The world is vast and inspirations for creative projects and fashion collections constantly come from a wide range of sources. Yet it must said that disciplines such as science and cellular, molecular and synthetic biology are definitely proving to be among the most fertile grounds for original research projects, as a recently opened exhibition at Brighton's ONCA Gallery proves.
"Squidcut" (until 2nd August) is the result of a collaborative effort between artist and fashion designer Lilia Yip, photographer Nicol Vizioli, film-maker Jessica Kneipp and synthetic biologist Matthew Jones.
The event features a minimalist collection of eight garments, a selection of four mesmerising images, acrylic slides documenting the research behind the project and a video installation. The starting point for it all was Jones' research about reflectin, a family of proteins deposited in flat, structural platelets in reflective tissues of the squid Euprymna scolopes.
Jones' findings, squids, synthetic biology and the construction of a lab coat, provided Lilia Yip with the main inspirations for the patterns, the prints and the mood of her fluid garments: in this new collection the lab coat loses its rigidity and, combined with the shape of a squid, radically mutates, while microscopic pictures are employed to create kaleidoscopic prints.
There is more behind this research than what meets the eye: squids employ reflectin to achieve concealment, avoid detection from predators and send optical signals, so visitors are invited to ponder a bit about these skills in conjunction with fashion and design, while considering also in which ways synthetic biology can help us altering, redesigning and recreating a new world.
So while some visitors may be more attracted by the scientific and bioethic researches behind this event, others may be more interested in the visual aspects of the exhibition, but one key point will intrigue all of them: unexplored riches must lie in store not just in the deep sea fauna, but in disciplines such as science and biology and they are just awaiting to be explored by some of the most inquisitive creative minds around.
Can you take us through this exhibition? How many photographs, films and garments does it feature and in which ways do they complement each other?
Lilia Yip: The gallery is divided into three rooms on three levels. The main gallery contains 8 garments, and 4 digitally printed artwork on silk. On one wall is a shelf of 12 acrylic slides showing some of the original microscopic images of squid protein reflectin provided by the synthetic biologist Matthew Jones, as well as images of the garments laid flat, so one can see how the abstract pattern cutting has been applied. The main gallery window is treated as a large slide with an image of a coat laid flat applied to the surface. There is a play on visual proportions, moving fluidly from the micro to macroscopic. The printed silk artwork was made in collaboration with photographer Nicol Vizioli who shot the "Squidcut" garments on a model. I then superimposed the microscopic images of the squid protein on the photographs to create the feelings I wanted the work to convey. The artworks were printed on silk hangings to create lightness and movement, which is one of the properties of squids. In the basement is a dark room housing the video installation. Visitors walk down a dark stairwell and enter a space that echoes with the music from the film. I worked closely with filmmaker Jessica Kneipp to conceptualise the film, which captures the fascination we share for squids and the romance of ocean exploration as told by oceanographer/filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. We managed to shoot two of the "Squidcut" garments underwater. The music is an original soundtrack written and recorded by me with musician Tim Lloyd. On the mezzanine level is a small reading room where people can read and contemplate the ethics of synthetic biology. This area of science was deemed so important and sensitive that US President Barack Obama commissioned a Study of Bioethics in 2010. Visitors can read excerpts from research papers and news articles to consider some of the bioethical thinking that has shaped the artistic work.
What inspired this new project and exhibition?
Lilia Yip: I first encountered Matthew Jones' research into the squid protein reflectin on an episode of the BBC science documentary series "Horizon". Reflectin is one of the key components responsible for the squid's iridescent colour changing properties. Jones was part of the Cambridge iGEM 2011 team from Cambridge University who were studying how reflectin works. They managed to identify the DNA sequence of purified reflection, which was submitted to the BioBricks database for other scientists to access. In the episode of "Horizon", there was a mesmerising few seconds of the microscopic images of squid cells that were so beautiful and unusual in colour that I had to find out more.
When did you first start researching the possibilities that squid and synthetic biology may give you?
Lilia Yip: I got in touch with Matthew in early 2012. From the conversations we had, I learnt a lot about synthetic biology and he introduced me to what is still my favourite squid, Euprymna Scolopes.
Were the roles of all the people involved - you, Nicol Vizioli, Matthew Jones and Jessica Kneipp's - well defined or did you influence each other while working on this project?
Lilia Yip: The roles were well defined in that I worked with each person separately. Matthew Jones's research project had ended at that stage so I was sent 8GB of data from his project to work with, but we were not able to further the research scientifically. I chose to work with Nicol and Jessica then because I have great respect and faith in their capabilities and some of the more complex thoughts and feelings behind my work are better visualised in film and photography.
Which have been the most challenging aspects of your research for Squidcut?
Lilia Yip: The research has been very enjoyable, I relish the opportunity to meet new people, to learn and discover knowledge and ideas. There's never a dull moment in research. The design process did hit a snag midway as the prints I wanted to realise on the clothes were a challenge for the digital printer I usually work with to produce because of the large amounts of block colour. They refused to print them as they were afraid of streaking. I finally managed to find and convince another printer to take up the challenge and it worked beautifully in the end. But it was touch and go for a few months.
While working on this project did you feel more attracted or repulsed by the possibilities that synthetic biomaterials can offer us?
Lilia Yip: I think the potential for this area of science is incredible, but if we do not make sure it is developing in a way that is for the public good, things can go astray. Take for example the devastating effect GM cotton crops developed by the company Monsanto has had on Indian cotton farmers, many of whom have been pushed to suicide as the crop takes them further and further into debt. Synthetic biology is part of the continuum that has evolved from genetic modification and bio engineering, there is no denying this area will grow in size and strength in the future, the question is how will it grow, who defines its parameters, who controls its output, who will it benefit and how will it affect our lives and our ecosystem. As it stands, the benefits of the science far outweigh the risks, this balance could shift in the future, so it is really a case of watching this space.
Has science always been one of your interests and do you think that a balanced hybridisation between disciplines such as fashion and science will be the path to the future?
Lilia Yip: My father bought me my first National Geographic magazine when I was 10 years old and I have not stopped reading it ever since. I think that probably has had a significant impact on how I see the world, always with a slight sense of wonder and burning curiosity. Fashion is the mirror of our society, which at the moment is floundering in many uncertainties, directionless in intent, fragmented, looking to transition to something more positive and meaningful. There could perhaps be many different paths for the fashion discipline in the future, I do have an answer and am still exploring this question myself. I don't think a hybridisation is necessarily the best way forward as both disciplines need expert skill and knowledge that requires years of training. But, certainly, there could be very fruitful collaborations and conversations between the disciplines, once a common purpose is identified. So perhaps it will be the spaces in which these disciplines are currently researched and taught that will see a hybridisation. Synthetic biology has made significant headway in textiles research, for example the company Kraig Labs is pioneering research into the cost-effective production of spider silk in commercial quantities. It is still early days but the creation of new biomaterials will eventually make its way into fashion as designers seek to innovate.
In your opinion will science have a stimulating role in the future of creative disciplines?
Lilia Yip: The fundamental purpose of science is to investigate and explore the workings of the world and the universe. The creative disciplines capture and express our experience and understanding of this knowledge. Whether science continues to play a stimulating role will be dependent on how much impact it has on our daily lives. My bet is science and technology will be of increasing importance as we look to these areas for solutions to our global problems concerning well-being and the environment. A cross-pollination of ideas between the science and creative disciplines could be a powerful step in achieving holistic solutions that tackle some of these mammoth issues.
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