Forma Interview with John Hunt and Myself

Professor John Hunt and artist Gina Czarnecki come from different professional worlds. But in coming together to create the currently touring Heirloom, they have invented a radical piece of living portraiture that is evolving and in multiple, expansive ways, pushing the horizons of science and art, and making discoveries in the process.

Living portraits of Gina’s two daughters – Lola and Saskia – are grown from cell samples taken back in 2014. Over time the cells reach the thickness of tissue paper. They are then preserved, ‘lifted’ and presented as a personalised three-dimensional extra cellular matrix structure.

Here, they discuss the nature of an unconventional collaboration, how this ‘living experiment’ came to be and the unknown nature of how it will evolve:

How has this collaboration changed your attitude’s on the other’s discipline?

G.C. Before my collaboration with John, scientific cooperation was not part of my creative decision making. Working with John this has very much been an equal co-authored collaboration, with the focus being on progressing not only the artistic concerns which helped scientists with public engagement and educational agendas, but also the scientific possibilities which – working in the context of art – could facilitate new hybrid discoveries at a different pace.

J.H. It hasn’t changed my attitude’s for other disciplines; I don’t categorise or define disciplines, these create real or virtual boundaries that become barriers. The collaboration supports the idea of accelerating our level of knowledge by being more open and open minded.

After artist Marc Quinn collaborated with geneticist Sir John Sulston, he said the distinction between the disciplines was that “science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions”. How far do you agree?

G.C. I agree to some extent but this very much depends on the persons involved. I generally say that artists can work with the unknows or grey areas whereas science has to work with knowns to explore the yet to be known.

Art is about the space between what it is and what it does and this is not always directly obvious, or clear in the short term, and may be only clear with hindsight.

J.H. As a social-communal beast we do seem to like – and need to some extent – our labels and categories; this kind of work hopefully helps to maintain the identification of specific areas of knowledge, but by example demonstrates how freely we can move between spaces and use each other’s knowledge and expertise to create the new.

Is there something specific about the body, the cellular and the genetic that is asking for a simultaneously artist/scientific approach?

G.C. Only in that we all have first-hand knowledge of it.

J.H. It’s amazing; it’s asking to be looked at in every which way we can, it’s fair to say the more we know, they more we realise how little we know.

In what ways are you developing the piece after Ars Electronica? And will the live/living piece evolve of its own accord?

G.C. The evolution of Heirloom is key. It is a living experiment. Of course there are general facelifts to the kit and exhibition form but the biggest challenge now is to develop the solution to a full lift of the 3D formed skin. We have succeeded in lifting about two inch squared sections, but not the entire face. This is the challenge.

When this is possible then we can foresee a possibility of applying this directly to facial reconstruction. So patients with scans of their own face shape and with their own cells can be repaired in a way not yet possible. Skin stretches and breaks and ripples and folds. If it is formed in the correct shape in the first instance this will not happen.

The other development is to take what we have learnt through this project into creating a accessible wet-lab in Liverpool and linking this to the work in ethics I explored in The Wasted Works. In the Ars Electronca and Jijki Golden Seed shows further casts were made of Saskia and Lola. The originals were made when they were eleven and thirteen years old. The new ones made two years later and the girls are now thirteen and fifteen.

Perhaps by 2018 we will be able to print directly onto bioglass (that dissolves over time) with 3D printing using cells. Same outcome, different methods. It is also hoped that the maxillofacial reconstruction possibilities being developed in Heirloom will one day be widely used. The project moves with the multiple developments it encapsulates as well as creates.

J.H. I’m with Gina, that’s the plan.

How has working with Forma Arts helped you develop the project further?

G.C. I have worked with Forma since 2002. Forma helped me to produce and continue large scale productions and exhibitions when I moved to Australia and had two young children. Without Forma this would not have been possible.

With Heirloom, I had exhibitions simultaneously in Korea and Austria. Having Forma on board meant that this became possible, working in a team rather than alone is really fantastic and discussing the potential and way forward rather than just the logistics is critical to conceptual development and sustainability as an artist working with this kind of work.

J.H. Forma Arts are taking us forwards by increasing our exposure to the arts world and then providing fantastic touring support to enable us to take the work to all the places that would like to see it.

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