Translated from the original Dutch, exclusive to Longform.org.
Right behind the train station in the centre of Leiden, an old Dutch university town, stands Naturalis, a museum of natural science. It is much fancied by children, and never more so than on a cloudy Wednesday in July during their summer break. They roam the fifth floor of the museum, bored parents in tow. Most of the kids ignore one of the museum’s most intriguing exhibits, and it is easy to see why. It consists of an incubator on a pedestal, a Plexiglas showcase with a patchwork of dried-out skin inside, stretched and suspended like a trampoline, and a small screen showing the same soundless video over and over again. The accompanying texts are terse and not very helpful. In the film bullets approach in slow motion a series of glistening roundels, resembling condoms just taken out of their paper wrappings. Most of the bullets go right through, leaving a clean hole. But the last roundel in the film collapses slowly, wrapping itself around the bullet like a blanket on a laundry line hit by a wayward football. It is a piece of artificially bred human skin, reinforced with eight layers of transgenic spider silk, the material spiders produce to spin their webs.
The film shown in Naturalis was made on May 25, at the shooting range of the Netherlands Forensic Institute in nearby The Hague. That day, a small band of people watched as the operator of the range carefully aimed a pistol at a patch of skin stuck to a rectangular block of gelatin about the size of a shoebox. When he raised his left hand in warning, the members of his small audience put on hearing protectors or simply stuck their fingers in their ears. A loud bang resonated around the range, and the skin patch jumped off the gelatin, collapsing in a small heap on the floor. Jalila Essaidi, one of the onlookers, leapt forward and picked it up. She showed it to the others, beaming from ear to ear: the bullet had been caught by the skin patch, like an insect in a spider’s web. Essaidi had just proved that it is possible to make human skin bullet-resistant. Suddenly, Spiderman seemed real.
Essaidi’s accomplishment looks like one of those classic scientific breakthroughs with huge business potential. Governments and private security companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on body armor to protect their soldiers and guards. About five years ago the American military estimated it would need two million of a certain kind of ceramic plate used in bullet-proof vests to equip all of its soldiers around the world. At the time the plates cost 400 to 600 dollars a piece, leading to a total investment of between 800 million and 1.2 billion dollars. But Essaidi is neither a scientist nor a business woman, and doesn’t aspire to become one. She is an artist. The experiment in the Forensic Institute and subsequent exhibition in Naturalis are the culmination of an art project called 2.6g 329m/s. The title indicates the weight – 2.6 grams – and velocity – 329 metres per second – of a bullet fired on a full load of gunpowder, the resistance test all body armor has to pass.
Money was involved allright in Essaidi’s performance, if that’s what it is. Her project was made possible when she won a money prize meant to stimulate bio-art, the art form using organisms as its basic material. But she is not interested in getting rich. She wants to make us reflect, on ourselves and the world around us. Her project is an artistic commentary on our feelings of insecurity, stirred by the slaughters of Columbine High, Utoya and the Dutch town of Alphen aan den Rijn, near Leiden, where a young man called Tristan van der Vlis recently emptied his guns on a shopping mall crowd. Would it help us if we can make ourselves immune to the bullet sprays of Anders Breivik and Van der Vlis? Or would it lead to a new arms race, to new dangers and horrors?
Then there is the way in which Essaidi’s technical breakthrough came about. Her venture into the realm of science as an unwitting artist led to new coalitions among the eggheads that they would never have formed by themselves.
It all started with a discovery in a scientific journal. “I have always loved to read these magazines,” says Essaidi (30). Her father, Michel Essaidi, is a medical engineer who used to work for Philips, the Dutch electronics company. Jalila chose to go to an arts school in Tilburg, a former textile town and home to Museum De Pont, a privately-owned contemporary arts gallery housed in an old wool mill. She finished her studies in 2009, never quite losing her scientific streak. At some point, she read an article on the work of the American scientist Randy Lewis, a molecular biologist currently at Utah State University. Lewis has succeeded in cracking the genetic code of spider silk, a material known for a unique combination of properties: it is very tough – ten times tougher than steel, if it were possible to spin steel threads of the same microscopic thickness – and extremely elastic at the same time.
Therefore scientists the world over have tried to produce spider silk on an industrial scale since the late 19th century. For over a hundred years they were held back by two main problems. Farming spiders to harvest their webs is not practical, as they tend to eat each other. Synthetic silk remained out of reach as well. Spiders make six different kinds of fibers to spin their webs with, and they all consist almost entirely of proteins. It remained a mystery how they coax their natural steel out of such an unlikely basic material. But this changed with the discovery of genetic engineering, for which proteins are eminently suitable. Eventually, a number of researchers and biotech companies in the United States, Canada and Germany managed to make synthetic spider silk in various ways. Lewis mainly uses transgenic goats, who give milk containing the silk proteins, and silk worms spinning their cocoons out of the stuff.
The article about Lewis gave Essaidi her eureka-moment: to combine the synthetic silk with human skin. The tensile strength and elasticity of the silk might very well make the skin bullet-resistant. She wrote a plan and submitted it for an award honouring new ideas in the area of “creative technology for social innovation”, co-sponsored by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society & Genomics and Waag Society, a foundation in Amsterdam subsidized by the Dutch government. The award is known as the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, or DA4GA. According to the Waag-website it “highlights and explores the exciting and novel possibilities between design, artistic practice and Life Sciences”, and “aims to stimulate emerging designers and artists to delve into the world of bio-art”. One famous example of bio-art is Alba by Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian-American artist. Kac had a French laboratory breed a rabbit implanted with a specific gene from a type of jellyfish. Under a certain blue light, the rabbit becomes fluorescent, emitting a green glow. Another proponent is Stelios Arkadiou, a Cypriot-Australian artist working under the name of Stelarc, who had a human ear stitched onto his lower left arm.
Jalila Essaidi was one of the three winners who got their DA4GA-awards handed out in Naturalis on December 8, 2010, by Robbert Dijkgraaf, a renowned Dutch scientist and the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. All three received a donation of 25,000 euro to realise their projects. Jalila turned for help to the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. This organisation was set up by the Forensic Institute and the universities of Leiden and Rotterdam to fund and coordinate research into new DNA-techniques for the identification of suspects and victims of crimes. International cooperation is crucial to science, but often hampered by quarrels between researchers whose egos more than match their brilliance. Apparently, they considered a young and unknown artist an unthreatening new entrant. Essaidi was stunned by the generous welcome she got. “From the start it was open arms everywhere,” she says. “Randy Lewis replied immediately to the email I sent him. I had never expected that.” Lewis breeds his spider silk exclusively for scientific purposes, and therefore in tiny quantities. Still, he sent Essaidi two cocoons from his worms right away. Essaidi then had to find somebody who could weave silk from the cocoon threads, to create a bearing structure fit for the breeding of human skin. That proved to be difficult. “In Europe the craft of silk weaving has died out completely,” she says. “It is a very labor intensive and expensive process, only feasible in low-wage countries like China. For many years now, all silk used in Europe has come from the Far East.” For a while she vainly tried to master the technique herself. After a long search she found a German company who was able to help her, partly via its business relations in Asia. “Where my cocoons have travelled, I don’t even know. I guess they have been sent across the Atlantic Ocean at least three times, and twice across the Pacific.” She had, in her own words, discovered “a new silk route”.
With her two precious rolls of woven silk, she approached the next partner: Abdulwaheb El Ghalbzouri, a cell biologist and researcher at the dermatology department of Leiden University Medical Center. Essaidi’s project offered El Ghalbzouri an opportunity to realise long-held ambitions of his own. Human skin has been bred artificially for years. Cells are taken from a piece of skin tissue and put on a paper filter in a petri dish. Within a month these cells grow into a roundel of skin that fits the space between the index fingers and thumbs of both hands put together. The technique is not for the fainthearted: the basic cells are gained from preserved waste from cosmetic surgery like leftovers from belly and breast reductions, and from the skin of people who have died and donated their bodies to science and medical research.
Human skin is the result of a continuous process of death and creation, sustained by our body. With artificially bred skin, the creation stops as soon as the paper filter in the dish is exhausted. “The beauty of it,” observes Essaidi, “is that, right from the moment when the roundel of skin is fully developed, it starts to die again.”
Synthetic skin is used for the treatment of serious burn wounds, but also to avoid animal tests for cosmetics ingredients and chemicals. For instance, l’Oréal has been using a type of skin developed in its own laboratories for many years. “But that is a product fit only for limited commercial purposes,” explains El Ghalbzouri, the Leiden cell biologist. “It is hardly of any use for scientific research.” Besides, the most common current varieties consist of just one layer of outer skin, called the epidermis. El Ghalbzouri wanted to create a more ‘realistic’ skin sample, involving at least the dermis as well, the second skin layer. On top of that he strived to combine skin with other natural materials, to explore new applications and possibilities. Thanks to Essaidi and her award he now had the means to start his experiments. Spider silk and human skin proved to be the perfect couple. The skin cells grew on the silk layers without any sign of rejection. El Ghalbzouri was now able to grow a kind of club sandwich by alternating layers of skin and silk, seemingly without end: spider silk is so light and thin that you can add at least twelve layers without significantly increasing the weight and thickness of the skin. In theory it should be possible to make skin that is much thinner and lighter than Kevlar, a substance commonly used in body armor, and at the same time much more resistant to bullet impacts.
Meanwhile, Jalila Essaidi was running into fresh obstacles. For the shooting test El Ghalbzouri’s sandwich would be attached to a block of gelatin, because it most closely resembles the properties of human muscle tissue. Essaidi wanted to include the gelatin block in the exhibition that formed an integral part of her project. Therefore it had to be preserved, and this, she found out, is almost impossible. Coagulated gelatin quickly deteriorates and dissolves back into water. Essaidi started a new search and stumbled upon Fred van Immerseel, a taxidermist working at the anatomical laboratory of Leiden University Medical Center. Van Immerseel and El Ghalbzouri had been working in the same building for years, only a couple of coffee machines apart, but they were ignorant of each other’s existence. Now they met for the first time, thanks again to Jalila Essaidi. The taxidermist prepares and preserves organisms for different purposes with different techniques, which might be useful in the practice of the cell biologist. A new and fruitful cooperation ensued. (The two new professional friends were not able to solve the gelatin preservation problem in time, however. Therefore the gelatin block is not on display in Naturalis. Essaidi hopes she will be able to exhibit it elsewhere in the near future.)
Essaidi’s project also led to another improvement. The incubator now used for breeding skin is a closed box. Researchers have to open it to check how their skin patch is doing, thereby disturbing the climate inside, which has to be carefully regulated. For her exhibition Essaidi wanted an incubator like a Big Brother-house, so the public could follow the breeding process from outside. She had one specially made for her, with a window and a camera inside. The manufacturer is now going to mass-produce this version for scientists as well. “What I love most about this project,” Essaidi says, “are its many pleasant surprises. I have unleashed all sorts of new energies I had never foreseen and never been after.”
The successful shooting test in the Forensic Institute had been executed with a bullet only half filled with gunpowder. Now the time had come to subject the patch of silk-reinforced skin to a .22-calibre missile carrying its full complement of powder, resulting in the test referred to in the title of the project. The bang of the shot was much louder. This time, the bullet went right through the skin and the block of gelatin; its shell was found about halfway up the shooting range. Essaidi showed regret but not deep disappointment, although she did appear to vacillate between her two personae. “As an artist I don’t mind whether the skin holds the bullet or succumbs to it. Either way I have made my point.” But the inventor and tinkerer inside her seemed to have different feelings. El Ghalbzouri still felt a second success was within easy reach. “Doubling the number of silk layers should probably do the trick.” For this to happen, though, Essaidi will need new cocoons from Professor Lewis and, therefore, new money. Her donation has been spent, and there is hardly any silk left of the original rolls.
Of all her partners, only Randy Lewis had not been able to attend the shooting test. The enthusiasm of the others had not been diminished by the devastating nature of the second shot. Astrid Kromhout of Naturalis could hardly wait for the opening of 2.6g 329m/s-the-exhibition. Marcel Piët is a manager at Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. His organisation had participated in Essaidi’s project because it closely follows all DNA-derived forensic innovations. “We have already developed a few practical solutions to improve and speed up criminal investigations,” he explained. “For instance, a technique to very quickly derive the colour of a person’s eyes from his DNA. This greatly helps identification.” Lucas Evers represented the Waag Society, initiator of the DA4GA-awards that got Essaidi started in the first place. “Each one of the three winning projects is special,” he said. “But Jalila’s effort resulted in the greatest number of innovations.”
It seems the bullet, so to say, will not stop here. A new partner has taken an interest in Essaidi’s work: Geert Verbeke, a Belgian who became a fulltime art collector and patron of the arts after earning a fortune in the transportation business. Verbeke is one of Europe’s foremost supporters and collectors of bio-art. He calls his Verbeke Foundation, a gallery cum artists’ residence on a large estate west of Antwerp, “the bio-art museum of Europe”. Verbeke plans to have a small left-over piece of Essaidi’s transgenic skin grafted onto one of his upper arms. “He wants to wear my work everyday,” Essaidi says, “as a tribute to bio-art.”
With her bullet-resistant skin Essaidi wants “to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety”, as she puts it on her website. “Issues which arise on the basis of ancient human desire for invulnerability.” Achilles was invulnerable – apart from that one heel. But he hailed from the gods. “Will we in the near future due to biotechnology no longer need to descend from a godly bloodline in order to have traits like invulnerability?” Let’s assume we will not, sometime within the foreseeable future. Should we be happy about that? That is a second question, much harder to answer. Bullet-resistant skin will be available to both victims and perps. If both groups feel safer, it could well lead to a new escalation of violence. Such musings are food for thought for the visitors of the small, somewhat obscure exhibition in Naturalis. Equally intriguing are the unintended consequences of Essaidi’s project, as she herself is well aware. The new silk route. The incubator with window and camera. The cooperation between the taxidermist and the cell biologist.
Seen from that perspective, 2.6g 329m/s looks much more like a classic artistic commentary on a highly topical phenomenon of our times. Like the organic and transgenic material it derives from, the project splits and multiplies itself in unexpected and unforeseeable ways. The art of Jalila Essaidi may not rest so much in its influence on the security debate – it might well have no influence at all – , or even in its invention of bullet-resistant skin – maybe her little patches will never pass the stringent test the title refers to. Her art manifested itself much earlier in the process, and outside the purely artistic domain: in the virtual incubator that results from bringing together people who have never met before, causing them to exchange their ideas and practices.