Beyond the PhD, Frankenstein, Knowledge transfer

Knowledge transfer: turning my PhD research into an art exhibition

I haven’t blogged for some time, and that’s because I have been busy on what universities love to call KT – knowledge transfer. I have turned my PhD research into an art exhibition.

From my PhD creative project and exegesis – about 100,000 words all up – comes the first exhibition I have curated – My Monster: The human-animal hybrid  – at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne.  It opens on Thursday 28 June 6-8 pm, and runs to 18 August.

For those who know me as a writer, this evolution of my work into curating is actually not unexpected (my first degree was in visual art – and I have worked at RMIT Gallery for 8 years) – but it’s not the outcome I anticipated from my doctorate in Creative Media.

I thought the outcome would be a book, but what came first is an exhibition is based on my PhD research and taking this into a gallery is a form of knowledge transfer.

It has taken four years since graduating to get to this stage. Why so long? Well, it takes time to pitch new ideas from your research, to submit chapters to publications and conferences, and get knocked back, and resubmit. To pitch manuscript proposals and get rejected, to then pitch exhibition proposals, and have some people think the work is too confronting…it’s a long, tough road and you have to be prepared to love your ideas, research, and stay true to your concept, and think long haul.

Even after you get your doctorate, it takes time and perseverance and faith to keep going, and writing, and researching, just to get any traction for your work. And this is on top of your day job.

I had lots of ideas, images, artists and installations in mind over those four years as a sort of daydream ‘other idea’ about my research. Odd when I spend all my spare time in art galleries, and when I spend all the working week in a gallery…but I was so fixated on the words I thought the images were the optional extra, not the main game.

Then, when I was given the green light to go ahead with the exhibition at the start of this year, I had only six months to jump into action.

It was a tough gig but let me tell you, when someone actually does believe in your work [RMIT Gallery Acting Director Helen Rayment] and champions your research and the opportunity arises to do something with your research, you do whatever it takes to get the job done.

And the timing in the end was perfect – the opportunity arose in 2018 – in the 200th year of the anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Shelley’s seminal monster novel explores life and death and reanimating flesh. It is also the story of a hybrid outcast, for Frankenstein’s creature was made as a new species, from a combination of both human and animal parts.

Mythology and fiction have long entertained the fantasy of the animal and human fused into one being, and the metaphorical hybrid is embedded in mythology and folklore. The hybrids that appear in art can be whimsical, alluring, and confrontational. While hybrids shock and jolt with their appearance, they also offer an unsettling recognition of the disquieting unease we all feel about our place in the world.

Jazmina Cininas, Blood Sisters, 2016, linocut reduction, 69.5 x 56 cm. Image courtesy of the artist. Artwork features in My Monster: the human animal hybrid

Hybrids are the ultimate metaphor for the outsider. Their very existence is a political act, an affront. Like monsters of old, they are harbingers of a future we may not like, but are intent on creating through each twist and tweak of our species through biotechnology.

Welcome to the journey of My Monster: the human animal hybrid. It’s my PhD research finally seeing the light of day beyond the academic journals and conferences where it has had its publication and airing in front of the academic cohort.

But there is nothing dry and academic about this show, which is delves deeply into animal studies, women’s studies, mothering futures, feminism, critiques on biotechnology and explorations into immersive sound art as well as taxidermy, printmaking, painting, ceramics, sculpture, cinema, and more!

I have gathered together the following amazing artists Rose Agnew, Jane Alexander, Janet Beckhouse, Peter Booth, Jazmina Cininas, Kate Clark, Catherine Clover, Beth Croce, Julia deVille, Heri Dono, Peter Ellis, Moira Finucane, Rona Green, Ai Hasegawa, Rayner Hoff, Sam Jinks, Deborah Kelly, Bharti  Kher,  Deborah Klein, Oleg Kulik, Sam Leach, Norman Lindsay, Sidney Nolan,  Eko Nugroho, Patricia Piccinini, Kira O’Reilly & Jennifer Willet, Lisa Roet, Geoffrey Ricardo, Mithu Sen, Maja Smrekar, Ronnie van Hout, and (((20hz))).

Rona Green, Dusty Rhodes, 2011,
Rona Green, Dusty Rhodes, 2011, hand coloured linocut, 76 x 56 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Australian Galleries. Art work features in My Monster: The human animal hybrid.

It’s been an incredible journey to translate my research into a visual form. Suddenly, footnotes can come alive as painting, quotes become immersive installations, and references to critical movies become – movies! Now that the exhibition nears completion, seems like it was meant to be all along.

But it’s also been a steep learning curve of taking academic research from the page into an art gallery…and all that curating a major exhibition entails.

Such as – commissioning new work, liaising with overseas artists via email, talking to local artists, juggling space, budget, freight and even wall colors and plinth sizes.

Not to mention writing the catalogue, making a film for the exhibition itself, writing the wall text (condensing 70,000 words of exegesis into 5 x 300 word wall panels…) AND…doing all the media and comms (which is my day job at the gallery). It’s been many late night and long weekends getting the exhibition together – as painfully familiar as doing the PhD and working full time, in fact (what a friend’s husband dubbed ‘the kamikaze method’).

But then, no one says knowledge transfer is a ‘zero cost’ activity; it takes effort and time to make it work.  The main difference is that from the start, I have had to think of a wide audience, and broadly extend my research. All those things your PhD supervisor says ‘now is not the time to be going down that path’ – well, with an exhibition, it is exactly the right time. Time to look at the societal impact of research, to ask the really important questions –

‘so what’, and ‘why now?’

In fact, as they are so concerned with – and deeply enmeshed with – their research, I don’t think many academics or curators actually stop and ask these two important questions;  ‘why should anyone care?’ and ‘why is this show important now?’

I was determined to have my answers ready!

Why should anyone care about human-animal hybrids? After all, we are talking about fictional characters from mythology and science fiction; and from folklore to vampires and werewolves; and from films like The Shape of WaterSplice and The Fly and…hang on, aren’t scientists creating pig-human embryos and human-sheep embryos….?

Right, then! Human-animal hybrids are big news because they have always been within the human imagination and creative expression…AND because we are live in an age of biotechnology where the almost human is right around the corner. How do we feel about this as a society? How do we cope ethically with the possible creation of people made from animal DNA or material?

Doesn’t this sound a lot like…Frankenstein? So – there we go – why the human animal hybrid matters, why we should care, and why now, in the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Frankenstein.

 

 

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academic courage, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Publishing academic research, the creative life, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I admit I am hard to shock. As a journalist and a writer and academic, as someone who has spent my entire career working in the creative arts, that’s a given, really. It doesn’t work being a prude when studying art history. Or working in an art gallery. or writing speculative fiction.

Being a practitioner in the creative arts – whatever your medium – means being exposed to ideas and concepts that you may not agree with, but will push your boundaries. That’s why a lot of people fear the arts. That’s why on one hand they are derided as a ‘soft option’ and on the other hand, they are condemned for leading to the breakdown of civilization.

People are confronted by what they see in art galleries, museums, on the stage and on film and certainly between the pages of books, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps even more so than a screen grab on the Internet, where everything goes anyway. The authority held by the printed word still sways, and there is always the sort of person for whom breaking the spine of a ‘salacious’ book and opening the pages of a ‘naughty’ novel is akin to watching someone open their legs. Reading what they consider transgressive material is an act, for them, of promiscuity.

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

So, if to indulge in transgressive creative arts as a spectator can change you – for the worse – according to those who hold such values, what does it mean to make art that challenges? Do you become tainted by association? What sort of person, in fact, writes certain things in certain ways?

In short, if my fiction includes sexuality – am I what I write? Do people assume that I live the life of my protagonist? While agonising about this with my writing friends, I have had one reaction only. Amazement. Complete amazement that I could be worried about this, that I could consider it an issue.

“Do people assume because I write about killers, that I am a murderer?” asked one woman. By day she is a primary school teacher, married, and a grandmother. After hours she writes very successful True Crime.

We are not what we write. But are we our imagination?

The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas
The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas

More than one writing friend snorted and added “it’s called fiction for a reason, you are called a creative writer for a reason – no one in their ‘right’ mind would think a ‘writer’ is what they write.”

If you are an actor, do the public assume you are your roles? Many times, yes. Rita Hayworth used to say, They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”

notting hill

In a quote from the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 romantic comedy by Richard Curtis, the blurred lines some men have between reality and fiction are deftly explored:

Anna Scott: Rita Hayworth used to say, “They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”
William: Who’s Gilda?
Anna Scott: Her most famous part. Men went to bed with the dream; they didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality. Do you feel that way?
William: You are lovelier this morning than you have ever been.

As a writer whose creative and academic practice pushes the boundaries, I felt for actress Dakota Johnson when it was revealed that her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, was uncomfortable with her star role on the controversial movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have had people close to me also feel uncomfortable about my work, and to question what it means for me to write work that challenges, to write characters in fiction that transgress, that are frankly outside the moral code of the mainstream. And yes, that worries me, even though my writing cohort say it should not.

The fact is, that if we are writing a work such as Fifty Shades of Grey, we must explore the darker parts of our imagination, and be aware of the secretive, transgressive nature of much sexuality.

But does doing this make us a worse person than the average punter? My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago on women’s sexual fantasies revealed taboos such as:

  • Pain and masochism
  • Domination
  • The sexuality of terror
  • The thrill of the forbidden
  • Transformation
  • The Zoo
  • Incest
  • Rape

Is a fiction writer who trawls these fantasies in effect simply taking one for the collective unconscious, for popular culture, or art – or the ‘team’ – if you like? Or are they just a nasty pornographer who should keep the door to the room marked ‘other’ firmly locked and away from the prying eyes of the world?

I don’t write or conduct academic research into the areas of the human and animal, the power struggle of the occult, or the bleakness of different aspects of grief and organ donation to shock. Although I know, outside my literary and academic circles, that it does. I do what I do because I want to explore certain aspects of the human psyche, the darkness of the human condition, and the point at which obsession renders the end result more important than the destructive path leading to that final point. My tropes are the about the use and abuse of power, betrayal, and transgression. Hardly the stuff of chick lit and romantic comedy, but the stuff of life.

From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I have published and presented academic papers on bestiality in science fiction, on issues of body ownership that are very upsetting for people; I have angered internet commentators with my articles relating to pro-choice (despite having published a high risk pregnancy book which explored why women – including myself – are so determined to carry a child to term despite the great risks to their own health), and I have drawn in a room full of bioethicists and scientists wanting to hear how the creative arts can and does shape and inform bioethical debates.

But while journalism and academia are good forums for these discussions, fiction writing is better. For instance, just because science can do something, should humanity follow? I can give no better example for the way than the way that fiction – and science fiction in particular – has spearheaded this debate than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, no stranger at that age to the searing heartache and near death experience of several miscarriages, the book about a scientist who create a human without the intervention of woman, and if you so chose to call it that – God – is a touchstone for any current debate on stem cell research, and reproductive technology that pushes so many boundaries we no longer talk about two parents, but a myriad of biological entities and processes that will result in a child who has multiple ‘parents’ biological and often social as well.

South Metope 11 - Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
South Metope 11 – Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

But just because we can do something – should we? I am not saying any one person has the answer, and am loathe to leave things to the status quo (don’t rock the boat until its ready) but it is important as a society to investigate the social, emotional, and maternal-paternal implications of this, and the creative arts are the place where a narrative can be put on the facts. We all understand things a lot clearer when someone sits down in front of the community at the camp fire and says ‘let me tell you a story…’

It’s embedded in our DNA as humans, this need for stories, and in the Internet age this need for a narrative bleeds across the creative arts. Film is a powerful medium in that it provides the visual along with the story, and that for people is very immediate, engaging – and confronting.

So when Dakota Johnson’s mother says that she can’t see her daughter Dakota’s film Fifty Shades of Grey because of the sexual content, I feel for Dakota, because she is simply part of the story telling process. She is acting out in front of the collective camp fire, putting three dimensional representation to the words from a page. I know what it is like to be judged on your work and the choice of your content. How easy it must be to write inoffensive children’s fiction, or dry political commentary, or paint by numbers commercial fiction which can be read with distraction and no raised eyebrows on public transport. These writers do not have anyone looking over their shoulder, questioning their values, morality or integrity.

Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet
Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet, photo by Evelyn Tsitas (who proudly owns and wears the ring, made in the shape of a chimp finger)

Because to push the boundaries as an artist is the be the ultimate outsider – even if society comes around eventually to the place where you are right now – far, far out to sea, waving the flag, saying ‘look, guys, I can see this clearly – it isn’t nice, but I am not scared to look and report back. Meet me at the campfire, and I’ll tell you a story.”

I have been told “you can’t divorce the person from the writing” – meaning – there must be something very dark and ‘wrong’ with me as a person for daring to move my academic research into places that are upsetting, and frightening for some people.  Yes, of course, reading and publishing fiction is subjective. But I do not write by committee. Fiction writing is not a democracy. It is a little totalitarian state; my world, and I while listen to criticism – especially from publishers, and I will consider tweaking, changing and rewriting, I am also the first and last person my writing has to please.

 

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk',  at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
Photo taken at ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas

Love it or hate it, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey – and the subsequent film, of which James is Executive Producer – gives women agency over their sexual fantasies. And let’s face it, at the heart of the book, the story of young woman selling her looks and sexuality to an older, wealthy man is a powerplay that goes back to the first campfire stories. But what is remarkable about James – and hats off to her for reaping the financial rewards – is that she has had the guts to stray from the pack of the everyday dissenters and go public with her work, and has found a willing audience.

Those of us who take a risk in the creative arts do so knowing that not everyone in the world at large will be happy with our choices. But what is the alternative? Silence? Pouring waster over the campfire and ordering everyone back into the darkness of the cave, where ideas, both glowing and darkly bitter, can flourish and fester without challenge?