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75th stories: Helen and Kate Storey – science and art engaging the public

Kate (left) and Helen (right) Storey

Kate (left) and Helen (right) Storey

To mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Henry Wellcome and the founding of the Wellcome Trust, we are publishing a series of 14 features on people who have been significant in the Trust’s history. In our 13th piece, writer and researcher Marek Kohn looks at Helen and Kate Storey, science and art collaborators.

Searching for a way to understand the development of the human embryo, as inspiration for a collection of dresses, designer Helen Storey sat on her bedroom floor with her sketches around her. She shut her eyes, and her hands started to move, shaping cells and describing their progress towards a recognisably human form. By re-enacting the mime, she was able to convey the images to her colleagues in her studio who had never looked down the microscopes at chick embryos in her sister Kate’s laboratory.

Her gestures acted out the difference between artists and scientists too. For scientists, ‘hand-waving’ is an attempt to make up for the lack of a coherent argument. For artists, hand-waving may be a productive and necessary form of expression. If artists and scientists are to collaborate, they may have to embrace their differences – and, as Helen Storey found, devise new idioms of their own.

Kate and Helen Storey’s project, ‘Primitive Streak’, arose from Kate’s work as a developmental biologist and Helen’s experience as a fashion designer. Putting their expertise together, the sisters produced a fashion collection chronicling human embryonic development. In 27 garments, it covered the first 1000 hours of human life, tracing ten milestones from conception to the appearance of limbs and organs. The ‘primitive streak’, which appears about a fortnight after conception, marks a pivotal stage in development: it gives the embryo the beginnings of a top and a bottom, and cells that are destined to give rise to organs assemble themselves by moving through it.

In 1997 the proposal was one of the first six grant recipients in the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart award scheme, receiving £25 000. It has flouted the first principles of fashion by persisting ever since: 14 years later it is still going strong. Helen Storey herself has woven a singular career with dimensions in fashion, design, art and science. She is now Professor of Fashion and Science at the London College of Fashion, while Kate Storey is Professor of Neural Development at the University of Dundee.

When worlds collide

The germ of the idea was a leaflet about the Sciart scheme that Kate sent to Helen, with a yellow sticky note on it bearing a question mark. “I saw it initially as a way of celebrating my understanding and feelings about what I did,” Kate says. The sisters’ decision to work together was a personal echo of the Wellcome Trust’s optimistic proposition that “something interesting might emerge from enabling collaborative work between artists and scientists”, as Ken Arnold, now the Trust’s Head of Public Programmes, put it at the time.

Kate’s suggestion came in the wake of a turbulent period for Helen, which had included the very public collapse of her fashion design business. Now her sister proposed engaging with science. “I found doing the whole project quite frightening,” Helen says. “I barely had any science qualifications of my own, so I was very lucky that it was my sister who was my teacher.”

She was also fortunate to be able to visit her sister’s laboratory, then at the University of Oxford. “I said ‘I’d better come and look down a microscope and see what you’ve been seeing all these years’,” Helen recalls. “The more I learned about her world, the more difficult I thought my job was going to be.” And she was “terrified of making a mistake, of misinterpreting the science, oversimplifying it, or abstracting it to the point that there was no pathway back to it for the viewer”.

As for the scientist of the partnership, Kate was worried about the art for its own sake. In her words, “it would not work if the designs didn’t stand by themselves as pieces of art that were beautiful in themselves”. Kate re-drew some of Helen’s drawings, but she was not looking for textbook correctness. “I don’t want it to look like it does down a microscope; I want it to convey the sense that we have about it when we look down a microscope,” she says.

With so many ways to fail, and so few pointers toward success in an unexplored field, it was hardly surprising that Helen found herself on the verge of giving up. Her project diary records her growing dismay: one entry reads: “feel out of control, I’m not designing, I’m taking visual dictation”.

Sweeping, luxurious, fantastical creations

Helen had to locate the science within herself, as she told BBC Radio 4 in 2000, to respond to it in a visual and emotional way; thus she found herself tracing the forms with her hands, and the dresses took shape. They were sweeping, luxurious, fantastical creations: a ‘thousand sperm coat’ made by embroidering nylon sperm onto a soluble fabric, which was then dissolved away, a dress boasting sperm with Perspex heads and chiffon tails, a silk ‘chromosome kimono’, a spinal column dress emblazoned with a DNA pattern and 8000 optic fibres, representing nerves.

Doing justice to the origins of the heart proved a particularly formidable challenge, but the solution has proved to be one of the most memorable items in the collection. The Storeys took their cue from the fact that the cells that join together to make the heart, by forming two tubes that fuse together, start off above the cells from which the brain arises. They enlisted the milliner Philip Treacy to design a ‘heart tube hat’, with the two tubes arching down to the shoulders. Viewers can follow the progress of the tubes through the three dresses that follow in the sequence, ending up with one in which the heart tube is fully folded. That design was stubborn too, but Helen solved it by putting feathers on the back to create a ‘heart bird’. “It looked brilliant, and it looked funny, and it took off on its own,” says Kate.

So did the collection as a whole. ‘Primitive Streak’ made its debut at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1997; the following year it reached China, as part of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cultural entourage. The only Wellcome Trust Sciart project to have been toured abroad by the British Council, it has appeared in the USA and several European countries beyond the UK. In 2010, the Trust provided it with extension funding, as a result of which ‘Primitive Streak’ has a website and two new dresses, representing the development of the lung. Dresses are touring the UK again in 2011.

Kate saw the new funding as an opportunity to provide far more scientific information than had been possible when ‘Primitive Streak’ first appeared. Back then, websites were still somewhat exotic, and Kate’s scientific details were confined to a few sentences at the bottom of the exhibition labels. The new website connects the dresses to the science and brings them into the 21st century. The Trust’s Sciart initiative was a fin-de-siècle vision, looking forward to the new millennium and back at a century in which the estrangement between art and science had been increasingly marked. Art-science projects, it was hoped, could serve as bridges spanning the two domains and the gap between science and the public. Since then, cultural ecosystems have been transformed by the internet. People have become used to tracing their own paths through knowledge. Boundaries have faded as links have multiplied. A measure of the distance we have travelled is that the links to educational resources and original research papers on the ‘Primitive Streak’ site are just what people now expect.

Developing new dresses for the collection itself proved unexpectedly difficult. Helen compares it to revisiting a novel and trying to write a new chapter. “I didn’t realise when something is finished how truly finished it really is,” she reflects. “It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever designed, really.”

Finished or otherwise, however, ‘Primitive Streak’ had not run its course. “It’s good to be able to continue something that still seems to have a lot of resonance and cultural power,” Helen observes. “I put that down to the universality of the subject matter – it being both simultaneously a fashion collection and about our human origins.”

The ‘Heart Tube Hat’ design from ‘Primitive Streak’. Photo: Justine; model: Korinna at Models 1

The ‘Heart Tube Hat’ design from ‘Primitive Streak’. Photo: Justine; model: Korinna at Models 1

Beauty and elegance

It is also because Kate, as a scientist, and Helen, as a fashion designer, were eager to embrace beauty. Siân Ede, Deputy Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, opens her 2008 book ‘Art and Science’ with a trenchant observation: “Contemporary scientists often talk about ‘beauty’ and ‘elegance’; artists hardly ever do.” In that respect scientists are actually closer to the general public than artists are, even though a school student who sees elegance in a dress might not be able to appreciate the elegance of an equation.

Having turned away from beauty, artists may also wish to keep their distance from science, and to make any engagement a critical one. “I think the notion was unless some new meaning or some challenge to established meanings was being worked at,” Ken Arnold observes, “then frankly it was just decorative; it was far too enslaved to the world of science; it was really doing some rather simplistic PR work for an overly powerful area of intellectual enterprise – so why should artists help scientists feel better about themselves and be better loved by the public?”

‘Primitive Streak’ helped Arnold change his own views about how art can engage fruitfully with science. “Big ideas or interesting ideas don’t have to be very difficult to understand, and they don’t necessarily have to be very profound,” he says. Kate had wanted the designs to be beautiful; beauty was what Helen did. Although they were too preoccupied with simply getting the collection done to dwell much on its possible audiences, the Storeys found themselves with a work that had impressive educational power and captured the imagination of ordinary viewers – particularly girls and young women, who were shown a story about physical development told through fashion, a phenomenon intimately entwined with their own personal development.

‘Primitive Streak’ is about celebration rather than confrontation, and does not venture into the ethical issues surrounding unborn life either. It is not typical in its bright outlook. Three of the other five winners in the first round of Sciart awards were concerned with body misfortunes: cleft lips, anorexia nervosa and phantom limb pain. A more recent work, Marc Quinn’s ‘Evolution’, contrasts starkly with the exuberant Storey creations. These are embryos in a heroic, classical mode. Gallery visitors had recoiled from his sculptures of people with missing limbs: he created the embryo sculptures in response, to show that all humans are grotesque, in conventional terms, at the outset of their lives.

Quinn does have a place for conventional beauty: it can be seen at the entrance to Wellcome Collection, the Trust’s public venue, in the form of his sculpture ‘Silvia Petretti – Sustiva, Tenofivir, 3TC (HIV)’, which is cast from wax containing drugs prescribed to Petretti to counter her HIV infection. On the other hand, when commissioned with Trust support to create a work for the National Portrait Gallery, he gave the Gallery its first conceptual portrait. Within its frame were colonies of bacteria containing DNA from Sir John Sulston, a pioneer of the Human Genome Project and former director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Quinn boasted that the work was “the most realist portrait in the Portrait Gallery”. Sulston noted that as a sample of his DNA, it was a detail rather than a complete picture – but still enough to identify him.

Sulston’s DNA sample was the major part of his contribution to the project, which did not require the kind of sustained collaboration demanded by ‘Primitive Streak’. The balance between science and art varies greatly from project to project, as does the working relationship between the collaborators. ‘Medusae’, a Trust Sciart project, was also the work of siblings, Dorothy and Tom Cross; they collected box jellyfish together off the coast of Queensland, but Dorothy’s focus was a film she made about an amateur scientist who had studied jellyfish in Ireland, while Tom’s was the biomechanics of how the Australian jellyfish swam.

By the time the original Sciart programme came to an end, in 2006, it had disbursed £2.8 million among 118 projects. The Wellcome Trust continues to fund art projects under the umbrella of its Engaging Science programme. In 2007 it opened Wellcome Collection, a permanent centre for science-art interaction, having transformed the 1932 Wellcome Building on London’s Euston Road to house it. Opened up to create a popular café gathering-place and a nest of dramatic gallery spaces, the building is a spectacular expression of cultural and creative confidence. The relentless jollity so prevalent in popular science presentations is entirely absent, as is the underlying anxiety about boring or upsetting the public. Siân Ede notes the coincidence that Tate Modern has grown up around the same time (it opened in 2000) and has had a blockbuster impact on public awareness of contemporary art. Tate Modern and Wellcome Collection may not be collaborators as such, but they are kindred spirits, and together have done much to make both art and science part of the cultural commons. They have shared their roles, too: Ken Arnold notes that Tate Modern has presented plenty of science, and feels that Wellcome Collection has itself helped to make contemporary art more accessible.

Ede, who sat on panels judging Sciart proposals, believes that the Trust was particularly good at bringing artists and scientists together, because “right from the outset, they didn’t expect artists to explain science or be a kind of press agency for it. They were accepting that art can engage with the science world in quite complex, complicated and non-direct ways.”

They have, in significant measure, Henry Wellcome to thank for that. Wellcome Collection was in part a way to rethink the Trust’s relationship with its founder’s huge, and hugely idiosyncratic, collection of medical, anthropological and miscellaneous objects. His interest in anthropology and history rooted the venue in the humanities as well as in science, while his taste for curiosities, displayed in a gallery dedicated to the ‘Medicine Man’, strikes a keynote that resounds through Wellcome Collection’s contemporary exhibits.

These are, above all, visual. “One of the problems I have with quite a lot of science-and-art activity, particularly the stuff that is insistent that it’s much more profoundly challenging than anything that is purely decorative,” remarks Arnold, “is, actually, it’s got no place in the public realm because it’s so dull!” This is not an accusation that can be levelled at the stuff of ‘Medicine Now’, a permanent gallery that includes artworks reflecting on medical themes. One exhibit that would not be out of place in a design museum is a complex, impeccably geometric egg-like glass form. Its purpose is not decorative, however: the artist Luke Jerram offers it as an alternative representation of the H1N1 swine flu virus to the common artificially coloured images that, he believes, may magnify the public’s fear of viruses.

‘Medicine Now’ is dominated, however, by the hulking form entitled ‘I Can Not Help the Way I Feel’ (by John Isaacs), a two-metre-high humanoid figure engulfed by its own obesity, its flesh resembling a mass of heaped malignancies. Wellcome Collection is adept at making honourable use of monstrosity, curiosity’s frightful face. That is in large part because, as Ede puts it, “they made science respectable and serious and intellectual instead of games”.

Wellcome Collection affirms how established art-science collaboration has become, and highlights the field’s continuing vigour. But it remains a challenge for would-be collaborators, because it is based on unavoidably asymmetrical relationships. Artists stand to gain new works, while scientists stand to gain understanding of the context for their own work, which may be valuable to them but not crucial. So artists and scientists need some prior understanding of each other’s worlds if a collaboration is to get off the ground. A study that evaluated the Wellcome Trust Sciart programme quoted a science commentator who described a “puzzled engagement” between the artist and the scientist. That pretty much summed up the general experience – but, as the commentator added, it could often be a life-enhancing encounter for them both.

Meanwhile, Helen Storey has undertaken a series of art-science projects since ‘Primitive Streak’, organising them around the Helen Storey Foundation, which she set up with her longstanding business partner Caroline Coates. In recent years, she has collaborated with Tony Ryan, a chemist specialising in polymers at the University of Sheffield. They are working on products such as clothes that purify air, and a bottle that can be dissolved in hot water when it is empty.

The collaboration led to her appointment as Visiting Professor of Material Chemistry at Sheffield, although she hasn’t become a scientist. “I’m neither a designer that makes things just because I want to make things, or an artist that does something just because it’s beautiful,” she reflects. “I’m not sure what I am.”

Most likely she is one of a kind. Her career and her way of working are hers alone. But by showing that an individual can make designs without just being a designer, create art without really being an artist, and engage with science without being a scientist, she shows that weaving it all together is an art that can be mastered.

Find out more about activities marking the Wellcome Trust’s 75th anniversary, including links to other features as they are published.

Marek Kohn is an author and journalist based in Brighton. He holds a degree in neurobiology from the University of Sussex and a PhD from the University of Brighton, where he is a Fellow in the Faculty of Arts. Much of his work explores the implications of scientific thinking for ideas about human nature and society. His most recent works are ‘Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will change as the world heats up’ and ‘Trust: Self-interest and the common good’. Earlier works include ‘A Reason For Everything: Natural selection and the English imagination’ and ‘As We Know It: Coming to terms with an evolved mind’.

Image credit: Wellcome Images (top image)

Further reading

Primitive Streak

Helen Storey Foundation

Glinkowski P, Bamford A. Insight and Exchange: An evaluation of the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme. London: Wellcome Trust; 2009.

Filed under: 75th anniversary, 75th stories, Public Engagement, Science Art Tagged: 75th anniversary, 75th series, Developmental biology, Dr Kate Storey, Fashion, Helen Storey, Primitive Streak, Sciart

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