ManifestOctober 29, 2015
Blink now…and again.
Squint to make it out.
Furrow to make sense.
Frown in failure.
Smile. The work begins.
Corporeal expressions of wonder are the basis for my series of data-driven sculptures, collectively titled Manifest (2015). For this series, numerical data was collected from electromyography (EMG) recordings of electrical activity produced by my body. I performed neuromuscular activities associated with experiences of wonder. While I acted out facial expressions and bodily movements (such as smiling in delight, frowning in confusion, and blinking in disbelief), an Arduino EMG device recorded the electrical levels in different muscles during these movements. Each activity produced unique data that defined the form of a sculpture: Swallow, Blink, Squint, Furrow, Frown, and Smile.
This project examines the potential for objects to embody human experience and to materialize the intangible. I wanted to generate forms via bodily function, both voluntary and involuntary. While my work is often associated with handcrafted techniques, my first thought for this project was to use digital tools. I wanted to transform bodily function into data precisely to disembody it—to remove it from the gooey, visceral source and rematerialize it using inorganic means. The variations among the sculptures seem to imply some distinct experiential differences. Much of my work interrogates the ways in which our understanding of our bodies is mediated by the outside world. This series questions how a bodily function can punctuate, illuminate, and even enhance our experience as we interface with the world around us.
The title, Manifest, is a nuanced word that offers a variety of interpretations. As an adjective, it refers to the way the sculptures render “clear or obvious to the eye or mind” the unique neurophysiological phenomenon of each performed movement.1 As a verb, it refers to the emotional significance that performed movements communicate (for example, frustration or happiness). As a noun, it objectifies the body as a vessel whose contents are to be cataloged in detail. I was also inspired by Charles Darwin’s facial feedback hypothesis from 1872, in which he posits, “Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.”2 His theory suggests that physiological changes caused by an emotion not only express that emotion but also enhance it: we can manifest feelings by performing their expression.
I was interested in creating digitally fabricated objects to foil the conventional associations of objects of wonder with objects from nature. Furthermore, I wanted to take up the task of creating sculpture that could resonate beyond an object defined solely by its formal qualities. The series makes the technical process pervasive in the viewing of the objects. At the time that I proposed the work for the exhibition Objects of Wonder (at the Beall Center for Art + Technology in Irvine, California), I was exploring the potential of Arduino microcontrollers and Processing programs to serve a generative role in my studio production, as a kind of collaborator. I stumbled upon a neural interface workshop at Genspace, a community biotechnology laboratory in Brooklyn, where we performed neuromuscular experiments with an Arduino EMG reader.3 From there, the Manifest project evolved in the direction of bio-data visualization and careful consideration of the recorded movements as they related to notions of wonder.
Chicken or Egg?
I more often think my studio practice drives my research than vice versa. That is, my curiosity and investigation are often steered by the fabrication of an object or the construction of an image that is already somewhat formed in my mind. My research into the science and technology behind the work serves to ground my studio production in a set of rules, principles, and even aesthetics. And science often emerges as a protagonist in the narrative implications of the work.
One example of this project-driven research is my work that uses my blood as ink. My work with blood began as an aesthetic move toward abstraction and away from the institutional and representational. Yet I was still very attached to an examination of culturally constructed and medically defined experiences of the body. Making work with the body itself seemed like a good solution: I could take the image of the body out of the work and put the material of the body in. I was enamored by the look of dried blood on various substrates and inspired by the variegated meanings that each could impart to the other—blood to substrate, substrate to blood.
This project led me down numerous paths of biomedical investigation in order to produce the work. Virus (2002), a series of drawings, involved research into viral structures. The drawings in Elaborative Encoding (2007) were inspired by neuroscience studies of the formation of memories: I was struck by the poetic implications underlying the encoding of memories using information that we already know to form an elaborate web of related memories and knowledge. This notion became the basis for drawings of doilies, drawn thread-by-thread, with frayed dendrite-like ends between the gaps of the patterns. Host (2014), a series of sculptures and works on paper, draws on my memories of AIDS arriving as an unexpected guest at our quaint home in the 1980s and quietly announcing itself in hollowed cheekbones, sunken eyes, and Kaposi sarcoma lesions. The work was a reflection on coming to consciousness about HIV and AIDS while coming of age in the suburban South. However, in addition to drawing from my personal experience, I researched the sociopolitical history of HIV and AIDS and collected oral histories from family members for this work.
Early in the process of using blood as material, I learned to deal with its technical challenges. I quickly progressed from pricking one finger with a high-gauge lancet to pricking all ten fingers with a low-gauge lancet. I also began to collect and refrigerate the blood in tubes coated with Heparin, an anticoagulant. When embarking on Wallpaper (2008), a wall-size installation created for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, I realized I would need a better way to collect blood.4 I completed a phlebotomy certification course that trained me in proper venous-collection techniques with butterfly needles. This method proved far more efficient than pricking each finger and bleeding one drop at a time.
Muse and Metaphor
In other projects, science has played more the role of muse than of methodology. Mara Holt Skov and the late Steven Skov Holt have articulated this approach in their curatorial and academic research as “biology as master metaphor.”5 I relate to this concept keenly in my affinities for certain domestic artifacts and decorative arts, specifically in my explorations of what I call domesticated viscera. In this endeavor, I look at the ways in which traditional uses of biological imagery in the decorative arts intersect with the artifacts of biological concerns in the contemporary quotidian landscape; bioterrorism, health epidemics, and antimicrobial products are now becoming as familiar as the living-room furniture.
Search for the pattern that connects
Remember that the map is not the territory…
—Steven Skov Holt6
In Doilies (2004), I rendered a series of five different corona viruses (SARS, HIV, herpes, influenza, hepadnavirus) in the form of radial lace doilies. I researched the structure of the viruses at the same time that I was teaching myself digital embroidery techniques. In a twist on the needlework tradition of the schoolgirl sampler, I was equally invested in honoring the traditional conventions of the doily as I was to studying and accurately depicting the structure of the viruses. Such aesthetic and technical concerns do not always align, and that is when as an artist I have to make decisions about prioritizing art over science or science over art. These decisions are often agonizing, and, if done well, the winner is unclear.
These intersections of the scientific imagination and the cultural imagination have always intrigued me. I am particularly interested in moments in the history of medicine when innovation has been driven as much by scientific necessity as by sociopolitical circumstances. Stethoscope (2002) was part of a body of work that traced the cultural lineage of medical devices and instrumentation. Varying accounts of René Laennec’s invention of the stethoscope convey fraught gender relations as much as technical research. One version tells of a “well-endowed” female patient who was too modest to have Laennec lay his head on her chest; by other accounts, it was he who was too modest.7 Laennec’s solution to this socially awkward moment was to roll up a sheet of paper to create a tube, his first iteration of the stethoscope. The stethoscope embodies a social paradigm: a prescribed comfortable distance between doctor and patient, male and female. In my Stethoscope sculpture, I extended the length of the instrument to twenty-five feet, the longest distance at which one can still hear a heart beating at the other end. Its absurdity belies its continued (albeit diminished) function and questions the technical standards on which an institutional device is based.
As an artist who works so often with biomedical themes and imagery, my work has been included in a variety of science-based exhibitions and venues. My experiences have illuminated some of the challenges artists face in navigating and negotiating science within our work as well as in relating to audiences and curators. There is too often a tendency toward prioritizing art’s illustrative function in the service of science, to the detriment of art. Narrative implications can be overlooked when the scientific component functions solely as a “picture” rather than as a protagonist. The artist and theorist Suzanne Anker aptly articulated this problem at a recent panel discussion, “The State of Bioart Today,” when she proposed “it’s time to put the art in bio-art.”8
I’ve often been frustrated by conversations about art within science contexts. At a recent Sci Foo panel about the intersections of art and science, I was struck by how many scientists’ understanding of art was entirely encapsulated by the notion of beauty.9 Not to burst anyone’s extremely thin air-filled sphere of soapy water, but art can engage audiences beyond a pleasing surface.10 As artists and as viewers, the sooner we realize this, the sooner the real work of understanding images can begin. As artists we have our work cut out for us. Perhaps the work of this endeavor is where the pleasure lies, where curiosity and wonder become studio practice and research, and art can manifest more than beauty. Much more.