Above and Beyond

Lelavision pairs with the Museum of Glass to cast a creative lens on the fascinating field of epigenetics.

In the best of all possible worlds, art (and the people who make it) can help us to transcend a single point of view and connect the dots between seemingly dissimilar ideas. Mesmerizing musical notes, gestures, colors and forms – something resonates within us, and presto! We’ve entered the artist’s magical world. A light clicks on. A formerly dark space is illuminated. A wider field of vision expands the possibilities.

This month, sculptor and musician Ela Lamblin and choreographer Leah Mann, who together make up the Vashon-based performing arts duo known as Lelavision, will begin construction on a new project, assisted by the Hot Shop crew at the Museum of Glass. Their piece, Epigenetic Bulb, was inspired by conversations with biologists at Emory University, in Atlanta, whose work includes the cutting-edge field of epigenetics.

Ela Lamblin and Leah Mann performing “Warm Pond,” inspired by the Propagation Project, a series of collaborations between Lelavision and eight scientists from the other side of the country.

What is epigenetics? Dr. Arri Eisen, one of the scientists collaborating with Lamblin and Mann, defines it as the study of molecular switches and chemical markers that affect genetic expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence. “Epi” means above, so “epigenetics” literally means “above the genes.” The recently completed human genome project identified approximately twenty-five thousand genes, but these genes still need instructions for what to do and when and where to do it. And that’s where the epigenome comes into play. “Our genes are activated at different times by various environmental factors,” Dr. Eisen writes in an e-mail. “The types of genes affected, and circumstances that affect them, like trauma, viruses and diet, are still under investigation.”

Intrigued by the concept of intermittent molecular switches, Lamblin contemplated various forms for his sculpture before landing on the idea of blown-glass bulbs. “The light bulb is an apt metaphor for the way epigenetics works, and it is a beautiful shape,” he says. Lamblin, who has built instruments for many years, adds that he has long wanted to make a glass instrument. “Glass music has a fascinating history, including the invention of the glass armonica [in 1761] by Benjamin Franklin.” Lamblin’s glass bulbs will be blown in a variety of sizes to create different frequencies. The exterior treatments will reflect microscopic views of basic life forms like DNA.

Of course, making the glass light bulbs is just the first step in a long creative process. When their residency at the Museum of Glass is complete, Lamblin will return to his workshop to precision-tune the bulbs and mount them on stainless structures with wood resonators. He envisions multiple instruments controlled by electromechanical switches and compositions based on audience input via classroom clicker technology – another echo of epigenetic switching. Lamblin says he’s not sure how Mann’s choreography and other details of the performance will play out until he gets to that stage of the design. “I can’t emphasize it enough – our ideas develop over time,” he says. “Choreography is always part of the conversation, but it never gets nailed down until the sculptures are complete.”

Back at Emory University, Dr. Eisen’s research is also a work in progress. While he says that it’s too early to tell how his work might help to fight disease or improve human life, working with Lamblin and Mann inspired “new questions, ideas and challenges” and has motivated him to think about how to communicate his scientific findings beyond the lab.

It will be interesting to see how Lelavision incorporates ideas from Eisen’s research into Epigenetic Bulb when they unveil the finished piece in the fall of 2010. The biologist may even take part in the live performance. Whatever evolves, it will not likely resemble a traditional biology course or lecture. Lamblin emphasizes that humor and whimsy is central to Lelavision’s style. “Our goal is to excite the audience’s imagination. No matter how complex the subject, our performances have multiple layers of meaning for every age. And part of our wish is to help make science more accessible.” •

Lelavision performs annually, on the day after Thanksgiving, at the Museum of Glass. Learn more at lelavision.com.

See more in the March 2010 issue   →