Heavenly Bodies is a collaboration between poet Natalie Crick and photographic artist Lorna MacKay.
During a residency which brought together three Newcastle University postgraduate students across the disciplines of Art, Literature, and Medicine, Crick and MacKay responded to research carried out by scientist Megan McNiff at the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research (WCMR) in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Mitochondria are organelles found in the cells of every complex living organism and are believed to be the bacterial organism from which human life evolved. They are known as the powerhouse of the cells of the human body; they play an essential role in converting oxygen and food into energy. If they stop working properly then damaged mitochondria can lead to mitochondrial disease - a term given to a group of medical disorders caused by mutations in mitochondria.
Megan's Workbench. Collodion wet plate tin type.
All images created for this project were made using collodion wet plate photographic ambrotypes and tintypes, the latter of which was patented in 1856, just one year before the role of mitochondria within the human body was discovered. This complex process has been revived in the Northeast by Andy Martin, a local creative practitioner, whose skill-sharing and equipment have been invaluable throughout the residency. Natalie's poems were then written in conversation with the photography, most of which was made through a series of serendipitous chemical experiments.
The work created during this collaborative residency references the aspects of research that were encountered first-hand at Newcastle's WCMR - clonal manipulation, DNA extraction and the fluid, unpredictable behaviour of mitochondria.
This project is a homage to energy, the body's ability to generate it, and to the scientists at Newcastle's WCMR who strive to understand and implement new strategies for preventing and treating mitochondrial disease.
Much of the research carried out at the WCMR is patient-focused. As mitochondrial disease is passed on through the mother, there can be considerable stigma attached to it. The centre made national news in recent years following the discovery of a groundbreaking technique dubbed 'three-person IVF' which involves combining the healthy nucleus of a donor with a that of a patient, greatly reducing the risk of mitochondrial disease being passed on to the child. At the forefront of mitochondrial research, the staff at the centre have been able to make scientific breakthroughs that have positively transformed the lives of people the world over.
Megan's work focuses on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, which in time can expand within cells leading to biochemical dysfunction. In understanding the process of clonal expansion and trying to manipulate it therapeutically, this has lead to novel approaches in targeting mitochondrial dysfunction.
Some of the tintype and ambrotype photography directly reference the practical aspects of Megan's work and the everyday objects used for DNA extraction - freezers, tin foil, a pestle and mortar - while others draw on the language used in her research. 'Immortalising' cells, clonal expansion and therapeutic manipulation were procedures that had to be imagined. The images allude to that which is not visible to the human eye without high quality equipment. What at first appears microscopic could easily be telescopic imagery of faraway planets and constellations. The title of this project is a play on that. It also raises questions about the simple act of looking in understanding.
Following initial laboratory visits, the majority of the collaborative residency was carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic when access to the WCMR laboratory was rarely possible, posing challenges on interpreting visual scientific data without a designated space or relevant technology for carrying out process heavy research.
The abstract tintypes are the outcome of intentionally 'spoiling' the photo plates: developed plates that were unsatisfactory were then painted with photo chemicals and nicotinamide riboside (a vitamin compound used by McNiff for her in vivo research). They were then left overnight to allow chemical reactions to occur. In these instances, the chemicals and vitamins become the artist - a testimony to the chance nature of experiments.
At a time when the public holds scientific knowledge and medical research in higher regard than they have done for generations, the work produced during the residency highlights the importance of public engagement with the medical community.
A limited edition artists' book is the result of the poetry and photography created during the residency. A selection of work was displayed during a group exhibition at Vane Gallery in August 2021.
Vane Gallery 2021 © Colin Davison
Vane Gallery 2021 © Colin Davison