This article discusses the process of creating a new Organic Helicopter performance piece. To learn more about the origins of this new piece, check out the Project page for Protein Poems.
It’s been almost 6 years since Phil Wozny, Morgan Bailey, Jack Frazee, and I developed and performed the first Protein Poem. Since that first performance in Mood-Bridwell Hall, the Protein Poem process has pretty much stayed the same. But back in August of 2016, Stinson Seuser and I started talking about new ways to develop the project and expand the Organic Helicopter.
We wanted to build upon the old idea of a couple of kooky liberal arts students doing progressively austere performance art. This meant that we had to turn pro and after more than six months of planning, we have purchased our own domain. Now we are putting out content to keep science and multidisciplinary discussions approachable while playing with the ideas in a different way than sites like iflscience.com (don’t get me wrong, they’re freaking awesome and I don’t even want to compete).
It’s taken work to build up this new, stable level and it’s been thanks to the great people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with these past few months. So now we expanding on our first performance piece. Protein Poems is an analogy showing how proteins are made a from a copy of DNA, called RNA. Following a similar paradigm, we transcribed people’s conversations and made poetry out of them (read a few here). But what happens to proteins after they are made? What happens to poems and phrases when woven together as a cell with countless networks of proteins? The next step was clear: to generate full stories from conversations vis-a-vis Protein Poems.
Over this last weekend, we had several meetings discussing the building blocks of a story and the ways in which they fit together. I haven’t taken an English class since high school, so building out the anatomy and physiology of a story felt like making a 1,000-piece Lego set without directions; defining the “cellular” interactions of plot, setting, and motivation like writing the utility of each piece of our half-finished Lego puzzle.
But then the patterns began to emerge: the way plot points are strung together and move a story forward seemed similar to the function of microfilaments, which play a significant role in cell movement. In this way, we would keep with the Protein Poem paradigm, but now some “poets” would collect plot points from the transcription, creating the building blocks for our story from snippets of conversation. This was very similar to developing Protein Poems. You assign different parts of a cell to people based on a list of specific functions, in this case elements of a story. But how would we tie these story elements together while they are simultaneously being written? How do you finish writing a story before all the authors’ ideas are even acknowledged?
The answer was simple. While aligning wonderfully with the physiology of the cell, the new process was easily adapted from Protein Poems’ original framework for our new piece, Cellular Stories:
- DNA is the blueprint for all of our proteins. For Protein Poems, a conversation between a group of people ‘creates’ DNA via their spoken words. For Cellular Stories, this will likely occur during a prolonged social gathering so there is enough ‘DNA’ to create our story.
- RNA transcriptase copies a ‘transcript’ of DNA into RNA which is ‘translated’ into a protein. For Protein Poems, each group’s conversation is transcribed by a stenographer in a chat or shared document. For Cellular Stories, there will be several stenographers to collect as much conversation as possible during the social gathering.
- RNA modifications and Ribosomes ensure the RNA transcript is properly translated into a three dimensional protein that is packaged for use throughout the cell; for Protein Poems, a poet, following specific rules, cuts and pastes the transcribed conversation into a complete poem. For Cellular Stories, the ‘poets’ will cut and paste the transcript to collect the different story elements, such as plot points, characters, theme, etc.
The last part was what drew our attention and ire. Whom to further package our “poems” (i.e. “story elements”) for further use throughout our story to ultimately complete our cell? We again turned to cellular physiology for answers.
- Golgi Apparatus receives and packages proteins as they move from the cis side of the Golgi to the trans side where they are packaged and then released for use throughout the cell. Thus for Cellular Stories, two story writers will need to work together and stitch the building blocks of our story into a complete written work from beginning to end, creating our Cellular Story in real time.
I know the idea of potentially writing a novella in so short a time sounds challenging, but that’s what has been so wonderfully surprising about the works generated from Protein Poems. You put a lot of love and cooperation into a project and you never know the wonders that will come out. To me that is magic, bringing a group of people together to collaborate and make art while actively learning more about what it is to be human as well as the scientific processes that brought us here.
Stay tuned for future developments and performances as other new pieces come together. If you have any questions about the new process or want to get involved with the Organic Helicopter, please contact us or leave a comment below!