Clathrin? In a Work of Art? At ASCB 2015?

The digital artist and the cell biologist: Rudolfo Quintas (left) and Tom Kirchhausen in front of the orginal “Absorption” installation. Photo courtesy of Tom Kirchhausen

The digital artist and the cell biologist: Rudolfo Quintas (left) and Tom Kirchhausen in front of the orginal “Absorption” installation. Photo courtesy of Tom Kirchhausen

Alas, there have been few great works of art about cell biology and fewer still about endocytosis. Indeed, maybe none, that is, until now. Coming to the ASCB Learning Center at the 2015 Annual Meeting in San Diego is one of that rare breed, a highly interactive, sculpture-like art installation created by a Portuguese digital media artist collaborating with a Harvard Medical School (HMS) cell biologist. If you are into clathrin, “Absorption,” as artist Rudolfo Quintas calls it, will make your heart sing. Cell biologists at ASCB 2015 in San Diego, December 12-16, will be able to see—and be absorbed by—this endocytic artwork inside the ASCB Learning Center from Sunday through Tuesday of the Annual Meeting.

“Absorption” looks something like an unfolding clathrin-coated pit if you can imagine clathrin protein triskelions assembling into a 2,000 pound steel shell. Tucked into the steel clathrin pit are LED projectors focused on an enormous central screen, all controlled by custom software, an X-Box, and infrared sensors. When an art-loving cell biologist like yourself steps into an unmarked sweet spot in front of the installation, “Absorption” takes note, translating your movements into a 3-D spray of brilliant colors and shapes that slowly coalesce into a vesicle disappearing into a hazy cell membrane. Your presence is drawn into “Absorption.”

This is real art based on real science, the result of a two-week residence by Quintas in the HMS lab of longtime ASCB member Tom Kirchhausen. They met at a street art fair in Portugal. Quintas, who has an engineering background, and Kirchhausen, who has a longtime interest in science-based art, hit it off at once. (In 2008, Kirchhausen collaborated with ASCB member Janet Iwasa on a spectacular clathrin animation that won ASCB’s Celldance video contest that year.)

Quintas applied for an arts and science grant from the Portuguese government and, in the spring of 2014, arrived in Boston. Kirchhausen sent Quintas straight to the lab bench, assigning him to work each day with a different postdoc or graduate student. At day’s end, Quintas would give him a summary of what he had done and what he had learned. The artist was a quick study, says Kirchhausen. “His education was in visual arts and computer graphics engineering. Rudolfo had zero biology so this was his first encounter. It was impressive to see how fast he absorbed everything.” Kirchhausen was also impressed by the scientific content of the drawings, notes, and blueprints from Quintas after he returned to Portugal to fabricate the structure, assemble the technology, and work with multimedia designer Mario Dominquez to program it. “Absorption” had its first gallery showing last March in Lisbon, happily while an international endocytosis meeting was in town. Kirchhausen dragged former ASCB President Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz to the gallery and she too was impressed. “Absorption” was something that should be seen at the ASCB meeting, Lippincott-Schwartz declared.

The version that Quintas, with help from Dominquez, is bringing to show in San Diego is really “Absorption 1.1,” says Kirchhausen. The supporting structure was rebuilt in steel, the electronics rearranged, and the software tweaked. “Absorption” will be up and running when the ASCB Learning Center opens on Sunday, turning cell biologists into vesicles through Tuesday. The artist and the scientist will be on hand Monday to answer questions about their unusual collaboration.

About the Author:

John Fleischman was the ASCB Senior Science Writer from 2000 to 2016. Best unpaid perk of the job? Working with new grad students and Nobel Prize winners.