At KU, Art Meets Science in the Battle Against a Deadly Disease

KC artist Jarrett Mellenbruch designs a unique tool to fight a bad bug.

The power of art can be boundless, but even the most ambitious artist might balk at the idea that artwork can literally save lives.

Fortunately for people in Latin America, Kansas City artist Jarret Mellenbruch not only believes in the power of his art but also in the force of experimental collaboration.

It’s why Mellenbruch instinctively accepted an offer from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas to join a biologist and a computer scientist in battling the deadly, insect-borne Chagas disease that affects 8 to 10 million Latin Americans.

“It was kind of a case of ‘let’s throw an artist on board and see what happens,’’’ Mellenbruch says of the team-up. “More and more, universities are looking to combine talents. When you bring in people of different perspectives and put them on one project, exciting things can happen. And the unexpected, I think, is often what you get when you throw an artist into the mix.”

Mellenbruch can be classified as a sculptor, but his real medium is social practice, which, he explains, “is when the elements of the artist’s work are people and their interactions” and “art can be a catalyst for paradigm shifts.”

Notable examples of Mellenbruch’s social practice have included Float, an outdoor installation of empty hammocks that silently invited passersby to inhabit them, and HAVEN, an urban network of towering beehives intended to call attention to and gather data on the dire plight of wild honeybees (the artist is a third-generation beekeeper).

Initially, Mellenbruch had no idea what his contribution would be to the hybrid KU venture, which is funded by a $400,000 proof of concept grant and officially named the Virtual Vector Laboratory, Kansas University Interdisciplinary Research Project.

The project’s multi-pronged objective: To develop a pattern recognition algorithm to photographically classify strains of the Triatomine bug responsible for spreading Chagas, which will lead to an accurate map of where the insects are located, and far-reaching educational opportunities for the Latin American population on how to avoid the disease.

Upon meeting with his project partners — KU Biodiversity Institute biologist A. Townsend Peterson and KU information and telecommunication professor Edward Komp — Mellenbruch was quickly captivated by the challenge. A major area of frustration for his colleagues was the lack of suitable photos of Triatomine bugs.

“The images of the insects were coming from entomology collections from throughout Latin America,” Mellenbruch says. “And these insects were all photographed at different times in different places, with different cameras by different people in different lighting situations. There was very little consistency, and all the bugs had a big pin sticking out of their backs. Ed told me that he was trying to identify, pixel by pixel, the back of an insect and compare it to another one, but the job was nearly impossible. Then I met with Town(send) to find out more about the species, and how modeling where these insects lived and where they might move to was a big public health issue. He wasn’t happy with the bug photos either, but people were doing their best.

When you bring in people of different perspectives and put them on one project, exciting things can happen.
— Jarrett Mellenbruch, artist

“So without knowing at all how I was going to be involved, it occurred to me that the first thing that I might do would be to figure out how I could design a way to get them more usable imagery.”

Mellenbruch’s solution was to create a durable, mobile and simple-to-use photo rig that could be used by anyone in the field. It consisted of an iPod equipped with a macro lens encircled by LED lights designed to evenly illuminate each insect specimen.

“It’s a way to take uniform, foolproof shots every single time,” Mellenbruch says. “It means that we can deliver it to a person who is perhaps illiterate, who lives in a rural village that’s infested with these bugs. And my goal is to make it so we can just drop off this package at the doorstep. Because once they open it and turn the iPod on, they can start playing instructional videos in Spanish on how to use it.”

But is it art? The leap to understand where the art is found, Mellenbruch says, first requires taking a step back from thinking of art as a purely visual formal aesthetic.

“When I made this rig, I did certainly want it to be beautiful,” he says. “But when I make a piece like this, I don’t separate. It’s like when I make a meal, I use all the ingredients I need to make that meal. I don’t say that this meal is a meal made of spices. I don’t say that this meal is a meal made of vegetables. I don’t say that this meal is a meal made of meat. I say, ‘It’s beef stew.’

“So if I have to bring in something that involves engineering, and I have to bring in something that involves social practice, and I have bring in something that involves visual aesthetics and elegance and all these other components to make a piece, the sum total of all of them is the artwork.”

It’s essentially a “new old idea,” he says. “In a way, it’s almost coming full circle back to a time during the Renaissance era, when these disciplines might have been less likely segregated, when it was basically just pursuit of knowledge and experimentation. I don’t think Leonardo da Vinci tried to differentiate in his studio which project he should be putting in which category.”

Whichever scientific/artistic categories the KU project falls into, the stakes are high.

“This is about creating a knowledge base to serve the people that are getting Chagas,” Mellenbruch says. “Many of these people don’t know what it is and might go five or 10 years without even knowing that they have it, but it’s growing inside their body and it’s not treatable. The only way it can be cured — and this is why this project is so helpful — is if it’s identified fast enough.”

By this summer, more than 10 of Mellenbruch’s iPod photo rigs should be available to researchers in Latin America — with more on the way.

“Eventually, what we’re all working towards is making it easier to include more participants and gather more images, whatever that looks like,” he says. “The goal is to source images from thousands of people, but it may not be with this exact rig. It might be with the next generation of this rig. Or maybe the software gets good enough that you could take a photo with almost any smart phone.”

Mellenbruch also plans to travel to Mexico to shoot video for a documentary to be screened next year at the Spencer Museum.

“I want to paint a picture of the whole project, including interviews with researchers,” he says. “It will essentially be a story that tells what we’re doing. We’ll take footage inside a person’s home, for example, to show where you can find these insects, to really make this as informative as possible. And a lot of that content will be loaded on the iPod to educate.”

Certainly, Mellenbruch enjoys teaching others, both through his art and as a part-time adjunct professor at the Kansas City Art Institute and Rockhurst University. But it’s his own love of learning that keeps him and his art going.

“That kind of feeds my process,” he says. “For example, I knew nothing about Chagas disease and Triatomine insects and creating pattern recognition algorithms and that kind of stuff. But that’s all been a fascinating and highly attractive part of this project.”

More cross-disciplinary collaboration may be in store for Mellenbruch, as he ponders the realization of another project — his proposed outdoor stainless steel sculpture of a reflective sphere measuring a massive 30 feet in diameter and titled From the Everywhere to the Here.

“It hovers two feet off the ground,” he says. “I can’t do that sculpture without collaborating with the physicist it takes to design the magnets.”

“I want the takeaway to be: ‘Look what we can do now.’ This thing is literally reflecting on us and our environment. And we’re looking at something that I hope will move us to feel — on a sculptural level — the way it psychically felt for us to send someone to the moon. Like, ‘that’s amazing.’ Like, ‘I’m proud.’ It’s the sense of wonder that keeps us inspired.”

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *