Angela McQuillan’s SubDermal Networks – A Conversation with Tyler Kline

Angela McQuillan is a Philadelphia-based Artist, Educator and Curator working in Philadelphia in the emerging braided fields of bio-replication, biomimicry, and visceral traditionally based art practices. Angela holds degrees in both Biology and Painting, and has over a decade of experience working as a scientist in various roles including academic research and pharmaceuticals as well as a curator trailblazing exhibitions that intersect science, art, and sociology.

Tyler Kline: Hello Angela. Let’s talk about where you stand at the intersection of art and biology.

Angela McQuillan: Hi Tyler, thanks so much for inviting me to do this! First of all, I just want to say that this is a very complex question to answer so I will try to do the best I can.  As an artist and also a biological organism, I am extremely interested in the processes that happen inside of a body and the relationships between organisms inside of an ecosystem, no matter how big or small.  As can be demonstrated by the current pandemic we are experiencing, even one tiny virus that is invisible to the human eye can cause rampant destruction on a global scale.  Biology can be terrifying and tragic, but it can also be beautiful and unexpected. I find artistic inspiration in things that are living, growing and constantly changing. The natural world is incredibly resilient while also being incredibly fragile, and I am constantly amazed at the new discoveries that scientists make on a daily basis.  I think that art is essentially a reflection of life and of society, and that we are living in an age where science and biotechnology play a very important role in our daily lives now and in our future.

TK:  Do you think art can be more than just a reflection? Do you think art can actively shape policy and create an intellectual environment necessary for deep thinking and discoveries of insight?

AM:  I think that art has many purposes and can definitely be used to raise important questions that have the potential to shape policy and spark new dialogues. Art that focuses specifically on the topic of science and technology has the power to examine these disciplines from a brand new perspective.  Scientists are usually more focused on making new discoveries while artists are able to focus their energies more on investigating the cultural implications of these outcomes; and ask the “whys” and “what if’s.”  I think it is imperative that people stay informed and up to date on scientific studies and evidence-based information in order for us to make educated decisions in all aspects of our lives.  This is hard to do in our current society due to the prevalence of fake news and the myriad ways that facts are twisted and even disregarded.  The best way to get evidence-based information is to read scientific papers, but since most non-scientists have a hard time with this, there is a huge information gap.  Artists have the ability to present these ideas from a creative perspective and provide an entry point for the public to participate in complex scientific dialogue.  I don’t believe that the role of the artist is to educate the public because this can be problematic in many ways, however I do think that any meaningful piece of artwork should have the ability to spark a discussion that inspires people to investigate new modes of thinking. 

While attending art school I was working in a cancer research laboratory and doing a lot of work with fluorescence microscopy.  I found these tiny worlds to be insanely beautiful and this experience has always had an influence on my artwork.  I am really fascinated by the patterns and processes found in nature, and in regards to scale, I believe that there are many similarities that can be drawn between microscopic and macroscopic systems.  For example, tiny single cells have the ability to communicate with each other through their own language of chemical signals and send messages to one about their environment.  Trees in a forest also have the ability to communicate with one another in a different way but for a similar purpose.  Networks exist everywhere, from neuronal networks to social networks, and the interconnectedness of all things is something that really inspires me.  

I did a series of micrographs called “Pond Scum” a few years ago that was presented at “Art in the Open” where I focused on microscopic organisms living in the Schuylkill river.  I love the idea of looking at a body of water that appears calm to the naked human eye, but upon further investigation you realize that it is teeming with millions of tiny creatures, all of them essential to the planet in some way. 

TK: I would like to touch on the distinction you made between artists and scientists, being that scientists were looking to make new discoveries and artists asking questions such as “why,” and “what if.”  Do you think the intersection of art can create a cross pollination of methodology? Artists are becoming influenced by microscopic structures and have the ability to construct hyperbolic spaces through digital fabrication in ways that were unavailable without advanced technologies, and scientists can take influence from aesthetic theory and critique the bias of their own methodology and findings.

AM:  I definitely think that there can and should be a cross pollination of methodology. Artists can most certainly be scientists and vice versa, and the most interesting outcomes occur when these lines are blurred. I started a Bioart Residency Program at the University Science Center in 2017 and have been facilitating collaborations between artists and scientists from the biotech company Integral Molecular for the past 3 years. Through this process I have observed ways that artists with no formal scientific training are able to integrate themselves into a laboratory setting and learn about the most cutting edge advances in scientific technology.  These types of residencies should never be one-sided however, an artist is not only there to take knowledge away, but to also influence the scientific process as well. A true collaboration involves both sides coming together with an equal power dynamic. Aesthetic theory is important, but I also think that artists have a unique way of approaching problem solving that could be influential when it comes to developing new scientific experiments.

TK: Your BioArt Residency program is fascinating on many levels. Can you talk about an instance in which this residency created the conditions for a two way cross pollination of innovation and discoveries in both disciplines?  One of your projects that I find fascinating was your art in the open project where you took pictures of organisms found in the Schuylkill magnified through a microscope. Would you like to talk about that project and if you would like to pick that technique up again?

AM: I don’t know of any instances in this residency program that has led to any major scientific discoveries, although I definitely think it is possible given the right circumstances.  One specific project was done by artist Laura Splan where she learned how to use a specific molecular modelling software called Pymol. Being the tech-savvy artist that she is, Laura just started playing around with the program without any specific outcome in mind.  Through this playful experimentation, she was able to create some great digital animations of protein molecules as art pieces, and subsequently discovered a few new applications for the software that the scientists were not familiar with.  

In regards to my Pond Scum project, I have always been really interested in processes that are happening under the surface, or invisible to the human eye.  I love bodies of water – oceans, streams, lakes, ponds…. I am attracted to the calmness and serenity of water and its surrounding nature.  What I find most amazing is the amount of life that goes on under the surface and how essential it is to the entire ecosystem.  We can’t see the green algae or the diatoms with our naked eye, but with the help of a microscope they become visible and they are incredibly beautiful. I love the photosynthetic pigments of these organisms encapsulated in their transparent cases, almost like tiny precious gems made of glass. This project was originally done for a 3-day event called Art in the Open in Philadelphia, and then I continued this work for about a year.  I would definitely pick it up again, I really enjoy going out into the wild and gathering water samples. It is definitely a seasonal project, since there is almost nothing in the water during the cold months. 

Angela McQuillan  collecting some pond scum.

There is definitely something in the water regarding Angela’s artistic practice.  McQuillan conjures landscapes that defy easy categorization and deftly play with scale; micro and macro orbit each other, a tandem dance that includes movements in biological structure, distributed networks, and functions that without advanced imaging remain invisible to the Eye.  Angela’s compositions grow through a Mandelbrot Fractal building of forms, mutating iterations, creating variation through repetition.  Through an intuitive investigation of copreal processes of function: cell replication, leakage, and decay, Angela is helping to create an intuitive and unique aesthetic, full of essential fluids, hearty visera, and internal strategies.  

Furthermore, McQuillan has brought an artist’s intuition into curating, workshops and community building. She is a former member of the Little Berlin curatorial/artist collective in Philadelphia, where she received a Knight Foundation grant in 2013 for the Little Berlin Fairgrounds Project. For two years, she directed this project to convert a vacant lot into a public art and garden space. To this date, Angela has curated over 40 art exhibitions relating to science and technology, including exhibitions by internationally recognized artists working specifically with biological media. Angela currently works as both the Curator at the Esther Klein Gallery, and the Director of the University City Science Center’s BioArt Residency which she founded in 2017. This residency program recently won the 2019 Art + Business Partnership Award by the Philadelphia Arts & Business Council. Angela is also a current member of the Grizzly Grizzly artist collective based in Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in prominent publications such as The New York Times, Forbes and SciArt in America.

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