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July 15, 2013

A Visual Approach


Lizzie Kripke   Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

Huddled together around a glowing computer monitor, the only source of light in this crannied  room, we watch.  An image slowly resolves on the screen.  Vaguely green forms suddenly burst into full fluorescence.

“It worked! Well, at least, a little bit!”

Steve, with joystick and computer mouse as his steering wheel, shifts the focus of the microscope a little to the right.  And then, greater fluorescence – this time, delineating a more precise edge.

“Promising.”  Steve looks content.

Our specific method of preparing this specimen has brought us face to face with the complex inner-workings of an embryonic squid.  We are seeing life in a way that it has never been seen before.

It is no small coincidence that my interest in integrating neuroscience and painting is heavily embedded in the world of microscopy (the use of microscopes).  Microscopy is a field that is totally obsessed with visual investigation.  It is a field that, above all else, takes visual thinking seriously.  Furthermore, it is a field historically rooted right here in Woods Hole.


As an artist, this is unbearably refreshing.  It reminds me of similar communities in which I have immersed myself (why do we go to art school, again?).  After all, it is at places like this that visual investigation truly flourishes.

So what is my particular visual investigation about?  And why am I in a dark room clogged with tools and buttons and lots of other stuff I don’t actually know how to use?

I am here to learn.  And I am here to learn how to learn.

This starts, accordingly, with not knowing.

I do not know how cephalopods are able to change their body color so dynamically, so dramatically.  I do not know the details of their nervous systems.  I do not know what those sacs of pigment embedded in their skin actually consist of, or what would happen if I tried to isolate them, to paint with them…

But I am here to learn.

And I am here to learn how to learn:  How have others already approached this particular uncertainty?  What methods did they use?  What questions did they ask?  What questions did they not ask?  Why does any of this matter?

“Uhh, Steve, was I supposed to flip that switch?”

And as questions carefully accumulate, a methodical interrogation begins to take shape.  Enzymes, dyes, microscopes, sharp objects – my questions must take forms like these in order for my specimen, the skin cephalopods, to understand what I am asking.  And if I ask just the right questions, then maybe, just maybe, in some small way, I will know life in a way it has never been known before.


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