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Embodying Experience: A Conversation with Artist Gail Wight

May 24, 2011
By Anita Mohan

Embodying Experience: A Conversation with Artist Gail Wight

Tucked away in an almost bucolic spot on the Stanford University campus, conceptual artist Gail Wight’s well-lit studio bears witness to her love affair with art and science. A large bookshelf and reading nook showcases her wide-ranging reading interests — from obscure scientific texts to books explicitly titled “Art and Technology.” On one far wall is a mandala made of tiny photographic representations of bones. In the middle of the room, is an enormous clear sculpture of a microscope. Neither the studio nor Wight harbors a trace of the pretension one finds in some international experimental artists. She interacts with the entire world — its objects, living things, and her own art — as if it were a child’s living laboratory.

Ironically, since Wight’s medium tends to be experimental media, I first became acquainted with her through her playful, more traditional artist’s book, Restless Dust. Deconstructed, the box is separated into two chambers by a clear pane. Two paper birds lie in the back and a traditional, letterpress book sits above the pane. The title of the work is part of a quote by the author of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft: “It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust.”

The book was the direct result of Wight’s residency at the San Francisco Center for the Book — one of the rare places in the Bay Area that celebrates the beauty of a tangible paper book as opposed to its electronic relatives. She had never made a book before — as with the rest of her work, the depth of her curiosity drove her to learn how.

Restless Dust takes as a point of departure an invitation to Darwin: What would you show Darwin if he visited the Bay Area? The idea came to Wight as she was driving around, listening to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — I want to meet Darwin at the bay and walk around with him. Uncertain of what to write, Wight sent an email to 30 artists, scientists or theorists of some kind, who shared an interest in Darwin, asking them, “If you could show Darwin one thing around the Bay Area — what would you show him?”

The resulting book was a conversation between art and science, full of allusions and wordplay that looks at our culture and our endangered environment. At one point, for example, Wight plays with the double meaning of The Red Queen Effect. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen said, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” A biologist coined the term “The Red Queen Effect” from Carroll’s book to describe the need for any species to continue evolving in order to keep control of its space and keep up with the system within which it is striving to survive. The same sort of linguistic and visual whimsy occurs in asking how Darwin would solve the local problem of an invasive species of crabs that flow into the Bay Area and decimate local species. In a poetic turn, she writes that they would be pushed to sea in eucalyptus canoes; eucalyptus is also an invasive non-native species that crowds out native species, even killing local foraging birds with a suffocating tar-like substance.

Several of Wight’s other pieces also re-contextualize beautiful 19th century objects, images and scientific discoveries, thus revealing the way that both beauty and terror — the good and the bad — coexist within science, medicine and technology. She explained, “[i]t’s easy to fall into a romantic notion of science by addressing the 19th century. But I keep coming back to it because I realize how many ideas come back to it. What is medicine? What is illness? Why do we have jails? They all come out of epistemological questions of the 19th century.”

In contrast, the objects of modern-day science can feel “sensationalized and glossy” to Wight, but a number of her pieces make use of the beautiful strangeness of these as well. In an interspecies, interactive piece called Rodentia Chamber Music, mice scurry around in

specially-constructed instruments and set off pre-recorded phrases of sound with chance results. In another collaboration with living things, Wight planted sixty-four discarded CPU (memory) chips in an agar nutrient resulting in flourishing biological residue. Two forms of memory grew together for a number of weeks until they seemed one, illuminated by a series of bug lights and titled Residual Memory.

In Wight’s artistic excavation of science and technology, as well as their effects on our culture, the sacred and the profane exist side by side. A 2009 work called Hydraphilia uses a time-lapse video of the many-headed slim mold Physarum Polycelphalum. “Hydra” refers to an ancient nameless serpent-like water beast that possessed many heads (for each head that was cut off it grew two more) and “philia” refers to a Greek term that incorporated not just friendship, but also loyalties to family and polis — one’s political community, job, or discipline.

Wight’s movement toward art that reflects on scientific, medical and technological themes began with her interest in learning more about a family illness that was prevalent, but never talked about. Her early interest in more traditionally political art changed when she came to believe contemporary biology is one of the most controversial topics out there. She explains, “Our epistemologies largely come out of science, where we’re doing our best as humans to solve problems and fix whatever it is that we’re doing wrong.”

She was studying at the Center for Interrelated Media at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the 1980s doing some painting and a lot of video and performance art. Her professors there encouraged her to integrate the research she was doing on medicine in her personal life into her works of art. Her subsequent oeuvre can be read as a continuous interaction with the worlds of science and technology.

She developed her interest in ‘interactivity’ at MassArt (before it became the trendy, ubiquitous concept it is today). She took a computer class with sculpture students who showed up in steel- toed boots. The students were asked to pull all the motherboards out of six computers before the instructor even began to talk about them. As part of her interactive, computer-based work, Wight dressed up a computer as a tarot card reader. In another interactive piece at the time — which calls to mind a social science experiment — she assembled a group of people, fed them bread and chocolate and talked about the substances inside bread and chocolate as well as what we think about minds. By the end of her talk, she had convinced them that they had just consumed two substances that would powerfully impact their emotional state. From the start, Wight was interested in interactivity as not merely machine-based, “but also as an element where you plant an idea in somebody’s mind when you engage them in an act.”

There are aspects of Wight’s work that are deeply critical of science, medicine and technology — whether it’s the reductionism of cognitive science and psychopharmacology or even the treatment of rats in scientific studies — but she says her experience with scientists and doctors has been amazingly positive. Usually scientists and doctors see the problems of their fields, but can’t comment on them. Many have been generous and more than happy to have her be an “interloper” and “lurker” at their labs or expeditions. Her “lurkings” have included a paleontological dig in an 18 inch-high cave in Mount Shasta, reading aloud to fish, watching surgeries where animals get micro-chipped and documenting the dissection of human beings.

Profundity in Wight’s work arises not only from the formal shape of it (which is incredibly well- crafted), but also, as in other interactive art, the quality of dialogue between her mind’s objects and the chance viewer’s input into those physical forms. This profundity dwells in science, too. If you examine the mandala print in Wight’s studio, you will find that it is made up of bones. They’re reproductions of bones from Stanford professor Elizabeth Hadley’s Lab, which studies the ecology and evolution of vertebrates from both fossil and modern assemblages. Hadley brings back a bucket of stuff from a dig and try to reconstruct a climatic map or environmental map of the area. While we usually think of the scientific process as one of “discovery”, in some ways the attempt to build a meaningful conception of prior times in this type of science is a process of construction (much as art is a process of construction).

Wight created the bone mandala print from the idea that a mandala is a definite structure built to embody the four corners of the world. She notes that the mandala on her wall, started to look “like snowflakes. A molecular diagram that’s utterly ephemeral. It’s an absolutely perfect structure. Then a whiff of breath and it’s never coming back. Models of things that are really unattainable are helpful for me in thinking about what science tries to do — constructing a world that you can never actually touch or embodying a knowledge that you can never actually experience. A lot of times, for me, it’s trying to find an artistic probe or material that will embody an experience that belongs to a scientific process.”