Charlie Murphy creates dramatic sculptural installations, performances and events across arts, public health and arts-science contexts. Known for her popular touring ‘kiss-in’ events, her projects often involve participation and collaboration of some kind. Charlie’s work is widely presented across UK and international contexts. A co-director of Wellcome’s Created Out of Mind team (2016-18), Charlie contributes to multiple interdisciplinary research projects to raise awareness about lesser known impacts of dementias at social, personal and cellular levels. Read more here.
In this podcast, Charlie Murphy talks with Helen Osborne about:
- The interplay between the humanities and science.
- The use of dramatic sculptural installations and performances to inform the human condition.
Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.
Producer and audio editor: Clair Morgan
HELEN: Welcome to Talking About Blood. I’m Helen Osborne, host of this podcast series and a member of the Advisory Board for The Blood Project. I also produce and host my own podcast series about many aspects of health communication, and it’s called Health Literacy Out Loud. The Blood Project’s website includes a lot of important science and medical information. These often focus on the interplay of the humanities and science. Charlie Murphy knows a lot about this. Based in the UK, her practice is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary, creating dramatic sculptural installations and performances that spans the arts and science and public health, and a variety of community contexts. Many of these projects include participatory elements that are inspired by our bodies, our health, and our relationships. Charlie’s work is widely presented and includes presentations at the Royal Festival Hall, Science Gallery Dublin, Tate Modern, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Welcome, Charlie, to Talking About Blood.
CHARLIE: Thank you very much, Helen. I’m really excited to be talking to you today.
HELEN: The interplay of science and the humanities. That’s a fascinating combination there. Many of our listeners for The Blood Project are scientists, so let’s start there. Why does or should art matter to scientists?
CHARLIE: That’s a brilliant and powerful question, Helen. I think certainly in my experience, the dialogues that I’ve had with scientists and the areas of work that scientists are involved with are really relevant to everybody, and scientists often actually really need to talk to real human beings about the things they’re studying, and to try to get some perspectives of human beings into their questions that they’re trying to understand. It’s a really exciting two-way conversation, and it’s a really important area, I think, which is of benefit for both scientists and for artists and for the public that might come to explore some of the artworks that we make. Interestingly, I first started my conversations with scientists through my interest in blood.
HELEN: Oh, okay. Tell us about that.
CHARLIE: I was really interested in the anatomy of humans and of how human beings and human experience is represented through imagery, through scientific imagery, and all the different kinds of medical illustrations that have evolved over many, many hundreds of years as we’ve tried to understand more about human experience and the human body. I actually was inspired to make a series of sculptures about blood and about blood vessels. I made those out of glass. So I was making my own interpretations of what I could see in these beautiful, sometimes historic illustrations, sometimes more contemporary scans of, say, the blood system, or perhaps the vessels, the blood vessels within our brains. I used those illustrations and images as the inspiration for creating some sculptures.
HELEN: Charlie, I’m going to take a step back. I mean, to go from whoever you are and whatever you are doing to be doing blood and images and glasswork about this, did you start as a scientist or did you start as an artist or some combination or overlay of the two?
CHARLIE: I started as an artist. I guess I’ve always had a really keen interest in science, but I didn’t study science at university. I studied photography actually, and I learned a lot about documentary photography and moving image. So video and photography were the key skills that I learned when I was at college, but those skills were very much connected to science. Photography is optics, it’s about lenses, it’s about looking, and many aspects of science are also about looking and trying to get to the bottom of what’s going wrong, for example, with a cell that might be degenerating or there might be some technology around that way that we can now scan different aspects of our body. I have always been interested in how we capture, sometimes things that aren’t really visible to the human eye, but obviously are about the mechanisms and all the different contents, if you like, of our bodies and experiences.
HELEN: When you talked about the role of looking, it’s just like, “Well, that’s a very powerful image.” But you said you started with your interest in blood as you crossed over and became interested in the science of this, was there anything specific about blood that captured your interests as like, “Aha, that’s where I want to be going in this or where I want to get started”?
CHARLIE: I was very excited about how I could try to visualize some of these beautiful forms that are within us. For example, the arteries, the blood vessels that go up into our brains, they’re very beautiful branch-like structures, which I thought were fascinating. So I was curious about how and what those blood vessels might look like in three dimensions and how I might interpret that. I was also interested in scientific instruments. Things like thermometers, which use capillary action. They use these fine tubes to draw the liquids up inside them and they use a chemical called toluene, which is colored funnily enough in a very rich red or in a rich blue, which are exactly the same colors that they use in illustrations of blood vessels and arches in the body. That was the link for me. That was what got me started to think, “Oh, I’d really like to make my own investigation into this part of our anatomy that’s so central to our function in terms of our brains and the whole of our bodily system.”
HELEN: Charlie, you and I share a special interest that perhaps not many of the listeners to this podcast do. You are a glass artist. I did flameworking with glass for many years. It’s actually my favorite artistic media of all, but can you just explain for listeners, and maybe I’ll chime in too, what happens in this process of working with glass?
CHARLIE: Okay. Glass is the most amazing and versatile material you can possibly imagine. The more I study it, the more that I work with it, the more I find out about its many applications across so many areas and on so many different scales. For my working, I, like you, have over time been learning about flameworking, which is a form of glasswork with… I work with something called borosilicate glass, which has got a particular melting temperature about 700 degrees Celsius. I get to melt it and to shape it in a flame.
So, I have a torch which is mounted on a bench, and I work with different kinds of tubing or rods. On the whole, that’s a clear glass, but I can add color to it. Then I can melt that into the body of the glass using these flames and it’s an incredibly satisfying… It’s a really difficult material to learn how to control, but it’s also a really beautiful and incredible medium through which you can shine light and you can expand it into all sorts of organic forms as well as you can work with it on a lathe if you have the right tools and the right training. It’s an amazing material.
HELEN: I’m also intrigued and I want to hear about the third person in this conversation, perhaps bigger than one person, but that’s the public. So you’ve talked about what this has meant to you as an artist to take something from two dimensions to three dimensions and recreate it and why it has such meaning to you. You’ve talked about it from the perspective of Dr. Sean McCann as a physician, as a hematologist himself, what he takes away from the artistic interpretation of that. Those are both powerful, but your work is also for the public and when you show your work it’s often at museums and galleries. What’s the response from the public to be seeing some of these interpretations?
CHARLIE: One of the things that really inspires me, in addition to actually making the sculptural work that I do, I also get a huge amount of insight and inspiration from sharing the ideas and the questions that I have with my audiences. I’ve explored lots of different strategies for getting people directly involved in my work. Quite often, that’s a very playful interaction. One of the things that I need to do to understand something that is, in the case of something scientific, sometimes what we are looking at in terms of science is very abstract, and what I’m about is about trying to bring some of those ideas back into the body and back into what it’s like to interact with each other. To give you an example of how I work, I was very interested in understanding molecular neuroscientists’ work and she uses all sorts of stem cell technologies and gene editing and some amazing new technologies to try and understand what’s going on inside cells when somebody gets dementia, for example.
To understand what she was doing, I needed to really think about how can I embody what she’s talking about to try and walk and talk through a bit like a rehearsal, what’s going on between these cells, and how they transform. I created something called the Neuronal Disco, which was a way of animating her research, the Neuronal Disco. So to connect with her and the abstract science that she was involved in, we found a point of connection, which was music and dance and how we could use those two things to actually perform some of the principles of cell biology, for example, that are absolutely core to her work. We found a way to really invite people to wear little lights on their fingers and to actually recreate some of the images that she captures in her lab of these cells as they transform. That’s a really lovely way of actually inviting people to really explore and find out about the science of what she’s doing, but through a very direct participation, if that makes sense.
HELEN: This is terrific. We’re going to have some links to some of your work. I know that there’ll be some links on The Blood Project website too, so people can see this. From your perspective of bringing together science and the arts and general population, what’s your secret recipe underneath it all, for what really makes this work so well, when you bring together these seemingly disparate fields?
CHARLIE: I think remembering to find some common points of contact, which are about sharing our humanity is an important thing. I think it’s always important to not underestimate how amazing our bodies are and how by sharing the insights that scientists have into how they work and what they do, what they look like from the inside, things that we don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis, sharing some of that more publicly and explaining in a really clear way like what’s actually going on and what’s important about the research, for example, it’s an amazing field.
There is incredible new technologies and very, very powerful tools that are advancing all sorts of areas of science and medicine, which is really exciting, but they also have enormous ethical implications, and these are important questions that the public on many, in every sphere needs to be aware of and have a chance to discuss. Those are the areas that I think are both exciting as a source of inspiration for public engagement and artwork, but also as a vital part of the wider discourse on what do we want to do in the future for our bodies and for our society.
HELEN: I certainly hear your enthusiasm. It is infectious. If I can use a medical metaphor in that one. You’ve been doing this for quite a while. Are there things that people should be aware of? Let’s say they were trying to be bridging a few fields like this. Is there something to be aware of going into this, some cautions you’d want to share about something that may not work as well?
CHARLIE: Good question. The ethics of working with patients and working with patient tissues, and there’s a whole host of areas of bioengineering and bioscience that I’ve been learning about which take a lot of very careful planning for you to be able to engage with them and to get involved. So time and resources to make sure that’s possible as some of the barriers if you like for actually being able to connect and work with those tools. I was very lucky, for example, that my introduction to working, for example, with a dementia researcher at UCL was through my residency with the Wellcome.
I was part of a whole interdisciplinary team of artists and scientists and we were lucky in that we were rewarded a public engagement grant to be able to start investigating what public perceptions were about dementias and how we might open up the world of scientific research about dementia. We had some resources to help us get started, but there are different schemes in different parts of the world that you can apply to really engage. I think one of the barriers is actually finding a scientist to connect and work with if that’s something that you’re interested in doing.
HELEN: That’s where I wanted to go with this is as we bring this full circle here. Your work is very interdisciplinary. That comes across loud and clear. Your work often is very interactive too. Those seem like key components for both. Our listeners to Talking About Blood may be seasoned health professionals, hematologists, those who have been doing this work for many, many years. Our listeners may be also those just entering the health careers, whether it’s in medicine or other fields of science and medicine. Our listeners may be just people as we all are, you and me, everybody who just wants to know more about this great big wild world we live in and our human bodies that we deal with every moment. What tips or strategies, what would you like to pass along from all your experience? Let’s start with the seasoned health professionals, those who have been doing this a long time. What would you want them to take away as a key message?
CHARLIE: I think the visual is a really powerful realm. I think that medical terminology, and in particular, a medical representation is not always neutral, but the visual is a really powerful format through which to communicate. Artists of many different kinds have some very creative and important responses to the work that is being done and it is a really valuable way of connecting with patients and the public more widely.
HELEN: Thank you. As you’re saying that, I’m thinking about that someone who might have been in practice for many, many years, there are hematologists, let’s say, they are experts in what’s going on in the blood and all that. They’re passionate about it. It’s probably very easy for them to not remember or forget what it was like to be hearing that information the first time. That’s certainly what you do is introduce it to that population of people who need to know, patients and public who need to know more about their own body mechanics, what’s working and what isn’t. So that using the arts is a way of teaching the public about what the practicing hematologist knows and cares about so much. What about tips or strategies or what would you like someone newly entering the sciences to know?
CHARLIE: I think it’s just worth asking lots and lots of questions and just to use that curiosity and really celebrate what you are finding as you go along.
HELEN: It’s great. I loved what you talked about, about being curious and celebrating, just bringing the joy of bringing this new learning together and making it accessible to the public. Charlie, you have brought such a wonderful perspective of this, and your passion comes through clearly. I encourage listeners to the podcast to also look, and that’s where you started is by looking, at some of your work and experience for themselves. I know I did that when I looked through yours. I had a very emotional reaction to your work too. Not just the beauty of the art, but how you’re bringing these fields together. Charlie, I want to thank you so much for doing all you’re doing and for sharing it with us on Talking About Blood.
CHARLIE: Thank you so much, Helen. It’s been really lovely to talk to you and thanks so much for the opportunity. I’m really delighted to share this with yourself and with the wider Talking about Blood project.
HELEN: You are an inspiration. Thank you for that. As we just heard from Charlie Murphy, the integration, the interdisciplinary nature of science and art is so important. It makes us human. It brings out the humanity of all we do, including whether we are working with blood, teaching about blood, or just having our own blood system and understanding it more. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, trainees, and patients, go to thebloodproject.com. I also invite you to listen to my other podcast series about health communication. It’s at healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series and The Blood Project. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.