a porous world
"Screened for Rotavirus" by Elaine Whittaker, 2015, 16" x 16", digital print
We live in a porous world, inside porous bodies. The possibility of being breached, infected, and losing body integrity is always present. My artworks explore this unavoidable fear by portraying the invisible world of teeming microbial life as luminous beauty but with the terrifying possibility of infection. Considering biology as the basis for my art practice, I integrate elements of scientific methods and technologies in my artworks, creating installations of sculpture, photo-based images, sound and paintings. Situated in the realm of Bioart, my artworks challenge viewers’ perceptions about their bodies, as sites that are continually trespassed, tainted, and contaminated by a popular culture that escalates the social anxiety and terror of microbes, thereby fueling a sense of bioparanoia.
EJ [Ellen Jantzen, Feature Member Editor @ASCI]: Your multidisciplinary works consider biology as a creative medium for contemporary art practice; how did you come to find this direction.
EW [Elaine Whittaker, artist]: As a young person, I was fascinated by the natural world. We lived in what was then a rural town and my childhood was filled with playing outdoors in the surrounding meadows, creeks, forest, and flowing grass fields. My activities with family and friends were often exciting explorations of nature. Though I did not go on to study biology, these interests continued throughout my postsecondary studies in anthropology and art, and launched me to work in the environmental movement. All these influences have found their way into my artistic practice.
While working on my arts degree, I decided to develop an art project that looked at the effect of synthetic toxic materials on human health and the environment. I always loved working with different materials and one day, as I was lying in a bath of Epsom salts, it hit me – salt – why not use salt?! As one of the oldest healing substances humans have used, and as the foundation for life, from our primordial past in a briny ocean to our fetal beginnings in the salty milk of amniotic fluid, it was the perfect material. From that point on salt became both my main material and a metaphor in my artworks.
Incorporating live bacteria into my artwork started a number of years later when I was researching and investigating the rise of infectious disease brought on by global warming, and the natural history of pandemics and microbial life on earth. With a research grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, I took the first steps in setting-up a very small laboratory in my studio and learned how to culture the salt bacteria Halobacterium sp. NRC-1. With a microscope and digital camera, I photographed the growth of these brightly coloured colonies and then used the images in installations, or displayed the actual petri dishes with halobacteria as live drawings. Over the past years, these have appeared in a number of my exhibits and installations.
"Shiver" by Elaine Whittaker, 2015, 104” x 56” x 56”, petri dishes, grown salt crystals, wool, fishing wire, vinyl print, pipette tips, wire (photo by David Williams)
EJ: I understand that your installation piece, “Shiver,” features salt crystals and more. What is the relationship between fear of the viral/microbial and the salt crystals? Are these crystals a metaphor for any pathogen cultured in a petri dish? (They are quite lovely, by the way.)
EW: "Shiver" is the title of my most recent exhibit at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto, and is also the name of the centerpiece of the installation. Created from pipette tips, fishing wire and 2,300 petri dishes containing grown salt crystals, I envisioned it as a "mutating organism." It hung from the ceiling, tentacled and erupting from an over-sized, floor-bound petri dish (digital image). Using the context of the current Ebola epidemic as a backdrop, some of the petri dishes contained salted red wool shaped like this filamentous virus (described by Frederick A. Murphy, a CDC virologist, as a “dark beauty – [a] horror”).
"Shiver" radiates -- the white salt in each dish captures and refracts the light in its crystal prisms, while the plastic of the petri dishes reflects the light on the floor and walls of the gallery. This is especially apparent when it becomes "alive," stirring in response to viewers passing close-by when air currents move through it. This draws viewers closer. It also asks them to contemplate that fear and beauty reside in an uncomfortable dialectic, especially in this precarious time of contagions and bioterrors that are more often imagined than real.
(detail) "Shiver" by Elaine Whittaker, 2015, petri dishes, grown salt crystals, wool, fishing wire, pipette tips (photo by David Williams)
EJ: The photographs included in “Shiver” are quite startling, but very intriguing. As a photographer, I am quite drawn to these. Please speak a bit about the process of creating these and how they support your installation.
"Screened for Cholera, West Nile Virus, Plague, Tuberculosis, Malaria, SARS, Rotavirus, HIV/AIDS, Rabies, Influenza" by Elaine Whittaker, 2015, 16” x 16”, digital prints (photo by David Williams)
EW: For the images in this series, entitled "Screened For," I photographed myself wearing protective masks that had been painted with an array of microbial infectious diseases (such as malaria, tuberculosis, SARS, cholera, HIV/AIDS, West Nile Virus, Ebola, etc.). The actual masks were painted and displayed in a past exhibit and I had always wanted to photograph myself wearing them. With my eyes closed or peering out tentatively, these larger than life portraits are somewhat disconcerting, eerie, but also purposely beautiful – the pleasant sky blue masks depicting colourfully painted microbes (my interpretation of microscopy illustrations found in medical texts). Again the notions of fear and beauty play-out in these photographs, asking the viewer to ponder a number of questions. Are the very devices we employ to protect ourselves providing the safety we need when faced with the rampant spread of infections and disease? What constitutes true protection? Can disease be truly beautiful? Are we our diseases? Is the world just one big petri dish incubating the source of its ultimate destruction? I have been asking myself these questions for quite awhile now. You are correct in saying that the photographs are startling. Some people backed away very quickly from them when they read the titles. Others wanted to know how I survived wearing a mask that actually had Ebola (or SARS or TB, etc.) on it. It is always revealing how popular culture and the media have heightened our fears and that people often believe in the ‘truth’ put forward by photography.
EJ: In “CC: me” you use facsimile thermal transfer paper and carbon. Are you concerned that some thermal papers are coated with BPA, a chemical considered to be an endocrine disruptor, or does this have meaning in the installation?
"CC: me – Fax" by Elaine Whittaker, 2012, 12” x 24”, thermal transfer fax, carbon, beeswax, pigment (photo by Stu Sakai)
EW: Great question. Thank you for picking-up on that! "Cc: me" was a mixed-media installation of drawing, live bacteria, poetry, and sound. In the work for this exhibit, the body became a site for the infectious nature of language – nuanced, messaged, poetic, copied. I achieved this by creating a series of drawings of abstract human figures that were sketched over and over again using discarded carbon fax typographies that I had saved from the environmental organization where I work. Therein lies the contradiction. Texts of once urgent environmental campaigns were juxtaposed with crass viral commercial messaging, and, as you point out, most likely contained the endocrine disruptor BPA. I was aware of this fact, so with that in mind, I drew the figures as if in the process of degradation, rendering their bodies with shadowy iterations of mutable histories, becoming transformed and infected ecologies. This was further emphasized on some works when I inserted an overlay of live halobacteria on the drawings, thereby ‘infecting’ them even more.
EJ: I like the degraded text aspect and your inclusion of poet's words. Please explain a bit of how this is integrated with the sound artist's work. How is the sound "displayed"?
EW: I asked four local poets: Julie Roorda, Jim Johnstone, Ruth Roach Pierson, and Larry Sulky, and sound artist, Tom Auger, to respond to the artworks and the themes in "Cc: me." The poets’ evocative poems of wit, longing, memory, and life were transformed by me into a new set of fax carbon figure drawings, and Tom’s sound piece filled the gallery with a wonderful ambient electroacoustic composition. He composed it by playing with the motifs of replication, generative degradation, and “infection” while maintaining a static and arrhythmic quality throughout most of its 80-minute duration. It was quite an involved process that included recording and sampling a wide variety of source material, from found concrete recordings to synthesized virtual instruments, to live instruments and voice. The source material was then processed and cloned, and the originals were then abandoned, leaving only the copies, with all the degradation and artifacts of the cloning process. The process was then repeated until the final audio tracks were mostly comprised of echoes and excerpts of the original material. A layer of digital artifacts was then introduced to portions of the piece to further complement the theme of “infection” that was at the core of the "Cc: me" installation. I held several events at the exhibit in conjunction with a festival on art, science and technology (Subtle Technologies Festival). They included playing Tom’s sound piece and the poets’ reading, and performing their works as if in a repeated loop, an evocative multidisciplinary approach.
EJ: In "I Caught it at The Movies," you ask viewers to aesthetically explore their own reactions and prejudices with regard to living in a world shared with microbes. What kind of response have you gotten to this installation and does that response differ from your original intent?
"I Caught it at The Movies" by Elaine Whittaker, 2013, digital prints, halobacteria, petri dishes, pins
EW: Much to my delight, of all my works to date, I think the installation "I Caught it at The Movies" received the most public reaction, and engendered a lot of popular resonance. People identify with the movies, even if those movies have horrific themes such as disease, disasters, and zombies. With this installation, I brought together painted visualizations of ‘real’ microbes and diseases, and digital photo-stills of terrified individuals as found in the disease and pandemic movies of Contagion, 28 Days Later, Outbreak, Resident Evil, Andromeda Strain, Infection, and others. The stills were overlaid with live cultured halobacteria that had crystallized. Without even showing any gruesome details, viewers did exactly as I had hoped. They were compelled to get even closer to the bacteria-laden dishes because they wanted to identify the movies or celebrities I had inserted into the dishes. By having this more intimate experience, they expressed their surprise at finding the color and crystallizations of the bacteria (and its agar) as quite beautiful. This afforded the opportunity for further discussion about the social anxiety and terror of microbes by social media and popular culture. On further reflection, it also forced on the viewer consideration of the unavoidable role of bacteria in our lives, and that we cannot possibly insulate ourselves from this natural ecology. By viewing "I Caught it at The Movies," these Hollywood shock and disease movies are transformed into a radical gesture with quite a different meaning.
"I Caught it at The Movies: Andromeda Strain" by Elaine Whittaker, 2013, 6” x 6”, digital print, halobacteria, petri dish, pins
Elaine Whittaker is a Toronto-based Canadian artist. Her artworks have been shown nationally and internationally, including, among others at: The Science Gallery (Dublin, Ireland), Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art (Winnipeg), Red Head Gallery (Toronto), Ontario Science Centre (Toronto), Yukon Arts Centre Gallery (Whitehorse), McMaster Museum of Art (Hamilton), Kunsthaus Santa Fe (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), and the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (Michigan). She has been an invited participant in residencies, workshops, and festivals on science and art; and her work has been featured in literary, academic, medical, and scientific periodicals; as well as on websites and blogs.
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