JANUARY 17, 2012

STUDIO VISIT: ART + BIOLOGY = JOANA RICOU
By Dan Teran, Artsicle, January 17, 2012

Joana RicouBushwick, Brooklyn, NYC

You studied a combination of biology and art at Carnegie Melon- how has that influenced you as an artist, what was your experience like studying art in such a prestigious academic institution?

Carnegie Mellon was the reason I came to the United States in the first place. My interest in art and science was virtually impossible to conciliate in Portugal, when I was starting college. I came to CMU initially to do a summer internship in a lab - I wanted to learn what it meant to do "scientific research." The fantastic multidisciplinary activity that was going on in this university blew my mind. There is a genuine, earnest interest in the value produced by both science and art. When I eventually transferred to CMU I spent a bit of time pretty lost.. Trying to do both without a vision of how to combine them. Working in a lab and a studio at the same time, I eventually realized that the two are actually inseparable in my mind: science is both an inspiration and a medium for art, and art is not only a means to “digest" the new concepts pouring out of science but a means to explore new hypothesis. Thanks CMU!

What drove you towards expressing biological themes through your art? Can you explain some of the concepts you've explored in your recent work.

I always loved science but until l I tried to make art out of it, I would not be able to tell you why. But the answer is very simple: what people are studying right now in biology labs is really challenging how we think about ourselves, our individual identities and our society. But we tend to miss these revolutions in the tsunami of information that we are bombarded with everyday.

During the summer of 2004 I interned with Dr. Alison Barth, a neuroscientist who was studying how mice learn at CMY. We were studying how the brain physically changed during learning. The brain changes with learning! Learning is a biological process! This was just the tip of the iceberg: findings usually confined to the somewhat isolated sphere of science or health are turning out to be inseparable from psychological, social and existential questions. What does it mean when we find biological foundations for emotions like fear or for psychological constructs like instinct? Art, including oil painting, has always been a tool for scientists to study and communicate their understanding of the human body. It makes sense to me to use it to explore what we are learning today.

Can you talk a little bit about your most recent series?

Currently, I’m exploring the natural discontinuity and boundaries in the body, which are to me fundamental concepts in defining our sense of self, our individual identities.

Walt Whitman has an awesome line: “I contain multitudes!” This sentiment really resonates with my personal experience and increasingly, with what we are discovering in labs today. We, our bodies and minds, are made of many parts, and many types of parts, some very old, some very new, constantly running together, in parallel and in opposition. Biology allows us many perspectives to distinguish different aspects of our bodies and mind.

For example, until now, we tended to think of the human body as a single and whole organism, neatly delineated by a layer of skin and organized by a central organ. But what does it mean if the human body includes more non-human than human cells? Or that intention and decision making may be happening at the cellular level? Or that, recent discoveries suggest that our mind may be as discontinuous as the body, fleeting between different collaborating and competing programs, all modulated by memory, chemistry and perception?

I’m making a series of paintings, from more figurative to more abstract, that explore these concepts…the complicit multiplicity of our individual identity.

When you conceptualize a new project or series, what is your process to articulate an idea and translate it from a thought to a work of art?

Let me give you a concrete example. A few years ago I came across HeLa cells. These cells came from a woman called Henrietta Lacks who died in the 1950’s of a cancer. A biopsy was taken from her tumor and, like any biopsy that you or why might do today, was sent to research labs to be used in whatever studies were needed. Well, Henrietta’s cells turned out to be immortal. This is completely unique. My cells, for example, if kept in culture will die after a few weeks or months. So would anyone’s. Our cells are programmed to divide so many times and eventually die off. This is in part a mechanism to prevent cancer. Well, Henrietta’s cancer cells have sidetracked this mechanism and as far as we can tell will live forever. This has transformed the pharmaceutical industry. HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells are now produced in factories all over the world and are used in the medical research everywhere. Over fifty years since Henrietta’s passing there are more HeLa cells alive today than there ever were in her body. This is fascinating to me. This is immortality. But whose? Who is HeLa?

I came across this story by meeting a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate student maybe back in 2006. His lab was studying how cells move about and he was learning a method that would help them visualize the skeleton of the cell. His study had not gone well: he had tried to stain some specific structures in the cells and ended up lighting it up like a Christmas tree. The image was full of noise - scientifically it was useless, but to me, it was gold. I talked further with him and visited his lab. He provided me with hundred of pictures of HeLa cells and let me observe the samples themselves under the microscope. I took these into the studio and created a painting series that explores the cell skeleton, a structure dynamically formed and destroyed, as an expression of the cell’s decidion making. The cell is the fundamental “fragment” of the body … what happens when an immortal cell transcends its mortal body?

How did you first get involved with Artsicle- what has been your experience so far?

I met Alex and Scott at a panel about art and technology. The panelists were discussing the many new websites where artists could sign up and upload new work. I wondered, with so many web sites out there asking artists to participate, how do you chose which one is worth it? Which one is the right fit? How can a web site be worthwhile for thousands of artists at one time? Alex and Scott turned over at the end and told me about Artsicle. It still feels like divine providence. Although they are both very busy, we’ve kept in touch and I have always felt that they personally liked my work and that’s why I’m a part of the project; Artsicle artists have been individually selected because Artsicle believes in our work and our potential. When the internet arrived, many people talked about how it would democratize art, but that promise hasn’t fully realized. In many ways, the same gatekeepers just opened shop on-line. Artsicle, by actively looking for emerging artists and by finding ways of helping people collect their first artwork, is delivering on the promise.

What does the future of fine art look like to you? What should it look like?

Ahah, when I know I promise I’ll share.

Well played, Joana. Well played.

Joana's Art, Joana's Profile

Photography and text by Dan Teran for Artsicle, special thanks to Casey Kelbaugh.