Donor, a videopoem by poets Imtiaz Dharker and Linda France, and visual artist Kate Sweeney

Centring around the interrelational complexities of human tissue donation, the collective approach to making the work reflects, and also reflects upon, the processes of collective and collaborative practices that underpin the Human Cell Atlas research project.

The project began with a series of initial ‘Zoom’ conversations between Kate, Linda and Imtiaz. From these discussions, and the research they undertook separately – interrogating the Human Cell Atlas website – they produced a list of questions and talking points to present to the scientists. 

Kate sent Krishnaa and Muzlifah the notes and the questions in advance of their virtual meetings, creating time and space for the scientists to reflect both personally and professionally on the concept and practicality of mapping out the shape and form of the human body at a cellular level

The accounts of both women’s acuity, motivation and strong beliefs in their work and the importance of the Human Cell Atlas are moving; how they both ‘reached’, literally and figuratively, to find clear answers, and how articulate and forthright yet poetical and sensitive they sought to be. Krishnaa expressed a spiritual dimension underpinning her work when she touched on her Hindu beliefs regarding the soul being released through cycles after death, and of putting our body ‘to service’. 

The poetry that forms the ‘frame’ for the videopoem is composed using two separate texts. They intercut each other, reflecting the movement and flux of collective practices and contested ideas, spaces, lands or waters, as well as the inevitable ‘fixing’ suggested by the process of making any map, or atlas. The combined text is a tender meditation on the idea of donation, and the donor.

The animation is shaped by the physicality of both Krishnaa and Muzlifah ‘reaching’ to explain an idea, or answer a question. The hand-drawn gestures point to the dialogical nature of the project. They are drawn from clips of Krishnaa as she expresses her passionate desire to express both the journey, and the importance, of the donor to her work:

It always starts at that moment- that consent.

A signature on the page

That then starts this ultimate kind of voyage into so much understanding,

And so much learning- changing the way we are going to look

At how we develop drugs, look at disease. How we study it,

And how we look at asking questions about the human body.

You have to start from this single person, and then work a way through- diverge

So that everyone can do their part.

This single body spreads across the equivalent of the uncharted-

And becomes something we can see anew.

This single sample goes to different cohorts of people.

They work out what is noise and what is reality.

Eventually it transcends back into the repository.

Which then becomes the overarching cell atlas.

We acknowledge the gift they give to us because without them,

None of this happens.

They transcend death, giving themselves

In a way that no living person could

Give of themselves

Dr Krishnaa Mahbubani

When talking to Muzlifah, she brought up on screen a map of the human liver. The sea of blue dots and points resonated with me as being both beautiful, and baffling. Like the map, and Krishnaa’s Hinduism, the audio and visual elements of the animation come together and move apart, in the way the ‘dots’ chart and map the liver cell, a conversation shifts and unfolds – a little bit like a mandala.