As the world’s challenges get more complex, the ability of art to help us connect with its issues has never felt so urgent.
Twenty years ago, designer and social artist Helen Storey and her sister, developmental biologist Kate Storey, did just that: collaborating to create Primitive Streak, a moving exploration of what it means to be human.
The double award-winning exhibition, a part of the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Sci/Art’ initiative, used 27 dresses and textile forms to depict the first 1,000 hours of human life. Haunting and powerful, Primitive Streak attracted over three million visitors during its 2002 global tour.
Now the Storeys team up again to create Neurogenesis, developed with innovation studio, Holition, and supported by Wellcome Trust and LifeSpace Science Art Research Gallery at the University of Dundee.
Inspired by their father’s descent into dementia, Kate and Helen wanted to create an experience which conveys how nervous systems are formed. The aim: to provoke conversation around what happens when, due to age or illness, we can no longer make new nerve cells or new memories.
Neurogenesis showcases Kate’s research into the birth of neurons, both in developing embryos and in the adult brain.
“The work illuminates the cellular basis of the forming nervous system and invites juxtaposition of our understanding of this with our lived experience of the functions it underlines,” says Kate.
Footage of neurons being born is delicately merged with a hand-crafted dress that Helen has created from recaptured plastics. “We chose materials that nature has acted upon, materials that are losing their original properties,” says Helen.
To enable their ideas, the sisters worked with leading innovation studio Holition. The studio specialises in using technology as an empathetic storytelling tool. In Neurogenesis, motion-tracking technology establishes an intimate relationship between the viewer and key steps that advance neurogenesis.
Helen’s dress, in a continuing process of degeneration is snagged across tree branches and forms a stark shadow, within which Holition projected a movie of cells becoming neurons. The viewer’s position as they move around the room triggers each new stage of the neural development process.
“Much has happened in the 20 years since we first created Primitive Streak, one of the first hybrid arts/science projects – both in terms of technology (the internet was barely with us) and what has happened in cross-disciplinary practice since,” say the sisters in a statement.
“Back then, our focus was to experiment with what might happen when combining these two separate disciplines to convey how the human embryo develops and takes form.
“We never imagined that our personal life as sisters might ask for expression in a professional body of work,” they continue. “Neurogenesis has been created at a time when our Dad was entering dementia and the ending of his life. Inclusion of our personal experience makes this work distinct from anything we have done before, as we have felt compelled to allow the pain of loss to surface within the work.”
A testament to openness, humility and collaboration and to the process of grief itself, Neurogenesis is a immensely raw installation helping to build a new relationship between art, science and sisterhood.