Matt & Kate

Addiction is a neurological condition with a very human face. Talking about addicts often conjures up images of Amy Winehouse, George Best or that fidgety guy who picks up cigarette ends outside Londis. To Dr Matt Parker of QMUL addiction has a much more fishy face – a zebrafish-y face to be more precise.

matt parker zebrafish
Zebrafish make the ideal staple for any tropical freshwater tank, their iridescent scales and gentle, fluttering movement providing a lovely calming aesthetic in amongst a lovely Java fern and a tiny ceramic castle. Zebrafish are also really great for modelling neurological conditions as they are cheap to buy, easy to breed and scientists already have bags of data on the intricacies of their genetic code.
Using zebrafish Matt has come up with some ingenious contraptions which help to measure the zebrafish’s behaviour. Essentially they are modified versions of the “Monkey Bash Button Monkey Get Banana” type animal psychology experiments. Matt has then developed these contraptions to allow him to add nicotine to the water or subtley change the colours, shapes and patterns in the tank to test the effects of changing the fish’ environment. All this can then be compared against each fish’ genetic code to help identify the genes which may or may not have a role in altered response to the nicotine.

Artist Kate Hughes already has a certain level of biomedical experience. In 2010 she painted a series of watercolours based on live open heart surgery. She used the experience as both an exercise in life-drawing as well as taking a more figurative approach. Working with Matt she has taken a similar path using the zebrafish as a literal motif for the more abstract concept of addiction.

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Her original pieces juxtaposed the mandatory animal lab overshoes as watery apparitions of fish themselves – Kate’s lively watercolours capturing the fluidity and glimmer of the fish. She also played on the theme of environmental triggers for addiction painting an innocuous looking corner of a quiet, parochial British boozer, with glasses of beer and packets of Rizla subtly interwoven with the fish as triggers.

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Thankfully Kate is addiction-free although she freely admitted that “I suspect that if I had an addiction it would probably be gambling… One of those people who spent a lot of money in really small increments… playing bingo online”. She explored this avenue of impulsive behaviour as the theme for her main piece “Lucky Impulse” a watercolour depicting the zebrafish which can be won – simply by purchasing the winning scratchcard. That’s right – an original Art Neuro masterpiece can be yours if you get scratch-happy enough.

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Just don’t overdo it though OK.
Jamie Upton

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