Art In Conversation
with Sadie Rebecca Starnes
Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist and Professor of Video and New Media in the Department of Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Her art practice, which is a curious mélange of video, performance, photography, speculative fiction and collaborative experimentation, integrates biotechnology and science. Concerned with technology’s influence on our definitions of gender, the self, and animal sentience, she is known for documentaries such as Death Down Under (2012-2013), which examined the ecology of death, and Animal Attraction (2000) on telepathic communication with animals. High has experimented with transgenics in a number of multimedia, interspecies projects such as Embracing Animal (2004-2006), and she has staged competitions between human white blood cells through her ongoing Blood Wars tournaments. Her recent solo exhibition, Gut Love, held at the University City Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, investigates gut microbiota, the human immune system, and procedures such as Fecal Matter Transplant. Gut Love raises philosophical and ecological questions around post-individualism, contemporary medicine, and abjection through an array of surprising vehicles—from human waste to David Bowie to an iPhone app. A recent artist-in-residence for Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts and at the DePaolo Lab (University of Washington, Seattle), High approaches these topics with the curiosity of an artist, the objectivity of a scientist, and the sincerity of a patient with Crohn’s disease.
GUT LOVE: YOU ARE MY FUTURE
October 12 – November 25, 2017
Rebecca Starnes (Rail): Gut Love investigates the human microbiome through a variety of media and approaches—from the scientific and cultural to fictional and even personal. Where did this dynamic, wildly interdisciplinary project begin?
Kathy High: I am currently researching and producing art works about gut microbiota and the immune system. I have come to this work as an artist who has engaged art and biology for the past fifteen years. Questions I have asked include: How does the medical industry look at disease and immunology? What can we—as patients and civilians—contribute to this knowledge base?
I work in this interdisciplinary area of art and science, sometimes called “bioart,” because I am curious about philosophical questions concerning carbon life—and I want to approach these questions in a hands-on manner, working directly with biological systems. Bioart—narrowly defined—limits itself to that which directly involves the manipulation of biological materials. A broader, deeper interpretation embraces the questions that bioart can raise about the role of science in society and actively integrates social reflection and a critical awareness of artistic and scientific practices as part of its raison d’être.
Beyond these questions I am amazed how much media attention the human microbiome has received of late—and yet how little people really know about it. I started on the Gut Love project out of curiosity – what exactly is a Fecal Matter Transplant (FMT)? What is it used for? How can we rethink our relationship with poop? Why are we ashamed of our bodily functions? Where did this shame come from culturally, historically? These questions and others prompted me to pursue this work and to talk with scientists, work with collaborators and tease out as much as I could. I am very much still in this process. I use my own body as a starting point to all of this work.
Rail: I enjoyed seeing your show in Philadelphia, which was installed not so far from the Duchamp collection and his storied Fountain. There have been countless satirical takes on the subject of human waste in art—from Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961) to Terence Koh’s more recent Gold Plated Poop (2007). Your “ready-mades,” however, like the Bank of Abject Objects—a beautifully arranged installation of feces preserved in honey—take us beyond a punch line. In fact, irony is not their point, right? I was startled by how fascinating it was to closely observe a matter so ubiquitous and natural. Why is it important for humans to move away from the abjection of feces?
High: I love being listed in this excretion art history! The potential of feces for therapeutic application is now becoming recognized, and our understanding of it is changing. Feces is now potential, rather than mere waste. It can be used to treat various diseases such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff), and inflammatory bowel diseases, but there is research suggesting FMTs might also treat inflammatory disorders such as lupus, heart disease, diabetes, and even autism, and the list goes on. Currently FMTs are only legally allowed in this country to treat patients suffering from C. diff, but other trials are underway.
In other arenas, we see value in our waste, creating urban cities’ composting programs using food waste as nutrition for soil. These kinds of transitions, processes, and becomings are all part of understanding life and death. It is a beautiful thing.
But we need to have fecal materials not only available to scientists and medical practitioners as commodities and drugs, but also made accessible to people in an open source kind of way. This is where art comes in and why I created this project of a DIY Bank of Abject Objects with (ceramic) poop preserved in honey for your future. This work is a model for at-home fecal storage. People dream of being immortal. Perhaps preserving a bit of stool when you are healthy will be a way to reset your system should you fall ill in the future. The glass containers were produced by Bill Jones and the ceramic poop by Jillian Hirsch – in the exhibition the credit reads as “Poop – Jillian Hirsch” purposely to allow for the slippage of people believing this is actual feces. The pieces are illusions of the real.
Rail: There is a parallel drawn in your presentation and the video documentary Fecal Matters between a “post-human” perspective and the complex community that is our microbiome. How deeply has Donna Haraway’s feminist cyborg or “compost-ist” theory influenced the work?i
High: Haraway’s writings have been hugely influential in my work for years. Her reference to Oncomouse©^2 as her sibling in Modest-Witness@Second Millennium influenced my project Embracing Animal. And for this work, Fecal Matters, Haraway’s writing about our relationship to cyborgs alongside non-humans and companion species are all compelling rethinkings of “otherness” without falling back on binary oppositions. Such texts as “Cyborg Manifesto” (1984), When Species Meet (2008), The Companion Species Manifesto (2003), and others. As Haraway has discussed, “post-human” is a loaded term and one she has moved away from, considering it “too restrictive.”i The term often points to techno-futures and often does not resituate us in relation to other companion species with whom we are bound. Haraway herself has written: “We have never been human.” And if we rethink this statement slightly and consider Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe’s comment that “we are not just human,” we begin to understand that we have a responsibility to the other microbes living amongst us—as companion species. We co-habit, we co-mingle, we co-create. If we stay with this concept, things can get stinky, wet, and very messy. For me, this understanding raises lots of ethical considerations about how I do or do not take care of myself. To consider that we are only about 50% human cells and the rest bacteria, fungi, and viruses—this shifts our sense of self-identity. Now, we understand that we are literally not “I” but “we”—creating a sense of community which hopefully can even influence social, environmental, and ecological encounters. I am still only just beginning to come to terms with these concepts.
Rail: As a fluid, shape-shifting artist, was David Bowie meant to be an example of this “post-human,” symbiotic microbiome? Could you talk about how and why you shot the “Kathy as Bowie” series in 2015 as well as how you came around to requesting not his autograph, but his poop?
High: A dear friend of mine, performance artist Kira O’Reilly, once asked me if I could have a FMT, whose stool I would ideally use. And without hesitating I responded that I wanted David Bowie’s poop. I was kind of surprised by my own answer, but as I thought about it afterwards, I realized that was the right answer. Bowie had been influential in my own identity creation. And I felt if I could have a little bit of his poop, I would inherit that Bowie specialness through his bacteria and gut microbiome. And, as you noted, Bowie definitely was someone who constantly changed and recreated himself, much like a well-tuned symbiotic system taking note of his cultural surroundings, always pushing boundaries and expanding ways of living.
I sent the photos off, offering them the photos in exchange for a poop sample, but I never heard from Bowie. I didn’t know he was ill. Sadly, it was the last year of his life, and he had many other projects he was working on at the time.
Rail: Speaking of shape-shifting, I’m curious about the creation of Challis Underdue for MIT’s The History of Shit project. In the exhibition, you present the fictional history of a 19th century pioneering female proctologist. The history of shit suddenly shifts to the history of women in science, illustrated in a persuasive display of photographs, scholarship and beautifully rendered glass colons. Guy Schaffer’s extensive research on “The Forgotten Scatomancer” is incredibly detailed, to the point of quoting from her diary. What inspired the creation of Challis Underdue? Was the aim closer to another Bowie parallel (in a creation of alter-egos), an exercise of feminist science fiction, or both? How did the Science Center feel about presenting such convincing documentation of a fictional figure?
High: Collaborator, Science Technology Studies scholar Guy Schaffer and I have been talking about publishing a “history of shit” perhaps picking up somewhat from where Dominique Laporte left off with his book of the same title.ii When I was thinking about the Gut Love exhibition, I mentioned to Guy that we might start the process of creating our book by making a series of exhibitions to inspire us. Then we were lucky enough to receive a Wood Institute Travel Grant from the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to conduct research in their amazing Historical Medical Library and the Mütter’s object archives.
Once we had completed our Mütter Museum research, we were confused about the direction we should take. We had researched so much great material form the 18th and 19th centuries, but how to present it? Then I came up with the idea of writing a fictional historical character to embody the research and create a story. Another collaborator, artist Oliver Kellhammer,iii prompted me by asking about this character’s gender — and while at first I thought the character should be male as they were dominant to that medical history, suddenly (thanks to Oliver!) it became clear that having a female character was an opportunity to rewrite that history! Also I was excited about inserting myself as a 19th century alter-ego — creating a character so intrigued by poop that she defied the research trends of her day (germ theory) and stuck to her belief in the miracle of feces, an idea that was out of favor during her later years. So the story is, as you noted, a feminist rewriting of history. Guy, as an educator of the history of medicine in the Science Technology Studies department of RPI, was very interested in historical fiction as it is a means to embody and bring the past to life. (He liked this exercise so much, that he has now given his students a historical fiction assignment.)
I had not even thought about the parallels of the Challis Underdue alter-ego I was playing to the David Bowie character until later. All of these alter-egos—and literal embodiments—do help me understand both myself and the characters better. Challis’ wig changed my look so dramatically that I felt of another era and age. The name Challis came from my maternal grandmother’s first name Challis (ironically she was a Christian Scientist practitioner), and Underdue was a name I saw written on a hotel billboard for a family reunion “We welcome the Underdues!”—and the name seemed so funny and perfect that I co-opted it.
Regarding the perception of the fiction/fact aspect of the work: Guy and I agreed that we wanted the exhibition and story to appear plausible. This suspension of disbelief and possibility for such a person to exist — such as Challis Underdue — was important to us. In an art context, I think this is okay. Besides, this is a queer history, and I mean queer in the fullest sense of the word. We decided to bring it all front and center and excite the public imaginary.
Rail: In a performance during the exhibition, petri dishes full of bacteria are smeared on your stomach—a treatment meant to relieve your Crohn’s disease. Could you explain dermal transplant, and have you felt any improvement in your condition since?
High: This performance was the first time I have attempted to work with the dermal transfer, and so I have not had a chance to really test the results. I did feel kind of high after the performance so there was a buzz effect produced. But I didn’t really do it long enough to make much effect. Having the warm agar and bacteria on my belly was delicious though, and smelled great too. Someone said it smelled like baking.
Because of the questions about whether probiotics are really effective, and questions about the risks of FMTs, I wondered if a dermal transfer of specific bacteria (that I am actually lacking) would allow my system to absorb those specific bacteria to replenish the gut microbiome. It is just my own theory. The dermal transfer(s) probably will not relieve my Crohn’s disease, but it might aid my gut bacteria and that may help my symptoms and build up a more well-rounded gut microbiome. Because of long-term antibiotic treatments that were prescribed because of my Crohns, my gut microbiome is lacking diversity and particular kinds of microbes. There is a project in Gut Love called Landscape of Lost Microbes. This work consists of a series of petri dishes, with my gut bacteria next to Dr. Will DePaolo’s bacteria. Will generously invited me to join his lab in 2016 and we have an ongoing collaboration. Will is the Director of CMiST, The Center for Microbiome Sciences and Therapeutics at the School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle. Our first experiments were to plate our stool samples next to each other to compare, Will as the “healthy” subject, and me as the “sick” one. One of our first discoveries was that my side of the petri dish repeatedly came up blank, missing microbes—whereas Will’s side was flourishing.
To really test the bacterial dermal transfer idea, I need to conduct lab research to test this further. Ideally, I will isolate various bacteria from other people’s gut microbiome that I will subculture and then regrow for my use for this dermal transfer.
Rail: Just after visiting Gut Love, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to see Thomas Eakins’s famous painting from 1875, The Gross Clinic. I was immediately brought back to the scene in Fecal Matters in which a doctor performs a Fecal Matter Transplant for a woman suffering from C. diff. The positioning of the patient is not only the same, but both doctors are demonstrating their fascinating procedures to a curious, though partly “Grossed” out audience. As the 21st century microbiome continues to be analyzed, classified, and even commodified, what are your hopes and concerns about procedures such as FMT?
High: Along with the scientists and researchers we interviewed in Fecal Matters, I am a bit suspicious of FMTs—but also really excited about the possible futures. Collaborator Guy Schaffer and I also worry about feces becoming a commodity and its entrance into the capitalist arena as a product to be bought and sold. This is why we also created the video about a new app, OkPoopid, where participants can line up speed dates with potential fecal donors for DIY at-home FMTs. Making feces as a therapy available to a general public and part of the gift economy.
Rail: In your past and current work, you seem quite interested in the “weird,” a term that colors the space between our learned individualism and the reality of our interconnectedness—our true intimacy with the strange, the abject, the other. The closer we look at ourselves, the weirder and more amorphous we become, like Haraway’s symbiotic lichens. In America we are raised against weirdness—chock full of antibiotics and hyper-sanitized against every germ, good and bad. We are taught to pride our individualism, not our liminality. In this precarious age, I wonder if you believe the weird can save us from self-destruction?
High: These alternative interests of mine have been a problem since I was very little. My mother always teased me saying that my first word was “no” and my interest in things fell outside the “norm.” My parents were wonderful people, but very conservative, and they had hoped I would be like them. Ah well…
Perhaps the weird will save us from self-destruction. But we are probably doomed for self-destruction no matter what. That which is weird can provide us with alternative approaches, ways of seeing new combinations, novel relationships, and alliances. This is what will save us if anything can—maybe not from self-destruction—but from doing harm to each other, giving us new strengths and options.
There are so many amazing philosophers, theorists, artists, and environmental humanities scholars who are considering how to break out of our old Cartesian tenants, critiquing biopolitical and bioeconomic realities, questioning the ethics of de-extinction and beyond. Our understanding of the agency of non-human creatures, be they animals, plants, bacteria, fungi, whole organisms, or cells, needs to be stretched and nurtured. Rats laugh, bacteria can be happy. We need to consider our connections in so many ways.
- Haraway does not use the word “posthumanist.” In her most recent book, she describes herself as a compostist not a posthumanist: “We are humus, not Homo, not anthropos; we are compost, not posthuman.” And, “Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist.” See Donna J. Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University, 2016), 55; 97.
- History of Shit, (1978) by Dominique Laporte (Cambridge: MIT Press, reprint, 2002).
- Oliver Kellhammer and Kathy High co-created the glass colons together working with glass-blower Bill Jones.