Today, I belatedly visited the ‘Foreign Bodies – Common Ground’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. The exhibition presents the work of the ‘Art in Global Health’ scheme, during which six artists undertook residencies at scientific research centres around the world: Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, the UK and Vietnam. Despite their different local contexts and artistic approaches, the artists shared a common concern with the tensions between ‘experts and ‘lay public’. The (giant!) exhibition booklet emphasised the ‘exclusionary hierarchies and impenetrable languages’ produced by specialisation – whether it is disciplinary boundaries (where even experts cannot understand one another across fields) or the ‘ivory tower’ image of research. While this theme is not new, the exhibition recognises correctly that the problem persists and continues to call for new approaches that address local contexts.
Behind the scenes of Pata Picha.
One of the memorable images from a film in the exhibition showed a stark contrast between a high tech research centre that was located right across from a field of improvised shacks where poor, local people lived. Such contrasts prompted the question of possible interactions (or obligations, as scientist Michael Parker put it) between locals and researchers, which the some of the artists took as starting points. In many ways, the artworks, and especially the processes that lead to them, sought to operate as bridges. In the exhibition, this bridging between discourses was frequently symbolised through resituated ‘boundary objects’: labcoats that contained elements of Kenyan dress (see photo above), laboratories that are crossed with living rooms, surgical gloves that float in the air like fragile jellyfish. Other means of translation included physical theatre, as in the work of the B-Floor Theatre from Bangkok, participatory photography, as in the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, or housing decoration, music and language inventions, as in the work of Elson Kambalu. As the exbibition commentary emphasised, translation is often not only needed between researchers and the local lay people, but amongst researchers and locals themselves: both locals and researchers were made up of different ethnic groups, speaking up to 24 languages amongst themselves.
In addition, some of the artworks dealt with the scepticism with which the so-called ‘non-experts’ encounter scientific intervention. Examples included Lêna Bùi’s ‘feather sorters’ in a Vietnamese village who only reluctantly participated in the artwork after their negative experiences (enforced change of practices, relocation of industry, job loss) with avian flu management. Despite their geographic removedness, the experiences of the feather sorters are likely to resonate with farmers who were negatively affected by food and mouth disease or BSE management strategies. Common ground, indeed!
Double still from Lêna Bùi’s ‘Where birds dance their last‘. Source: Wellcome Collection.
A further theme that ran through the exhibition was proliferation, expressed through the ‘spreading’ of ideas and viruses. Scientists interviewed in the films (show on small screens dotted around the exhibition) frequently mentioned that they feel that they are agents in a ‘messy battlefield’: they get a sense of the organisms’ desire to live while they are trying to find ways of protecting their own species against it. Further, they emphasised the need to explore things at a societal as well as a ‘micro level’, as microbiologist Peter Piot suggested. Indeed, the ‘modern demands’ could be described as one of those societal pressures that change a myriad of practices – and intimacies. Some of the installations focused on such changing relations, as well as the possible two-way direction of this transformation: what consumption and production practices promote less disease (modern? traditional? is the mixture the problem?)? What is modern medicine teaching to ‘developing’ countries? What is it learning from its previous interactions with these countries to improve its ethics or communication? What kind of assumptions does ‘modern medicine’ hold about ‘traditional medicine’ and its different kinds of intimacy? There is one poignant example in the booklet where a researcher looks the drawing of a rhino in a medicine-related painting and wonders whether it signifies some superstitious believe in the medicinal properties of rhino horn. It turns out that the painter of the rhino added it to make the scenery ‘less boring’, thus making the researcher question her own expectations.
What struck me during the exhibition was the installations’ ambition to function as a two-way engagement: the pieces had to work in the local as well as the Wellcome context. I thought about how some of the most engaging artworks in a local context might not necessarily make an equally engaging exhibition object (one could argue, of course, that art does not have to ‘work’ in the same way in different spaces – see e.g. the ‘relational aesthetics’ debate – but that requires another blog post!). For instance, the comparatively static representations of sculptures, photographs and theatre-on-film communicate their ideas, but perhaps do not involve exhibition visitors to the same degree as the people who were involved in their production. This was partly ‘remedied’ by the presence of Wellcome staff who involved visitors in discussions (or vice versa). During my visit, for instance, a lively discussion evolved around Katie Paterson’s ‘Fossil Necklace’, a necklace made of chronologically arranged fossil beads that emerged from her work in a Cambridge DNA lab. Like me, other visitors were struck by the way the magnifying glasses, that were distributed at the entrance to the room in which the necklace was exhibited, made the fossil beads look like planets: each geologic period appearing as literally another world.
Detail from Katie Paterson’s ‘Fossil Necklace’. Source: Wellcome Collection.
Generally, the layout of the exhibition seemed to promote visitor interaction, as I witnessed (and participated in) more discussions – around the ‘feather village’ work tasks, the different visitors’ explorations of the Pata Picha photography set, or the history of experimentation on colonial subjects that is still on many people’s minds today (here, some books on colonialism and medicine could have been added to the library and reading list that accompanied the exhibition). The ‘Pata Picha’ set even made me venture down to the Wellcome shop to try to borrow one of the giant fluffy microbes I had seen earlier: I desperately wanted to take a picture of me in the ‘humanised’ lab coat examining a ‘humanised’ virus with the stethoscope to carry on the artists’ mission (they might disagree with me here!). Sadly (or for the better?), I wasn’t allowed to temporarily abduct one, so no further boundary object (foreign body?) was introduced…
In case you want to visit – and experiment – in the exhibition yourself, ‘Foreign Bodies – Common Ground’ has been extended until 16 March 2014 (thanks Russell Dornan for the info!) at the Wellcome Collection in London (opposite Euston Station). Free entry!