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 Study, Chimeras, creative writing, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, PhD completion, science fiction, Writing strategies

Chimera or hybrid? The pain of naming the monster

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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.

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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?”

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  • “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.

Oh, and it is chimera now – not hybrid!

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares

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I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.