I was walking back from a biology class with my friend and colleague, Phil Wozny, when the Organic Helicopter emerged from our spontaneous dialogue, as so many meaningful endeavors often do. Undergraduate students at Southwestern University, we were both confused by the central dogma of biology–the process that happens inside a cell in which genetic information produces usable proteins. I’d been steeped in biology for half a decade, and so we began bouncing ideas off of each other with increasingly eloquent metaphors hoping to get Phil an ‘A’.
In his wisdom, Phil saw the potential for an analogy in the arts and humanities. As we kept talking and bouncing ideas off one another, we began to see potential in poetry and dialogue as a useful analogy that might help explain the process in more digestible terms. Once Phil passed his next Bio test, we began working on what we would later call, “Protein Poems,” a performance art piece that brought people together to co-create community-written poems in a system that simultaneously explained a core biological principle, proteogenesis or protein synthesis.
Orgocopter Descends On Southwestern University
As students filed into Mood-Bridwell Hall at SU for our pilot project, they had no idea what to expect. First, we divided them into groups. Then we offered each group a topic for dialogue. Discussions ranging from ‘justice’ to ‘meeting strangers’ echoed throughout the hall, punctuated by the clicking of keys as stenographers kept record of the conversations.
The words tracked by the stenographers were immediately sent to a ‘poet’, sitting in an adjacent room and oblivious to the on-going conversations. Their role was to cut and paste these conversations into poems, creating art from simple talk among strangers. For Phil and I, and eventually everyone else, the act of generating raw material, recording it (while introducing errors!), and rearranging it into a finished product, mirrored the central dogma. The process of DNA being transcribed to RNA and finally translated to amino acids was thereby broken down into an interactive activity that conveyed an important biological process.
Afterwards, our congregants were energized. They were exploring art, creation, science, and their own community, simultaneously. We listened as they cheered each other on as poems were unveiled, with attendees crying out on occasion, “That was my line!”
The Organic Helicopter went on to present two more pieces: HIV & Cell Death Through Music was performed at Southwestern University in 2012 on for a Day With(out) Art, a nationwide day of recognition of the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (and again in an Austin venue). Our third performance piece, DBRAINN was performed as a part of Frontera Fest Austin in 2014.
Our goal with HIV & Cell Death Through Music was to create a musical performance that emulates how HIV enters and destroys a cell. DBRAINN was a live-choreographed dance performance based off of decision-making pathways in the human brain. Both, again, focused on finding a connection between science (or any other STEM concept) and art, and expressing it in a way that directly engaged our audience.
Now the ‘Copter Flies Again!
By creating this blog and producing new live events in the coming months, we hope to engage our friends, old and new. In this effort, we pledge to continue building our trademark, cross-disciplinary approach to exploring our common humanity through education, innovation, open-mindedness, and spontaneity.
Our first event this year will be Monday, February 13th during Me Mer Mo Mondays at the Volstead from 6:30 – 10:00 PM.
Here’s the big news: in addition to this blog (check out our latest posts here), we are looking to start an active, regular group as we begin exploring new projects. Please feel free to email with any ideas and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. While we are based in Austin, Texas, we hope that this blog, along with more content we’ll produce in the coming months, will spread our message of interdisciplinary love far and wide. In the meantime, stay tuned! We’ll be posting some reflections on science, art, history, and more shortly!
Winston Myers (Director) and the OH Team