❉ Blog number 19 on diagrams in art and culture covers a recently completed installation for the Yi Tai Sculpture and Installation projects curated by Andre Chan for Hong Kong's 2021 Art Central.
Figure 1: Perpetual Motion (installation view), 2021, Yi Tai Projects, Hong Kong Art Central
Perpetual Motion was created for Yi Tai Sculpture & Installation Projects, curated by Andre Chan for Art Central Hong Kong in 2021 (Figure 1). The initial ideas for the project were sketched out in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, during a 21 days quarantine in a 24 metre square hotel room in Hong Kong, in January of 2021.
I had flown in from Osaka on an empty evening flight and transferred by shuttle bus to my hotel. Once signed in I was guided along corridors lined with security cameras to a room with bay windows overlooking the city. I unpacked and tried to mentally prepare myself for the next 21 days confined to a 24 square metre space (258 ft² ). The subjects I chose to focus on for the installation were movement and location, which seemed timely during a period of worldwide travel restrictions, lengthy quarantines and social distancing.
In a previous project I'd explored the molecular and evolutionary origins of organic movement, and this involved studying Actin and Myosin, two types of specialised motor-proteins found in all types of muscle cells. International research groups had mapped out the structural relationships amongst these two ancient super-families of molecules, and I used their findings to build my own 3D computer models of these molecular family trees, which were then used to create a drawing.
'Model for the origins of movement' depicts the branching, diagrammatic lineages of actin and myosin as fragile interlinked tori floating in an empty white space (figure 2).
Figure 2: Model for the origins of movement (Myosin and Actin molecular family trees as linked, punctured tori)
2017, 124 x 124 cm, Ink and watercolour on paper
The process of creating this work is described in greater detail in the article "Portraits of thought: Transfiguring the diagrams of science", written for Intellect Book's "Drawing: research, theory, practice" (1). A link to the Journal is here. Links to the original research papers on Actin and Myosin can be found in the references below (2,3)
Like 'Model for the Origins of Movement', the installation 'Perpetual Motion' incorporates concepts and theories from scientific studies of movement, but also location, and it sets in contrast the different ways these notions are being explored in contemporary science.
The first research project to catch my attention was a visual digest of cutting edge genetic studies that plot historical global patterns in human genetic variation. The resulting world-maps provide a snap-shot of our current understanding of genetic similarities and differences between male and female population groups, and also reveal the routes taken by our prehistoric ancestors on their journey out of Africa.
Another discovery I was immediately drawn to proved to be such a major breakthrough in the neuroscience of movement that it was awarded a joint Nobel prize in 2014. The discovery of 'Grid cells' and their distinctive geometric firing patterns by Britt and Edvard Moser built upon the work of their mentor John O'Keefe, the discoverer of 'Place Cells'. Together, these studies gave us our first glimpse at the intricate cellular mechanisms at work in the brain that underlie how we navigate space, and revealed profound connections between location and the formation of memories.
As an installation ‘Perpetual motion’ is a hodological study (the study of pathways) of our past global movements across deep time, and our more intimate passages and navigations through daily life. The project contrasts the vast networks of our ancestor’s migration patterns out of Africa, against our day-to-day meanderings through rooms, buildings and cities.
Out of Africa
Current estimates date the origins of anatomically and genetically modern humans in Africa to between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, and the first major dispersal of these populations to Asia and Europe is believed to have occurred around 65,000 years before present (B.P.) (4). (Figure 3)
DNA haplogroup maps help trace patriarchal and matriarchal human lineages back across time, in order to understand how populations have spread across the globe. Haplogroup maps rely upon measuring distinctive mutations within genetic elements of the genome that vary little over time.
In males such material is found within the non-recombining portions of DNA in the Y-chromosome. For females similar material is found within Mitochondria, energy providing microscopic structures within human cells that contain their own plasmid-like DNA structures.
Mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) comprises only a small segment of the total human genome but has proven highly effective in studying early human populations. MtDNA has the advantage of unusually rapid mutation rates, descends almost entirely through the female lineage (via the female ovum / egg), and shows few, if any, of the effects from environmental selective forces.
Figure 3: Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups of the World, circa 1500 AD, Copyright © 2005 J. D. McDonald
The coloured pie charts in figure 3 represent world-wide genetic variation within female populations. The period of time chosen for the map is circa 1500 AD, just before what's referred to as the 'European expansion', marked by rise of colonial empires and vast commercial networks.
Professor J.D. McDonald, who compiled the chart from a number of location specific studies, noted in his paper that the sampling sizes and thus the accuracy of the chart varies greatly from region to region. In fact, the majority of genetic data is derived from Europe and North America, despite Africa being the most genetically diverse continent on the entire planet (5). I reached out to Prof. McDonald to explain the nature of my project and ask permission to adapt the diagrams from his research into an artwork, which he kindly granted.
For ‘Perpetual Motion’, the 28 colour variations that represent the common MtDNA haplogroups used to compile Prof. McDonald’s map, were meant to be translated in to coloured glass, with each pie chart segment cut using a robotic CNC water-jet machine. The glass segments were then to be reassembled using traditional stained-glass techniques and suspended as a map-like mobile within the exhibition space.
However, with estimated visitor numbers of 20,000 people over the 4 days exhibition, the decision was made to UV-print the disks on acrylic due to health and safety requirements. Each circular diagram was then wrapped in the lead ‘came’ for this version of the sculpture.
The GPS System of the Brain
For 'Perpetual Motion', each coloured pie chart was suspended using black monofilaments in its appropriate position, according to the original map, and left spinning beneath a double-ended, hollow, black, branching structure (figures 4a,4b).
Beneath the mobile was positioned another diagrammatic artwork mapping movement and location at very different scales of time and space.
The carpet sculpture is designed to be walked upon, and the pattern is derived from 'Grid cells' in the mammalian brain. The discovery of Grid cells and their distinctive geometric firing patterns by May Britt and Edvard Moser built upon the work of their mentor John O'Keefe, the discoverer of 'Place Cells'. Together, these findings revealed profound connections between the way we navigate space and construct memories of our surroundings.
Grid cells are a specialized type of neuron that constitute a self-positioning system within the brain allowing us to create cognitive spatial maps of the spaces we explore and inhabit. These cells are found within the mammalian entorhinal cortex, a region deep within the brain next to the hippocampus. They derive their name from their triangular grid-like firing patterns, and the phenomenon was first recorded in the brains of mice exploring an experimental test box over a period of time (6) (figure 5).
Figure 5: A video of a single grid cell recorded in the Medial Entorhinal Cortex. A dot is added at the position
of the rat every time the cell spikes. Slowly the dots accumulate and the hexagonal grid-pattern emerges.
At the start of the project I contacted Professors May Britt and Edvard Moser who granted permission for me to adapt images from the research for this installation. Dr. Elmkvist-Nilsen, head of communication at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, also kindly sent me copies of the Moser’s research papers, images and presentations. Dr. Elmkvist-Nilsen is a specialist in images of 'knowledge-visuals' generated in scientific research, and has a dual background in visual arts and human/zoo biology.
Interestingly, Nobel Media now owns the rights to the Moser’s original illustrations of grid cells in rodents and humans, and their research group must now produce their own versions before sharing for public use. As a result, I decided to recreate my own diagram of the Moser’s iconic grid-cell firing patterns, which was then used to produce a handmade woolen 3.5 square metre carpet beneath the mobile haplogroup sculpture.
Figure 6: Artist’s recreation of grid-cell firing patters used to create the custom carpet.
Figure 6 shows my recreation of grid-cell firing patters. The blue line represents the path taken by the mouse in search of chocolate drops inside the test chamber, and each red point marks the firing of the single grid cell being measured during the experiment (figure 5,6). The yellow lines highlight the remarkably geometric triangular firing patterns observed within this region of the brain.
As visitors navigated and explored the space, the symbolic markings on the carpet mirrored microscopic neuronal processes occurring within their brains, whilst above them circulated a mobile constellation of pie charts containing genetic data from their historic female ancestors.
I would like to thank Professor J.D. McDonald, Professors May Britt and Edvard Moser and Dr Elmkvist-Nilsen for their enthusiastic support of this project, and for their generous permission to use their research and images to create this installation.
1) Whittle, M. (2020), “Portraits of Thought: Transfiguring the diagrams of science”, Drawing Research Theory Practice, volume 5, number 2. pages 311-317
2) Goodson, H. V. and Hawse, W. F. (2002), ‘Molecular evolution of the actin family’, Journal of Cell 21. Science, 115:13, pp. 2619–22. Online here
3) Hodge, T. and Cope, J. (2000), ‘A myosin family tree’, Journal of Cell Science, 113:19, pages 3353–54.
4) Why did modern human populations disperse from ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model 10325 9381 - 9386Online: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0510792103
5) Choudhury, A., Aron, S., Botigué, L.R. et al. High-depth African genomes inform human migration and health. Nature 586, 741–748 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2859-7
6) Moser, E., Roudi, Y., Witter, M. et al. (2014). Grid cells and cortical representation. National Review of Neuroscience, 15, pages: 466 - 481 Online: https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3766
Dr. Michael Whittle
British artist and researcher