An art-science collaboration creates alternative perspectives for the new NMR imaging facility at Kings College London

by Julie Light, Olga Suchanova, Gareth Morgan, Jill Mueller, Sasi Conte and Andrew Atkinson

It was late May 2018, and the new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility at King’s College London was due to open formally in September. Wellcome and British Heart Foundation had both made significant investments into new equipment for the Facility alongside King’s itself.  Director Sasi Conte and Centre Manager Andrew Atkinson were looking for a novel and appropriate way to mark the occasion. Having taken part in an art-science exchange day earlier in the year with interdisciplinary artists at Central St Martins MA in Art and Science, co-organised with The Biochemical Society, Sasi decided to investigate the possibility of a collaborative interdisciplinary project to create an artwork that would celebrate the new facility.

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Fig 1. A view of the NMR Facility at Kings College London

That’s when four artists – Olga, Jill, Gareth and Julie – got involved. We had all been at the art-science exchange day and were keen to see where the project could lead.  The six of us got together several times during June and July to bounce about different ideas, and after experimenting with approaches involving sculpture, illustration, text and print, we settled on developing Olga’s fantastic idea for a lenticular etching – a print that would show a different image depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The etching would feature two different types of image produced by the NMR Facility.

We also wanted to create a bespoke frame to complement the work and to incorporate the text that would commemorate the launch, so we started to design a hand-crafted zinc frame onto which the text would be etched. Frequent conversations between all six of us over email and in person meant that everyone could express their thoughts and input into the process. Bringing together so many perspectives – art and science from a number of different viewpoints – was challenging but always constructive.

A frenzied few weeks followed as we artists tested different images, identified the best paper to fold to create the lenticular effect and experimented with finishes for the frame.  Meanwhile we also tried several versions of one image and none of us – artists or scientists –  felt any of them were quite right. Andrew decided to run a new experiment overnight especially for the project, a NMR spectrum that demonstrated the possibilities of the equipment whilst also having specific aesthetic qualities – and that version worked perfectly.

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Fig 2. A test for the lenticular print (digitally printed)

From then on it was all systems go with etching the plate for the print, running off the final print and folding the image. The frame was cut, etched and riveted. And the whole piece was put together, ready for the launch event at King’s College London on 4th September.

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Fig 3. Olga in action with the printing press

At the event, the print was unveiled to an audience of over one hundred scientists at the launch conference by the Principal of King’s College London. A video onscreen showed the audience the lenticular effect and drew gasps of appreciation.

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Fig 4. Unveiling the artwork at the Launch Symposium – Professor Sasi Conte with President & Principal of King’s College London, Professor Edward Byrne AC and Professor Metin Avkiran (BHF)

So what were the benefits of getting a group of scientists and artists working together on a project like this? At the most basic level it provided a totally original way of commemorating the opening of a major new facility, but there was much more to it than that. It was also an example of the value of bringing together a variety of perspectives and knowledge about different aspects of the work – from the value, purposes and capabilities of the invaluable NMR spectrometers to the ins and outs of etching and printing. Combining all those points of view created a far richer outcome than working within disciplines. And in the end the artwork was a metaphor for this, encompassing as it does two potentially different viewpoints that form a united whole.

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Fig 5. The interdisciplinary group – left to right: Jill Mueller, Andrew Atkinson, Gareth Morgan, Sasi Conte, Olga SuchanovaJulie Light – on location at Thameside Print Studio

About the Authors:

The artists:
Olga Suchanova, Jill Mueller and Julie Light recently completed the MA in Art and Science at Central St Martins and all specialise in interdisciplinary art drawing on scientific themes. Gareth Morgan has an MA in Drawing from Wimbledon College of Art, building on his previous career as a cell biologist. You can find out more about each artist here: Gareth Morgan, Jill Mueller, Julie Light

Instagram: olgasuchanova01


The scientists:
Sasi Conte is Professor of Structural Biology and Director of the Centre for Biomolecular Spectroscopy at King’s College London.  Andrew Atkinson is Manager of the NMR Facility at King’s College London. Both are experts in the NMR methodology to investigate structure and function of molecules important for life.

You can find out more about Prof. Conte’s profile and research and the activities of the Centre at the websites below:

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/lsm/research/divisions/randall/research/sections/structural/conte/contesasi.aspx

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/research/corefacilities/smallrf/biospectroscopy/index.aspx

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