December 2016 | Issue 27
Medicine-inspired art at NTU’s North Spine

Set to sounds of soft atmospheric instrumental music, black ink patterns languidly extend, spreading from their roots across the 16m-long LED video wall installed at the passageway of NTU’s North Spine Plaza.

Called Urban Circuitry by Art, Design & Media (ADM) student Tan Kwang Boon (known as KB), this interpretation of the theme Echoes of the City is one of two works in the exhibition that found art in medicine.

Watching the artwork unfold, KB hopes to distract viewers with the bulk movement formed by the ink motifs. It is not until the end that we realise that microbes have already grown across the screen.

“We are so engrossed with development, we lose sight of our actions, how it affects the environment and our future. I want viewers to recognise that our perception is often cluttered by the matter we wish to see rather than what is there,” said KB, who likens urbanisation to a spreading pathogen that simultaneously harms nature and creates something of beauty.

Art - KB bacteria.jpgArt - KB bacteria growth over time.gif 
KB draws inspiration from bacterial cultures (Source: https://www.behance.net/gallery/45585509/Urban-Circuitry)

Echoes of the City was created in collaboration between NTU Museum and ADM students and features works that use a variety of techniques ranging from digital animation to generative art and interactive data-driven pieces that were developed using visual and real-time development such as Processing, the Unity game-engine and TouchDesigner.

ADM Associate Professor Ina Conradi, who was the faculty in charge of this impressive exhibit, said, “The final works examine the built environment at varying levels; from the microscopic and intangible to the grandiose and abstract.”

Art - Ummi final piece.jpgUmmi's final piece Mutation shows patterns inspired by human tissues invaded by a virus (Courtesy of Ummi Kaltsum)

KB’s classmate Ummi Kaltsum too found inspiration in human biology. “My work was inspired by the reaction of human cells to a viral attack, brought to mind by the recent global Zika virus outbreak. So I started looking at microscopic patterns in human anatomy,” said Ummi.

So she turned to NTU’s medical school for help. Working with the laboratory team at LKCMedicine, she learned new skills, including basic microscopy and received guidance on where anatomy’s best patterns can be found.

“They even helped me get the view that best captured the pattern I was interested in,” said Ummi, who was enchanted by the patterns in skeletal muscle, bone, brain and tongue tissue. Her final work Mutation was created by mixing the patterns of different cells together.

Human scalp inspiration for Ummi.JPGHuman skin inspiration for Ummi.JPGSkeletal muscle inspiration for Ummi.JPGUmmi is inspired by patterns found in human anatomy - shown here are patterns in brain, skin and skeletal muscle tissue (Courtesy of Ummi Kaltsum)

Like Ummi, KB benefitted from the help of the lab team. “They helped me get the right materials and taught me the standard procedures for handling bacterial cultures and how long it takes for the different bacteria to grow, which made my work much easier,” added KB.

LKCMedicine Laboratory Senior Assistant Manager Darren Lim, who works closely with the medical students, was happy that he and his team could lend a helping hand to students from other schools. He said, “Anyone can be taught how to use a piece of equipment, but seeing beauty in something ordinary requires a sense of appreciation, curiosity and plenty of imagination. They have truly showcased the artists in them.”

Echoes of the City is the latest public art installation under Media Art Nexus, which was launched in June 2016, bringing art by NTU’s multidisciplinary community to the campus and public. Conceived by NTU Museum Deputy Director Ms Faith Teh, Assoc Prof Conradi, Giant Monster founder and animation veteran Mark Chavez, Media Art Nexus is becoming a new landmark on the NTU campus, displaying new works every semester.

The diverse platform allows artists and students to use any data as a source for sound and visuals, creating intense and impactful art experiences that transform the otherwise plain passageway into a fascinating spectacle of light, sounds and views.

Conceived with a vision to showcase interactive artworks, Media Art Nexus aims to promote interdisciplinary collaborations in art, design, science, medicine and engineering technologies. Assoc Prof Conradi hopes that the collaboration with LKCMedicine continues to grow, allowing students and artists to exploit the many different imaging techniques used in the lab and clinic for creating imaginative art media for this impressive, large-scale digital canvas.

LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for Years 1 & 2 Professor Michael Ferenczi, who helped set up the collaboration, said that medicine offers an abundance of data types that can be visually represented. “One can think of games, races, life and death of microbes, breathing molecular structures, spreading infections, patient movement through healthcare institutions, signalling pathways, brain activity and many, many more,” he said.

Echoes of the City is on display until 31 January 2017. For more, see the Echoes of the City exhibition poster.