Scitech | Portrait of a lab rat

Concordia talk explores scientific inquiry and rodents as art

Though they seem diametrically opposed, the sciences and the arts have a long and interrelated history. For centuries, artists and scientists have taken each other’s work as inspiration, using ideas and hypotheses and building on them. Leonardo da Vinci exemplified how science and art complement each other and allow for richer exploration, something which continues today.

Concordia is now hosting a series of discussions focusing on bio-artistry, and the second installment, titled “Of mice and transgenic rats in art and scientific research,” further explored the influence of visual aesthetics in scientific study. The lecture featured artist Kathy High and scientific researcher Barbara Woodside, director of Concordia’s Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology.

Through her work with transgenic rats – rodents injected with human genetic material – High aims to work through the artist’s personal hypotheses by mirroring scientific research. Her latest work, “Embracing Animal,” was part of a larger exhibit shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and featured a 10-month installation that created an ersatz laboratory.

The purpose of the installation was to determine if the rats could become healthy when in a new environment, regardless of their genetic predisposition to suffer from rheumatic disorders. The animals were treated with alternative medicines including homeopathy, wholesome food, and an environment specially designed to house the rats comfortably for an extended period of time.

Through this work, High also wished to reevaluate the traditional scientist-lab rat relationship, seeing these animals as research partners rather than a means to an end. Suffering from her own autoimmune disease, she empathized with the rats, stating, “We have injected human materials into them. We have a real kinship with these rats, and still they are the forgotten workers.”

However, the testing of High’s hypothesis was decidedly unscientific. There was no control group used and no comparison of data. All observation was conducted informally, and a telepathic interspecies communicator was even brought in to gauge the rats’ response to the exhibit. Even the termination of the project did not follow standard scientific practice. Whereas lab rats are generally killed, either to perform autopsies or to avoid contamination, the three rats of “Embracing Animal” lived out the remainder of their lives under the care of the museum’s nightwatchman.

The aesthetic of the installation was also a focal point, making High’s work more of a piece of multimedia art than an experiment. Banners commemorating the different varieties of transgenic rats used in laboratories were hung on the walls, and the ashes of the rats from previous exhibits were displayed in illuminated orbs, acting as a fitting memorial for the animals that make our discoveries possible.

The methodology of each discipline also differs. High states that she has a different philosophical approach to her work: “It’s as if I came at it backward, coming from my own experience and then transferring that to the research subject.” Woodside agrees, maintaining that the spontaneity and playfulness encouraged in the arts is not possible when conducting experiments: “The constraints of the scientific approach mean that you have to pre-think every step of the experiment,” and once approval has been granted, even the most minute change may mean months of paperwork.

However, both women agreed that they approach their work with the same intent, trying to understand the animal in order to better work through a theory. Both want the rats to be as healthy as possible and seek to fully appreciate the animals’ needs. “If you’re going to involve any animals in your research,” says Woodside, “you have to understand what the animal’s world is like.” This change in outlook is fully endorsed by her artistic counterpart.

But High is not the only artist borrowing scientific principles. A growing community of bio-artists continues to blur the line separating scientific inquiry and artistic expression, in an effort to enrich both fields. Science and its conclusions can validate the notions put forward by artists and, in turn, art disseminates those same conclusions to a broader audience not usually exposed to scientific findings.

The third and final installment of Concordia’s Art, Science, and Technology speaker series, entitled “Transformation and biodiversity in art and biology,” will take place March 31 at 5 p.m. at the Loyola campus.