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Stylised drawing of people with diagram of a heart and model of a jaw bone

Hacking Hearts

Written by Teleri Lloyd-Jones
Published date 03 February 2020

This fast-paced project saw postgraduate students from across disciplines hack the research of our inaugural Scientists in Residence over the course of a week.

On Monday morning, Dr Thomas Iskratsch of Queen Mary University of London and Professor Wataru Hijikata of Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) presented their research into – among other things – energy harvesting, cellular sensing and heart disease. The students then spent the week responding to what they had heard and by Friday evening, they were presenting their critical and creative outcomes to a public audience.

The focus of Hacking Hearts was to open up scientific research to different ways of thinking about its significance, not only in practical terms of potential health benefits, but also the wider social and ethical considerations. The project was orchestrated by Heather Barnett, Pathway Leader of MA Art and Science and Dr Ulrike Oberlack, Course Coordinator of MA Design and forms part of a long-term collaboration between Tokyo Tech and Central Saint Martins which crosses both national and disciplinary boundaries to explore scientific and creative practice.

Drawing of various moments in workshop, people trialling experiments and models of hearts and skulls
Hacking Hearts, illustration by Libby Morrell

"We wanted to create a space for mutual dialogue, where the students’ interpretations might impact their own understanding of contemporary science. And the creative responses that they made might, in turn, influence how the scientists think about their own work back in the lab.”
Heather Barnett

Maciej Rackiewicz, an MA Graphic Communication Design student, was intrigued when he heard about Hacking Hearts. Having previously done a degree in Chemistry, he's interested in the overlaps and relationships between art and science. In particular, Rackiewicz is drawn to the use of graphic design to communicate science, but here was a project that was asking creative practice not simply to present scientific research but to probe and pick it apart.

MA Art and Science student Aminder Virdee approached the project asking how lived experience can improve scientific research and consequently quality of life: "As an individual living with physical impairments and with 40% of their skeletal system restored through titanium and ceramic prosthesis and implants, I was eager to learn more about energy harvesting when the body (and heart) in question differs from the standard ideal concept of human anatomy. Looking at biochemical behaviours for heart disease at a cellular level, I was interested in the approaches used in cellular sensing and whether it would inform my personal experience of muscle disease and my artistic expression of it."

Circular photograph of people standing wearing white coats
360 degree photo of Hacking Hearts workshop

Following their introduction to the research, the students began exploring materials and processes to define their responses. Discussions between students and academics roamed freely covering both the details within the scientific research but also wider questions of ethics, speciesism and what it means to "mend" our bodies. Rackiewicz’s group, for example, focused on one detail that Hijikata had shared, that when a patient is fitted with an artificial heart they no longer have a heartbeat because the blood is pumped in a different way.

“The difference between what scientists do and what we do was shown in their presentations; they share a lot of information at once but we take one thing that speaks to us and we blow it up.”
Maciej Rackiewicz

Working with other disciplines from across the College, the students knew that collaboration was key to the week: “There was lots of miscommunication which is very normal. We were explaining what we wanted to do. Don’t explain it, make it and show it… I’m learning more and more that you have to stop thinking too much and start making things, start doing things,” says Rackiewicz.

Organic Mechanic, work in progress for Hacking Hearts by Maciej Rackiewicz, Zequan Lin, Violeta Valcheva, Yasmin Morjaria and Jingyan Yang

The culmination of the week was the Friday evening event with members of the public and other academics experiencing and considering the results. The three groups each took a performative approach to engage this wider audience: one group launched a parody company offering plant/human hybrid living (complete with branding and white coats), another engaged the audience in a material exploration of heart muscle elasticity, while the third used film and sound to question the mechanics of blood flow and the poetic power of the heartbeat.

“I learned that science can become an impressive and emotional thing through art performance. This was the most interesting discovery for me in this project, I found that hacking science by art means the transformation from data to emotion.”
Wataru Hijikata, Scientist in Residence

Looking back on the week, Virdee thinks the project will influence her own practice but, just as crucially, sees how collaboration and engagement with the research is transformative in itself: "It was thought-provoking in many ways, especially on personal, philosophical and ethical planes... My thoughts mainly circled the act of participating in Hacking Hearts itself as a disabled, neurodiverse woman of colour that has lived in medical institutions half of my life. I saw it as a performative reclamation to transform a scientific space into a political site of radical agency."

Circular photograph of people standing wearing white coats
360 degree photo of Hacking Hearts workshop

“I always find it important not to get stuck in ways of thinking and this experience certainly helped me see my research in a different light… I found the systematic way of dissecting and exploring a topic very interesting and, in some form, perhaps even applicable to my own teaching.”
Thomas Iskratsch, Scientist in Residence

The whole experiment was observed by a third researcher, a Social Scientist in Residence, Professor Kayoko Nohara from Tokyo Tech who studies methods of translation. Here, she was interested in how the scientists explained their research to non-specialists and how the students grasped unfamiliar concepts and translated information into creative ideas to question and communicate.

Student Researchers: Yilei Cai, Ruiqi Deng, Jaili Han, Zequan Lin, Molly MacLeod, Yasmin Morjaria, Maciej Rackiewicz, Audrey Rangel Aguirre, Jatun Risba, Violeta Valcheva, Aminder Virdee, and Jingyan Yang from MA Art and Science, MA Design (Jewellery), MA Design (Furniture), MA Graphic Communication Design, MA Industrial Design and MA Performance Design and Practice.

With thanks to Dr Shem Johnson, Specialist Technician, Grow Lab, Riko Yasumiya, Project Assistant and Libby Morrell Project Illustrator.

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