History and impact of malaria parasite inspire immersive audiovisual installation

An art installation inspired by one of the world’s deadliest diseases has gone on display at a research campus investigating its causes and treatment.

Parasite, created by Dr Deborah Robinson from Plymouth University, is designed as an audiovisual representation of the actions and effects of the malaria parasite.

It combines scientific data and archival footage to highlight the deadly impact of a single-celled organism invisible to the naked eye.

That is then played alongside a soundtrack featuring the sound of mosquitoes, created by Lecturer in Music Technology David Strang, generating an immersive and sometimes unsettling installation.

The piece is the first of a series of temporary exhibitions within a new Cultural Zone at the Wellcome Trust’s Genome Campus Conference Centre near Cambridge.

Dr Robinson, an Associate Professor in Contemporary Art Practice at Plymouth University, says:

“Malaria is an incredibly complex disease, and it was a steep learning curve for me personally and the scientists involved to think of how to represent it and its effects. The final piece, including historical footage alongside scientific data and the sound of mosquitoes themselves, has shocked some who have seen it. But depicting it in this way enabled us to delve into the social and political context of the disease and research, and enabled this installation to act as a catalyst for new types of thinking.”

Parasite was developed during a six-month period in 2012 when Dr Robinson was an artist in residence, thanks to funding from Arts Council England, at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

In that time she collaborated with Dr Julian Rayner and Dr Oliver Billker, from the Institute’s Malaria Programme, spending many hours observing laboratory work and discussing the challenges involved in controlling the malaria parasite and the mosquito.

The film loops continually, with the actions of the parasite depicted as corroding the archival film images, reflecting the patterns of development within the patient’s fever cycle.

It also represents the cyclical and recursive nature of malaria where, on a small scale, parasites undergo rounds of development within red bloods cells and, on a large scale, the global community is constantly fighting to keep up with waves of parasites that have developed resistance to common malarial drugs.

This is the latest public showing of Parasite, which has previously been exhibited at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge, at the EVIMalaR conference at Heidelberg Castle in Germany in May 2014, and at the 2013 Shanghai International Science and Art Exhibition.

The Cultural Zone in the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre aims to engage the public with genomics by providing a cultural examination of the impact, reach and possibilities of the scientific research undertaken on campus.

It will feature visual art, music, film, creative writing and performance and build on the successful artist in residence and commissioning programme developed by the Sanger Institute in the past few years.

Dr Julian Rayner, Director of Courses, Conferences and Public Engagement at the Campus, said:

“Malaria is a disease that humanity has been struggling with for millennia, probably for as long as we have been humans. As scientists we look at problems through a very distinct lens, and are aware that the things that get us tremendously excited can seem opaque to the non-specialist. By collaborating with experts with a completely different viewpoint, such as Deborah, we can see our subject through a different lens. It helps us re-evaluate our own motivations and interactions, and refreshes our interest for the core subject - eradicating one of the major scourges of humanity.”

Dr Deborah Robinson, an Associate Professor in Contemporary Art Practice at Plymouth University, said:

Depicting malaria in this way enabled us to delve into the social and political context of the disease and research, and enabled this installation to act as a catalyst for new types of thinking