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Ergo Sum

Ergo Sum

In 2013 the Netherlands Proteomics Centre’s artist-in-residence Charlotte Jarvis has spent a year working on a new project, Ergo Sum. It was on display as part of the Netherlands Genomics Initiative’s Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) at the old Raamsteeg building in Leiden that once housed Naturalis.

To recap, the project saw Charlotte creating a ‘second self’ through donated tissues that were transformed into stem cells and eventually ‘active brain’,’ beating heart’ and ‘flowing blood’ vessels. She spent months working with Dr Christine Mummery and her lab to bring her partial doppelganger to life, and many more devising an aesthetically pleasing incubator to display the cell samples.

Projects like this are always subject to change, so we asked Charlotte how the final show differed from what she had first conceived. “It was much more dramatic than I had originally thought. The incubator and film installation were exhibited in a completely black room with a soundtrack of my breathing and heartbeat, which was something I decided upon relatively late in the project - I think it felt like quite a theatrical experience walking into the space. You could also hear the heartbeat from some distance away, so there was some sense of anticipation or perhaps even apprehension as you approached the installation - that was a bonus.”

Realising ideas
Of course, there is often a gap somewhere between the scope of an artist’s ideas and the bounds of what is possible in the lab. Looking back, Charlotte tells us that the hardest part of the project was building the incubator to house her living samples in. The problem was that “scientific incubators look like big fridges, but I wanted one with a glass front, doors and mirrored surfaces”. Not to be so easily defeated, she set about having one built especially. The custom incubator had to meet many of the specifications of a lab model – “you need to feed CO2 into the chamber, heat it and ventilate it. All the levels had to be just right to keep the samples alive.” In the end, it all worked out, but “there were a few points along the way where it looked like it might not be possible or that it would arrive too late for the opening. It kept me on my toes!”

Charlotte’s work was unveiled at the DA4GA show, which opened on 14th September. She enjoyed the opening, but says she was “nervous about showing the final piece to the scientists I have been working with. They have put so much time and energy into the project and I really wanted them to like the installation and to appreciate what I was trying to do with it. Luckily they did!” The team of researchers that worked with Charlotte were crucial to the artwork’s success, and they are maintaining the project now that she is back in England (her home country). “We have two sets of samples that rotate between the gallery and the lab. The samples are fed in the sterile conditions of the lab where they get some TLC before roughing it in the gallery incubator. It’s rather a large job for the scientists to commit to - for which I am extremely grateful!”

Now that Charlotte’s involvement in Ergo Sum is largely complete, she has begun work on her next project, called Music of the Spheres, with Dr. Nick Goldman from the European Bio-informatics Institute. She summarises it as “utilising new bioinformatics technology developed by Nick to encode a new musical recording by Mira Calix into DNA”, and then “suspending the DNA in soap solution which will be used to blow bubbles”. Charlotte says that she hopes to bring that piece to fruition in 2014.

Ergo Sum Exhibition

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