Flow State

Flow State was an interactive digital video sculpture commissioned by the Francis Crick Institute in London.

flow state interactive digital video sculpture
Flow State – Photo by Fiona Hanson

The installation explored the work of the Francis Crick Institute, a place dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Alex May created this stunning digital artwork by juxtaposing and overlaying hundreds of film clips collected through unprecedented access to the landmark building, the scientists and the research taking place inside.

The title refers to the creative process at the heart of both artistic and scientific creativity and alludes to the flow of genetic information in molecular biology. In May’s own work he frequently describes entering a flow state when he edits and layers film or writes the bespoke software he uses to create his artworks. Similarly, scientists describe entering flow states as they perform repetitive, rhythmic tasks in the laboratory. The work explores the similarities between artistic and scientific creativity.

Alex May said: “It has been an incredible and complex journey for me to work in collaboration with a whole institution. I want the work to show the beauty and diversity of the scientific research I have been so privileged to be allowed to observe, the importance of the researchers themselves, and the way this huge new institute facilitates new ways of working.”

Flow State was situated in the front window of the Francis Crick Institute, opposite St Pancras Station. The interactive sculpture changed as viewers approach it, revealing new details about the research and the life of the institute. A Raspberry Pi computer controls each screen. The reverse of the sculpture reveals a stunning light installation based on a sequence of DNA, the structure of which was co-discovered by Sir Francis Crick himself.

The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping to understand why disease develops and to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.

An independent organisation, its founding partners are the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, Wellcome, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

The physical artwork was deinstalled in September 2020.

Flow State: Epitaph

A post-visualisation of Flow State with a new original soundtrack created by Alex May in 2020.

News

  • Talk: Digital Arts Practice in the time of the Pandemic - July 20, 2020
    Alex May will preview new work in response to the pandemic lock down, exploring the opportunities and drawbacks of dissemination of digital arts online.
  • TECHnique Interview - March 24, 2020
    Richard F Adams speaks to Alex May, a British contemporary artist whose practice forges links between art, science and technology through a wide range of digital new media.
  • Trebuchet Audio Interview - January 4, 2020
    A recording of the live interview from Trebuchet’s Time & Space talks event in October 2019
  • Artistic Exploration of BioRobotics and Sequencing - January 31, 2019
    Alex May gave a talk about art science collaboration, robot art projects, Flow State, Sequence VR, sequence music, and algorithmic photography at the SynBio and Art conference at Warwick University.
  • Francis Crick Institute commission - June 1, 2017
    Alex May Arts has been awarded a prestigious art commission to design and create a captivating new digital artwork for permanent installation in the front window of the Francis Crick Institute in London. The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping ...

Francis Crick Institute Q&A With Alex May

What are the ideas behind Flow State?

Flow State is an interactive video sculpture that was designed to aesthetically communicate a sense of the scale and complexity of the research and development that goes on in the Francis Crick Institute to the public outside of the building.

The shape of the sculpture is based on phylogenetic tree diagrams that are used to show the evolutionary relationships among biological species, and was chosen to reference the fundamental links between all the different types of research within the building and the fragmentation of human knowledge: i.e. we don’t know all the answers, so we don’t have a complete picture.

Playing across the screens, there is a main video artwork that is about 15 minutes long. I created it out of imagery generated in a wide range of labs that the public would normally never get to see as they are only used as part of a process for extracting data for further analysis. I liked the idea of including the public in the journey of science, even if it is on an aesthetic level, and not just benefiting from the final results of the work.

As one physically walks towards the sculpture, the internal camera detects your presence, and the videos change and begin showing collages of video I filmed around the building and in the labs. A key message I wanted to convey was that the closer you look, the more information is revealed. This is in reference to processes such as whole genome sequencing, where we can now routinely and quickly decode DNA resulting in massive amounts of ‘big data’, which creates challenges of how to crunch such huge sets of information down to extract new insights.

Finally, I wanted to show the hands of the scientists doing their real day to day activities. To generate and process all the data required for research, people spend an enormous amount of time doing repetitive manual actions such as transferring tiny but accurate amounts of various fluids from one place to another. The scientists who have to do these processes describe entering into a ‘flow state’, which is where the name of the work comes from.

What drives you to create?

In my art practice, I’m fascinated in how digital technologies impact our ability to study the processes of reality and beyond, and how this affects the dynamics and cohesion of society and the recording of culture. I fell in love with programming computers early in my life, and knowing how these systems work gives me an understanding and common language enabling me to work in a wide range of subject areas. Much of science, even biological science, is facilitated or at least augmented by digital systems, so even as an artist I can have a conversation with scientists about their processes because I can understand them on that technical level.

What intrigued you about working with the Crick?

The scale of the institute, the building, and its range of activities presented a huge challenge to get my head around. Generally my experience of art/science projects is that you deep dive into a particular area of research, whereas the Crick covers a lot of different and varied subjects. For me, it was the first time working across the entirety of a large science institution. It was also an amazing opportunity to see around this purpose designed building – I’ve definitely seen more parts of it than most of the people that work there – and experience many of the labs with scientists who were very generous with their time and provided me with the wonderful imagery from their research.

What was your impression on returning to the building in 2017 when it was fully occupied, following your building tour during construction in 2014?

It reminded me of the short film by Charles and Ray Eames called ‘Powers of Ten’ which is about the relative scale of the universe. In it, the camera zooms into the skin of a human hand and doesn’t stop zooming until you see a single atom. During the project, it struck me that a great deal of science revolves around scale: the seeing beyond the physical limitations of our human senses by employing increasingly sophisticated technology to reveal structure and new data that provides new insights and deeper understanding. My original impression of the building was just marvelling at the huge scale and complexity of it. Returning to the Crick when people were working was a journey to the microscopic and beyond. As a whole, the Crick contains both macro and micro systems existing simultaneously. That experience directly informed aspects of the final artwork.

What was it like working with Crick scientists?

There were specific areas of research, especially ones that require extensive equipment like the electron microscope department, where I was able to see the tools that they use to do their work and see the data they produce first hand. It’s informative to see how real science is done and talked about, rather than the sensationalised version in films and TV. In one lab they asked me if they should get the coloured dyes out as people who come to film in their labs usually want images of scientists thoughtfully staring at pretty liquids in test tubes. They were slightly taken aback when I said I wanted to film what they really do all day.

Why do you think it is important that artists and scientists collaborate?

I think that scientists and artists are exploring the same general topics, just with different methodologies. The best art/science collaborations are when the scientist and artist share a common passion for the same subject and are interested in what the others’ perspective is. Artists are highly sensitive to piecing together connections across disciplines and a wider historical context. When in conversation directly with the scientists, an artist can produce works that talk insightfully about and around the subject without losing the complexity of it. I believe even highly technical topics can be understood by anyone if they are presented in the right way.

What do you hope viewers of Flow State took away from their experience of it?

I wanted to instil a sense of curiosity as to the nature of the work. I combined the various images and videos that were supplied to me by the labs in the Crick in ways that suggested other natural forms such as fields of flowers and stars in the sky. The intention was to give viewers something they could recognise and latch onto within these complex, abstract, and highly specialised images. From there I hope they would wonder what the parts might actually be, and it is that transition from passive viewer to active questioner that I felt summed up the inherent force behind science, and indeed art: to wonder at existence and try to understand the universe and our place in it.

What was the biggest challenge in creating Flow State?

There were many challenges. The physical form was a complicated jigsaw of unique interlocking parts that I made by hand. Writing the software to synchronize video playback over 28 screens in different dynamic layouts, was a good challenge, too. Probably the biggest was working with an institution as big as the Crick and trying to represent the important work that is taking place there in a respectful way, while balancing my own aesthetic and artistic narratives that developed over the course of working on the project.

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