A visit of the exhibition Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology yesterday made me realize, once again, that i should be grateful to live here and now and not at a time when melancholia was treated with a 'healthy' dose of electric shocks and nerves were supplied with a 'vital energy' by wearing an electrical belt previously soaked in vinegar. This ancient cure looked like jolly good fun though.

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Model of a human brain, sectioned, French, first half 19th century. Image courtesy Science Museum

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Susan Aldworth, Transition series, 2010

Mind Maps explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. Divided into four episodes between 1780 and 2014, this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists' understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) bringing visitors up to date with the latest cutting edge research and its applications.

The small show is everything but dull and scholarly: controversial treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and poisonous nerve 'tonics' are followed by pendulum measuring the speed of thoughts, Pavlov's experiments on conditional reflexes and by Freud and his couch.

Every single object in the exhibition comes with a fascinating and at times chilling story. The only criticism i'm ready to make about Mind Maps is that ongoing journey into the mysteries of the brain and the nervous system would benefit from a less dim and confined exhibition space.

Highlights from the exhibition:

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Frog Pistol, invented 1860s. Image courtesy Science Museum

The artefact i found most puzzling was the 'frog pistol' developed by German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond to demontrate 'animal electricity' to his students.

A fresh frog leg was placed on the glass plate inside the tube, with the nerve ends connected to the keys on the top of the pistol grip. When these keys were depressed, a contact was made and the leg kicked back as it if had been electrified.

The small pistol instrument was of course inspired by the work of Luigi Galvani. In the 1780s, the Italian doctor discovered that sparks of electricity caused dead frogs' legs to twitch, leading him to propose that electrical energy was intrinsic to biological matter. Some of the instruments used by Galvani in his pioneering studies of nerve activity are presented in the exhibition, they haven't been displayed in public for more than a century.

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Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon. Photo Science Museum blog

The nerve/frog connection doesn't stop here. A dried frog inside a silk pouch is a testimony to the resilience of folk medicine in the 20th century, the essicated amphibian was carried around the neck 'to prevent fits and seizures.'

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Detail of an anatomical table displaying human nerves, dissected at the University of Padua in the 17th century (image Fresh eye on London)

Let's keep on the macabre mood with this 17th century dissection table from Padua with all the nerves of (presumably) an executed criminal laid out on it to form a map of the nervous system on a varnished wooden panel.

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Cavallo-style electrical generator, made by George Adams, London, 1780-84. Object no. 1889-29 © Science Museum

Tiberius Cavallo, a leading European authority on medical electricity, designed this compact electrical generator and its accessories, including the 'medical bottle' that regulated the shocks it administered. Turning the glass cylinder built up a static electric charge in the metal collector on the side of the machine.

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D'Arsonval cage from Riviere's clinic, Paris. Image courtesy Science Museum

The patient stood inside the D'Arsonval cage while harmless high-frequency alternating current from the tesla coil on a desk pulsed around the metal framework, generating powerful electromagnetic fields inside the body. The treatment was claimed to stimulate metabolism, reduce obesity and eczema, and temporarily relieve nervous pains.

The cage was only one of the many devices that Dr J-A Rivière, "electrotherapist and pacifist", used in the 1890s. His Paris clinic specialized in 'physical' treatments involving water, air, heat, light, electricity and after 1895, the newly discovered X-rays. Patients were seated in electric chairs, flooded with electric light or plunged into electrified bathtubs.

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Bottle of "Ner-Vigor", with instructions, in original carton, by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. Image courtesy Science Museum

Huxley's 'Ner-Vigor' was used between 1892-1943 for "strengthening the nerves." Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the strychnine poison.

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Nervone nerve nutrient, 1924-49. Object no. 1988-317/165 © Science Museum

The Nervone 'nerve nutrient' was launched in the 1920s as an alternative to harmful nerve tonics and was still being sold in the 1960s when it was replaced by new anti-anxiety and depression drugs such as Valium.

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Sherrington's cat model, c. 1920-30. Object No: 1999-917 © Science Museum

Nerve scientist and Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington was fascinated by the way cats kept their balance while negotiating obstacles at speed. This model was used to illustrate how the cat's eyes, whiskers, neck, legs and tail continued to work together even when the 'highest' portion of its brain had been removed.

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Electroconvulsive therapy machine made in the 1940s for the Burden Neurological Institute

The period that followed the Second World War saw the rise of several controversial treatments, including electro-convulsive therapy (where electricity is used to induce a brain seizure) and lobotomy.

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Equipment for conducting an electronic lobotomy, 1962

The machine was designed to deliver just enough current to a gold electrode to make a peppercorn sized hole in the brain. This technique, also known as leucotomy, was a more precise form of lobotomy. It was used from the early 1960s to treat patients with uncontrollable anxiety.

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EEG hairnet. Image courtesy Science Museum

Electroencephalography (EEG) remains an essential element of the psychology laboratory. It is frequently used in conjunction with brain scanning.

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Lecuir's battery, 1880-1920. Photo courtesy Science Museum, London

Batteries to stimulate nervous energy sometimes also featured religious symbols, because mental health needs all the help it can get, right?

Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology is free and runs at the Science Museum in London until 10 June.

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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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Song of the Machine

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Dynamic Genetics versus Mann

My guests in the studio will be Anab Jain and Jon Ardern from Superflux. Superflux is an Anglo-Indian design practice: they are based in London, but have roots and contacts in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad.

Superflux is looking at the ways emerging technologies interface with the environment and everyday life and the result of their research is a rather extraordinary portfolio which explores deviant economies for India's elastic cities, climate change, political engagement, desertification, human enhancement, etc.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 26 February at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Image on the homepage: 5th Dimensional Camera.

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A sleeping mask designed to capture CO2 whilst inhabitants sleep to moderate the life support system of the Isoculture

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guests will be designers and artists Michiko Nitta & Michael Burton.

Michael works on the edge of speculative design, arts, and as a researcher. His works investigate the choices we face in our evolution as a species and in redesigning life itself. Meanwhile, Michiko's interests are in the relationship between nature and humans, often taking extreme vantage on how humans can change their perception to live symbiotically with nature.

You might have heard of Michiko and Michael's work already. Last year, they were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with a performance that showed how opera singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source. And in Spring they were at the Watermans cultural center to explore the possibility of a city that would be isolated from the wider environment and where food, energy, and even medicine, are derived from human origin and man-made biological systems. Obviously, you're in for a weird ride with two charming people...

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Mezzo-soprano opera singer Louise Ashcroft preparing for The Algae Opera. Photo by Matt Mcquillan

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 6 November at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Previously: Future evolutions of our food systems - Interview with After Agri.

Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.

The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.

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Charlotte donating skin to Christine Mummery's laboratory in front of an audience at the Theatrum Anatomicum at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman

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Charlotte donating blood to Christine Mummery's laboratory in front of an audience at the Theatrum Anatomicum at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Photos by James Read

One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.

Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.

The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.

The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.

The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.

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Brain cells grown from stem cells derived from Charlotte's skin

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.

The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.

Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?

In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.

However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.

What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.

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Scars from biopsy 11/03/13

Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?

Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.

Thanks Charlotte!

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

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Charlotte Jarvis, Ergo Sum, 2013 (exhibition at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden.) Photo by James Read

Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

The first early human human fossil found in Africa that provides a key evidence to support Darwin's theory of human evolution (and in particular the origin of anatomically modern humans to sub-Saharan Africa) was discovered by a Swiss miner in 1921 in a lead and zinc mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia.) An upper jaw from another individual, a sacrum, a tibia, and two femur fragments were also uncovered. Anything else was lost during the mining exploitation of the area. The skull, dated to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, was taken to London by the British colonial authorities -in violation of protocols put in place by the British South Africa Company- and it is still there, as part of the collection of Natural History Museum. Meanwhile, the Lusaka National Museum, in Zambia, is only exhibiting a replica of the cranium.

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

Except that right now, the Lusaka National Museum is not even exhibiting a replica but an identical model recently purchased online by a Thai artist. A replica of a replica, thus. The replica itself is on show, all alone in a big room, at Chisenhale Gallery in London.

Pratchaya Phinthong has loaned the replica skull and asked the museum guide, Kamfwa Chishala, to travel to London for the duration of the exhibition in order to communicate the history of the skull to the visitors of the art gallery, as he does in Lusaka. Kamfwa Chishala is thus the only genuine participant to this exhibition. He was invited by the artist to bring his own subjectivity and perspective to the story of the Broken Hill skull. Something he certainly does with passion. I'd recommend that you get to the gallery, listen to his presentation and have a chat with him. He's a lovely man.

The Chisenhale exhibition is called Broken Hill -the nickname of the skull- and it uses the replica skull to investigate how historical narratives are performed through objects.

The replica skull is displayed with a copy of the wooden box where the original is kept at the NHM and with the export license that the artist had to obtain from the National Heritage Commission in Zambia because the replica skull is classified as a national relic. I thought the Zambian government was quite brave to allow the replica to travel to London since their attempts to repatriate the original to its country have all failed so far (tell that to the Greeks!)

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

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Pratchaya Phinthong, Broken Hill, 2013. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Mark Blower

Broken Hill explores the provenance and the authenticity of artefacts but also the way human interference further complicates their status. The exhibition is the outcome of a network of personal relationships between individuals living in cities as different from each other as Lusaka, Bangkok and London.

After all these years seeing skull after skull in art galleries and contemporary art fairs, it was time some artist put a skull in a context that is more than simply anecdotal, sensational or sloppily 'zeitgeist'-conscious.

Broken Hill remains open at the Chisenhale gallery until 1 September 2013. The real skull is on view as part of the Treasure exhibition at the National History Museum.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest tomorrow will be Marco Donnarumma, a young performer and sound artist who gained fame across the world for a series of performances and instruments that use open biophysical systems to explore the sonic dimensions of the human body. His interactive instrument Xth Sense won the first prize in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and was named the 2012 "world's most innovative new musical instrument" by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, US. 

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Xth Sense, 2011

We'll be talking about Xthe Sense and also about a work that intrigued me a lot: Nigredo, a 'private experience of altered self-perception and biophysical media' that uses Xth Sense. One visitor sits in a blacked out room facing a mirror and wired to sensors that capture the low frequency sound pulses of their heart, muscles and vein tissues. The signals are augmented, and fed back to the subject's sensory system as auditive, visual, and physical stimuli. Marco will tell us more about the effects the installation had on the public during the show. It includes sensory deprivation, feeling of being physically touched, etc.


Nigredo, 2013

The show will be aired this Wednesday 17th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photo on the homepage: Marco Donnarumma, Hypo Chrysos. Image Chris Schott.

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