by: Kuang-Yi Ku, artist in residence in collaboration with scientist Jean-Christophe Marine (VIB)
Artist Kuang-Yi Ku and scientist Jean-Christophe Marine are the residents of STUDIOTOPIA Art&Science Programme hosted by GLUON.
Their common project Calico Human initiated a reflection on how recent scientific knowledge and biomedical technologies may be used to manipulate the color of the skin. This will be done by inducing “safe” tanning (by activating the melanin-producing ability of specialized cells - known as melanocytes- without causing skin damage) with the primary goal to decrease the risk of melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer which is induced by exposure to UV of sunlight.
It is already possible to use a phenolic extract from the leaves of camel grass to treat normal melanocytes to turn on pigmentation (melanogenesis). This method will be used in the context of this project as a proof of concept case study. According to the results of pilot experiments, they will create a speculative scenario to show how emerging biomedicine can shape the future society.
They plan to illustrate how the future world may look like (and how science can meet art to improve health in a creative and artistic way). In this fictional world, while creating a pattern of skin color is possible, how will the fashion culture evolve?
Calico Human attempts to explore the complex relationships among race, ethnicity, skin color, migration, health and biotechnology via building up the futuristic visual narration of the hybridity of skin colors.
The relationship among ethnicity, migration and skin cancer
Melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer finds its origin in a very specialized cell type (melanocytes) that produce “melanin”. “Melanin” is the pigment that gives people’s skin color. It has been clearly established that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds drastically increases the risk of developing melanoma.
Accordingly, the incidence of melanoma is clearly connected with the skin color and the history of migration. For example, the incidence of melanoma is 10-times higher in Australia and New Zealand. It is because the skin of most Australians and New Zealanders, whose descendants come from UK, is not adapted to the “sunny” environment (which is further exacerbated by the ozone hole over these regions). Basically, through migration, these two countries have been populated by many people with fair skin whose ancestors come from much less sunny climates (UK). Lack of protective pigmentation leaves skin cells especially vulnerable to the DNA-damaging rays from the sun.
Biological experiments as artistic practice
The scientific research team, in collaboration with Kuang-Yi Ku, proposes to use a plant extract (Leaves of Cymbopogon schoenanthus, camel grass that was collected from Tunisia) to treat melanocytes with varying concentrations to activate pigmentation. And then they will dispense cells in a 384-well plate or other kinds of petri dish in a pattern of artist’s choice to explore the diversity of skin color. Pilot experiments will be conducted in order to assess what could eventually be done on human skin. This operation will take a few weeks or months before concrete scientific results are obtained.
Artist Kuang-Yi Ku plans to work with fashion designers to co-design the pattern for human skin. After this step they will consult the scientific team headed by Jean-Christophe Marine to figure out how to conduct the experiments on the human cells. It might take a few weeks or months before the team will be able to visualize whether the results are in agreement with what they imagined. If the outcome is not what they expected, they might need the second round of these experiments. During the experiments, Kuang-Yi Ku plans to organize a video shooting/photography team to do the visual documentation of the scientific experiment as visual material for the next phase of artistic creation.
Speculation as method
According to the results of biological experiments, the team will co-create the final design based on the scientific research. On top of that, they plan to construct a speculative/hypothetical scenario in which this concept will be applied to human skin.
In a future scenario, in order to protect people from skin cancer, doctors use biomedical technology to manipulate the distribution of colors on human skin. Doctors will create patterns on their patients, these patterns can protect them from the ultraviolet (UV) radiation of sunlight. So that in the future, many people might look like calico cat, each of them will look different and unique.
By inducing the activity of the master regulator of the pigment-producing machinery in melanocytes, known as MITF, small-molecules activating MITF specifically in melanocyte,s would stimulate their production of melanin and transfer of the pigment to the surrounding skin cells (keratinocytes). Such MITF activators have already been identified and shown to induce MITF activity without inducing damage into skin cells. The specificity of such agents (off-target effect) and potential toxicity in patients would need to be evaluated and possibly minimized. However, it seems that such an approach may be possible in a near future. These agents may be formulated in the form of a cream that could be applied on the skin either by doctors or even by any individual (as it is currently the case for sunblock creams).
This project plans to show how the new medical service may work in the future. In this speculative narration, there might be a new trend of fashion of pattern on the skin. The fashion designers work with doctors to provide a service to change your skin to a specific pattern to look stylish and become healthier at the same time. One additional dimension of the project is therefore the opportunity to make the general public aware of the danger of UV exposure.
"Calico Human" hosted by GLUON is part of the STUDIOTOPIA project supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.