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The Beauty of Biology

The Beauty of Biology

Most visitors are shocked to see the electrifying performance art now on view at RISD’s Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery.

Most visitors are shocked to see the electrifying performance art now on view at RISD’s Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery. Hooked up to bundles of neuromuscular electrodes activated by toy car remote controls, a man and a woman engage in casual conversation. But when a child presses down on the transmitter’s button, the man suddenly stops mid-sentence as his jaw clamps down and his mouth mechanically snaps shut. The involuntary movement incites soft gasps from wide-eyed viewers.

The human-powered installation is just one of the stimulating artworks on view through July 19 in Carrefour: Intersections of Biomedical Research and Art, which features the work of 11 artists immersed in the biomedical field. Planned in conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebration of Rhode Island Hospital, the exhibition is hosted by the RISD Research Initiative (RRI) and Lifespan, the hospital’s parent organization and a major affiliate of Brown’s Alpert Medical School, and ties in with RISD’s STEM to STEAM initiative.

“Art and biomedical research may appear to be divergent fields with distinctive processes and methodologies, but there is a significant history of affinities and creative alliances between the two disciplines,” notes Dean of Graduate Studies Patricia Phillips, who leads the RRI and helped organize the show. “Art brings its own prodigious investigative and inquiring capacities to interpret and interrogate the biomedical with remarkable insight, invention and imagination.”

Called Conversation Occupied, the visceral performance art piece by Ben Margolis and Jenny Torino encourages viewers to explore the relationship between the conscious self and the errant behaviors of the human body. The duo also creates audio art by using electromyography (EMG), a clinical tool that senses electric currents generated by muscle contractions.

“We’re playing a game that leads the viewer to think about the amount of control we have over our own bodies and ask questions related to free will,” explains Torino, a dietician who makes up one half of the performance art team Torino:Margolis. “The adults are a bit hesitant to engage with the interface but the children have no problem shocking us. For them, it’s just like playing Xbox.”

Other works in the exhibition capture the beauty of biological structure – in insects, for instance. Using an electron microscope, Geoffrey Williams, a bioimaging facility manager in Brown University’s Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, produced a series of grayscale photographs depicting the unique corporal structure of the native deer tick. He’s also showing a striking image that provides an up-close view of red blood cells infected with malaria.

“Presenting biological information through visual means engages viewers in ways that aren’t possible through words alone,” notes Williams. “The rare moments when I can explore the nano-world – and capture fields of view that strike me – are immensely gratifying.”

RISD artists with work in the show include Babette Allina, director of Government Relations, who is exhibiting a series of microscopic photographs that chronicle the communication processes of bacteria called Vibrio Harveyi, streptomycin, Decanoyl-homoserine lactone (DHL). Alumna Wendy Wahl MAE 85 is showing Booster Belt, a skirt adorned with pharmaceutical materials used by women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Professor Dean Snyder, head of the Sculpture department, is exhibiting Nymph_O, an intriguing translucent inflatable made with tattooed rawhide inspired by his work at his father’s veterinary clinic.

“I’ve always been interested in biology and botany,” Snyder says, echoing an interest many artists seem to have with science and nature. “I like to think this piece looks like it was lopped off from something larger than itself.”

Much of the other work in the show provides the same sense – of alluding to connections, especially with something larger. And the very title of the exhibition – referencing the rotaries that guide drivers through complex intersections – sums up what Phillips calls “the multiple points of entrance and exit” characteristic of “the works of the 11 artists represented, invoking their dynamic and interactive qualities.”

Free and open to the public, the exhibition continues through July 19 at Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery at 169 Weybosset Street in Providence. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12-5 pm.

–Abigail Crocker