I am pleased to let you know that the e-catalogue for my 2018 exhibition at RMIT Gallery is now ready to view online. My Monster: The Human-Animal Hybrid, designed by Karen Scott Book Design, can be accessed here:
My Monster: The Human Animal Hybrid explores our enduring fascination with the merging of the human and animal, and coincides with the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I curated the exhibition at RMIT Gallery from 29 June – 18 August 2018, based on my widely published PhD research. While the research wasn’t intended to end up as a visual exhibition, it became a logical outcome of my visual arts background.
The exhibition playfully and provocatively examined the role the human animal hybrid has played in the human imagination.
What visual artists can do so powerfully is simultaneously take the viewer into the conflicted and internal world of the hybrid, while at the same time giving a face and identity to the hybrid within the physical but imaginary world.
A single artwork can literally replace thousands of words of written text or pages of academic references.
The 35 Australian and international artists represented in the exhibition use the hybrid as a varied and powerful metaphor, exploring our complex relationship with maternity and domesticity; segregation and alienation; fractured relationships with the natural environment and other animals, as well as struggles with our public and private personas.
The exhibition examines the artistic representation of the human animal hybrid from mythology to movies; taxidermy to biotechnology; painting and photography to multi-sensory immersive sound installations.
The exhibition coincides with the 200-year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which gave rise to the portrayal of the mad scientist and outcast hybrid made from human and animal parts.
The desire to merge human and animal into one creature has fascinated artists for 40,000 years, with the hybrid constantly updated and reinvented from century-to-century – from Greek classical myths and European folktales through to fairy tales, stories of werewolves and vampires and popular culture.
Dr Evelyn Tsitas talks to RMIT Communications Specialist Aeden Ratcliffe about the origins of the My Monster exhibition, the 200th anniversary Frankenstein, and society’s fascination with the human animal hybrid – part of RMIT Gallery’s exhibition My Monster: The Human-Animal Hybrid
and Artist Talk Podcast with Kate Clark and Julia deVille
New York-based sculptor Kate Clark’s work synthesizes human faces with the bodies of animals, while Melbourne jeweller and taxidermist Julia deVille work is informed by a fascination with the acceptance of death expressed in Memento Mori jewellery of the 15th to 18th centuries and Victorian Mourning jewellery.
Both artists showcased their work in the RMIT Gallery exhibition My Monster: The Human-Animal Hybrid (29 June – 18 August 2019).
Clark says “The fusion of human and animal that I create presents a fiction suggesting that our human state is fully realized when we acknowledge both our current programming and our natural instincts. I emphasize the characteristics that separate us within the animal kingdom, and, importantly, the ones that unite us.”
She stitches the surreal creatures together like any taxidermist, but has a few quirks that make the art her own: she only works with imperfect, salvaged pelts that would likely be wasted, and patches up their holes—which often occur on their heads—with human faces made of clay.
Similarly, deVille employs taxidermy as a celebration of life and sees it as the preservation of something beautiful, only practising ethical taxidermy.
I was excited to see a fellow doctoral traveller’s thesis photographed on Facebook, leather bound, and with gold lettering. She is now a Dr, and her twinkling gold letters on the leather bound cover were a joy to behold. In contrast, my university ran a mile from having to store a hard copy of my doctoral research, uploading it instead onto a server.
I wasn’t that fussed, actually. While the newly minted Dr. I congratulated on Facebook had her doctorate conferred in London, and that might be the way things are done there, I see my university’s logic in the doctorate unbound. Literally and metaphorically.
Sure, I wanted to see my academic articles in print, of course, but not printed in a bound volume that I had achieved by taking it to the printers. I wanted those words critiqued by peer reviewers apart from my examiners, and accepted for publication in academic journals and/or book chapters.
However, I know of others who have long held the fantasy of getting their doctoral thesis bound, despite the fact that their university simply doesn’t want it. They went ahead and had it printed up anyway, fulfilling the long held dream of seeing their names in gold on the cover.
Of course, whether or not it is a requirement to have a bound volume of the doctorate for ready for submission, candidates are aware that what they hand in surely isn’t the last word on their research.
I think that eschewing the concept (and fetish) of the bound submission if possible reminds us that our doctoral research is the beginning of the journey.
It’s also important to remember that ‘research active’ isn’t just what happens after you land (if ever) an academic job. You should be presenting and publishing your research throughout your candidature – enough so that when you finally submit, your work is already in the public sphere.
Okay – maybe this doesn’t apply to STEM candidates (I’ve heard that their research is akin to state secrets) but sharing your work and progress, exposing your ideas and writing to the cold light of day – and an audience – are all part of doing a doctorate in creative writing.
I had my taste of the printed thesis back in the analogue years, when I was required to present my fourth year undergraduate fine arts mini thesis (10,000 words) this way. I have a copy of it in my unpacked books somewhere. There is no doubt a (very dusty) copy in the university archives. The research (on semiotics and 1980s art magazines) is bound, sealed, delivered. Who looks at it? No one. And it’s not enough to drag it from the shelves yourself, flicking through the pages of that hard grind of study that produced the tome. Research should be set free. It is the springboard to other research, and doesn’t live in between the printed pages of a book expensively printed by an academic printer.
Of course, if your university demands you print the thesis as part of your submission requirements, you must print it. But if all that is required is an electronic version? Well then, I say print that disk or upload to USB and move on.
Granted, handing in a disk to the Graduate Research Office with my ‘final’ version as the rite of passage after being passed by examiners lacked a certain romance. But I can see it saves on storage space, and the work is searchable by the world at large.
It’s actually a tough call to publish as you progress through your doctoral studies. While my aims were to always have the thesis published and presented in stages, showing my research to the world in tentative steps, that required being judged for it all along. I remember my first presentations at conferences; sure, there were some tough questions, but I have to say the academy was welcoming. I made many friends and contacts across the globe in my key research areas when I presented at three Inter-disciplinary.Net conferences at Oxford University through my doctorate. These are wonderful for the emerging academic and demand that everyone fully participate – a big difference to conferences where senior academics adopt an arrogant Fi-Fo (Fly in/Fly out) attitude of presenting their paper, listening to no one, and having a tax-right off holiday.
Coming as I did from the media world and demands of daily journalism, I was amazed by the slow progress of academic publishing. Factor in the endless waiting after a paper is accepted and the endless waiting after submission to see if it might be accepted – the wheels turn at a pace which I’d say was glacial. Except in this era of global warming, glaciers can melt faster than the response time from many academic publications.
When a paper was accepted, it was a major cause for celebration – and rewrites! Each editor or editorial team has a particular style, and some desire more input than others. My exegesis chapters grew up to become real papers, and these have been pushed, pulled, restructured, massaged and cut back. Others have required lengthy additions, a refocus, and some demanded – hardly anything. What I can say is that I responded to all requests for changes, and made them. You can’t afford to be precious with your work, or arrogant.
That’s not to say it was easy! Sometimes the space between submitted paper; accepted paper and editorial request for changes can be lengthy indeed – a year or more. You move on, other work priorities take over, and it’s hard to get back into that headspace again. Not to mention the fact that several of my papers were accepted while I was frantically finishing my doctorate, and others were reworked at the beginning of this year – after I had officially graduated, and also moved house. All my notes – and books – were stacked in boxes in the basement…
That meant putting in all my time after work and on weekends going back to the exegesis. Not an easy task – or welcome one! And it meant that many other things I wanted to do with my creative writing were put on the backburner while I did these papers. It often felt like the equivalent of sticking a hot fork into my eye – utterly painful and pointless. But in the end, I can proudly say that four chapters of my exegesis have now been published, as well as presented at conferences in Australia and overseas. I find this more satisfying than getting the ‘final’ version of my exegesis printed in a leather bound book. Because the chapters have evolved since my doctoral submission.
And there is more to come. The well of four years of doctoral study has not dried up – the exegesis is a research gift that keeps on giving.
As part of my creative writing doctorate, I needed to explore the process of how the research impacted on my creative writing, and the methodology used to tackle the hybrid that is the creative writing doctorate. I’ve submitted an abstract based on this chapter for a conference next year in London. Fingers crossed.
Likewise, my final exegesis chapter on further explorations in my research has become the basis for an abstract I have submitted to another conference mid next year. Once must plan ahead!
I still feel I have several other abstracts lurking and papers arising from my exegesis, because it isn’t ‘finished’ as such, but the foundation of my continual research into issues of hybridity, identity, human-animal relations and monstrosity. My exegesis, like Frankenstein’s creature, is unbound. And that’s why it literally is unbound, as I do not want my research to be boxed in, held between the covers, and regarded as “complete”.
The next step is to develop the research into a book sparked by my ideas, and I am hoping that the fact that the work has been published and approved, as it were, by the academy in one form will give me the authority to present a different version of the work for a wider audience. As my supervisor often reminded me, it’s hard for me to totally remove myself from my past as a tabloid journalist.…always seeking a large audience, always aiming to make complex work accessible and interesting.
And what’s wrong with that?
Indeed, the journey from thesis to book demands doctoral candidates look beyond their academic research, and consider marketing, product placement, competitors, unique point of view, their own author profile and potential audience.
Evelyn Tsitas short story “Xenos”
As this is a blog about the creative writing doctorate, the question you are probably asking as you read this post is the same as my youngest son’s. “When are you publishing the creative component – the novel???!” I am working on it! So far, I have had the middle chapter of my doctoral novel published – in the collected short story book “Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut”. My short story “Xenos” won the the Scarlet Stiletto Award-Dorothy Porter Prize for Innovation in Crime Writing and became the inspiration – and anchoring chapter – for my doctoral creative work.
But just like doing a creative writing PhD, there are two sides to the postdoctoral story as well – the exegesis and the creative. Getting the academic research published requires a different set of skills and part of the brain than writing the novel and getting it published. There will be many blog posts to come on the novel’s journey, don’t worry.
At the moment, while pitching the novel to publishers I am happy with having the exegesis out in the world. Unbound.
Roll Call: My exegesis chapters – and final publications
Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries.
Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.
Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.
It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?
Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.
In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.
A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/ it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!
That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:
This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.
A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.
A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.
So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?
Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.
I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated.
Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.
The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.
The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference. I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere.
My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.
The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.
So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?
A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.
There is a flip side to having a hottie research topic that I hadn’t really considered until now. When you research monsters in SF, it’s such a fascinating subject that everyone wants in.
I am investigating the scientifically created animal-human chimera in science fiction and while that is a mouthful, it is necessary to state my parameters even in casual conversation. Because, believe me, everyone has an opinion on what I am doing, and how I should be doing it.
For a start – is it a chimera, or a hybrid?
I spent this weekend at a writing masterclass and needed to justify my decision to call the “manufactured monster” – the human-animal created by science -– a hybrid, rather than a chimera.
In my creative writing exegesis, I justified the term “hybrid” to describe the creature resulting from the scientific fusion of human and animal, rather than “chimera”. Why?
Chimera refers in popular language to mythical creatures and monsters, and in Greek mythology chimeras were fire-breathing creatures composed of the parts of multiple animals.
In scientific practice, there is no universal definition of a chimera. There are many groups in different countries involved in producing definitions for these new human-animal mixtures in science and the terms are debated (Hinterberger 2011).
So, I opted for the term “hybrid” to rule out any allusion to mythology that may be caused by the word “chimera”.
Hybridity is also a term used in literature and cultural studies and is understood to contest hierarchical binaries of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/nonhuman. (Heffernan, 2003) Also, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), that I am using as methodology, challenges such binaries.
But it got me thinking.
Not the least because the person questioning me was a very experienced author with a formidable track record and extensive background working in the scientific area in just this field.
At lunchtime, over a salad, she told me about what goes on inside an Animal House and the scientific labs, because she’d been in them. She’d helped design them. And she said, “I’m telling you, the correct term is chimera, not hybrid.”
Sigh. I had just written several paragraphs in my exegesis introduction as to why I had chosen to call the creature a hybrid. Not to mention the four years of drafts and hundreds of thousands of words that described my research into the human animal hybrid in SF.
I should be pleased that those I meet are even remotely interested in a research area that has consumed me for nearly five years. I mean, I can (understandably) see people’s eyes glaze over as I speak about my research. But just as it is impossible to read every journal article and every book on a subject, it is also impossible to keep up with everyone’s suggestions.
And by everyone, I mean everyone. This colleague’s point was valid, and had me hit the search and change function on all my files. From now on – it’s chimera, bot hybrid!
But what do you do with all the other comments? From the other school mum in the supermarket checkout, to my hairdresser, the guy who fixes my car, my kid’s friend’s parents – even my kid’s teenage friends – they all want in.
And just like being pregnant, and having to put up with advice from strangers, it becomes harder to hear the closer you are to your due date.
I am now 7 weeks from handing in my PhD. At this teary stage, I am fragile and sleep deprived. I guess I am gestating an exegesis and novel. That’s like – well, carrying twins!
If I was doing what many consider “serious” research – by that I mean something in engineering, science or computing that few have any understanding of let alone the vocabulary to speak about it – then I guarantee I wouldn’t be getting all these well meaning comments and advice. Even from a lot of academics.
However, I work in the humanities, and everyone feels free to wade in with an opinion. Especially as I work in SF and popular culture and you can’t swing a cat without coming into contact with images of the post human. All around us are films, computer games, television series and books that feature the augmented human, human hybrids/chimeras, and enhanced humans. From the most recent version of Total Recall, to covert operatives, chemically enhanced and physically and mentally uplifted in the latest installment of The Bourne Legacy, not to mention the cool and sexy Swedish drama Real Humans, depictions of humans changed by science are all around us.
I suppose over the years I have also become more confident in speaking about my research, and like a woman in love, I can’t stop dropping my beloved’s name every opportunity I get. Human-animal hybrids! Um, Chimeras! Monster Theory! My enthusiasm must be contagious, because it seems that everyone now feels an expert in my area. Some recent comments:
“Surely you mean chimera, not hybrid?”
“Have you watched The Blob?”
“What about Beauty and the Beast?”
“Why Frankenstein? He wasn’t an animal hybrid, was he?”
“Why not mythological creatures?”
“What’s your opinion on The Centipede, anyway?”
“Aren’t you disgusted researching bestiality?”
“Is zoonosis about – zoos?”
“How as a feminist can you include a misogynistic movie like Splice in your exegesis?”
“Why haven’t you considered aliens in your research?”
“What about Cordwainer Smith’s works?”
“I’d steer clear of Lacan if I was you.”
“Have you considered another expert in narratology?”
“I would really be looking at Deleuze and Guattari at this point.”
Of course, I get more and more paranoid that I haven’t considered all the above, and why not? With only 7 weeks to go before I hand in my PhD, how could I have missed any vital areas in my research?
I am not sure what the answer is. Learn to ignore everyone? Say, actually, Frankenstein’s creature was created from parts of the dead and animals? “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials…” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.) My bold.
All I know is there is more pain ahead before I complete.