Protein Maze / ‘Relational process drawing’
‘Relational process drawing’ is a new approach to drawing ‘natural history’. Rather than focusing on the morphology of the object, these drawings (part of the AHRC funded ‘Representing Biology as Process’ project)focus on the dynamic patterns of the processes of life and draw together relationships between energy, time, movement, and environment at the molecular, cellular, and organismal scale. The processes drawn here are co-dependent and nested: protein folding is essential to cell division (mitosis), which is essential to the development of the embryo of the cell (embryogenesis). Each process is intrinsically and reciprocally related to many others. The artistic view of this delicate, beyond visible, dynamic procedure allows us not only to see scientific data collated into images on a screen but to explore the entire process of cell division in one connected image and to think of it in different terms – as a dance, a score, an energetic form.
What is a protein?
A single amino acid, a dot ( . ), becomes a chain of amino acids – a protein, a line (——), moves in space to become a plane, then a volume. Like in drawing, a dot progresses to a line, to meander in space. So it seems that drawing might be an appropriate way to experiment, to ‘be like’ the protein.
Proteins pervade life and collectively they take an infinite variety of forms. Protein’s fold, most of the time this is what a protein is trying to do. The folded protein is the relaxed protein, in its ‘natural’ state, not wasting any energy. Folding is a process, it happens through time, in an ‘energy landscape’ often imagined to be conical (cone shaped) with the folded protein resting in the very bottom – the point of least energy in the landscape. As the protein moves from the top of this landscape to the bottom (it might not make it) it embarks on an explorative journey of the space; body and environment continuously co-creating each other. There are fast and slow tracks, uphills and downhills, dead-ends and if in trouble then a ‘chaperone’ will come to help find the way together. This dynamic process is hard to imagine and the images you find in scientific textbooks don’t exactly give the game away (generally a cone, a few uphills or downhills). How else can we imagine this complexity? What other images could we see?
After making countless drawings with molecular biologist JJ Phillips, we take a day to look at them all together: drawings of cones, of simple figures moving in cones, colour coding energy levels, line drawings of movement series, planes in space. It struck me that the bottom of the cone is like the centre of a maze. We like the idea. We try drawing a maze. First we need an underlying grid architecture, not a generic pattern but one that is true to the dynamic pattern of the protein journeying. We change the granularity of the grid for different stages of the process. Colour brings dimensions and guides the pathways that are created. The environment and the body co-create one another as the maze undermines the distinction between figuration and abstraction. The drawing process has its own stochasticity and the image, following its own creative process, reveals something true of the dynamic pattern of protein folding. The idiosyncrasies of this living process have informed and given rise to a new artistic process.
‘Organic development in a work of art is at least analogous to, and probably identical with, organic development in nature; in an organic-artistic scheme the essence of art is in processes rather than its products; and such artistic ‘events’ as are thrown up are significant merely in that they reflect past, present and future aspects of the dominant process’. (Thistlewood, 1981)