Latest HIV Research Inspires Compelling New Art Collaboration

Our understanding of HIV is the focus of a unique collaboration between a Professor of molecular virology at UCL (University College London), Greg Towers, and British artist and academic, Dr John Walter.

Walter, who recently won the prestigious Hayward Curatorial Open, organised by the Southbank Centre, has spent the last six months as Resident Artist in Infection at UCL working alongside Towers and his lab in the university’s Division of Infection and Immunity.

”Being able to take that highly technical language and use it as the basis for my work has been a fascinating journey”

The scientists have discovered an entirely new feature of HIV that could eventually play a part in developing a cure for the disease. They have found that the virus has a remarkable ability to evade all aspects of our antiviral defences. 

Their findings, which were recently published in the leading journal Nature, show that channels in the viral core, known as the capsid, act like molecular hoovers sucking in the raw materials that fuel the virus’ replication.

Towers’ discovery radically updates scientists’ knowledge of the life cycle of HIV and, crucially, how the capsid works.

In earlier work, the team also showed how the HIV capsid cloaks itself with human proteins making it invisible to the immune system.

It is these fascinating interactions between the HIV capsid and its host that are at the core of Walter’s project. The collaboration aims to raise awareness of these important discoveries and provide a deeper narrative exploring how culture is transmitted.

The relationship between Walter and Towers is highly collaborative because Walter’s work does not just illustrate Towers’ work instead the partnership provides a meeting point in which ideas can be shared in both directions.

The collaboration allows both art and science to exchange ways of thinking creatively that enable innovations to occur in both disciplines.

Towers said: “Working with John has genuinely changed the way we approach our research aims. His perspective raises new questions and discussions and forces us to think differently.”

HIV/AIDS remains one of the world’s most significant public health challenges with approximately 36.7 million people living with the virus around the globe. While drugs exist to treat the disease and extend life expectancy there is still no cure.

Towers added: “It is hugely exciting to combine art with science – the collaboration brings benefits to both disciplines. John’s work helps our research reach a much wider audience. Through visual communication, he is able to translate the project so that it can be understood and discussed by anyone regardless of whether they have a scientific background or not.”

“Taking an interdisciplinary approach with colleagues at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Laboratory of Molecular Biology, combining structural and molecular biology, we have discovered that the viral DNA is made inside the capsid. We used to think that the capsid came apart as soon as the virus entered a cell. We now realise that the capsid protects the virus from our innate immune system and the channels we’ve discovered explain how the fuel for making DNA gets inside,” he said.

Walter has already created an extensive body of work as a result of the collaboration and continues to develop his response ahead of exhibitions next year in London and Manchester.

The project, which has secured a Large Arts Award from Wellcome and funding from Arts Council England Grants for the Arts, builds on a previous project with UCL, which explored the relationship between visual culture and HIV today.

Walter said: “It has been a real privilege to work alongside these guys and see first- hand the incredible work that’s being done here – it has the potential to help millions of people around the globe.

”Being able to take that highly technical language and use it as the basis for my work has been a fascinating journey. The story of how the capsid functions have wider connotations beyond HIV/AIDS. My work explores both this latest discovery and how it can be used as a metaphor for how culture is transmitted.”

CAPSID will premiere at CGP in London in June 2018 and at HOME in Manchester in October 2018.

Walter has also been awarded a grant from the Artist’s International Development Fund to research and develop a touring version of CAPSID after it has been exhibited in the UK.

The Slade School of Fine Art UCL and recently completed a PhD in the Faculty of Architecture and The Built Environment at The University of Westminster. He was awarded the Sainsbury Scholarship at The British School at Rome in 2006 and was a participant at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2012. His work is held by a number of public collections including The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Recent exhibitions include The Zany Capsid (Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham 2017); Essex Road III (Tintype Gallery, London 2016); Alien Sex Club (Ambika P3 London 2015); Courtship Disorder (White Cubicle Toilet Gallery, London 2015); Turn My Oyster Up (Whitstable Bienniale 2014). His public commission for Thames Tideway (the so-called Super Sewer) is installed at Chambers Wharf in Bermondsey.

Dr John Walter lives and works in London. He is an artist and academic working across a diverse range of media that includes painting, video and installation. He studied at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at The University of Oxford, The Slade School of Fine Art UCL and recently completed a PhD in the Faculty of Architecture and The Built Environment at The University of Westminster. He was awarded the Sainsbury Scholarship at The British School at Rome in 2006 and was a participant at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2012. His work is held by a number of public collections including The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Recent exhibitions include The Zany Capsid (Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham 2017); Essex Road III (Tintype Gallery, London 2016); Alien Sex Club (Ambika P3 London 2015); Courtship Disorder (White Cubicle Toilet Gallery, London 2015); Turn My Oyster Up (Whitstable Bienniale 2014). His public commission for Thames Tideway (the so-called Super Sewer) is installed at Chambers Wharf in Bermondsey. 

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