“Crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go” organoids and art

Thursday 18th March

I’m on the mailing list for The Conversation, an online journal that has “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. One headline on today’s update is We grew human tear glands in the lab, and now we’re making them cry by Marie Bannier-Hélaouët, Utrecht University.

It wasn’t the headline alone that caught my eye, it was the image on the newsletter and website. Together, they sparked off a line of thinking. I can’t reproduce the image here, as it has copyright limits, so you will need to go and see it yourself. But I can describe it very easily, because it is uncannily like this image of mine, done recently. It looks like a bubble burst on paper, like this:

(C) Carolyn Black Bubble Drawing 2021

My image was not created by tears, but it made me want to cry when I read “The organoids were secreting their tears on the inside: crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go.”

I headed for Wiki, not wishing to over-quote from the The Conversation, in case I breach copyright laws. And I want you to read it too, because it is fascinating.

“An organoid is a miniaturized and simplified version of an organ produced in vitro in three dimensions that shows realistic micro-anatomy. They are derived from one or a few cells from a tissue, embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, which can self-organize in three-dimensional culture owing to their self-renewal and differentiation capacities.”

In the article, Bannier-Hélaouët describes this more poetically “the stem cells form tiny replicants of the organs from which they were extracted, which we call “organoids”.

To me, without the scientific knowledge of what organoids are, the word sounds like something from Star Trek. Maybe the term replicant feeds that thinking. The fact the organoids are grown in vitro, like humans can be too, also tugs on the emotions of human association.

Back to my drawing, shown above, that evolved from participating in a Drawing Meditation workshop recently. We talked a lot about breath and of course breath has risen high into everyone’s consciousness since Covid19. Partly because it attacks the respiratory system, and partly because there’s a high level of anxiety about, resulting in meditative practices becoming almost as essential as breathing itself.

I think it is fair to say that all of the artists on the weekend course found the bubble drawing process exciting, exhilarating and sometimes disappointing. The disappointment was usually down to the scientific issues, the type of detergent used, the dilution level with water.

But now, having read this article, I can’t help but wonder whether we were collectively moved and touched by the process because they were created from our precious breath and, like the tears, trapped in the bubble. The breath had nowhere to go. And I know I held my breath while I waited for the pop to happen, in anticipation of what it would leave behind.

And the joy of seeing a perfect trace, a record of my existence, on the paper, made me want to cry.

When I reframe the poignant sentence above – “The organoids artists were secreting their tears on the inside: crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go”  I feel deeply sad.  I immediately allow more serious thoughts into my head, about the impact of the pandemic on artists. I am not going to launch into politics here, now, because I want to leave you with a floating feeling, like a bubble in the air, floating off into a future.

Because imagination can take us there.

(C) Carolyn Black bubble process video 2021

*STOP PRESS*

GALLERIES HAVE REALLY HAD THEIR BUBBLES BURST – PLEASE HELP GET THEM CAMPAIGN TO RE-OPEN. If, like me, you think that art galleries are as safe and as important as horse racing, shops, gyms and nail bars, PLEASE sign this petition to support galleries to reopen after 12 April: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/577489 #CheltenhamFestival