HELEN SCALWAY ON GEOGRAPHIES OF LAB MICE

On November 3rd 2015 I made a presentation to the Landscape Surgery group at Royal Holloway concerning a collaborative project between a geographer, Professor Gail Davies of Exeter University, and myself as an artist. The subject concerned the geographies of lab animals, specifically lab mice. The presentation was an attempt, as the collaboration is now drawing to a close, to situate the work in a wider context, within a set of histories.
Sadly Gail could not be present. However, I began by looking briefly at one of her papers to which she had drawn my attention early on in our long conversation, one I have found riveting, titled ‘Writing biology with mutant mice: the monstrous potential of post genomic life’ (Davies 2013).
In this paper Gail explores the ways in which the science around lab animals is subject to different forces: a version of science is at work, characterised as modernist – i.e. reductionist, spare, ‘pure’, looking for uniformity and repeatability on the one hand; and in contrast, a ‘post-modern’ version characterised by excess, undecidability, unforeseeability – what in Derrida’s terms might be called ‘the monstrous’. She writes:
‘Rather than searching for the normal, the ideal type, or the singular genetic code from which variations are defined, here difference is of central interest and value … it is monstrous in the sense that it is oriented to the production of a variety of possibilities, not all of which will become facts. It is open to the future – to the monstrous arrivant – in a way that the sequencing practices of human genome project were not…’

2 Arrows-1

Arrows

There are some interesting parallels between these suggestions of ‘excess, undecidability, unforeseeability’ in post-genomics – characteristics of ‘the monstrous’ – and these qualities in some approaches to contemporary drawing. Crucially, in the context of the work which became Micespace, we might say that drawing which welcomes the not-yet-see-able partakes of ‘the monstrous’, understood in this way. Drawing research scholar Vinod Goel has suggested that, in certain phases in a design process, thoughts and their representations need to be ‘intersecting, undifferentiated and ambiguous’ (2014: 4) and that freehand sketches are useful because they facilitate lateral transformations (ibid., p. 218). Another leading drawing researcher, Steve Garner remarks: ‘Drawing is an immanence, always pointing to somewhere else’ (2008: 37).

Drawing as begetting the unfixed and ambiguous, the future-bearing – this seemed to offer fitting approaches for a project concerned with the begetting of ‘the monstrous’.

So, at Landscape Surgery I presented some works from Gail’s and my collaboration in the light of these earlier comments – not looking for closed conclusions but for further discussion. All the visual experiments were predicated on the idea that while there is an object of study, the lab mouse, there is no fixed agreement as to what kind of entity – or process – this might comprise. The visual approaches all began with some variety of drawing but ranged from a form of charting combining linear pen drawing with writing, to the most hands-on explorations with other materials, to dematerialisations of projected light.
Why so many approaches, so many methods? I think the answer lies somewhere in this: that materials and means radically inflect outcomes and their implications, so that working with different materials opens up a corporeally-imbricated, rich variety of ways of ‘thinkings-through’. Truly method changes meaning; and this became fascinating to me in itself.
Some interesting questions emerged from the session.
Many questions concerned the ‘lab diagram’, initially based on an American National Institute of Health recommended lab design. Instead of requiring people to look at this as a projection or even a series of fly-ins, the diagram, which contains a certain amount of text, was printed out and twenty copies handed round: superficially the work looks like a neutral architectural plan, but the labelling confuses categories. The labelling evokes hope and fear and finance, pain and ‘sacrifice’, ‘dirt’ and ‘purity’, suggesting the metaphoric, moral and emotional complexities of place. A question I need to consider further is why this particular diagram on paper was so productive of questions whereas the projected images in the powerpoint provoked some, but fewer.

3 Lab - the 'clean' and the 'dirty'The clean and the dirty

Various points were raised:

That the lab diagram drawing functions partly as a building plan and needs weighting for frequency of action
That text is a part of an aesthetic
That diagrams do things, capture and create positions – (the implications from this seem vast)
Leaving the questions arising from the diagram for those around the whole website, the question was asked, could the website develop into a form of drawing research?
In what ways are hyperlinks on a website, a version of direction-giving arrows? (Arrows in diagramming having come under discussion for their suggestion of highly selective ‘causality’.)
It was asked whether the tracks made by animals might be considered a form of drawing? – If so, what would the word ‘drawing’ mean in this context?
Could this kind of approach be used to map other human/animal relations, e.g. those with farm animals?
What is the difference, if any, between an unfamiliar hybrid and a monster?
What might be the viewpoint of any audience for this work? How might it be given voice?

Such questions continue to resonate for me.

Helen Scalway

4 Monstrous mouseprintMonstrous mouse print

References

Davies, G. (2013) Writing biology with mutant mice: the monstrous potential of post genomic life, Geoforum, 48: 268-78.

Garner, S. (2008) Writing on Drawing: Essays on Drawing Practice and Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goel, V. (2014). Drawing as a Research Tool, Studies in Material Thinking, Vol.10, February.

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