Enlightened minds, illuminated research

How the AGO’s art inspires researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

What does scientific discourse have to do with artistic expression? For a research team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the answer is “everything.”

We once thought of our right and left brains as separate forces responsible for logical and creative thought, respectively. But scientific progress has shown us otherwise, as mental processes require that the whole brain works together in harmony to approach a task.

Just as the corpus callosum brings our hemispheres together as a band of nerve fibres, so too should science and art harmonize — so believes Dr. Mathieu Lupien, a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. 

Lupien incorporates art into his professional sphere to generate creative discourse between his close-knit team of researchers. He offers a unique approach to team-building by inviting his team to take a stroll through the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Each team member takes the time to walk through and choose a piece of artwork that speaks to them. Lupien then has the team come together as a group to share their chosen piece and engage in dialogue about what inspired them.

“I get to see the world from their perspective and they get to see mine from theirs,” said Lupien in an interview with The Varsity. The process helps the researchers better understand how they see the world through different lenses.

Lupien expresses that this is an exercise in using something creative, like art, to share who we are as scientists. It gives the team a glimpse into each other’s worlds. For example, if a member really enjoys the intricate detail in a piece, we can understand that the fine details they reflect in their own work are something they value. This helps us interpret the work they do in a more meaningful way.

“Our imagination is the only way to explore the unknown,” said Lupien. “We are working in uncharted territory sometimes, so creating an environment that is conducive to open, creative thought is important for our work.”

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How can students integrate art and science into their own research methods?

Lupien describes that translating scientific works in an intelligible way is an art in itself. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be highly complex areas, full of jargon which can be intimidating for many students interested in the field. Using creative expression is one way to translate complexities in an imaginative way.

He demonstrates this idea in his description of his research on epigenetics: the study of how the activity of our genes can change, without changing our DNA sequences. He describes the genome as six billion letters of DNA that form words that are different in nature. When they are organized into sentences, each of them tells a unique story.

In order to form specific parts of our body, such as muscle and brain tissue, we organize our genome, represented here as letters, in different ways to create distinct sentences. The folding process is guided by epigenetic events, or post-it notes, which highlight the regions of our genome that need to be read.

Perhaps we can say that art relates in the same way. Each stroke of the brush or strike of the pen creates a unique image, and the artist goes over certain areas of the painting with these tools to highlight parts of the piece. Sometimes this disrupts the image, which can create chaos. Other times, this enhances the image with clarity.

Like epigenetics, one must follow these fine lines or broad strokes to understand how the larger image, or genome, has come to be. Lupien emphasizes that fostering creative thought can open a world of possibilities for all walks of life. “Bringing these values into your everyday practice as a researcher can serve to nourish your approach to work,” he said.

Experiencing art can also serve as time for our ideas to incubate, perhaps creating a period of unconscious processing for approaching problems in research. Taking from the famous 1929 works of Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, incubation allows us to process problems in a manner whereby no direct effort is exerted.

We can optimize the way we process pre-existing knowledge by exposing ourselves to creative mediums such as art. This may lead to new approaches in scientific work. Ultimately, generating a scientific discourse with the expression of art can bring forth creative magic that inspires research. 

“In research, there are two things of value — there is knowledge and creativity,” said Lupien.

“You need to have balance. Never shy away from engaging in creative thought. You never know where it will take you.”

A guide to the arts, bars, cafés, and festivals of Toronto

Where to find good coffee, cheap drinks, and live shows across campus

A guide to the arts, bars, cafés, and festivals of Toronto

The opportunity cost of “staying in” — watching Netflix, studying, sobbing — is higher in Toronto than any other city in Canada. From great bars to quiet cafés and leafy parks, there are tons of fun, cheeky opportunities hiding mere blocks from your pillow.

Even though the city is hot, big, and overwhelming, the best thing you can do is surrender to it, lean into its swaying, sweaty crowds, and follow the wave. 

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)  

Thanks to a new initiative by the AGO, one of Canada’s best art galleries is now free for under-25s. Head in for an hour or two and poke around the huge collection of Canadian and international art, including the absurdly expensive “The Massacre of the Innocents.  The piece was sold in 2002 for 109.2 million USD, adjusted to inflation, and then donated to the gallery. 

The Royal Ontario Museum 

A huge, informative museum that you should visit at least once. It’s right next to Victoria College and it’s free on the third Monday of every month from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm, and every Tuesday with a valid postsecondary ID. 

Nuit Blanche 

Nuit Blanche is a city-wide art festival that usually takes place around early October. There are some really cool exhibits to look at and take part in, unfortunately, the evening is often hijacked by brandy-sipping high-schoolers. With that in mind, plan out what you want to see beforehand, stay the hell away from Dundas Square — Toronto’s gritty, glitzy Times Square — and you should be fine. 

Jimmy’s Coffee 

Jimmy’s has a few locations across Toronto, but the best one is on McCaul Street, right on the university’s periphery. The drinks are cheap — around $2 for good, strong coffee — and it’s a great spot to study or bring a date. 

Boxcar Social 

A chill, hipstery outpost in uptown. Based next to the Summerhill subway stop, this cafe has a chic upstairs study space fitted with outlets, decent Wi-Fi, and great coffee. The pizza place next door is great too. 

Quantum 

If you need a break from campus, take the Spadina streetcar down to King, hop off, and dive into this clean, pricey slice of Silicon Valley. Quantum’s coffee is fantastic and it’s the best study café in Toronto, hands-down. Get there early to beat the New Balance-wearing ‘influencers’ who slip in around noon. 

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 

TIFF is taking place September 5–15, so you’ll be walking right into it. Lucky for you, TIFF is an amazing time, with the big, busy streets downtown blocked off for pedestrians, film screenings galore ­— some of them quite cheap — and celebrities descending on the city. Last year, Lady Gaga, Michael Moore, and Nicole Kidman showed up, with dozens more making cameos. 

Einstein

This bar is infamous on campus. It sells some of the cheapest pitchers of beer in the city and some decent bar food too. There are always fellow Varsity Blues — usually pale, tired engineers from the nearby Bahen building — lurking around, and the staff is no-nonsense, efficient, and accommodating. 

Sneaky Dee’s 

A College Street staple serving up Toronto’s best nachos. Get the most expensive option and split it between five-plus people. Sneaky’s is also just a great place to meet up with friends, or to use as an outpost to start a Long Trek West. 

St. Lawrence Market

This market is near the lake, and serves as a gateway into the up-and-coming Distillery District. Try the famous peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery and grab some fresh fruit and veggies at the produce stalls. 

Kensington Market 

Kensington is Toronto’s most unique, dizzying neighbourhood. A carousel of art, people, fashion, and food, Kensington has been around for ages and its atmosphere is like no other. If you’re looking for a place to grab a drink, Cold Tea is lowkey and fun. Mare Pizzeria is the best — and cheapest — pizza in the area, and the market’s thrift shops are good and cheap.

Horseshoe Tavern

A legendary music venue, The Rolling Stones, The Tragically Hip, and The Police have all graced the Tavern’s stage, with live shows still raging every week. The area around the venue is great too, with places like Little Nicky’s, Alo, and The Black Bull, forming a fun and diverse ring around the Tavern. 

Trinity Bellwoods 

Bellwoods is fun in September, October, and April, and is popular with pretty much everyone. The cherry blossoms are one of the park’s biggest attractions, as are the baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Keep an eye out for the volatile, swaying day-drinkers though.

One of the most underrated things you can do here is grab a book from Robarts and hit Bellwoods early. Reading some André Alexis under a big, old tree at Bellwoods was one of the highlights of my Frosh Week — and made me look super smart. 

Students of America

The AGO displays the work of past American photographers

Students of America

I took an afternoon walking tour of Harlem, New York around the same time I watched Walter Hill’s Warriors (1979) for the first time. With little knowledge of the area, my perception of northern Manhattan was regrettably limited to an apocalyptic action thriller starring Michael Beck.

While the area itself served to immediately dismantle this perception, the tour didn’t do much to shed light on the neighbourhood’s history, either. Gentrification had settled in nicely. Our tour guide told us that average asking prices for real estate could range between one and four million dollars.

Weirdly, a tour of a Toronto art gallery exhibit appears to have shed more light on the disenfranchised corners of America than the actual locations themselves. The AGO’s Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s-1980s captures the existence of forgotten communities in the land of the free. In doing so, we’re presented with raw documentation of impoverished communities, taboo lifestyles, and hidden secrets, thought to be disposed of prior to the turn of the century.

It’s a valiant effort for an ambitious project; documenting four decades worth of societal evolution is no easy gig.

Each room in the exhibit — and there are six of them — display the collection of a single photographer. Most of the action takes place in New York, it seems, but an occasional group of visuals from Maryland or the Deep South will pop up here and there.

There’s no chronological order of which I was made aware of, either, but that’s no problem: each photographer’s catalogue encapsulates a community far separate from the rest.

[pullquote-default]It’s a valiant effort for an ambitious project; documenting four decades worth of societal evolution is no easy gig.[/pullquote-default]

The exhibit resolves to ease you in with the photography of Gary Winogrand, a street photographer from the Bronx whose work traversed the 50’s and 60’s. The concept is presented through photos of bohemian shoppers and shaggy-headed protesters, and the message is fairly simple: American life in the postwar period is better, but only for some.

“You could say that I’m a student of photography,” his bio in the gallery reads. “And I am – but really I’m a student of America.”

Finished with the easy stuff, the exhibit stomps on the gas peddle by the time you glance through room number two. It’s here that we discover the nauseating disposition of Harlem in the 1960’s. Photographer Gordon Parks, the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine, captures the deplorable living conditions for large populations that crammed themselves into the brownstones of northern Manhattan.

Heating is remote, and rooming is accompanied by small rodents and house-pests. I had previously been wondering why a picture of John F. Kennedy — his back turned to the camera — had marked the entranceway to this room, but it becomes fairly obvious upon seeing the documentation of a community ignored by its government.

The exhibit aims to uncover the true outsiders of America. Not the hippies — whose counter-culture lifestyle eventually morphed into mainstream culture — nor the Beat Generation, whose hyper-masculinity could tend to obscure the movement’s nobility. Rather, the exhibit uncovers the not-so-romanticized outsiders of America: cross-dressers in 70’s New York; mentally disabled patients in remote New England institutions; impoverished city-dwellers riddled with unemployment and substance abuse.

The photographs provided are less fascinating in terms of artistic merit as they are in terms of actual subject matter.

The exhibit ends with the work of Danny Lyon, a photographer who got in with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and documented their journey across the States in true Sons of Anarchy fashion. Again, here the exhibit returns to a rather cliché photographic style.

Considering what lies in between, though, it strikes a necessary balance.

Sharing public spaces

The AGO's latest exhibit explores urbanization and domestic life in Beijing

Sharing public spaces

On Saturday, January 30, contemporary Chinese artist Song Dong opened his latest art exhibit, Communal Courtyard, at the AGO. The exhibit is an homage to Beijing’s rural living spaces and features more than 100 vintage wardrobes linked together. Collectively, they form a series of labyrinth-like pathways, an artistic homage to domestic life in rural China. 

The installation is part of Dong’s The Wisdom of the Poor series, a project that began in 2005 and focuses on low-income communities in, and around, Beijing.

At first glance, the wardrobe doors appear to be quite similar. Each appears to be crafted from the same wood, and all are the same shade of ochre. As it turns out, however, the differences amongst these wooden entranceways are based upon the scraps of history left on each one.

Bits of wallpaper, scratches, nails, and pencil sketches help form our impression of the individual who once owned this piece of furniture. Mirrors and stained glass windows are spread out amongst various pieces of furniture as well, and as viewers walk by, they’re caught off guard by sudden reflections of themselves.

Through the glass windows, visitors are able to see others walking through the parallel pathway. If a door is positioned close to another wardrobe, people are able to see both a glimpse of their reflection, and the silhouettes of other people walking by.

Shared living spaces were crucial to Dong’s development of Communal Courtyard. The wardrobes and wooden doors are all taken from traditional households in Beijing prior to the city’s rapid urbanization. Dong displays these household possessions in order to demonstrate his respect for both specific Chinese homes and the suburban environment as a whole.

In an interview played on screen the exhibit, the artist notes how he hopes to draw attention to Beijing’s rapid urbanization through depictions of a nation’s history. Since the Communal Courtyard is part of a larger collection, Dong notes how he strives to “incorporate the state of poor people wisdom into [his] work.” Dong shows how a community is “sharing public space,” and keeps it through an interactive installation of linked vintage wardrobes.

The overall enthusiastic mood in the gallery contributes to the visitors’ interest. As new viewers walk in, their curiosity is attracted by those who have already started exploring the Communal Courtyard

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