Neuroscience gets creative

Memory and Matter by Heather Komus. Dehydrated mushrooms. Photo credit: Dr. Sari Hannila

The lonely scientist is an endangered creature. Today, you can not become a champion of science if you do not build successful collaborations that cross scientific borders.  But are scientific collaborations enough?  Some neuroscientists at the University of Manitoba have experimented (pun intended!) with the idea of crossing an even greater divide; one that crosses artistic borders, where neuroscience intersects with art.

In March 2017, the Neurocraft exhibit opened in the John Buhler Research Centre Atrium at the University of Manitoba Bannatyne Campus. Neurocraft is a collaborative project between local neuroscientists and artists.  Together they work to create artworks inspired by the brain and neuroscience.  This collaborative project was initiated by Dr. Sari Hannila (Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Science, University of Manitoba; Manitoba Neuroscience Network Director of Outreach), who’s research focuses on myelin and axonal regeneration in neurodegenerative diseases. While publications are the holy grail for scientific knowledge transfer and dissemination, its reach is often limited to scientific circles.  Some of the significant challenges scientists face when it comes to knowledge sharing are visibility, communicability, and accessibility of their research to the broader public.  This integral need for public outreach is the driving force behind Neurocraft.  Inspired by David Byrne’s (formerly of the Talking Heads) Neurosociety, which is a series of interactive environments that simulate experiments from collaborating neuroscience labs, Neurocraft aims to bring the public closer to the bench and to humanize the science.

Over two-years, nine pairings of neuroscientists and craft artists collaborated to create artworks that reflected their craft and science.  From these pairings, a collection of pieces ranging from mixed-media sculptures, prints, as well as, wool thread, light, video and other installations make up Neurocraft.  There were several interesting pieces in the exhibit, such as Memory and Matter by Heather Komus, who worked with Dr. Kristine Cowley (Department of Physiology and Pathophysiology, University of Manitoba; Spinal Cord Research Centre).  In this wall installation, dehydrated mushrooms were arranged in the shape of the brain.  This piece draws a parallel between a network of fungal mycelium and neuronal connections within the brain.  Some collaborations, bred something more eerie yet fantastical, like the collection of small ceramic creatures that look out of this world in Thalamuseum by Peter Tittenburger.  This was inspired by the work of Dr. Gilbert Kirouac (Department of Oral Biology, University of Manitoba), who studies how the thalamus mediates emotions and motivation.  One of the most enticing pieces in the entire exhibit however, belongs to Chantel Mierau who collaborated with now retired neurosurgeon and scientist, Dr. Jerry Krcek, to create a retro video of a brain modeled from yarn shaking on screen.

Other artworks were more personal, like the wool thread installation, Blood Clots, by Dana Kletke, who was paired with Dr. Tiina Kauppinen (Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics, University of Manitoba; Kleysen Institute for Advanced Medicine).   This piece was created from red felt wool and arranged to hang like blood vessels with clots.  Dana’s installation reflected her family’s experience with stroke.  Another personal piece, came from Lesley Nakonechny and Dr. Michael Jackson (Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics, University of Manitoba; Kleysen Institute for Advanced Medicine).  Together they used their individual experiences with Alzheimer’s disease and family portraits to create a series of prints that become successively faded to represent the gradual memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.

Anne Stinner with Dr. Tabrez Siddiqui, Ash Alberg with Dr. Melanie Martin, Gaëtanne Sylvester with Dr. Eftekhar Eftekharpour, and Michelle Wilson with Dr. Marc Del Bigio also contributed art work to Neurocraft.  This exhibit was curated by Seema Goel, who has a background in visual arts/craft and sciences, and is currently the artist-in-residence at the Faculty of Science, University of Manitoba. Neurocraft was on exhibit from Mar 3 to 21st, 2017.