Tell us about yourself.
I’m an artist and a scientist – I’ve lived in both worlds, pursued each separately as well as finding some common ground in microscopy. Somehow these days I tend to end up with access to some fancy microscope, and feel compelled to explore the world with it, which can be tricky because a sort of personal exploration is not always in the realm of publishable scientific research. So I have to be careful to not hog the instrument for exploratory work. But I can create some meaning in these excursions by sharing them as art. I’m a photographer at heart, since I was small, and microscopes opened up a whole new world to explore.
What are you presenting at Maker Faire Milwaukee?
I am presenting “window into the cell”, a motorized representation of a biological cell, complete with jiggling proteins. It is meant to be a compliment to static textbook representations of cells, and give a sense of molecular crowding of the cytoplasm (I love molecular crowding and complexity!. Mostly it’s for fun – you press a button and the cell lights up, comes alive. It is based on an actual cross section of a cell I imaged with a scanning electron microscope (see image below). This image is a product of an accident – I mistakenly mounted the glass surface containing cells upside down onto the adhesive specimen holder. I immediately flipped it over and remounted it. Most of the cells were destroyed but this one just sort of got its top knicked off, revealing its dense cytoplasm crammed with proteins.
What inspires you to make?
Art is just something I just need to do. I can’t imagine not doing it. In my art practice I’m most interested in scientific visual culture – how scientific imagery affects how we think and how we dream. Some people are story collectors, I am an image collector – I see something interesting and just need to capture it, on camera or under the microscope. In terms of subject matter I have a lot of pictures of insects – I just love imaging bugs – exoskeletons are so ornate, and I’m just fascinated by their sensory systems.
Why do you consider yourself a Maker?
I’m relatively new to ‘making’, unless you consider photography making – I tended to shy away from power tools until more recently. But once you see the possibilities of making, there’s no turning back. It’s great to have this iota of control over consumerism, in the form of manufacturing some of your own stuff.
I’m currently working on building a simple webcam microscope out of laser cut parts (the plans for which are readily available online, btw). I’ve focused too much on high end instruments which I would probably have to be an electrical engineer to even think about fixing, much less making one of my own – so now I’m trying to get more into the DIY spirit.
Tell us about one of your failed projects.
Much of my art comes out of failed and discarded science. For example I had a project which imaged the structure of a cell’s cytoskeleton using the scanning electron microscope. To actually see the cytoskeleton you have to do what’s called a detergent extraction of the membrane – basically washing away the membranes and intracellular proteins to see the underlying cytoskeleton. My project called for several such lengthy extraction protocols, to compare their efficacy. But I approached the experiments too much as an artist – too intuitively/passionately, kept changing things last minute, etc – and did not get good enough results to publish. I did however, get hundreds of images of cytoskeleton which I’ve recast as art images (see image above). Their details still fascinate me to this day. And these images have become part of my internal visual vocabulary which is very qualitative, I admit, but has informed later scientific decisions, as well as art. In short I learned a lot.
For more info check out the 2016 profile page for Jess Holz.