Raw Material: A Conversation Led by Curator Angela McQuillan with Artists Laura Splan and Gail Wight



Gail: To the first part of your question, the invitation came from Amy and Talia, who were both students of mine at different schools (Stanford and Mills respectively). Amy was introduced to Laura through Talia, I believe, fairly recently, and they hatched this idea for an exhibit. This may sound like the Old Girls network, but as I’ve known them all for well over a decade now and this is the first this has come up, it’s apparently not a very nefarious network. It’s a natural fit, in my estimation, although this is the first Laura and I have ever exhibited together.

Laura’s work is always inspiring to me. When we first met in 2000, Laura’s work was more closely tied to my own practice. We were both interested in human anatomy and medicine. Although our work is very different from each other, it was inspiring to have such deeply informed and informative conversations with a graduate student. I made it a point to stay in touch with Laura after she graduated – it’s rare to find another artist with such tangentially similar interests, and tangential in a way that’s expansive and inspiring. My own interests have veered off into other non-human areas of biology, but I miss that immersion into human biological concerns, so it’s been great to watch Laura’s work evolve and push into such fascinating territories. Blood wallpaper, tear duct hankies, EMG tapestries! Over the years, I’ve found ways to stay engaged with her work (other than just lurking around her website): I requested images of her work to illustrate a piece I once wrote for a Sherry Turkle book (Evocative Objects); invited her to be an artist in residence at Stanford; and invited her to both guest lecture and teach classes. I’ve recommended her to lots of curators, as well. I think it’s wonderful work. When Amy contacted me, I thought: Wow!! Finally. How did this take so long to happen? One of the great things about teaching is meeting such wonderful artists that become life-long friends and extraordinary colleagues.

Laura: I was thrilled when Talia and Amy proposed the pairing with Gail. There are so many affinities in our work conceptually and formally. And the projects they selected for the Raw Materials exhibition really illuminate that.

Gail was a mentor of mine at Mills College. I attended graduate school there primarily to study with her and further develop work and research I was doing relating to the intersections of art, science and technology. Her lectures and our meetings together gave me a deeper understanding of the cultural, social and political influences on the history of these disciplines. She introduced me to so many important ideas, tools, and skills that have become pillars of my own research and studio practice. Her own projects exploring genetics, evolution, and computing were inspiring not only in the way she interrogates the complexities of their cultural histories but also their sublime absurdities. Her Recursive Mutations series in which “chromosomes of the mouse genome were downloaded from the Internet, printed on rice paper, and then given to mice to reconfigure” is the perfect example of this! But this project is also a great example of our shared interest in the narrative implications of material and its particular treatment in an artwork. Genomes printed on rice paper as mouse food or EMG waveforms as sculptural form are both good examples of how we enjoy this constant reimagining, reconfiguring, and repurposing of materials. And data is certainly considered raw materialin this work and is an idea Gail introduced me to at Mills.

Angela: I think that a very interesting dialogue was created between both of your work in this exhibition. I loved the way that each of you represented raw data as tangible objects, with strikingly different approaches. Laura’s work alludes to the idea of perfection through the use of computer generated bilateral symmetry in both Manifest and autologousReflection, while Gail’s Recursive Mutations rely on the discretion of live mice to rework each image. The juxtaposition of perfection vs. imperfection becomes apparent; framed within the context of genetics. Laura references Francis Galton’s theories on eugenics written in 1883, and the idea of genetically-engineered perfection is more of a reality now than ever before. The implications of this technology create all kinds of ethical dilemmas and personal anxieties. Can both of you speak about your attraction to genetics in your artistic practice? What are your thoughts on reducing a living, breathing entity to a series of data sequences?

Gail: Well, you’ve hit on a paradox. The “data” is simply there, fully integrated into all living, breathing entities, so it’s not really a reduction. However, as soon as people begin to comprehend the nature of this data and its significance, conceptual reduction happens. It’s a hard thing to not do! Scientists don’t know everything about genetic determinism, the lay public even less so (that would be me). But as a lay person, it’s easy for me to over estimate the importance of genes. Media Blitz encourages me to do so, as does an innate penchant to simplify a complicated world.

Before any of us have the full picture of genes and a full understanding of their interactions with each other and the environment, scientific commerce is plowing ahead with creating new genetic hybrids and introducing them into unregulated environments (our one and only living space). It’s a crap shoot, even if those who would like us to believe otherwise are good at disseminating platitudes. We don’t even know (or agree upon) what “perfection” is, so how could we be engineering it? On the other hand, the possibility of eliminating devastating illnesses is such a worthy cause, so important.

So these are the big biological issues of the times we live in. Yes, of course we want to eliminate Tay-Sachs disease, and we should, as a society, support this research whole heartedly. Very similar research, however, makes Monsanto’s seed privatization possible. The two shouldn’t be confused, nor do we have to support both. We need a more nuanced understanding of gene manipulation, and a more informed process for both controlling and supporting genetic research. There are plenty of examples that should give us pause. Recursive Mutations is a humorous poke at both sides of the coin: giving agency to those who will be (perhaps drastically) impacted by this research, and an irreverent look at the chaos that could ensue.

Laura: I love your point Gail that the “’data’ is simply there”. I might add that the data is mutable. In the Manifest series, I was interested to see what possibilities might emerge by capturing that data. Recording the changing levels of electricity in muscles while smiling or squinting repeatedly resulted in a different set of EMG readings each time. No two smiles are alike! Another “crap shoot” scenario. And to Gail’s point, I thought of this process more in terms of translation than as reduction. The facial movement was an expression of an emotion, the numerical data was a translation of the facial expression, and the sculptures were a way of visualizing the data in a new form. And if thinking about data as “material”, my process was one of rematerializing these facial expressions and emotions associated with them within a context that is outside of the technoscientific representation of the corporeal.

This translation through material, form, and data, evokes a desire to correlate some meaningful ideas and relatable constructs or as Gail puts it “to simplify a complicated world”. Besides developing the social philosophy of eugenics, Francis Galton also developed the concept of correlation, which he used in his research on heredity. Galton prefaced his 1883 Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development with the idea that, “… a straightforward step-by-step inquiry did not seem to be the most suitable course. I thought it safer to proceed like the surveyor of a new country, and endeavour to fix in the first instance as truly as I could the position of several cardinal points.”

If anything with the projects exhibited in “Raw Material”, I’m interested in how rematerializing this data can be a way to complicate what is seemingly simple—to play with and disrupt the fixed positions of historically mapped “cardinal points”. I think Gail and I share an interest in illuminating how objects and process can embody the biopolitical agendas they exist within. “autologousReflection” alludes to multitudinous layers of control and intention behind a façade. The viewer is first compelled to see themselves in the video reflection of their own image. Then there is a curiosity to play with the bilateral processing of their image as it alternates between monstrous and abstract. But upon closer inspection of the conspicuous technology, there are layers of visible and hidden code driving the video projection as well as a continually scrolling excerpt from Galton’s 1883 text. The layers are reminders of not only the immediate machinations behind what we see, but also the historical influences that have constructed them.

Angela: These are really excellent insights. I suppose we all have a desire to reduce things conceptually in order to better understand them, and translating information into new forms and materials allows us to do this. I love the idea of “rematerializing this data in order to complicate what is seemingly simple”…on the surface this seems counterproductive, but it makes sense that humans need to break old (or misinformed) modes of thinking in order to form a deeper understanding. This leads me to my next question. What are your thoughts are about the role the artist plays in relation to the advancement of science and technology, and does it differ from the role of a scientist?

Laura: In general, artists are free from the pressures to produce technological solutions, make scientific discoveries, or find medical cures that are institutionally imposed on their respective disciplines. That gives artists more freedom to learn heuristically, experiment promiscuously, and fail spectacularly! But that’s not to say that artists aren’t outshining the scientists and technologists at their own game. There are so many artists that have done such innovative work that is having profound effects on disciplines not conventionally viewed as the domain of artists. The evolution of Phil Ross’s work from his early mycelium sculptures to his contributions to “mycotecture” is one example. In his words he is “an artist, inventor, and scholar whose… research is focused on biomaterial design and life support technologies.” I indeed remember when visiting his studio many years ago how elaborate the “life support” systems for his fine art fungal sculptures housed in custom vitrines were! And now his studio research has evolved, according to MycoWorks (, into a startup “working to solve today’s greatest challenges with products made from mycelium”.

But all that said, I believe artists play a role in contributing to the advancement of science and technology in so many other ways that have more to do with cultural criticism, knowledge production and creative thinking. I will be participating in a few technology-based research artist residencies this fall that I believe are inspired by that understanding. Our contribution is not only our ability to experiment with wild abandon, but also to “complicate” the meaning of our successes and failures and the cultural and institutional systems that define them as such.

Gail: Laura has made so many great points. I would only add two thoughts. The first is that these titles of “artist” and “scientist” are so broad and cover so many radically different types of practices. Within that, I think there’s a lot of flux. I think many people whose day job or audience situates them in one of those worlds more so than the other, may not self-perceive with the same sort of rigidity. That also allows for greater freedom: the heuristics and experimentation that Laura mentions, but also the freedom from the expectations of either of these vast disciplines.

My second thought applies mainly to practicing here, in the US. Art is definitely a second sister in US culture at best. Funds are scarce, and have become significantly more so during my life as an artist. What I perceive is that more and more often, artists are asked to justify what they’re doing in terms that are more acceptable and understandable within our culture of capital, commerce, and service. Although I love engaging with topics in biology for all of the intellectual playfulness that it brings into my thinking, I do resent that this entanglement is often seen as a justification for the art itself. I’d just like to shamelessly take this opportunity to champion art for art’s sake. It may not invent or discover or cure or even make a new commodity, but it might simply be there for us to contemplate, something art does particularly well.

Angela: You mentioned that both of you have an interest in “illuminating how objects and processes can embody the biopolitical agendas they exist within”. Can you elaborate on this a bit more?

Laura: I often find myself inspired by objects and materials and the manner in which they embody their own complex histories. The length of a stethoscope circumscribes the appropriate distance between doctor and patient. Blood exists simultaneously as biomedical commodity and spiritual symbol. My piece autologousReflection’s reference to Galton’s agenda to “…proceed like the surveyor of a new country…” reveals as much about his scientific “inquiries into human faculty” as to the British colonial occupations and explorations of “new countries” in the Victorian era. Galton’s poetic rumination on his method reveals the political underpinnings of his scientific research that laid the foundation for eugenics and its horrific legacy. It is these cultural, political, technological and scientific intersections that I continue to be so interested in.

Gail: These are such great examples! I’m just a tools and materials junkie. Every tool in our lives, from forks, knives, and chopsticks to levels and calipers and electromagnets have a fantastically rich history. That also goes for silk, ferrofluids, and transdermal patches. When I began to learn about the history of biology, I was both amazed and horrified by the examples of “tools”. Foremost, animals have become both tools and materials of science. Biologists disagree about the ethics of this; the arguments are profound, and teach us something essential about ourselves and about our frail place in the panoply of the animal kingdom. We’re learning to wean ourselves from the cruelty imbedded in these practices, but these things are slow to change. The piece included in Raw Materials is about exactly this: the mouse as tool, and the recursive nature of genetic manipulation. It’s a humorous acknowledgement of the confounding inanities often obfuscating our deep desire to understand life, such as it is, by allowing the “tool” to run the show, to be that which it is.

Angela McQuillan is a mixed-media Artist and Curator based in Philadelphia. Angela has ten years of experience working as a scientist in various roles including academic research and pharmaceuticals. She has been exhibiting her artwork and curating exhibitions in Philadelphia and beyond for the past 6 years. Angela is a former member of the Little Berlin artist collective and currently works as the Curator of the Esther Klein Gallery at The Science Center in University City.

Laura Splan is an artist and lecturer whose work explores intersections of art, science, technology and craft. Her conceptually based projects examine the material manifestations of our cultural ambivalence towards the human body with a range of traditional and new media techniques. Splan’s work has been included in exhibitions at Museum of Art & Design (New York, NY), New York Hall of Science (New York, NY), Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, OR) and Beall Center for Art + Technology (Irvine, CA). Reviews and articles including her work have appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, American Craft, and Discover Magazine. She received a Jerome Foundation Grant for artist research at venues including the Wellcome Museum (London, UK) and La Specola (Florence, IT). She has been a visiting lecturer teaching courses on intersections of Art, Science, and Technology at Stanford University, Mills College, and Illinois State University.

Gail Wight is an Associate Professor in Stanford University’s Department of Art & Art History, where she teaches Experimental Media. Her work is represented by Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco. Her exhibition record includes nearly two dozen solo exhibits throughout North America and Great Britain, and her work has been collected by numerous institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Yale University, and Centro Andaluz de Art Contemporaneo, Spain. Among her many artist residencies are western Australia’s Symbiotica, Art & Archaeology at Stonehenge, the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. She is particularly intrigued by the unfolding science of biology and the quixotic course of evolution, which is often the subject for her art. Wight is currently at work on a book of photographs, accompanied by a discussion with writer Lawrence Weschler, in which flies become flowers.