What COVID-19 looks like as a stunning work of art

inline 200815 Laura Splan covid art

If SARS-CoV-2, the virus accountable for inflicting COVID-19, turned a piece of art, what would it not look like? That’s the precise query that Laura Splan, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, requested herself. It was early 2020 and Splan was within the midst of doing her second BioArt Residency with Integral Molecular, a biotechnological firm primarily based in Philadelphia, when the World Well being Group declared COVID-19 a international pandemic. As an artist whose work typically meshes science and art, Splan was in the fitting place on the proper time and already had been shadowing a crew of biotech scientists learning membrane protein antibody discovery.

“I used to be studying about their analysis and watching them do every part from bench lab experiments to molecular visualization, and so they have been very beneficiant about explaining to me what they have been doing and what some of the supplies they have been coping with have been,” she stated. “That is how I began studying extra in regards to the use of llamas and alpacas in antibody manufacturing.”

Membrane protein antibody discovery includes isolating and manipulating particular components of a cell to check the markers of illness and immunity. Within the lab, the scientists have been utilizing PyMOL, an open-source molecular visualization system that’s generally utilized by members of the science neighborhood. PyMOL maps the construction of viruses to develop potential therapies by way of the research of the antibodies of totally different species, such as llamas, alpacas, and chickens. Throughout Splan’s visits to the lab, the scientists launched her to the software program, which she started making use of to her personal studio work.


Splan determined to focus on the antibodies of llamas and alpacas, two species that additionally occurred to be the principle focus of her previous artist residency with the lab in 2018. That point, she created a number of intricately woven sculptures in a sequence referred to as “Conformations,” made utilizing 200 kilos of sheared wool acquired by way of donation from a laboratory that housed the animals at a Pennsylvania farm. (These items have been on show in fall 2019 as half of a solo exhibition at Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia.)

“I began by making sculptures out of the wool, which led to researching how [antibodies from llamas and alpacas] are getting used to supply vaccines,” she stated. “I started making animations utilizing PyMOL. Materially, the 2 tasks felt like very totally different tangents, however conceptually they’re each grounded in abstraction and interspecies entanglement.

Proper as Splan dove deeper into her mission, COVID-19 was on the brink of changing into a international pandemic.

“It was a pure development for me to start out fashions of SARS-CoV-2,” she stated. “The llamas whose wool I used to be working with have been being used to supply antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine analysis, so I used to be utilizing knowledge and supplies that have been instantly related.”

Splan relied on her expertise learning biology as an undergrad on the College of California Irvine, alongside together with her years of researching illnesses, epidemics, pandemics, and public well being, all themes that determine prominently into her huge portfolio of paintings. She extracted info from lab databases from all over the world that she discovered utilizing the Protein Data Bank, and researched fashions associated to the virus, such as human cell receptors referred to as ACE2 that SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins latch onto to contaminate the cells, alongside fashions of llama nanobodies.

“One of the issues that basically me in regards to the PyMOL software program is that it’s an abstraction upon an abstraction upon an abstraction,” she stated. “The animations are produced from fashions of the virus which are primarily based on photographs which are aggregations of imaging of the virus. There are all these layers of abstraction within the ways in which we’re even in a position to relate to the virus itself. These layers of invisibility and layers of abstraction are what I started enjoying with.”

She mixed the fashions she downloaded from the database and utilizing the software program’s sculpting software, she may manipulate the types of totally different proteins with a few clicks of her mouse, making generative animations that raveled and unraveled proteins utilizing the software program’s morphing characteristic.


That discovery was what led to “Unraveling,” Splan’s latest sequence of kaleidoscopic animations which are each fascinating and hypnotic. As a result of viruses are too small to have any colour, Splan relied on PyMOL’s broad palette of colours so as to add vibrancy and dimension to every of her animations, utilizing colours pulled from nature such as sky blue, salmon, forest, and slate. For the animation sequence, she additionally used Adobe After Results.

Splan completely used the spike protein discovered on the floor of the coronavirus, the half of the virus that attaches itself to human cells, which is represented within the software program as alpha helices, (the ribbony spirals), and beta sheets (the arrows).

“Finally, these are amino-acid sequences, and since of the biochemistry of that sequence, the protein folds in a sure manner by way of propulsion and attraction,” Splan stated. “While you’re watching these animations, you’ll be able to see these particular person ribbon buildings folding and unfolding and coming collectively and falling aside. That coming aside is what I did manually within the software program. I unraveled the protein, and I animated it coming again collectively.”

Splan was in a position to accomplish this utilizing the software program’s sculpting software, an software that scientists on the lab weren’t conscious of till she confirmed them, and so they now use usually in their very own analysis.

“It was a matter of a lot of playful experimentation with these instruments which are used for very critical analysis and seeing how far I may take that,” she stated. “In a manner, the animations transcended the software program itself.”

[Photo: Courtesy Laura Splan]

Earlier this yr, Splan invited the general public to expertise her animations in individual by appointment solely throughout a solo exhibition inside a cavernous 15,000-square-foot warehouse at BioBAT Art Space in Brooklyn. Inside, her work was projected onto massive screens and paired with music recorded over Zoom by Frank Masciocchi, an instrumentation engineer at Integral Molecular, who performed the A chord on his guitar 33 occasions. (The quantity 33 is critical because it’s the identical quantity of adenine nucleotides, or molecules, on the finish of the mRNA termination sequence of SARS-CoV-2.)

“It was an attention-grabbing problem as a result of we’re in a international well being disaster that has develop into extremely tragic and politicized,” Splan stated. “I wished to strategy my work with one thing speedy but additionally in a delicate manner. It was shocking how many individuals commented that the animations have been soothing and meditative and enjoyable, particularly at a second when most individuals have been in a very totally different mindset as a result of of the pandemic. I didn’t got down to make one thing therapeutic, however that’s the impact it’s had on individuals who visited the present.”

“Unraveling” is on show now by way of October 24 at Triennial Bruges in Belgium.