Turning the science of memory into a sensory experience


  • Robert E. Williams (Multimedia Artist)
  • Jayeeta Basu (*Neuroscientist)


The science of memory is about who we are. Why do you remember what you remember? Why does your brain make some experiences long term memories and not others? And do our memories change the way we experience the world, right now?

These questions are at the core of Jayeeta Basu’s research. She’s a neuroscientist and the Director of the Basu lab NYU.  It’s a complicated task with multiple overlapping functions, happening on a cellular, circuit and regional level. And Basu’s studies many of them.

When we learn something, we don’t just learn a piece of information by itself. It’s associated with other information. For example when you learn a phrase, you may remember whether you heard it or you read it, the source, the context of when and where you heard it, you might even remember the music that was playing in the background. At a cellular level, all these different regions of the brain that process each of those associations are acting at the same time. How do they work together?

And there’s more happening at the circuit level. We tend to think of neurons as a binary system, they turn on and off. But in reality some neurons act in more of inhibitory role in a circuit while others are more excitatory. Think of it like guests at party. Some guests bring a more intimate energy while others are the life of the party. When there’s a balance between them, you have a party that’s dynamic and it works for everybody. When they’re not balanced, there’s awkwardness and drama. It’s the same in the brain. When these neurons are out of balance, they can cause epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression. But when they cooperate, they help you learn. How do they cooperate?

Even changes in the strength of signal between cells and circuits can impact whether or not the brain stores information. What dictates that? Danger, reward and punishment. All of this affects how you experience and interact with your environment.

“I can’t help but reflect on how these phenomena relate to my conscience experience of the world.”

To study this, Basu’s team works with photon imaging and virtual reality. They look at the anatomy of brain slices and observe circuits and mouse behavior during live sensory experiences.

It’s hard to avoid being philosophical with this material. That’s what appealed to Robert Emerson Williams, an installation artist that works with photos, video, lighting and motorized components. “Though I understand that much of what [Basu] is observing is biochemical and electrochemical in nature, I can’t help but reflect on how these phenomena relate to my conscience experience of the world.” Basu’s “work on the way that past memories inform my current perceptions ignited my interest in this kind of collaboration.”

Williams’ approach was to construct a physical moving metaphor on the relationship of memory and experience. “I decided to work with light, shadow and motion because these elements are, at once, ephemeral and persistent.” His piece is a collection of staged rotating objects that were meaningful to him, whose shadows project onto a viewing surface that interacts with video of other shadows. The objects were like memories interacting with each other projecting a template filtering how we experience the world.

”What I responded to was this idea of experience, registering that, and storing, and registering a similar experience,” and asking, “how do they relate?”

Half of the experience was being able to look behind the projection screen and see how all the parts contribute to the whole.

“What can be known exists as a unitary whole,” but “in order to ‘know’ we must segregate and deconstruct manageable portions.”

Art Specs

Title: Semaphore

Price: $3000


Robert E. Williams


My methods & materials are diverse. My interest in media and pop culture is consistent throughout my work. I believe that the ability to remove images from their original context through photography or other mechanical means has enormous consequences for our ability to know what is true and what is false. I also value hand skills. Coming from a crafts background I have always derived great satisfaction from my relationship with materials. I am currently working on a series of drawings using charcoal and colored chalk on paper called “Dystopia.” They draw from a series of digital photographs that I took during a period when I was working well over forty hours a week. During this period, spare time was at a premium, but the old aphorism about “artists doing work about what they know” came to mind. I knew my commute to work, and I knew my neighborhood of Washington Heights, so I set about documenting my immediate environment as I went through my day.

Jayeeta Basu


Jayeeta is a Neuroscientist investigating the molecular, synaptic and cellular events that underlie changes in the flow of information in neural circuits. Her goal is to understand how sensory experiences trigger activity in functionally linked neurons to generate learned behaviors and encode salient features of the environment. The focus or her lab is on describing how the logic of inherent circuit design, diversity of neuron types and spatio-temporal dynamics of synaptic activity amalgamate in the cortico-hippocampal network to organize and store information as memories. She utilizes electrophysiology, imaging and genetic manipulations in brain slices and awake behaving mice to explore links between mnemonic and plastic circuits, associational learning and adaptive behaviors.

How our bodies communicate information


  • Richard White (Cancer Biologist)
  • KC Maddux (Artist)


Bodies communicate information. What that means to a scientist can be very different to an artist.

Richard White is a scientist and director of the White Lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He wants to know how cancer spreads from one part of the body to another part of the part of the body and how it thrives once it gets there.

It’s called metastasis and it’s the most advanced stage of cancer, stage 4. When most people die of cancer, they die because it spreads to other parts of the body.  

The key concept here is distance. The situation isn’t only that cancer spreads but that it spread to a new location that’s not continuous with the original location. There’s separation and distance, kind of like a plant whose seed was carried by wind or insect to grow on new soil.

"Some people call this the soil and seed hypothesis", says lab director, Richard White. "Certain seeds are only going to do well in a nurturing environment." In that fashion, "certain cancers like to go to certain parts of the body." For example, "Melanoma, a skin cancer likes to go the brain. We don’t know why but clearly the brain is a receptive soil for those cells." What mediates it, in some cases, is mutations in the tumor. In others, it has to do with the process that turns genes off and on. Or it could be that the environment is changing in a nurturing way, like adding fertilizer to your soil.

White's team works to uncover mechanisms of the soil and seed model with a transparent strain of zebrafish they developed that allows them to see the metastasis and search for connections between the cancers and their surrounding environment.

If our bodies are often read, how do we use them as statements?

Artist KC Maddux is also interested in making connections having to do with body and its surrounding context. Working with drawings, photography, and other materials, Maddux operates in “body talk”.

“Your body is a message,” Maddux says. “Your perceived traits are used to approximate your coordinates within a complex identity matrix that includes gender, age, race, class, and even height, among other things. We use those coordinates as crude cairns that adjust our expectations when interacting with each other."

And when those traits change, so do our expectations. “I have lived 30 years being read as a female and six being read as a male.  I changed my body in 2011, and then strangely, my entire social world changed around me. A physical shift, essentially of hair, muscle and vocal pitch, dramatically affected the way I was received emotionally by people, especially strangers…[but] the substance of my being, of course, had actually changed very little.”

Maddux asks, “if our bodies are often read, how do we use them as statements?” Maddux’s work takes nude images of his body parts out of their traditional context, redrawing his form to convey new meaning.

Though Maddux’s body talk art operates within a social context and White’s lab within an objective one, for both, separation and distance matter and the central question is the same -- why there?

To that effect, White believes, "artists and scientists are opposite sides of the same coin. It’s great we have folks like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, both amazing advocates of science, but we need more and multiple ways of seeing -- an archive of abstraction. And what may be necessary for this type of collaboration is intimacy, and intimacy only comes with time."

The experience of getting intimate with science was enlightening for Maddux, "in the interest of establishing regularity and reproducibility of uncontaminated results, the entire environment was controlled to a great extent. This is exactly opposite my experience in studio, where I welcome chance and accident. In order to more clearly understand ourselves and our bodies, the scientists must interface with our smallest parts (like cells) in this radically mediated and "unnatural" fashion. The lab becomes some sort of translator, removing all the noise so we can more clearly see what we are looking for."

Maddux hints at the meaning of his two-part work: "There are two different functioning systems overlapping in those rooms [labs].  One is the human pursuit of logic and rational problem solving and the second is the biological, natural processes of life...we experience a biological privilege [and we] dominate the environment...I think that's why power comes up so much, you see that 10 people are running the fish lab and then you have 1,000 fish and they have tumors growing on them. [I'm not going to say] we shouldn't research cancer, [but] my right to live over the right of the fish--it's complicated."

Art Specs

Photographic print on clear film and sheetrock(not canvas as previously stated), 400$


KC Maddux


As a transgendered artist, I question how gender straddles artifice and the authentic, the social and the personal. How does the body’s surface, and the trans body’s in particular, project and receive identity? Using transparent photographs, installation, and drawing, I diagram symbolic constellations relating to gender, power, death, and sexuality, directly on the gallery walls.

Richard White


Richard is a Cancer biologist investigating the evolution of cancer metastases in zebrafish. Metastasis, the cause of nearly all deaths form solid tumors, is inevitably a collaboration between genetic & epigenetic alterations present in the tumor cells along with the neighboring microenvironment that supports metastatic outgrowth.  The zebrafish is uniquely suited to perform high-throughput, high-content screens for factors in either compartment that modulate metastatic frequency.  The information from these screens provides basic insights into the process, and can also act as a platform for novel therapeutic discovery to prevent or ameliorate metastatic progression. He is currently studying metastatic mechanisms in melanoma, and have begun work to develop models of pancreatic cancer in the zebrafish.

Using performance to embody science and teach about Tuberculosis


  • Heran Darwin (Microbiologist)
  • Kate Lee (Performance Artist)


In a time when medical schools obsess over making millions of dollars to develop a patent to make a drug, Heran Darwin, biologist and Director of the Darwin Lab at NYU, wants to understand how tuberculosis works.

At 2.5 million deaths a year, tuberculosis kills more people than any other infectious disease on earth. That's almost the size of Chicago (2.7 million). About a third of the world population is infected -- that's at least 2 billion people!

In translational medicine, "you're working to a find a cure for a disease, you're trying to stop it, you're not trying to understand it," says Darwin. But "when you understand how something works you have a better chance at fighting disease and eradicating it from the rest of the earth. I call myself a fundamental scientist because I'm trying to understand the processes. I’m on the ‘how’ side of science. I'm not a pharmaceutical company." Besides, according Darwin, a drug for tuberculosis will never make any money because the majority of people infected with tuberculosis wouldn’t be able to pay for treatment so it isn’t a high priority for many pharmaceutical companies.

The Darwin Lab studies the mechanics and pathways of tuberculosis so that scientists can one day target them with new drugs to cure the disease. That means studying the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (mycobacterium tuberculosis), what it needs to live, and why and how a collection of natural enzymes, acting as a complex called the proteasome, helps it grow in humans.  

Darwin believes that 10 years from now all these building blocks of knowledge are going to be critical to developing a cure. That’s why, with all the institutional prioritizing of profits, Darwin wants to remind the public how critical doing basic science research is for making discoveries that lead to better human health. But it’s hard to get people to care about something they can’t relate to.

“I'd just love for people to understand science better,” but it’s hard to explain science to nonscientists who don’t understand fundamental processes. When the opportunity arose to work with artist Kate Lee  to convey basic science to the public, Darwin jumped on board.

"Sometimes it’s hard to explain science and sometimes it’s hard to explain art" but "maybe there's a way of using art to explain science better."There are countless ways to go about it but if you’re a performance artist, how do you do that? It also brings up questions in terms of what is important to convey to the public, to resonate.  Is it important that the general public understands the minutia of scientific details or is it more important that they understand the big swaths - why a scientists is asking a particular questions or working on a problem in a particular way and how evidence based scientific information is generated and why that process is important and meaningful, rather than very specific details about one particular protein that a lab may work on for example.  

“It’s been a process of translation and understanding.”

Kate Lee, a cultural producer and educator that uses performance art as a tool for social engagement and cultural development, believes that science can be embodied in a performative way and that performance can be used in science education. "I’ve never just been in the arts," Lee says, "I’ve always had a social practice; it’s definitely about getting out of silos."

Lee's vision was to convey Darwins’ work by telling two stories. The first is a human story about the devastation of tuberculosis in developing countries and the second on the science. The ground level reality of the disease is one of drug resistant strains; doctors prescribing outdated drugs because they don't have access to newer treatments, and pharmaceutical companies that have largely ignored the problem.

But for the science, Lee needed Darwin’s help. "I listened to Heran talk about her work and realized I not only wanted to understand the science, but wanted the challenge of how to tell the science story. Usually with performance you go with what resonates, but this is different because it’s a whole new area of knowledge for me, so it took time to sift through the information, read one of Heran's research papers and listen to our recordings just to become familiar with the terminology—I actually really enjoyed that process. It’s been a process of translation and understanding.“

Heran gave Lee lots feedback on the script and did her best to frame the science, including help on that enabling enzyme that helps tuberculosis grow in humans.

“Think of the proteasome as a manager of a cell. It somehow manages all these different proteins. Proteins are the workers - each performs a specialized job important to cell function and therefore all activities we as humans perform and need to live. The proteosome decides when some proteins are going to be degraded and destroyed and it also has to make decisions NOT to destroy certain proteins. This decisions making process is an active regulation of protein activity.  How does this nano-machine make these sorts of fate based decisions? We’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Existentially the question is: how do proteins know how to do things…how do we know how to do things?”

Kate performed "TB: Not a disease of the past" to a packed room at Littlefield in Brooklyn with her performance team at the Art of Science gallery night in December 2016.


Heran Darwin


Heran is a Microbiologist investigating Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) and microbial pathogenesis. Tuberculosis is one of the leading causes of death in the world, killing about 2 million people a year. Nearly one-third of the world is infected with Mtb, which is a rod shaped bacterium that persists in the lungs of humans. New drugs to treat tuberculosis are urgently needed. Her lab is working to identify activities in Mtb that can be targeted, focusing on understanding the link between Mtb pathogenesis and virulence that are dependent on protein degradation via the proteasome as well as mechanisms of mycobacterial resistance to host. The task of studying Mtb and finding new drugs and drug targets is hindered by the fact that Mtb is dangerous due to its highly infectious nature and is slow growing, requiring 2-3 weeks to grow colonies on solid media. Taken together, Mtb is one of the most significant and challenging organisms to study.

Kate Lee


Kate is an applied theater practitioner and interdisciplinary performance creator, I work in various forms including text based plays, dance, theater, music, and devised performance. I work with diverse communities using theater as a tool for social engagement, education and cultural development. I began performing in Sydney in 2002 and in 2009 I formed ExperimentONE with my directorial debut, Flicking the Flint, which premiered at Brisbane Festival’s UNDER THE RADAR and continued a season at Adelaide Fringe Festival & Metro Arts, Brisbane.

Geometry as an entry point into science


  • Mande Holford (Biochemist)
  • Jackie Lima (Painter / Sculptor


"We're looking for new therapies for treating pain and cancer," says Mande Holford, Director of the Holford Lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Other labs have similar goals but what's unique about the Holford Lab is where they're looking - in venomous marine snails.

Venomous snails, also known as cone snails, are carnivorous. They eat worms, small fish, molluscs and other cone snails. They release their venom through a harpoon like tooth. Depending on the species, getting stung by a venomous snail is equivalent to a bee sting and can even be fatal.

But what makes snail venom extra special is that it has compounds that allow scientists to study how cancer cells spread and they can also use the venom to learn how pain signals are suppressed.

Before they can do that, scientists have to first go out in the field and collect the snails and then dissect out the venom glad. They then extract the compounds that are inside the gland for identification. Once they've identified the compounds, they run a series of experiments to figure out what each of the compounds do. When they find one that looks promising for cancer research, they look at what it's interacting with, what it's shape is (because shape impacts function) and try to understand its mechanisms. The lab is currently studying a peptide they found that seems to be very good at preventing liver cells from proliferating.

Holford sees the beauty of it all. "These snails we work with, their shells are spectacular and have been collected for centuries because they’re beautiful." That's why shells are often used as an "access point to talking about the science," with the public.

"We can tell the beautiful story of how snails not only evolved and how the shells are gorgeous, and now they’re also giving us these potential therapies for human ailments. It’s a nice arc, how humans and nature are co-existing and we need each other to survive — especially now when there’s species extinction and loss of biodiversity."

In a similar way, Jackie Lima, a painter and sculptor, connected with her experience at the Holford Lab. From the beginning, Lima was fascinated with the lab's process, the visual representations of their data, the concept drawings that researchers use to clarify their process and communicate ideas and the DNA strips they use to study the venom compounds. There was a beauty to it.

After being shown the shape of one of the peptides isolated from the venom, Lima said, "I simply could not get this peptide ribbon out of my head."

It's shape resonated so much with her that it became the focus of her work. She created an aluminum sculpture that she modeled off that peptide and then painted it with depictions of the lab's activities, as it winds through its processes and concepts.  "My work has always addressed science -- certainly geometry and perspective," Lima said

In a way, the painted sculpture parallels Holford's snail shells - an artful winding structure that acts as an access point to to talk about science.



Jackie Lima


Jackie is a renowned artist, art educator, curator and lecturer. Her paintings and drawings were accessible throughout the 80’s at the Blue Mountain Gallery, NYC. Her work has been reviewed for the New Criterion by Jed Perl and published in his subsequent book Gallery Going: Four Seasons in the Art World. She often paints on spherical and other 3-Dimensional forms. Her work is involved with “experimental perspective” – looking at the world in different ways to experience the phenomenon of BEING in existence. That experience creates the forms she works with. She paints on strips, rings and spheres to learn more about the nature of being in and moving through 3-Dimensional space. She teaches classes at Fairleigh Dickinson University – the “Global Art World” and “Global Issues” – was also Director of the University College Art Gallery on the Metropolitan Campus for 15 years

Mande Holford


Mande is a Biochemist interested in the discovery and characterization of bioactive peptides from marine organisms. Her lab applies inventive tools from chemistry and biology to: (1) discover disulfide-rich peptides from venomous sources, (2) develop high-throughput methods for characterizing structure-function peptide interactions, and (3) deliver novel peptide targets to their site of action for therapeutic application. Her lab uses a ‘learn from nature strategy’ to discover novel peptides from venomous marine snails that could be used to manipulate cellular physiology pertaining to pain and cancer. Our research program is interdisciplinary and collaborative, focused on peptide biology and evolution, with impacts ranging from evolution and molecular systematics to nanotechnology, biomedicine and drug discovery.

Visualizing the research process


  • John Petrini (Molecular Biologist)
  • Tanya Chaly (Visual Artist)


Work in the Petrini lab is focused on understanding the specific protein complexes that regulate chromosomal repair; these are often associated with cancer predisposition. A major goal is to understand what role these complexes and the process of DNA repair play in the onset and progression of cancer.

As Petrini describes it, “if you just think about one cell it’s a really interesting problem in three dimensions for a cell to understand where the break is. The fact that they’re signaling teleologically [with purpose] implies that there is a mechanism by which the cell knows when it’s broken. So there’s a 3-dimensional problem which signaling has to address and essentially there’s a 4th dimension of time because you’ve got to deal with the problem in a timely fashion.”

Chaly was impressed and fascinated by the many components of the research. "I took this as my starting point and decided to produce an installation that comprises several differing units, referring to a variety of elements of the research process and its applications – both visual and conceptual."

The title of this piece "Exquisite Dependence" was inspired by the following quote: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology” -Carl Sagan

"I incorporated the whiteboard notes, data and diagrams from the labs research papers. I chose a deep vibrant blue ground for some of the drawings as a reference to the incredible colors I saw under high-powered microscopes of the stages of cell division. The molecules are either drawn floating loosely on a ground suspended in space, or punctured through from behind appearing as a more sculptural motif. This suggests the idea of searching for something not yet seen or fully realized. The mice are presented contained, isolated individuals, specimens framed under convex glass. They are placed underneath the drawings as a support or foundation of the installation, the symbolic basis from which the research originates. The colored labels are from the lab’s mouse colony, dissection pins ax them to the wall, a color-coded marker but also placement as tombstone, honoring and acknowledging the contribution these animals make. Lastly, a small drawing at the base of the installation, the backbone on which all the research rests, the symbol from Greek mythology of healing, medicine & health, the Staff of Asclepius."


John Petrini


John is a Molecular biologist investigating the repair of chromosomal breaks and the activation of the DNA-damage-induced cell-cycle proliferation checkpoints. Work in his laboratory is focused on understanding the molecular transactions that govern chromosome stability, replication, and repair. He is interested in these processes because cancer predisposition and other pathologies are often associated with mutations that affect chromosomal metabolism. In this regard, his lab focuses on a conserved multi-protein complex that includes Mre11, Rad50, and Nbs1 in mammals or Xrs2 in the budding yeast S. cerevisiae.In the long term, he hopes to understand what role this complex in particular and the process of DNA repair in general play in the onset and progression of malignancy.

Tanya Chaly


I am a visual artist working across a variety of mediums using painting, drawing and printmaking. In my practice I examine ideas of the Natural World; the history of Natural Science, notions of nature and classifications of Wilderness and the fetishization of Nature. I have currently been looking at Ecosystems, both the macro and micro relationships within these systems. She creates layered and involved worlds drawing on a wide range of influences from Gothic, Primitivism, Eastern Philosophy, Psychology, and the Natural Sciences.

The action potential of a neuron as a music composition on tension and release


  • Jayeeta Basu (Neuroscientist)
  • Kevin Serra (Musician)


Serra "loosely sketched all the pieces and movements to showcase a variety of sounds developed from the same note and brought these loose ideas into Mozart Street studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to improvise with jazz drummer Liev Golowasch from Hunter College. I used improvisation and juxtaposed areas of tension and release. The song includes audio samples of prior experiments from the lab."

The resulting piece, "Action Potential", is dedicated to the memory of PUai-32.


Jayeeta Basu


Jayeeta is a Neuroscientist investigating the molecular, synaptic and cellular events that underlie changes in the flow of information in neural circuits. Her goal is to understand how sensory experiences trigger activity in functionally linked neurons to generate learned behaviors and encode salient features of the environment. The focus or her lab is on describing how the logic of inherent circuit design, diversity of neuron types and spatio-temporal dynamics of synaptic activity amalgamate in the cortico-hippocampal network to organize and store information as memories. She utilizes electrophysiology, imaging and genetic manipulations in brain slices and awake behaving mice to explore links between mnemonic and plastic circuits, associational learning and adaptive behaviors.

Kevin Serra



Guitarist and member of the band, This Ascension, Lot 49. This Ascension is a gothic ethereal band from Southern California, which formed in 1988 and released four albums. This Ascension toured the United States three times and the west coast prolifically, sharing the stage with bands including The Jesus and Mary Chain, Chris Issak, The Wolfgang Press and the Pixies. Kevin records music for a singles project with guest vocalists under the name, Cloud Seeding, conceived as a space for collaboration to showcase vocalists he admires. There is no one-signature sound, no fixed or preconceived notions, just a space for improvisation that is free to change.