( 1, 2, 3, 4 ) -- Between 1983 and 1995 I created, together with Caroline Coates, an international fashion brand called Helen Storey. We had 3 shops in London, employed 25 people, sold to 124 stores in 24 countries, dressed celebrities such as Madonna and Cher, pioneered the sponsoring of fashion shows by other industrial sectors and won awards for export and innovation. We were twice nominated for Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991. In 1995, against a backdrop of personal tragedy (my husband, who was our financial director was struck down by a virulent cancer), we were given 30 days by our bank to find alternative funding. At the end of that period, having met over 40 potential backers some with money and no experience, others with experience and no money, we gave it all up.
In the middle of closing the business I was approached by Faber and Faber to write my autobiography, 'Fighting Fashion', and Caroline was commissioned by the DTI and the British Fashion Council to write a 'bible' on setting up in the fashion business. For a year we each wrote, reflected on the past and stayed open to what might come our way. The autobiography was widely and enthusiastically received, and became something of a testament to business tenacity and personal endeavour.
Out of the blue, in 1995, my sister Kate, then a developmental biologist at the University of Oxford, sent me a Wellcome Trust leaflet setting out a call for artists and scientists to co-create an idea which would broaden and deepen the public's awareness of scientific innovation and research. On it she stuck a yellow 'post-it note' with a circled question mark in pencil.
This was the first of the Wellcome Trust's Sci/Art initiatives; it had no history to measure us against but immediately said 'yes' to our unlikely proposal to bring to light, through fashion and textiles - 'the first 1,000 hours of human life'. We had four months to bring this innovative project together - but with no studio, no staff, and in my case, no knowledge of Kate's world of cutting edge embryology.
I approached The London College of Fashion and they gave me the use of their studios over the summer of '96'; a team was quickly put together, and I began a regular commute between the labs in Oxford and our 'gypsy camp' of a design studio in the East End's Curtain Road. The project became known as Primitive Streak, named after the first 3D structure in the developing embryo, and we had until the fashion students' return on October 1st to finish it.
There was no time to fully translate what I was learning in Oxford to the team of twelve pattern cutters, printers, embroiderers and seamstresses back in Curtain Road. As a consequence, I developed a mid-language unique to the project, one which in the end, wordless, communicated, through a form of silent Thai Chi gestures, the progress of embryonic development I had seen under the microscope. This became a system to indicate and evaluate where we were in the 1,000 hour process.
( 5, 6, 7, 8 ) -- Half way through the making of the collection Caroline and I were sitting in the café at the ICA speculating where we could raise the necessary funding to place the work in the public domain. At the next table sat the incoming Director of the ICA, Philip Dodd, who, on over hearing our conversation, came to join us and to say, over his cup of tea, that, although the ICA stood for Art, in the main he was far more interested in Science. By the end of the conversation we had a venue, a date to show and more money to raise.
Primitive Streak opened at the ICA on October 6th 1996. On its last day it was visited by a Dr Gill Samuels, the European Director of Scientific Policy for Pfizer UK. She was extremely moved by the exhibition and immediately sought us out, taking us to lunch - and announced the work was precisely what the science community had been looking for and asked if Pfizer could tour it around the world.
On the opening night of the Primitive Streak exhibition, Kate and I stood back to observe what the people were making of it, both of us unsure of what exactly we had created. The occasion after so much hard work, seemed magical.
The exhibition took on a power and significance of its own. In belonging to no specific world, it belonged to everyone - promoting and igniting curiosity about the relationship between art and science, and becoming in effect, over a period of the next eleven years, capable of speaking across barriers of language, age and custom. It became, as a result, a new teaching tool. Young people with learning difficulties found a fresh way into biology; a blind scientist wept as he felt his way through each of the ten stages we envisioned, elderly women wept and giggled as they came to realise what, unknown to them, had been going on inside their bodies. It toured in the end to 8 countries, installed in venues as varied as the Opera House in Jerusalem, a coffee shop in Beijing, The World Trade Centre in New York, and a derelict fashion shop in Berlin. To date, and still continuing, the work has been seen by over 3 million people across the world, and has inspired new cross disciplinary learning and sci/art labs in the UK in collaboration with The Arts Council's Creative Partnerships initiative.
Primitive Streak changed my creative life for good; in 1999 Caroline and I founded a
"not for profit" organisation called The Helen Storey Foundation - in order that we could continue with this fascinating and rewarding work.
The second 'science and art' project was triggered by a call from Professor John McLachlan, a biologist at the University of St Andrews. He asked permission to use images of Primitive Streak for his students' Induction Day. He wished to shock them, he said, by presenting them with a fashion show as they arrived - waiting he said, for their mouths to drop, their eyes to open wide. "That's how I want you to stay until the end of this course". He told them. "Eyes and mouths open. Expect the unexpected".
I was attracted, next, to exploring and presenting a piece of work focused on the mind - having less knowledge however, of neuroscience than I had had of biology. It was Caroline's idea I should use my understanding of my own creative processes to design an installation that brought some of these processes together. With John (with whom the conversation had continued to flourish since our first call) we co-created MENTAL, which was first exhibited internationally in Denmark in 2001.
( 9, 10, 11 ) -- It comprised five installations - each interactive - allowing the public to explore their understanding and knowledge of their own creative processes. An interactive game called Whisper, encouraged people to digitally complete the creation of a fantasy figure, and to watch their vision rise in a giant pool of golden honey; a reclining furry female figure with fibre optic hairs lit up when stroked, simultaneously recording the impact of changing pheromones on where and when she was touched. Amygdala, a giant walk-in book in which comments and observations could be written down, eventually became a work of emotional confession, passing on and sharing the nature of human awareness to audiences throughout the UK and Europe. Amongst the most moving entries were the drawing of a giant cello by a boy who hadn't spoken for two years, a chain-story between four women coping with cancer in different parts of the world - and a suicide note left by a young man.
MENTAL stretched and questioned my role as an artist and collaborator, for in the end we worked with over fifty other technologists, crafts people and designers to accomplish what was, in effect, a multi media work. At times I felt I'd become more a director of people than a creator of the work itself; in setting the question to others as I had set to myself. "Do you know what's is going on in your mind when you are doing something creative?" I was allowing each one to answer in their own way. It was a three year project and a £250,000 mountain for Caroline and I to climb, but behind this heavy involvement of others I realised there was also a hidden but increasing awareness of self doubt - of not knowing what I was engaged in, or even simply what I should call myself, an artist, a scientist, or somehow both? For the whole of the following year I was immobilized by doubt.
As this continued, and there was no sign of my producing any new ideas, after working together in 'flow' for close on 20 years, the relationship between Caroline and I came under a great deal of strain. I knew I had to go through what others might describe as a creative block, but it ran deeper, and appeared increasingly intransigent. Looking back, I realised I had left the skills I knew as fashion far behind; in their place had come risk and insecurity. I had to realise that when I worked in those spaces where art, industries and disciplines meet there was little precedent for me to follow, nobody asked me to think the way I did and, until the work existed, few recognised what it was I was trying to do.
I endeavoured to re-engage myself with outside events - to end up by being instructed as to how to meditate by a Buddhist monk. I sat on a hard, round cushion in an unheated room with other restless spirits for several sessions over many weeks.
'Beginner's luck' is often mentioned in relation to meditation, but in my own dark space I wasn't expecting any. However, in my third or fourth session, like the hint of one's first sexual experience, and just about as alien, I began to sense something entirely new. I am reluctant, as I write this, to put it into words, I can't think of any expression that won't limit the unusual nature of what I was going through. I sat amongst others also struggling with self- possession, and began to sense my mind could occupy spaces where no thinking was required at all; in that blissful moment my mind was free.
I took to meditating each day, despite feeling guilty for what appeared at first, an indulgence. It seemed, however, to lessen the dark, and although I had no idea of what to report or what I might do next, on one particular occasion I felt a distinct sensation that what was happening was coming into my normal waking, working life - it becoming a part of my everyday awareness.
It was the experience of learning to meditate that drew my attention to a book written by Daniel Goleman called 'Destructive Emotion'. With its spine of black, white and red, amongst all the other books in my Waterstone's afternoon, it asked to be picked up and opened. Close to the beginning was a black and white photograph of a smiling Dalai Lama, with, to his left, six of the world's most eminent physicists and neuroscientists and to his right, four of the world's most eminent philosophers. I gazed down the line to see a smile that prompted me to smile in return. This was a photograph of Professor Richie Davidson, the Director of Neuroscience at Wisconsin University. I emailed him with a "you don't know me but" and to my surprise he immediately emailed back. We carried on our text conversation, and later that year he came to London.
Lying on our backs on the concrete floor of Tate Modern, gazing up at the giant fake sun, he spoke to the mirrors above us "Would you like to be an observer at our next meeting at The Dalai Lama's house in Dharamsala in India? We will be exploring brain plasticity".
I didn't get there. Richard Gere got my place (although I met the Dalai Lama the following year at another meeting focusing on the effects of meditation on clinical practice, held in Washington DC). Furthermore, I went to Wisconsin to see the 'Monks in the Lab' studies (research into the most flourishing minds on earth) and to meet the scientists who carried them out. In three days I interviewed thirteen neuroscientists and, on the last day, my head spinning, found myself sitting on a grass bank in sunshine talking to Dr Jim Coan. We were supposed to meet for half an hour, but three hours later we were still talking - and had decided to work together on a project, the precise content of which neither of us was really sure. I was fascinated, for instance, by his studies into male and female anger and the role of eye contact in determining divorce rates and the nature and significance of human touch. He was additionally an enthusiast of the arts, and felt starved by his exclusion from them.
"Eye & I" was our resulting work. It was born after a full-length walk from one end of Manhattan to the other. He says I drew it out on a Starbucks napkin, down town; I say I didn't know what it was until I sketched it in my note book on the plane home - scribbled, as it was, in a horrified moment when the hostess instructed me to stay in my seat, declaring the man lying in the aisle beside me had died!
He hadn't; he was drunk.
( 12 ) -- There had been key questions and themes Jim and I had returned to as we walked; how do we know we exist? Which emotions best inform us that we are here? What is the role of negative emotion in our appreciation of being alive? Always we came back to the human eye and the role of vision in both the recognition and affirmation of life. He told me of the counselling he had done over the years between feuding couples and how the eye-rolling of the female was the strongest predictor of divorce, and how more people died of loneliness than from smoking, or alcohol.
Above all else, having taken part in "emotion experiments" in the MRI scanner at Wisconsin University, we both shared a wish to break down the laboratory wall and bring the exploration of human emotion closer to the reality of everyday life.
( 13, 14 ) -- 'Eye & I' was a violet painted room within a room. Peering through letterbox sized slots at different levels, within this space, were the eyes of 16 actors, each instructed and trained in sustaining human emotion for 5 minutes - specifically using facial muscle control not memory as triggers. Held in a South London School over a period of a week up to 300 people, from nursery school children to old age pensioners, teachers, teenagers and the general public experienced in the room in groups of between five and ten for ten minutes at a time. The majority were not informed of what they were about to encounter.
We worked with six polarized emotions, and 'neutral' emotion (no feeling being emoted at all). The first five minutes could be grief and the second five minutes joy. We made a film capturing the extraordinary array of responses aroused by being given the opportunity to hold the gaze of a stranger silently conveying their feelings by their eyes alone. In retrospect what we had created was a space which, socially, was unique; where, in effect, new rules were made in response to the over whelming feeling of being present amidst a collective out pouring of, grief, joy, anger, or neutrality - the latter arousing the strongest response, a result which made Jim's statement about the connection between lack of human contact and reduced mortality significant.
There were also distinct differences between male and female responses. Young people with autism sustained unprecedented eye contact and didn't wish to leave the room. Children with learning disabilities endeavoured to comfort those who wept. The hosting school ran sessions on leadership and the power of body language and eyes in teaching. At the end of the week, with the sense of responsibility I felt at inviting others into such an electric and unpredictable atmosphere, I felt both drained and guilty.
'Eye & I' prompted however, a second school, to run the installation on their own in 2005, with the drama and business students inviting in local schools and communities to take part. Those involved stayed together as a social and organising group after the event and made a film of their experiences with the project.
Jim and I have remained in contact, he acquiring something of a reputation in the States, specifically for what have now become his famous experiments with hand-holding and its' extraordinary effects on the relief of pain.
( 15, 16, 17 ) -- The project I am working on currently is called WONDERLAND and it's the most ambitious work I have undertaken.
In 2005, having made a film for Unilever (Dove) on the psychology of female hands, I was asked by them to come up with a 'provocative stimulus' for one of their brand teams - Persil washing up liquid - which was not doing well at the time by 'Fairy' standards. As I wandered down endless supermarket aisles of detergent and household products, nothing came to mind. I was on the point of giving up when, during a Sunday afternoon struggle with a book on understanding quantum mechanics, a misunderstanding prompted a fresh idea. What I responded to - "the duplicate behaviour patterns of particles that could be a universe away from each other" - in my mind I registered as a 'fantastical conversation'.
I wondered why a bottle could not have a conversation with its contents; could it detect its own emptiness, i.e. volume change? Could its phased behaviour trigger its demise? Could a bottle get rid of itself when no longer needed?
By chance I heard the 'Polymer Chemist Professor' Tony Ryan from The University of Sheffield, talking on Radio 4's 'Material World'; he sounded funny, nimble-minded and approachable. Via the program I tracked him down, and ringing him straight away. I announced my ideas down the phone and he immediately went quiet. Finally he remarked, "That's not as stupid as it sounds. Why don't you come and meet my team in Sheffield?"
We instantly responded to one another. I recounted my ideas to his team of chemists and physicists, and we began to discuss a way we could work together.
We set about getting science funding - a leap too far for the funding bodies. In an effort to save the project I suggested I could make dresses disappear by designing frocks made of the polymer used in Persil's washing machine capsules. To my surprise and joy this went down well; we made an application to the EPSRC for a research grant of £185,000, which we were successful in securing.
( 18, 19, 20, 21 ) -- The conversations between us continued - resulting in our applying for a patent for a human-powered water purification pillow - which the Pentagon has expressed a wish to fund... and a new 'upperless' shoe. The bottle doesn't disappear (yet) but can be turned into a bunch of flowers. We are also looking at using kitchen bound experiment zones (i.e. washing machines), as the vehicles to dissolve bottles, the chemicals having a secondary use of separating out sewage further down the line. We are currently in the early phases of forming partnerships to bring each of these things into the environments where they are most needed, and our current target is to work on a collaborative solution to solar 'capture ' through the printing of photovoltaics and the novel use of sky space - inspired on this occasion by Tony casually remarking the fact that the world's economy could be powered by capturing just 0.01% of the sunshine that falls on the planet.
The dresses and our new products for WONDERLAND will be going on a three-city tour of the UK (London, Sheffield and Belfast) next year pending further fundraising.
It is this project that has inspired a parallel project called "Ideas that can change the world" - an idea I first suggested to 'Creative Partnerships,' and now over a year old. Other collaborators include The Dialogue Project and Deepa Patel. It seeks to disseminate and install the above methods of thinking in unexpected ways in schools throughout the country. Our intention is to develop the strongest of these ideas, together with young people, experts and industry, and to bring the best of them into everyday life. We are now fully engaged in delivering this agenda.
Looking back over the past 10 years, if there has been a trajectory to my work it has been in the direction of endeavouring to make visible the invisible world (female reproduction, seemingly irreconcilable human emotions, the molecular world of plastics) and, in so doing, to act as a catalyst between unlikely elements - represented, in my case, by combining art and science. The impact of this combination has been compelling and lasting - and has pointed me significantly towards the future. My instinct is to identify art, or, in my case, design, as something more than a simple aesthetic. This is, and has been, a powerful urge, if obliging me at times to work in areas where few have worked before.
Involved in this is the inevitable desire to change things for the better - specifically in unexpected ways. More than a personal vocation, it brings with it an appetite for working with others. 'Art', in this sense, has to have a purpose. We are - and I imagine this is a general view - in a vital and unique phase of our evolution. A requirement, and the means to act creatively have never been more apparent. It is with this at the forefront of my mind that I'm determined to meet the immediate and the long-term challenges ahead.
© Helen Storey, May 2007
1- Fashion: Helena C - British Vogue 1991 - photographer Peter Lindberg
2- Fashion: Helenism - British Vogue 1990 - photographer Lord Snowdon
3- Fashion: 2nd Life - Helen Storey 10 Year anniversary catalogue - photographer Platon
4- Fashion: Plum - British Vogue 1993 - photographer Steven Meisel
5- Primitive Streak: Inspirational science image of 'Anaphase'
6- Primitive Streak: Anaphase Dress - sketch by Helen Storey
7- Primitive Streak: Anaphase Dress - photograph by Justine, Model Korinna at Models 1
8- Primitive Streak: The collection on exhibition
9- MENTAL: Whisper on exhibition at Oksnehallen Denmark
10- MENTAL: First, Last, Everything on exhibition at Oksnehallen Denmark
11- MENTAL: Amygdala on exhibition at Oksnehallen Denmark
12- Eye & I: First sketch of the installation by Helen Storey
13- Eye & I: visitor inside the installation
14- Eye & I: From the outside looking in
15- Wonderland: early experiments at the Polymer Centre University of Sheffield
16- Wonderland: Helen Storey and Tony Ryan with early prototypes of the water purification and 'disappearing' bottle products
17-Wonderland: the team watching experiments at the Polymer Centre University of Sheffield
18, 19, 20- Wonderland: sketches of the 'Disappearing Dresses' by Helen Storey
21- Wonderland: experimental 'Disappearing Dresses' at a Wonderland Pilot, Sheffield University January 2007