Marta de Menezes - Nature?
Marta de Menezes is an artist who works with biological systems - including her own. From altering the pattern in butterfly wings to creating immortal but cancerous cells from her own body and that of her partner, her work explores the big philosophical, ethical and practical questions of where nature starts and stops - and where we take over.
This conversation was recorded as part of MTF Labs in Aveiro, Portugal following a live presentation and her own experiments with the innovators, artists, scientists and inventors assembled both in person and remotely.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. This week, the podcast comes to you directly from MTF Labs in Aveiro, Portugal. We’ve gathered together some brilliant minds in a blended event. Some are here in the room and some are in remote labs as far afield as Norway and Mexico. All collaborating, sharing ideas, making new things, and, where it comes to science and art, crossing the streams as much as possible.
And one of the things that we do in the labs is to have inspirational presentations, performances, and provocations that are exclusively for the labs’ participants and that feed new ideas into their projects and prototypes. Again, some of them are remote around the world.
We had Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, Zoom in from Colorado. Christian Guttmann, the vice president for AI of TietoEVRY, the third largest IT company in the world. He was here in the room. World-leading fashion technologist Lisa Lang. Creator of artificial life Sofia Crespo. Alex Murray-Leslie and Melissa E. Logan from feminist electroclash art band Chicks on Speed. Vocal AI artist Harry Yeff, aka Reeps One. And many, many more all week.
But one incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking presentation was by VIP guest Marta de Menezes. Marta’s a Portuguese visual and installation artist, much of whose work takes place inside scientific laboratories, or that are, by the nature of the installation, transformed into scientific laboratories.
Her first major biological artwork ‘Nature?’, with a question mark after it, involved modifying the wing patterns of live butterflies. And since then she’s used a wide range of biological techniques, including functional MRI of the brain to create portraits where the mind can be visualised, fluorescent DNA probes to create micro sculptures in human cell nuclei, sculptures made out of proteins, DNA, live neurons, and bacteria, and she’s even explored immortality and loneliness by creating cancer from her own cells and those of her partner.
So, of course, we had to have a conversation. I have questions. From a beautiful, creative, and forward-thinking city in one of my favourite countries in the world, this is the brilliant Marta de Menezes. Enjoy.
Dubber Marta de Menezes, thank you for joining us for the MTF Podcast and the MTF Labs here in Aveiro. Welcome.
Marta Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Dubber What brought you here, just out of curiosity?
Marta Curiosity was one thing, and I was invited. So it was first the invitation come, and then it was… I like new experiences, and I’ve never been to an event like this. And I do like when things are being created. I like to watch. It’s a pleasure. And being involved is always a learning curve, so it’s nice.
Dubber Well, it makes a lot of sense that you’re here because a lot of what we do here at MTF is about that collision of science and art, and you probably embody that more than most people. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you describe what you do?
Marta I do art. I do art with a very heavy content in terms of scientific knowledge, but I wouldn’t say… I’m not even sure science and art would be something that… It’s probably not the most descriptive of where you’re putting it.
Dubber Because that makes you think of technology, and what you do is less about robots and machinery and more about…
Marta But very high-end technology. It’s just not the technology we associate with technology, in general. During my career, I’ve thought a lot about “What is technology?”. I think, actually, I started my journey into art and science through my questioning of “What is technology?”, because technology can be making fire, which is as low tech as you can get sometimes, and it can be just incredibly high tech as it can get depending on what materials you use and how you actually go about solving the problem of how to make fire.
So technology, for me, is not just associated with wires and connectors and lights and complicated things. It can be a very simple thing, and I think this is one of the beauties of trying to understand what technology means for us as humans.
Dubber Sure. Tell me about some of those simple things.
Marta Well, technology is about problem-solving, I think. So technology is, one, defining the problem that you have and trying to solve it to the best of your abilities with what you have at hand, and you need to put yourself in a position where what you have at hand will allow you to solve that problem. And that’s probably the most human ingenuity that you can have, is to put yourself into a place where you can solve a problem in an effective and useful way, and I like that.
Dubber Sure. Well, you presented last night here in the Exclusives. We do these inspirational talks as part of the MTF Labs. And it occurs to me that the problems that you’re using technology to solve are problems of biology, philosophy, and emotion all woven together. Do you want to talk about, with specific examples, maybe, how you address those sorts of things?
Marta Okay, I’ll try. So because I’m an artist, I do artworks. At least the way I see it, art is about thinking and rethinking problems that we probably have had since we’ve started thinking. So art has always been about nature. About how we understand nature, how we understand ourselves. And art, for me, has a very privileged position in human activities, which is it has always allowed and made a stand to keep the freedom, to think outside of the box as much as possible, without restraints. Without restraints of production, without restraints of creating something that is useful.
I think the way I understand art is that its major use is to make you think, to make you feel. And feeling is a part of thinking as well. So this is how I see myself as an artist, so all of the problems that I pose as an artist have to do with philosophy. Philosophy is an absolute thinking way of trying to understand and solve problems.
Dubber Sure. But it’s not capital P philosophy, is it? It’s about thinking about what things mean.
Marta I spent a lot of years being intimidated by philosophy. So now I can tell you that I’m not anymore, and so there’s no such thing as philosophy with a capital P.
Dubber Good to hear.
Marta Philosophy is also about how we live, and it shouldn’t be distanced from us. Just like science shouldn’t be distanced from us, and just like art shouldn’t be distanced from us, from people. It’s a big flag that I try to raise every time I can, that art is not just for some, it’s for everybody. So is science and so is philosophy. It’s not something that we should be afraid of.
And it’s something that we should think very carefully, when we think about education, about not making it scary and distant, but, like I was trying to explain, looking into those problems and trying to not necessarily solve them, but raise them, and maybe give different perspectives on how to look at the problems. Because I don’t think art is about solving any problems. It’s important for me to understand.
Since art is very much about nature and about humans and about everything that’s around us and that we are a part of, for me, it makes perfect sense to use those living materials as well to try and pose the questions, pose the problems, frame the problems, maybe, using the material itself and not just secondary representations of it.
Dubber Sure. And when you say living materials, that’s what I mean by the biology. Do you want to talk about what you mean when you say living materials?
Marta Sure. It is very, very literally about using living organisms. Sometimes whole, sometimes parts of them, like cell cultures. And sometimes other organisms, so others. It can be plants, it can be bacteria, viruses. Anything that makes sense.
So the material is dictated by the question or the form that I want to give to the question that I want to pose, and therefore it’s also very much attached to the technology or the technique that I use to manipulate the material. And the two of them need to make sense and frame the question in a very specific way.
So yesterday I was talking about immortality. And thinking about immortality, for me, it meant working with immortal cell lines and trying to create immortal cell lines out of healthy cells.
Dubber Which are?
Marta Immortal cell lines are a material, a resource, for science experimentation, which reduces a lot of animal sacrifice, and it’s very useful. But until, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago, it could only be acquired through biopsies, because immortal cell lines are actually cancerous cell lines.
So a healthy cell has a lifespan in the sense that it has a number of times that it divides itself and then it achieves senescence, and it dies. It stops dividing. And cancerous cells don’t have that biological clock working properly, so they never stop dividing. And this is why they call them immortal cell lines, because they never stop dividing. Not that each cell doesn’t die, but it just keeps on dividing indefinitely.
And this allowed me to rethink what immortality can mean, and “What do we understand by it?”, and how something which is a very immortal disease, and a very severe problem for today’s society, maybe not think of it because you think of an immortal cell line, you don’t think of it as a problem. And maybe we need to rethink some of the way we think about things. Some of the way we think about cancer.
I have a little bit of an issue with thinking about cancer as a disease because disease, for me, is an infection. An infection that can be treated. And an infection is usually by a bacteria or a virus. A virus is a little bit more complicated to deal with because you can’t do anything except hope that your body will be able to deal with it. But a bacteria, you can, because we have antibiotics, unless it’s a resistant bacteria. But cancer is your own body. It is a part of you that just… Not necessarily broke, but that decided to… I don’t know. Maybe it decided to live forever.
Dubber Wow. That is a new spin on cancer.
Marta And, yes, it’s killing all the rest of you and probably itself in the process, but I think we need to think of… Because of all of the stigma of disease. If you have a diseased body, you have a stigma attached to that, and I don’t think… I think a lot of, nowadays, diseases, or what we call diseases, attach stigma to people that have them that are not helping at all.
Dubber Right. I know I’m asking an artist a medical question, but is that the reason that we don’t have an immune response to cancer? Because it’s not external to us?
Marta It’s one of the reasons. Actually, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But I did ask that question a few times, and I’m not sure I got the whole answer because it is very complicated.
And, actually, a few of the strategies for therapies against cancer now have a lot to do with immunology because of this, because cancer is recognised as a mistake and the immune system is activated to take care of it, but there’s also a mechanism of restraint. So if the immune system is very much activated, it’s not aimed at one specific thing too carefully, so it’s going to kill a lot of things. And so there’s a system of “Okay, yes, we attack, but then we need to slow down. Otherwise, we destroy the whole thing around it.”.
And so a lot of the strategies in medical research to try and tackle cancer is actually, one, to make it very… There’s one possibility of making the antibodies so specific that they will really only attack the cancerous cells, or to modulate that regulatory system of activating the immune system, and creating inflammation as well, and slowing down. It’s just that the immune system doesn’t actually have a brain behind it to decide “In this case, you should keep on attacking it until it’s gone.” or not. Maybe we can modulate that system.
Dubber So how do you take this specific knowledge and turn that into an artwork? How do you make art out of the idea that cancer is immortal?
Marta Well, this is the thing. The piece that I did, ‘Immortality for Two’, is very much about thinking what immortality means for our scale and not a cellular scale. It is using the cell lines. And I didn’t do my own cell line for health and safety reasons, but I asked my partner to do it with me, and he did my immortal cell line out of my immune cells, white blood cells, and I turned his white blood cells into immortal cell lines.
Dubber Because you can’t touch your own…
Marta It’s not that I can’t touch, but if I’m basically taking my own cells and putting them outside of my body and turning them into cancer, it’s not very high, but there is the possibility that I will reabsorb, as I’m doing the protocol, these cells and my immune system will not differentiate it. I will not know that I have cancer, and I will have cancer inadvertently. And it’s a risk that it’s not necessary to take.
Dubber So what you’re saying is you created cancerous cells from your partner and your partner created cancerous cells from you.
Dubber But on paper…
Marta And therefore achieved that kind of immortality, which is exactly the irony. This is it. We did it together. We did it in parallel. Those cells can never be together because they will attack each other because they are white blood cells.
Dubber Right. So each will try and fight off the other as an immune response?
Marta Yes. That’s what they’re programmed to do. This is what they do.
Dubber Presumably that’s not the nature of your relationship on the human scale.
Marta Sometimes, which is part of the game as well. A relationship is a complex thing, and it’s about negotiation and all of that. So that is definitely a part of why I find the project interesting, because it’s not an answer.
Dubber Well, it’s quite something that you’ve managed to get a partner who’s on board with this sort of thing.
Marta There’s a reason why we’re together. There’s many reasons why we’re together, but that’s definitely one of them. It’s exhilarating to discuss these things with someone who’s not only knowledgeable to give back, but very much with a sense of humour to think about these things in this way. But we do have a lot of fun discussing these things. We have a lot of fun discussing a lot of things.
Dubber I bet. So it occurs to me that, at face value, you would seem to be somebody with this incredible scientific background who came to art. But it didn’t happen that way around, did it?
Marta No, it’s quite the opposite. Yes, I have a painting degree, so I know how to make a portrait. I was really good at them. Oil paintings and everything. But I didn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. And, I don’t know, I was a little bit disenchanted by the end of my degree into what I could be as an artist, and I didn’t particularly feel like being an artist. The community didn’t feel very friendly. It felt very competitive, and it felt very lonely to be an artist or learning to be an artist at that time. It felt very lonely.
So I actually think I connected with scientist, or future scientists at that stage, friends more because being around them, it made me see things a little bit different. They were incredibly excited about what they were learning and had dreams that would never end about how they were going to save the world, which is intoxicating to be around. And they were…
Dubber Sorry, out of curiosity, where and when are we talking about?
Marta We’re talking about ‘97/’98, the three last years of my degree.
Dubber Which is where?
Marta In Lisbon in Portugal.
Dubber Sorry, I broke your thread.
Marta That’s okay.
Dubber But the idea that people are excited about changing the world, and painting portraits probably doesn’t feel like the same thing.
Marta No, it does not. Art has always been typically a course that you take because you’re not comfortable with maths or science, and that has never been my case either. My mom was a physics and chemistry professor, and so science was nothing to be afraid of. She made sure that I knew science and had a scientific, I don’t know, spirit, in some ways. And I am, what my friend scientists say, a very reasonable artist.
Dubber Which is a backhanded compliment, but it’s…
Marta I know, but I like it. It’s not very straightforward. Not sure if it’s a compliment or not.
Dubber “For artists, you’re quite reasonable.”.
Marta “Very reasonable.”. For a scientist, it’s a real compliment, in the sense that they are not scared of discussing things with me and being unable to pursue a discussion.
I’m very much aware that I was primed to do art and science, in a way. I was not averse to science. I was never scared of science. I love maths. My kids are crazy about maths. And so it was not that I went to the arts wanting to run away from science, so finding science and finding the dreams of science something attractive while I was finishing my degree felt right, and I never left.
But I think I spent the first ten years of my career completely immersed in science, with very, very little contact with artists and philosophers and anthropologists and humanities in general, and I did miss that very, very much. So at a certain point, it felt to me that I needed to build my community a little bit more diverse, and I’m very proud to say that my community now is very diverse. I have very good friends I talk to about philosophy, about art, about science, and we’re all pretty geeky about all of those things.
Dubber Right. All of this has me wondering, because you did go to art, even though you weren’t running away from science, what kind of kid were you?
Marta I was a very good student. I was very, very quiet. Nothing like today. Now I am loud, and I laugh really hard, and I enjoy…
Dubber And easily, it seems.
Marta Nobody will tell you that I’m an introvert. But I was incredibly quiet and a bookworm, and I loved drawing. I think I went to art because I just spent hours drawing, and my teachers noticed that and encouraged that side probably more. I don’t know. It just felt right to go into art.
Dubber Interesting. But you don’t draw so much now. Or do you think of it as a kind of drawing, the art that you make?
Marta No, I don’t think of it as drawing. I draw as a hobby. I draw for zen. So drawing is a tool that makes my brain relax, which is sometimes very useful to solve an issue or a problem or something that I find… It’s one of those strategies. Drawing is relaxing, and it makes your brain reach a certain level of meditation that allows you to relax but also solve problems, which is very useful. But no, I don’t draw, and I am addicted to intellectual problems, to intellectual challenges.
Dubber Right. I get a sense of why you use the scientific approach in your art. What do you imagine that other people coming to it get from it?
Marta Hopefully the same pleasure that I do. So, for me, learning about the science. Learning the hows. And learning, more importantly, the questions that they’re putting forward and trying to understand how things work is, for me, always a matter of wonderment in the sense that I am in a very privileged position to be actually in contact with people who are making absolutely new knowledge. Something that you can’t find in textbooks until a few years later.
Except, this year, I’m actually in contact with people who can explain to me how the different vaccines are being developed. What different strategies they’re using to develop these vaccines, and why they are going in these specific directions and not others. Why do they think this will work and not another route?
So, for me, this is like a candy store. Or maybe a hardware store, for an artist, because they sort of look like candy stores. It is this… Acknowledging the privilege that it is to be able to be in a space where you are witnessing things like… It’s a discovery. Maybe it’s a little bit like exploration. The most romantic way you can look at it is witnessing people exploring the unknown.
And it’s the closest I can get to it in terms of science, but also realising that, by being in this position, I can also be in a similar position towards art. So as an artist, I am also in a position to push what art is to its boundaries and beyond those, and create artistic knowledge that hasn’t been created before. So in science, you discover. In art, you create.
Dubber Wow. You mentioned the word romance, and there does seem to be a romantic element in what you’re doing. And I wonder if you think of romance in terms of the sentimentality, or whether this is something that you’ve given a deep thought to.
Marta No, it’s not about the sentimentality. It’s more about the romantic ideals that are still very much something we inherited and that I try to fight a little bit because I think it’s a fallacy and a problem. It skews our perspective, and it probably limits the things that we can do and the directions that we can bring our knowledge towards. But I think my motivations are as romantic as my friend scientists who wanted to change the world. It’s okay to be romantic, in a way. It’s important not to be too romantic when you’re in the moment trying to actually create or discover new knowledge.
Dubber Right. How do you evaluate whether a project or a piece that you’ve created is successful or not?
Marta That has to do with how it works when it reaches the public. So I am a believer that art is only done… It’s a communication device. Whatever you may understand of art, it is a communication. Or a miscommunication, maybe. But it’s a game of communication.
It’s not necessarily to be didactic or very clear. It’s meant to be exploratory and experimental. But it needs that other part where the public brings in their own knowledge into it. And, actually, it’s a meeting. So my job is to create triggers for that to happen. For that moment where you are in front of an artwork and you’re experiencing it and your mind is set in motion. And whatever direction it takes you, that is an efficient or a successful art piece.
Of course, there’s gradients of effectiveness or success in the sense that I am absolutely aware that some of my works will take you some places and others will take you a lot further. And, of course, for me, the ones that take you a lot further are more interesting. And trying to understand where those directions are is very interesting for me, but it’s always a limited experience. I can’t ask everybody what did they understood of the piece, how they experience it, and what it made them feel.
Dubber Sure. The communication element comes up a lot. When you talk about the intersection of art and science, the idea is that people do science and then the artist comes along and communicates that to people, but it seems like you do science by doing art. Would that be fair?
Marta I don’t know. It depends on what you call science. So I don’t think science is the owner of new knowledge. I think that is very clear. So I am reluctant to say that what I am doing is science. I do experimentation, but experimentation can be done in any field. And the questions that I pose are very different from a scientific question. I’m pretty sure I don’t make science because of that.
I don’t follow the scientific method. I don’t need statistical relevance to any of my works. One time works fine for me, and every time being different works absolutely perfectly for me as well, as it would probably for any artist, but it would never do for science.
And this is, again, one of those freedoms that I understand that art gives me that it wouldn’t if I had gone into science. I would be constrained. And it’s important for science to work, to actually progress, to have those constraints. But for art, it would be the death of the artist or the art, I think. It would become something else.
For art to be art, one of the things that it needs to be is different for everybody so that there’s no statistical analysis that is possible. But this is a very important role for humanity, for life itself, because life is not just about statistical relevance. There’s always the odd cases, and art is very good at dealing with individuality and multiplicity at the same time.
Dubber You said the scientific method would be a constraint. Do you have a method? Or is not having the method the lack of constraint?
Marta I have a method myself. I have a way of visualising my process. It can be compared to a scientific method in the sense that I actually devise that diagram of what I do to try and explain to scientists how I go about doing my work because it’s easier for them to understand that there is a path to go through.
I don’t intend it ever to be a universal thing. Every artist has their own way of achieving whatever they set out to achieve. They probably step through similar steps. Maybe more steps, maybe less. For me, it works because whatever material, whatever technology or technique that I use, those stepping stones are always there. So it’s a way for me to understand where I am in any project that I start and when I’m ready to actually put an art piece in an exhibition or something like this, but it’s… I don’t know. Maybe there is a way of trying to understand the artistic methodology, but it’s always a little bit risky to try and pin it down.
Dubber Sure. I’m wondering about that moment, if it was a moment, that you walked away from portraiture towards whatever it is you’re doing now with science and biology and these sorts of things. Did you arrive fully-formed? Or was there an experimentation with different ways of approaching what it is that you’re trying to do?
Marta No. And, more importantly, even if I did arrive anywhere, I didn’t have a conscious that I was arriving anywhere. And so I have now spent 22 years thinking about what I do, and I’ve achieved a moment that I am pretty sure I know myself a lot better than I did five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen, or twenty.
And there is that advantage that comes with age, that you understand a little bit better your limitations but also your strengths. You also get a lot more efficient. So it’s amazing to me how much time I wasted at many different times in my life trying to tackle reading scientific texts and things like this, when I can now just read diagonally and understand what is the content of the article and decide if I want to read it more at length, and actually understand the technology behind it or the knowledge that they’re making, or not. But it comes through experience. Experience is absolutely invaluable.
Dubber It’s time well wasted.
Marta It’s absolutely time well wasted. And so consciousness of the steps that I take to produce an artwork, to conceive of an artwork, to make an artwork, all of those steps are a lot more conscious now, and it was about analysing how the artworks came to be. It was about explaining the artworks, talking to other people about the artworks, and listening to their questions that actually made me more conscious of the steps that I take and the decisions that I make.
And my own bias, because in anything that I listen to, I’m perfectly aware that I will listen to it in the frame of what identity can be or can be understood as. And so I know that if I see a lot of people talking, whether they’re in science or not, my brain will automatically go into “What does this say about identity? What does this say about our understanding of ourselves?”. And that is a bias that I’ve been building on because of my interest within the subject.
Dubber Sure, because you are obviously somebody who’s very clear about who they are and what they do and what they mean, and this idea of identity does seem to be really important to you. What does identity mean, exactly?
Marta I’m still trying to find out, so I haven’t. So, for instance, the last project that I did, ‘Anti-Marta’…
Dubber Nice pun, incidentally.
Marta Where I exchanged skin transplants with my partner, just thinking about what I said yesterday, that thinking that my body is more equipped to decide who I am than my brain in that the immune system differentiates very clearly self from non-self in a very small scale, makes me think about identity in a completely different way.
Until that project, I really thought that I had pretty much settled with the idea that identity is something that is in constant change. That every second of my life I’m different from what I was a second ago. And I was pretty happy with that because I spent a lot of time making peace with the idea that we are in constant transformation and going against all of my instincts of trying to be stable or trying to have a core that was rock solid, and that everything that happened wouldn’t in any way shake that core, as a defensive mechanism that I think we all have. And so I had made my peace, and I was actually very, very content with thinking that transformation is something that we should look forward to and that our plasticity would be our best weapon to deal with anything that came at us.
Dubber Right. Because I don’t have the same level of understanding of biology, clearly, as you do, but I get the sense, or at least I pick up the idea, that two years from now we’re all new bits. It’s all new cells. And also, on top of that, identity being a cultural construct that we can actually mould and so on. But you’re saying that there is this constant that is self and not-self that is determined.
Marta Well, this is the thing. This idea that there’s a system in my body, which is completely separately from my self-consciousness, deciding what is me and what is not me and negotiating the boundaries of that is something that really blew my mind in the sense that “What does it mean?”. And I’m not sure “What does it mean?”. Maybe it’s the next project or the few projects after this. But what does it mean to have a system in your body that decides that? For me, it means that I need to understand a little bit better how it works, even to use it as a metaphor. Maybe we’re looking at it completely the wrong way.
Dubber And what if it’s wrong?
Marta I think it’s a great thing that it’s wrong. Maybe we do need to look at it in a different way to be able to deal with environment issues, with… This idea that we are our cells and nothing else is very, very limited, but it’s a difficult process for our brain. We are limited by our biology, and our understanding is also limited by our brainpower, in a way. There’s only so much that we can hold at the same time in our brains, and maybe we can help ourselves by thinking in a different way.
Dubber Sure. As someone who’s given a lot of thought to immortality, you must have also given a lot of thought to death.
Dubber Do you have a particular take on this idea that we decay and that we stop?
Marta No. I think my mother is a little bit more of an inspiration on that, though not necessarily her in a personal way, but all of the… So I think about that more in a physics kind of way, of energy.
Dubber Entropy, that sort of thing.
Marta Yeah. So, yes. It’s funny, I’ve been talking about death with a lot of people recently, and with a lot of artists as well. Everything is together.
So even setting up the project with the butterflies in a gallery space, it’s always an important thing to announce to anybody that comes in that butterflies die, and they will die during the exhibition, and it’s not because they’re in that specific place. It’s not our fault directly. It’s because they have a lifespan, and so they will die. Because people get a little bit horrified and think it’s a huge failure to see dead butterflies on the floor of the greenhouse of an art piece. And I’ve had curators come and tell me “You should clean them up and hide them.”, and I go “Well, that defeats the purpose of understanding that this is a living organism.”.
Dubber Do you want to give this a little bit of context about that? Because not many people would think to put butterflies in an art exhibition. Living ones, certainly.
Marta So the piece is about what we call nature, or the criteria we use to determine if something is natural or not. And to think about this, I actually discovered a technology that allowed me to alter the wing patterns of live butterflies without altering very much.
So the effect is very, very clear because these are asymmetrical butterflies. I only change one wing of the butterfly. But it’s an alteration which is a developmental alteration, so it’s not a genetic manipulation, and so if you look at the butterflies in terms of genetics, they are exactly the same as the wild type. This also means that each butterfly, and the art piece that they are, themselves, has the lifespan of the butterfly. So the offspring of this butterfly is going to revert back into wild type.
Dubber Just to be clear, in the wild, these are symmetrical butterflies.
Marta There’s no such thing as asymmetrical butterflies in the wild.
Dubber Right. So you’re creating butterflies that are lopsided in some way, at least visually.
Marta Yes. The visual clue is that they are asymmetrical, and this would never occur naturally. This is the visual clue that someone did something to them.
Dubber Yeah. There was a decision made to do this.
Marta External to the butterfly itself. The lifespan is the same. The mating behaviour is the same. There’s no scars on the butterfly. And so my question is “Okay. So you call these butterflies natural or not? They’re alive, they have their lifespan, they breed, they have offspring. So what are you basing your decision on, if these butterflies are natural or not?”.
Dubber Right. Because I feel like I don’t have an answer for that, and I feel like that might be the point.
Marta That is exactly the point, and that is exactly the problem.
Dubber Right, amazing. So the idea of intervention to alter a species, or at least examples of a species, that are purely cosmetic. It’s not survival. Like you say, you’re not dealing with the DNA.
Marta It is survival. So the wing pattern is actually for predators. So if you divert the attention of the predator from the body of the butterfly onto the wings, when the predator bites the wing, the butterfly usually can fly away because they can fly with very little wings or very damaged wings. And this is the objective, is to fly away to breed.
Dubber Yeah. It seems like the unnatural part, if it could be said to be that, is not the pattern on the wing but the being in an art gallery.
Marta Yeah, maybe. Being subject to scrutiny.
Dubber Yeah, absolutely. That’s really, really interesting. But you have also worked at the DNA level, I understand.
Marta I have, yes.
Dubber So tell me about CRISPR, because that’s something that sounds… I have a very Hollywood understanding of the capabilities of that, so you’d better explain it to me.
Marta Actually, it’s interesting because I imagine that very few people understand what CRISPR is. So the first thing you need to know is that CRISPR is not a technology. It has been taken on as a technology, but it is not technology. So, actually, CRISPR is one of those examples of basic knowledge being taken and applied.
CRISPR actually is being described a little bit like the immune system of bacteria. So bacteria also have infections, and the infections are by phages, which is a virus that particularly is damaging for bacteria. And bacteria evolved to have something which is now being described as the immune system of the bacteria, which is actually a library.
So bacteria have in them enzymes which when they are invaded by a virus… And it’s actually not the virus that goes into the bacteria. The virus is attached to the surface of the cell of the bacteria and put in a little bit of their DNA and expect the bacteria to replicate that DNA, and therefore more viruses will burst out of this bacteria. This is how viruses reproduce.
By inserting this piece of DNA into the bacteria, the bacteria then, if it survives the virus, takes a piece of this DNA and builds a copy of it that it puts in an area of its own DNA which is built a little bit like a library. So every virus that that bacteria has survived has left a little bit of its DNA into the DNA of the bacteria.
Dubber So that it can be recognised in future, presumably.
Marta Exactly, and this is what CRISPR is. It’s palindromic repeats, which… It’s the piece of the DNA of each virus, and it’s separated by these palindromic repeats which are DNA that is done by the bacteria. When they described this mechanism that the bacteria has, they found out that these enzymes, because this is why they call them the molecular scissors, they can actually do this process in any other organism. In any cell.
And they’ve tried programming it. So if you have the Cas9 molecule, which is the molecular scissors, and to each you attach a guide RNA which will tell the scissors where to cut, the scissor will cut at that specific site. And all you need to do then is to add to it a guide or a template, and that template will tell the DNA of the cell how to repair that piece that was cut off. And this is why CRISPR is so effective at altering, genetically, the cells. And this is why it’s so revolutionary as well, because you can change cells without changing the whole organism.
Dubber Right. I have two questions about that. I don’t know which is easier to address, but one is what are the affordances of that? What does that allow to happen? And the second part of that is what are the ethics of this? How does that play out?
Marta It’s very different. So the technology itself is very promising, and it’s evolving tremendously. So now there’s a lot of technologies which are based on this one which are probably an advancement on this. When this was found, it was tested and it was used wildly, but this means that also it got improved wildly. And it’s still improving.
But there are two main paths for it. One is this thing that it can alter parts of a body without altering the whole body. And this is interesting because the ethical issues around this are a lot less complicated than if you alter the whole body because altering the whole body means altering the germ line, and so that organism will propagate this into the offspring that it gets, and it’s a whole line of manipulated organisms. So you have two main lines which have very different ethical issues.
The one that seems to be more promising in terms of disease is the one where you can alter only cells. And because you can alter only cells, you can aim it at specific cells. It can be about disease, but it can also be about changing your eye colour, for instance. So this is just an example. I don’t know of any lab who’s trying to do this.
So the issue with this technology is that you could, in principle, change your eye colour by administrating the molecule, the guide RNA, and the template into your iris. The problem is how to make sure that it gets to all of the cells. So, in theory, actually, with the technology that you have nowadays, you would have a harlequin effect. That some cells would change colour and others would not.
And this is the same problem that you have with trying to solve a disease. If you have a genetic disease that needs to be fixed in a specific organ, for instance, then you could, in principle, genetically change and correct the problem, but until nowadays it’s been incredibly difficult to actually make sure that it reaches all the cells that it needs to reach and therefore solve the problem.
But in terms of research, it’s very promising because it’s about starting a process of trying to understand how it works. With the germ line, the implications in terms of ethics are enormous. But just to tell you the impact of CRISPR as a technology, it was in 2017 that for the first time the UK actually allowed manipulation of human embryos with CRISPR, up to a certain date. And until CRISPR, this was completely forbidden. CRISPR triggered a worldwide fever of “We can actually do this. We can actually manipulate humans for the first time.”.
Dubber And at the same time, should we?
Marta And in 2019… 2018, sorry, was when the Chinese researcher He came up with the news that he had genetically manipulated two embryos and that actually the babies were born, which was a very big scandal and problem in terms of worldwide science research.
Dubber I can imagine it ruffling a few feathers.
Marta Oh, yes. It was.
Dubber In the same way, given that you’ve worked with these sorts of ideas and these sorts of technologies, that your work would both inspire a lot of people and terrify a lot of people.
Marta It does.
Dubber Is that a good outcome for you?
Marta It is, because I am terrified as well. I could try to avoid the ethical issues that work with living material would… But I would have to leave working with living materials to avoid the ethical issues.
And I actually think the ethical issues are incredibly important to be raised, and to be raised in art and not just in the newspapers or even just by the scientific community, because it’s a little bit like a conflict of interest. If the scientific community has an ethical issue, they don’t want to raise it because it will hinder their progress, so there’s a conflict of interest there.
But an artist doesn’t have any gain to have by not raising an ethical issue. And, actually, we are passionate and committed enough to understand the implications of raising an ethical issue very strongly with the work that we do. There’s a long history of art raising ethical issues and having a political impact. Actually, morally, I don’t think you can avoid or try to hide from having that. That is part of your making of new knowledge, in a way.
Dubber Sure. It’s interesting you said morally because I don’t hear that a lot. I hear people talking about ethics a lot. I don’t hear people talking about morals a lot. Do you bring that to the table with your work?
Marta Well, it’s different. Ethics is very different from morals. Moral is something that you believe in. Ethics is an issue, and there’s many sides to an ethical issue.
Dubber But it’s morality that decides, in the end.
Dubber So who should decide?
Marta I don’t think morality should decide because morality implies also a little bit of… One-sided. It implies a decision that has already been done. Ethics is more inclusive, in a way, and I trust ethics more than I trust moral. But I do feel moral obligations, but I know that they are mine. I don’t try to impose them on anybody else.
Dubber Those, like your cells, are inherently you.
Dubber Absolutely. Marta, it’s been absolutely fascinating. I feel like I could do this for a very long time, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
Marta Thank you for the questions.
Dubber You’re very welcome.
Marta It was a really, really interesting conversation.
Dubber That’s Marta de Menezes, and that’s the MTF Podcast, episode 99. We hit the big 100 next week, so don’t miss the special edition we have coming up. Meanwhile, you can find more about Marta at www.martademenezes.com, I’ll put a link to that on the site, and lots more about us at www.mtflabs.net and @mtflabs on Twitter. I’m Dubber, that’s @dubber on Twitter.
I’ll catch you next week. You stay safe and healthy. Wear a mask, wash your hands, try to be careful with your mitochondrial DNA, white blood cells, and significant others, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.