 artworks and creative learning projects inspired by the Human Cell Atlas in a new, online, exhibition: One Cell at a Time. Curated by Suzy O’Hara, the exhibition itself is the culmination of a year-long series of events and activities bringing scientists, artists, and the public together to explore the cellular world of us.
Vicky Isley and Paul Smith were commissioned to work with HCA scientists in 2019. Paul reflected on the beginning of the project, speaking to researchers and immersing himself in the challenge of trying to understand the body at the level of the cell. One of those researchers was Dr Marcin Pekalski, an immunologist based at the University of Oxford. He studies the bacteria that make up the gut microbiome, and their relationship with the immune system.
“Something really gelled when we met Marcin. It was the way that he was describing his own research, using analogies and metaphors that related to the natural environment to articulate the kinds of problems, ideas, challenges he was working with,” says Paul.
They met with Marcin several times, to understand the details of his research. Discussions included cytokine storms, where the body’s immune system goes into overdrive causing inflammation and damage. They also reflected on camouflage and mimicry, as Marcin used these concepts to describe how gut bacteria ‘hide’ from the human immune system to escape destruction or how gut bacteria trick the immune system to be accepted as self.
“We used these elements in the work,” says Vicky. “A moth, sometimes concealed, is the central character if you like, as we journey from a natural environment to a cellular one. We wanted to bring in some ambiguity to that as well – it isn’t always clear where you are. What looks like a stormy sea is actually ripples in the villi of the intestine.”
The scientists’ personal reflections shaped many elements of the film. “We asked people to respond from a personal perspective,” says Vicky. “We asked how they would imagine a cytokine storm might look, for example. With some poetic license, we took those descriptions and created the turbulence you see in the film.”
The imaginings, thoughts and ideas of the researchers are important to Vicky and Paul. “Everyone is human,” says Paul. “We all have emotions. And those feelings often drive research. Scientific papers document insights, techniques and technical details – there is an infrastructure there ready to put that information out into the public domain. But there isn’t usually a way for an individuals’ own personal engagement around their research to be documented. In the work we create, we try to allow that emotion to come right to the surface.”
Both trained artists, Vicky and Paul have collaborated with scientists for many years. We discussed the parallels between the two disciplines.
“We’re of the belief that science is a very recent offshoot from artistic practice,” says Paul. “When you really try and understand the difference, it is superficial. There are similar levels of creativity, taking risks and making judgements in both science and art. I think the most interesting thing about science is the way that individuals create these massive leaps that come from being immersed in a practice.”
“Scientists and artists create new ways of understanding the world.”
Marcin agrees. “I love being a scientist. The element of creativity in it brings me joy.”
Engaging with ecosystems
The team hopes that audiences will engage with the film on their own terms. “That isn’t about ‘I’m the expert, I need to explain this to the non-expert’,” says Vicky. Instead, the film aims to be contemplative, giving the audience space to consider the significance of how their own health is linked to the environment.
Marcin added, “The rules that govern life and ecosystems are the same whether that is inside the human body or outside. Modern industrialised lifestyles, including processed foods and antibiotics, dramatically affect the environment of our guts, which in turn affects the microbes that live there, and then our own health too. Every ecosystem is dependent on the interactions of organisms. This powerful film inspires people to think about how we are all part of the same natural world.”