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Welcome to the virus dome: Berrigan’s RPI installation.

Our Viruses, Ourselves

By Nadine Wasserman

Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus

Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, through Dec. 3

 

Hep B, Hep C, HIV, Ebola, Marburg. As blood-borne pathogens, these viruses cause chronic and fatal conditions in humans. While so many news stories have recently focused on resistant bacteria, the majority of bacteria are actually beneficial. Viruses are another matter. Once it is contracted, you either fight a virus or it kills you.

Viruses are not living cells. They are more like tiny robots, only 20-250 nanometers in size, that reproduce by inhabiting a cell and commandeering its resources. In the process the cell is often destroyed. A hepatitis C virus is only 50 nanometers in size, but an infection can cause liver disease, cirrhosis, or liver cancer. Treatment with interferon and ribavirin is costly and not always effective. Those living with chronic infection have to be careful with their lifestyle in order to control a number of symptoms including pain, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, headaches, fevers, chills, dizziness, and blurred vision.

For the artist Caitlin Berrigan, who suffers from hepatitis C, the condition has become a source of inspiration. Her series titled Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus is her effort to tame the virus by providing it with the basic tenets of survival: food, clothing, and shelter. Berrigan has just concluded a weeklong residency at the BioArt initiative program at RPI. During her residency she spent time with researchers studying protein structures and functions in order to better inform her series and her artistic process. Installed on the second floor of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies are three dome structures representing a herpes viral capsid, the lipid layer of hepatitis C, and the protein layer of hepatitis C along with a series of panels describing Berrigan’s project. In a reversal of roles, viewers are invited to spend time inhabiting the viruses. A small pamphlet that accompanies the installation functions as both an informational brochure and a love/hate note to the hep C virus. Berrigan writes: “Anywhere infected blood meets directly with fresh blood, you can find your way into the body. . . . Once inside the bloodstream you seduce my liver cells. . . . The liver cells become enamored of you. They replicate your RNA as if it were their own.” Later she writes: “I am trying to befriend you. . . . I don’t drink alcohol, do drugs, eat unhealthy foods or expose my body to other toxins. . . . Perhaps my attention to you will give my liver a break from your distractions.” Berrigan explains that living with the virus has led to a kind of identity crisis rendering her body a paradoxical site. But rather than describe her disease as a constant battle, she subverts the rhetoric and instead comforts and embraces her virus, as ultimately a part of herself.

The domes created so far for Berrigan’s series are the magnified viral capsids of hepatitis C, herpes, HIV, and rhinovirus. They also become whimsical re-creations of Buckminster Fuller’s utopian geodesic domes. These magnified protein and lipid layers were made by hand as a way of offering shelter, a site of protection and comfort. Berrigan designed them, but they were actually constructed by children at the Beam Camp in New Hampshire where Berrigan was commissioned to work on a piece with the campers. Once constructed, the domes functioned as activity centers, meeting spaces, sleeping spaces, and greenhouses in which to grow therapeutic herbs for each virus.

At RPI, Berrigan held informal teas inside the protein structure of the hepatitis C virus, where she brewed and served roasted dandelion root tea, a liver booster. Also under the dome were glass flowerpots containing dandelions that Berrigan fertilized with her own blood, representing a symbiotic relationship in which she offers them sustenance and they offer her medicine and nutrition. She also served handmade designer chocolates called “Viral Confections” that replicate the form of the outer lipid layer of the hepatitis C virus. The shelters and confections are created in the virus’s own image in an attempt to appeal to its vanity. The protein dome is painted gold to represent the Flaviviridae family to which it is a member, and because of the jaundice it often causes in its host.

What makes this project so compelling is Berrigan’s ability to capture the dichotomies inherent in the disease. Sickness and health, comfort and discomfort, contentment and resentment, ally and adversary. Berrigan has even altered the biohazard sign to appear more decorative, and places the emblem on all her accoutrements: teapot, flowerpots, confections, and her brochure. By subverting her feelings for the virus, she creates a space that is welcoming and comforting. Ultimately, with any human disease, information is the key. Since hepatitis C was only formally recognized in 1992, it is a public-health necessity to make information readily available on how it is spread and how to get tested. This piece is also a perfect way to continue the conversation that RPI has recently initiated among the disciplines of art, engineering, and science.


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