“It’s a matter of perspective”

Cabinet of Curiosity & Andrew Lee

Cabinet of Curiosity Studio are specialists in the paper arts, using paper materials and techniques for a diversity of commissions at a variety of scales. Their paper-based artworks have been exhibited nationally and internationally in settings that include museums, theatres, arts venues and the public realm.

A picture frame nanostructure woven from DNA molecules hosting an enzyme for observation under the microscope.

Andrew Lee is a research fellow at the Pollard Institute (Bionanotechnology), within the School of Electronic & Electrical Engineering. He is interested in understanding how the biomolecular machines of our cells — known as enzymes — work. To do this, he make movies of these enzymes — which are a billionth of a metre in scale — performing their functions within stages made from woven DNA molecules.

When the collaborators began their conversation, there seemed to be a common interest in folding, whether that’s paper-folding or the folding of DNA into nanostructures. Their original idea was to make an origami-of-origami.

Each engagement began with a tactile session looking at artworks created by Cabinet of Curiosity Studio. Origami can be an accessible artform that is easy to connect with, but can also be extremely complex. As a starting point, the artists began to look at using traditional Japanese modular origami to build DNA structures that reflected Andrew’s research. This playful interaction with the arts developed into deeper conversations about how aligned the processes of science and design are.

As the partnership progressed, they realised that they shared many reference points beyond simple folding, specifically an appreciation of the virtues of “environments & spaces”. This became a reflection point, as Andrew communicated his science, Edmond (Cabinet of Curiosity Studio) highlighted how it seemed that an underpinning theme was the creation of spaces or environments for the subject matter — in this case enzymes — to inhabit.

Along these same lines, Andrew described how when looking through a microscope at cells, for example, one finds a terrain that could quite easily be the hills and valleys of a landscape.

“You can almost inhabit this landscape, it’s all just a matter of perspective.”

This continued when interviewing Andrew and his colleagues, Caroline discovered that the researchers often used architectural terminology to talk about the spaces they create and examine. The scientists and artists found a common language in architectural terms — albeit considering very different scales.

This led to a discussion of about miniaturisation and doll’s houses. The partners are now interested in creating spaces that people can feel like they can inhabit. Their next line of enquiry is to explore how far you can force the perspective when showing objects which are unfamiliar — if, for example, it contained the structures of Andrew’s research.

A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House
Samuel van Hoogstraten

In light of this, collaborators began drawing on art from the past, especially from the Baroque era where people were exploring the creation and presentation of immersive little worlds. In particular, they were inspired by a particular Dutch perspective box by Samuel van Hoogstraten. Caroline (Cabinet of Curiosity Studio) commented on how this was like an early example of low tech virtual reality without the technology — people can look into and inhabit this little world.

These discussions continued onto the origins of dolls houses and miniaturisation of everyday objects to create representations of the world. Originally intended as teaching tools, these later became toys.

Through these discussions the partners became interested in creating spaces inspired by the science, such that people can feel like they can inhabit microscopic environments. For example, a perspective box presenting the inside of a cell, rather than a room with a chair. Their next line of enquiry is to explore how far you can force the perspective when showing objects which are unfamiliar — if, for example, it contained the structures of Andrew’s research. Beyond simply science inspired works of art, the fruits of this concept could potentially be presented as teaching tools for STEAM engagements

Leeds Creative Labs is the pioneering programme from the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds. It connects researchers with creative professionals to spend three days together without any expectation of an outcome. The experience is characterised by playfulness, curiosity and creativity.

This collaboration was part of Leeds Creative Labs: Bragg Edition, which aims to explore innovation, impact and sustainability in materials research. Professor Lorna Dougan and Dr Scott McLaughlin played a crucial role in the development of the edition, with funding from the University of Leeds Interdisciplinary Pump-Priming Fund.

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