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Wyss technology featured in New Museum art exhibit

Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson discussed the work with Wyss scientists in virtual panel

By Lindsay Brownell

(BOSTON) — On Friday, Wyss Lead Staff Engineer Richard Novak, Ph.D. and Core Faculty Member George Church, Ph.D. joined a virtual panel discussion with renowned artist Lynn Hershman Leeson to discuss her latest exhibition, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted (through October 3), at the New Museum in New York, which incorporates the Wyss Institute’s AquaPulse water purification technology.

Wyss technology featured in New Museum art exhibit
Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (top left) discussed her collaborations with scientists George Church, Richard Novak, and Thomas Huber, moderated by Takunda Matose (top center). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The piece, called Twisted Gravity, is tied in to Hershman Leeson’s “Water Women” series, begun 40 years ago to explore concepts of evaporation and transcendence. Hershman Leeson came up with the idea for Twisted Gravity following a previous collaboration with Thomas Huber, Ph.D., then an Associate Director at Novartis, when the two decided to focus on purging plastic waste from water. Huber connected Hershman Leeson with Novak, who had helped create AquaPulse, and the two collaborated to produce a piece that ties together art and science.

Twisted Gravity consists of six pedestals, each displaying three plastic panels etched with the figures of women. Three of the pedestals contain AquaPulse units that use electronic pulses to kill pathogens like bacteria in water, while the other three pedestals contain bioreactors that evolve microorganisms that can degrade plastic. Both the levels of pathogen killing and plastic degradation are reflected by changes in the brightness of the panels.

Wyss technology featured in New Museum art exhibit
Hershman Leeson described her piece Twisted Gravity, which features the Wyss Institute’s water purification technology AquaPulse in three of its six pedestals. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Twisted Gravity beautifully reflects dual cycles of technology solving one problem but creating another, and nature creating one problem but solving another,” Novak said during the panel discussion. “Working with Lynn opened our eyes to the counterpoint of our water purification system: we’re using a plastic system to kill bacteria, what happens to that plastic? Then the evolution concept came in of evolving bacteria to degrade plastics. That concept has spawned an entirely new research project at the Wyss Institute – let’s use bacteria to solve the human waste problem of plastic. This collaboration didn’t just create an art installation, but new science as well.”

“I don’t believe in the boundaries between disciplines – the edges are porous, and when you open the edges you get a fresh reinterpretation of possibilities,” Hershman Leeson added. Ever since Leonardo [da Vinci], the consummate artist-scientist, many people have worked with the tools of their time to talk about the issues of their time. [Through collaboration] we can expand all fields and create new pathways toward understanding and solving the issues we’re living through today.”

The panel discussion, moderated by Harvard Philosopher and Bioethicist Takunda Matose, Ph.D., also explored Hershman Leeson’s previous work with Huber, which started when she was researching antibodies and reached out to Novartis as a resource due to the company’s expertise in that area. Huber was the head of an antibody research group at Novartis at the time, and connected with Hershman Leeson. Some of the antibodies they created as part of that collaboration are included as part of her Infinity Engine piece within the New Museum exhibition.

“As a scientist, we are mainly driven by a hypothesis that we want to prove…we already know where our experiments want to lead. Working with Lynn was so open, we had no idea what we wanted to do or where we wanted to get to. It was a great learning experience for me, where I saw that there’s maybe a more artistic approach, and I can now take that openness to exploration into the science environment that I’m exposed to daily,” said Huber during the discussion.

Hershman Leeson’s fascination with the tools of genetic engineering started in 2007, when she learned about the work being done by scientists like Church. The two eventually met and started working together as well, and Church connected her with the company Twist Biosciences, which helped produce the antibodies for her work with Huber. As the discussion’s scope broadened from Twisted Gravity to the potential consequences of advanced technologies, Church offered his perspective:

“I’d like to point out that unintended consequences are not always negative. Basic science is effectively an effort to algorithmically enhance your chance of getting a serendipitous unintended consequence, like [the invention of] penicillin. It’s exciting working with people like Lynn – they’re not focused on the way things are, but what they could be – it’s a more synthetic than analytic mindset. That’s what I find attractive – the intentionality of generating serendipity. Artists tend to ask ahead of engineers, ‘What could we do?’, and their ideas might be kind of crazy. But eventually an adjacent engineer might say, ‘Oh, that’s not so crazy, we can do that.’”

Twisted Gravity premiered in Seoul, South Korea as part of the Guangju Bienniale exhibition in April 2021, and had its US premiere at the New Museum in June. It will remain on view until October 3.

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