WRECK PARK

ISSUE NO. 0

ELAINE WHITTAKER

  • Day Loan by Elaine Whittaker
  • Emerge by Elaine Whittaker
  • I Want by Elaine Whittaker
  • Memory by Elaine Whittaker
Art By Elaine Whittaker

Elaine Whittaker is a Canadian artist inspired by an aesthetic in which art and science intersect. Her artworks have been shown in group and solo exhibits, nationally and internationally. These include, among others, Ontario Science Centre (Toronto), Science Gallery (Dublin, Ireland), Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art (Winnipeg), Red Head Gallery (Toronto), Yukon Arts Centre Gallery (Whitehorse), McMaster Museum of Art (Hamilton), Kunsthaus Santa Fe (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Il Gabbiano (La Spezia, Italy), and the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (Michigan, USA). She has been an invited participant in residencies, workshops and festivals on science and art, and her work has been featured in literary, academic, medical, and scientific periodicals, websites and blogs. She is a recipient of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council, and holds a BFA (York University, Toronto), a Fine Arts diploma (Toronto School of Art), and a BA (Carleton University, Ottawa). www.etwhittaker.com

ART STATEMENT

Cultural critic Mike Davis contends that an ecology of fear, and even panic, increasingly defines contemporary imagination. My artworks examine how the cultural and social ecologies we inhabit are being transformed in unexpected, and often uncontrollable, ways. These transformations are viewed through the matrix of biology, the aesthetics of disaster, and the psychology of trepidation.

We live in a porous world, in porous bodies. The possibility of being breached, infected, and losing body integrity is always present. My artworks explore this fear by portraying the invisible world of teeming microbial life as luminous beauty but with the terrifying possibility of infection. Considering biology as the basis for my contemporary art practice, I use scientific methods and technologies to create installations, sculpture, photo-based images, and paintings. Situated in the realm of Bioart, my artworks challenge viewers’ perceptions about their bodies, as sites that are continually trespassed, tainted, and contaminated by a popular culture that escalates social anxiety and terror of microbes, fueling a sense of bioparanoia. A recent installation, entitled Cc: me, explored the infectious nature of language – nuanced, messaged, poetic, and copied. The artworks incorporated discarded carbon faxes, petri dishes, live bacteria and wax paintings. The archive of spent faxes, of once urgent environmental campaigns and crass viral commercial messaging, were used as drawing material to create shadowy iterations of the body carrying images of mutable histories and degraded texts. Ekphrastic poems, by local poets responding to the artworks, were also incorporated in a number of the pieces. The carbon copy language of yesterday became the transfigured art of today but also suggestive of a potential transformative ecology.

INTERVIEW

WRECK PARK

  Cc: me brings together text, live bacterial cultures, sound, more traditional modes of representation (so we were already limited in our re-presentation of the work); what drew you to this particular medium (these mediums)?

ELAINE WHITTAKER

  The instigation for incorporating organic materials into my art comes from my fascination with the intersections of the corporeal ecology of the body, medicine and the natural environment. Early in my art practice I started working with salt. Even though it is a mineral, I mimicked the organic by growing and nurturing diaphanous crystals on created and found objects. The crystals are most often perceived as organic because they were grown, but they are lithic and inorganic. I was drawn to salt because it is the biological foundation for life, and also the most common inorganic substance in the human body. Striding the boundaries between organic and inorganic, and between microscopic and macroscopic, salt became both the core material and metaphor in my artworks for its organic and transitory qualities. Other materials such as wax, bones, mosquitoes and plant organics, also play a part in my materials repertoire.

  It was when I was researching and investigating the history of pandemics, the effects of global warming on the rise of infectious diseases, and the abundance of microbial life on earth, for an exhibit in 2007, that I started to imagine the incorporation of live bacteria into my artwork. With a grant from the Canada Council in 2009, I took the first steps in setting up a laboratory in my studio and learned how to culture the salt bacteria Halobacterium sp. NRC-1 (a non-pathogenic bacterium that lives in a high salt environment such as the Dead Sea, the Bahamas, the Great Salt Lake, and other places). With a microscope that held my digital camera, I photographed the growth of these brightly coloured colonies or drew with them while they were still alive in petri dishes. For the past three exhibits, this bacteria has been an integral part of my installations. For my exhibit Cc: me (2012), my interest in infectious diseases continued and I moved towards exploring the notion of language as body infection. This was inspired by a collection of carbon facsimile thermal transfer rolls I had been saving for over 10 years. I combined and juxtaposed their mix of crass advertising texts and historical environmental campaign documents with poems crafted during a collaboration with local poets to form a series of art works and installations in this interdisciplinary exhibit.

WRECK PARK

  Tell us about the textual aspects of the work. Who are the poets and what was the nature of your collaboration?

WHITTAKER

  For over ten years I collected discarded facsimile thermal transfer rolls from my workplace, the Toronto Environmental Alliance. These thermal transfer rolls were technological remnants of the rapidly disappearing world of the fax. Made of black carbon, they resembled photographic negatives and were impregnated with typographies of once urgent environmental campaigns and viral commercial messaging. Historically, the term “Cc” meant ‘carbon copy’ when sheets of carbon were inserted between pages in order to produce a written or typed copy. For my exhibit entitled Cc: me, I repurposed these fax carbon rolls as drawing material, transferring traces and fragments of the text onto prepared wax boards or sheets of mylar. Sketched as repeated ominous, sex-less, faceless figures, they haunted as shadowy iterations of the body with mutable histories, contaminated and infected with degraded texts. Other pieces depicted the figures as empty, contained within a surrounding miasma of carbon words and chaos, as seen in the piece entitled Day Loan. Another set of figures on mylar, in the piece entitled Emerge, appear to be firmly planted atop petri dishes infused with live halobacteria. In this context, devoid of individuality, they take on the likeness of living bacteria –- iteration after iteration of form and material.

  An important aspect of the work in Cc: me was my collaboration with four local poets, Julie Roorda, Jim Johnstone, Ruth Roach Pierson and Larry Sulky. They each chose a figure piece, and responded with a poem that evoked the text contained in the figure and/or the overall concept of the exhibition. My ekphrastic response to their poems involved transferring these poems onto new fax carbon rolls and then creating four more figure drawings. These drawings captured their evocative poems of wit, longing, memory, and life, and the new figures became infected with the nuances of poetic language. For example, Ruth Roach Pierson chose my piece entitled I Want and responded with her poem, Memory, which became the basis for my new figure work also entitled Memory. As part of the Cc: me exhibit both these works were shown together becoming an installation of words and objects - textual and visual – highlighting our transformed and transfigured collaboration.

WRECK PARK

  Interdisiplinary has become a big word in the realm of textual studies and critical theory, what is your relation to interdisicplinarity in your art? What are its limits?

WHITTAKER

  Interdisciplinarity is at the core of my art practice. It stems from my interests from a young age with the natural world, my post secondary education in cultural studies, and a work history of activism in movements for social change, feminism, environment and unraveling capitalist economies. These experiences firmly root my work experientially and discursively with a framework of critical theory and being socially engaged. Overlaying this framework is its intersection with science, biology and medicine. I have now created a number of installations that were developed with a myriad of scientists, biologists and medical researchers. In recent years my installation art work has expanded to include disciplines such as performance, literature, psychology, sound and technology. In this neoliberal period of hyper-commercialization of the ‘art-market’ and galleries plumping ‘art stars’, it is an important counterpoint in art practices to build collaborations and make links between disciplines. As I continue to create a practice that takes an interdisciplinary approach, I look forward to even greater investigation and critical engagement with other disciplines.

WRECK PARK

  Cc: me dates back to 2012, what are you working on currently?

WHITTAKER

  For the last couple of years I have been re-imagining what it means to be infected, how pandemics evolve and their cultural significance. What is the aesthetics of these panics and disasters? My last installation, entitled Ambient Plagues, explored the epidemiology of pandemics by aesthetically presenting artworks that examined infectious disease outbreak narratives perpetuated by the movies, and scientific objects that collapsed fiction and reality. My current work continues to examine the body as a site of infection, exploring how infection shapes our concept of self and identity. Gerald Callahan, an immunologist, has suggested that “infection is now and always has been unavoidable. The only beings that have prospered on this planet have done so not because they learned to avoid infection but because they learned to thrive on infection.” Indeed, biologist Lynn Margulis offers the strongest argument that microbes are necessary in the construction of self as approximately ninety percent of our cellular bodies are microbial, only ten percent being purely human. Unfortunately the alarmist view in popular culture prevails with narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘self’ and ‘other’. My new work will probe the reality of self as a biological site composed of multitudes of microbes. A site that has become trespassed, tainted, and contaminated by a popular culture that creates a false perception of self, escalating social anxiety and a terror of microbes by artificially creating a sense of bioparanoia.

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