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Inside Out: Unconscious

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It turns out that, while I wasn't looking, my brain made me do things I had not intended.

Back at the beginning of the year I was doing a residency in North Carolina working on a collaborative new media piece with my husband for a local children's hospital. We had been thinking (or 'constructively arguing') about the theme of this piece for a long time, at least a year, ever since we knew we were going down to Charlotte. We wanted to make a Hero's Journey, distilling the essentials out of fairy tales and legends the way Joseph Campbell had during his illustrious career. What ended up on the wall was a simple animated story made interactive with arcade buttons.

The original figure from Watters C., Video views and reviews: gastrulation and the fashioning of animal embryos. Cell Biol Educ. 2005 Winter;4(4):273-8.

At the same time I was using the studio to develop ideas about specialness applied to the scientific realm. I was choosing random images from research publications and then bedazzling a select few with glitter. I wanted to poke fun at what happens when factual observations are treated like holy relics, an exaggeration of what appears to happen these days when science is brandished as an alternative (or even superior) to religion. Like a gilded church interior, the glittered figure was intended to be all shine, glamour and inspiration. You didn't have to have a clue what it originally meant to feel a reaction. The images I chose were stages of frog-embryo gastrulation. These are Xenopus laevis embryos at the point where there are enough cells to start folding in on themselves to form tubes and organs.

A visitor to Embrace.

Back at the hospital we worked on the look of the story characters and how they interacted. Wheeling around the wall in a large cloudy ring are hundreds of tiny individual 'everyman' characters or 'bubs'. In the centre of the ring is a large, glowing, grinning monster with too many arms. He represents the bright 'unknown'. To their left is another hovering, many-limbed monster, floating up and down. He represents the challenges of uncontrolled chance. The ordinary bubs are content to follow their dim path at a safe middle-distance from these menaces. Until you come along that is. With the buttons, you are in control. You can worry at the ring of bubs with the fateful monster or spin the glowing monster, which wafts the helpless bubs away. The ring of bubs warps in response to these difficulties and in doing so, some cross over the glowing monster and steal his fire. Having faced their demons, these heroic bubs get back to their comfortable ring and continue to cycle, but now they have a bright glow with them to light the way.

With this rich narrative to our invention, imagine our surprise when a member of hospital staff wandered down the corridor and joked, "Looks like sperm around an egg to me."

Suddenly the past few months clicked into place. Just before Christmas we had gone through testing preparations for starting a family with IVF. I told myself I wasn't thinking about it very much, and enquiries after my health resulted in quips about the absolute appropriateness of me having a science baby. And then I looked at the walls of the studio and the hospital and the truth came sparkling back at me. Somebody was thinking about it very hard.

Embrace from elaket on Vimeo.

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About Author

Natalie Andrew is Inside Out: Artist in Residence for September 2013.

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