Studies of Interbeing - Trance 1:1
From the Spike Protein to a Ritual - Studies of Interbeing - Trance 1:1
Viruses have always been my favourite subject of study. Since 2011, I have a series of works exploring different notions of viruses: aesthetically, socially, economically, scientifically, and philosophically, where I explore the vaccine & beauty relationship, human-virus taming, and alternative use of viruses in cooking.
Studies of Interbeing - Trance 1:1 is a project that took shape during the COVID-19 pandemic where I was looking for a way to explore coronavirus neutrally amid the chaotic information overload in late 2020. ‘Viruses’ are small, invisible to the naked eye, and often manifest through symptoms which are more of a ‘movement’ than a ‘visual pattern’. Viruses are so small that they are actually colourless because visible light waves bypass them. The only way we are able to ‘see’ them is through electronic microscopes, where the original photographs are grayscale.
Viruses are inactive outside of their host. They are immobile, only spreading through external forces (wind, contact, water… etc). Invisible, immobile, and colourless, contradicting with how the media often portrays them. Viruses are very often used as symbols for pandemic, but pandemic is actually the assemblage of humans, viruses, infections, politics, and economy.
Due to the overwhelming changes, theories, and policies surrounding coronavirus, I decided to look at the virus through something tangible, non-verbal. So I asked: outside of human culture, how do we 'see' the virus?
If we analyse non-verbal encounters with viruses, one would be our body — our immune system specifically. Coronaviruses enter our body, being captured by the immune system, and their membrane proteins are written into our antigen database. If the viruses are lucky, they match their Spike protein with our ACE2 receptor on our cells, enter the cell and start to replicate. Spike Protein is like the ‘face’ of the virus, because that’s how we recognise it. Coronaviruses inject their RNA into the cell, hijacking the ribosomes to translate their RNA to proteins. They turn the cell into a virus production factory. If you look at the simulation of ribosomes performing translation, it is surprisingly similar to knitting.
Then why not knit? Let’s turn the microscopic movements to human scale, and let the hands do the job, let the body understand the Spike Protein through knitting the proteins. Turn the body into a factory that replicates the protein. Maybe we can understand something from performing this action?
Translating the protein structure into knitting instructions
Proteins are long chains of amino acids, while knitting works with a string of yarn. Due to forces between molecules, different parts of the protein chain interact with itself, forming the secondary structures: helices and sheets. Meanwhile, knitting short rows creates uneven internal force within the knitted sample, causing the sample to distort. If done correctly, short rows can also form helices.
The first challenge was how to mimic the basic structure of the helices? My science collaborator Shih-Shing Huang first explained to me and my textile tutor and collaborator Hsiang-Lin Kuo what geometrical characteristics of different helices in proteins, and how scientists annotate this information in the PDB files (Figure 13). Then Hsiang-Lin experimented on the logic of short rows to figure out the relationship between rows of yarns and knits to decrease, versus the thickness and tensions of the yarn. (Figure 1) I wrote a python script to convert the data in PDB files, residues by residues, into knitting instructions based on the basic knitting patterns Hsiang-Lin developed. (See figure 13). We also did a few experiments on how beta-sheets form. Beta-sheets are the sheet structures formed by molecular forces between atoms within the protein, but a little further away from each other on the sequence, and occur across few segments (figure 2). It turns out that as we knit, what we find limited structurally on the knitting machine, is also the same when studying protein folding in science. The tangible knitted piece gives a physical representations of the 3D mock-up of proteins.
A Spike Protein consists of 3843 residues, which was converted into around 4700 lines of knitting instructions. If using a manual knitting machine, it takes about 6-8 hours to finish one protein. As for hand knitting, a few months. Using a standard gauge manual knitting machine with two strands of Nm 2/30 yarns, the finished knitting Spike protein is around 2.5 cm wide and 7 metres long. It was a labour to knit one protein. The muscles do get sore if you aim to finish it within a day with a manual machine. Repeating movements of body, machine and yarns, as the knitted protein elongates, induces a meditative moment. (Figure 3)
At a certain point I started to wonder what does the knitted proteins tell? If they are already at a human’s size, our hands as the ribosomes, is it possible that we can put ourselves also at the microscopic perspective?
Collaborating with TextielLab in TextielMuseum, Tilburg, I managed to make a structure mimicking the lipid bi-layer membrane of coronavirus. (Note: coronavirus is encapsulated by a membrane, where Spike protein is integrated on the membrane.) The membrane is integrated with the knitted Spike proteins and becomes a structure representing the Golgi’s Apparatus, where coronavirus are given the form before leaving the human cells. (Figure 4-6)
Ibelisse Guardia Ferragutti, a dancer, performer, shaman, and musician, was invited to come interact with the whole structure. As she emerges her body into the structure, proteins start to entangle with her body, transmitting her movements onto the membrane held on a flexible structure. A simple movement of a hand will trigger the vibration of the whole structure. As if it is the abstract representation of the pandemic: a simple change can induce a dramatic change. Ibelisse started as the physical representative of human cell mechanisms, and eventually wrapped herself into a ball covered with Spike Proteins, like turning into a coronavirus. (Figure 7-11)
The whole structure was imitating the actions at Golgi’s Apparatus, which is a part of what we define as the ‘human body’, which raised the question of ‘when is a virus no longer a part of human’ become interesting. Gradually as Ibelisse transforms her body and the structure into the shape of a ball-like virus, then the observer realises that the virus was a part of the human body, and there is no clear boundary that separates the human from the virus.
The final performance was carried out at Instrument Inventors Initiative late November, 2021. The volunteers who have been participating bi-weekly online knitting gatherings throughout 6 months were invited to participate. The gathering focused on a different topic relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, where everyone knits and chats. They were seated around the structure during the performance, knitting the spike proteins as Ibelisse infuses into the membrane. The performance was a closure to our discussions, and where we finally all meet each other physically.
Yarns with weights, structures, flexibility, and logic in the form of a symbolic virus structure give a perceivable and interactive materiality for our physical body. It was a fruitful exploration alternative to the overwhelming verbal and visual trajectory of the pandemic which was given by its materiality.
Link to Studies of Interbeing film
Pei-Ying Lin is an artist / designer from Taiwan and currently based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Her main focus is on the combination of science and human society through artistic methods, and is particularly interested in building a common discussion ground for different cultural perspective regarding elements that constructs our individual perception of the world. Recently she has been focusing on manipulating the boundary of invisible/visible, living/non-living and finding ways to build tools and methods that facilitate such explorations. She has won the Honorary Mention of STARTS Prize 2020, Honorary Mention in Hybrid Arts Category of Ars Electronica 2015, Professional Runner Up in Speculative Concepts of Core 77 Awards 2015, BioArt and Design Award 2016. Her project PSX Consultancy is a permanent collection of Museum of Architecture and Design, Slovenia.