artecraft

Artecraft, Septembre 2015

The 3D printer has been out of order for about 10 days now. I found when I stepped in the main lab early on a Tuesday morning, September 8th. The whole printing piece was taken apart. Fan and extruder were lying on the printer bed. I failed to capture it in pixels, but there lay the 3D printer. Members of the Pelling Lab worked hard at it for a week. We had hope when a piece printed, but the next day yielded no better. Thankfully, the University of Ottawa is full of resources. The 3D printer is in the hands of engineers over at the MakerSpace.

A researcher can never be taken out of its context: as a student starting my masters’ seminars this Fall, this imposed break has given me time to get accustomed to a new routine whilst visiting my cells twice a week. Interestingly, I find myself more and more emotionally attached to these little living guys. Visiting them twice a week feels like taking care of a pet: making sure they have enough energy to thrive and that they’re comfortable in their environment. Every time I approach the microscope, and I feel my glasses lay on the eye piece, I can’t wait to see how confluent they are. The color of the media gives me an indication of what to expect, the number of days I’ve been away as well. Still, when everything finally falls into focus and I can decipher the cell tissue adhering to the bottom of the petri dish, I wonder how we’ve come to really domesticate these living beings. And I question whether or not they’ll really be able to thrive on this wooden environment.

Though my next trial has been stalled, I’ve had much food for thought as of late. Part of this started when we were asked to bring an artefact to the next HAL lab meeting. I grabbed some pieces plastic that I’ve been using at every visit and which populate the lab by the hundreds (at the very least). I arrived home with a petri dish and a vial. I could have left these items as is but, after spending some time with them in the lab, I had a desire to bring them to life somehow. In opposition to modernistic thoughts, these weren’t just plain pieces of plastic.

The notion of craft comes into play here. After playing with hot glue and food colouring for an hour, I remembered one of the first things Andrew told me when I started in the lab: “cell culture is a craft”.

The word craft takes its stem in “power, might” from Proto-germanic (Fox, 2013). It is through a notion of mental power that the term extended reference to include skills, art and science (Fox, 2013). Just as contemporary anthropologists and philosophers (Latour, Descola, Viveiros de Castro) address the nature-culture dualism, I want to think about the false divide that has been constructed between art and science. It is obvious when looking the division departments and faculties of most academic institutions. As poignant as this divide can appear, to me art and science are difficult to distinguish theoretically. Not only that, they intertwine concretely in practices such as that of craft. Closely associated is the bricolage, derived from French and referring to a “construction achieved by using whatever comes to hand” (Merriam-Webster).

And so there I was, sitting at my kitchen table with a petri dish and a vial. Ideas of arts and crafts – or bricolage – had been gorging for a time until I got to finally sit down and act. First came the drawing of cells. Looking at the empty petri dish, it seems like a way of accessing another mode of existence. Generally, one of heavy mediated access. Hidden away in the warm humid incubator, only just visible to the naked eye when confluence is high enough, this piece of plastic serves as the ecological niche of immortalized cell lines. It can host living entities. Just like my first reflex when heading to Macdonald Hall is to access this mode of existence under the microscope, my first reflex in the creation this arte-craft was to represent this mediated existence. A sharpie served enough and the cells I shaped in black ink. Having taken this habit in the lab, the identification by cell type, passage, date and name came naturally. Both artists and scientists sign their work.

The water and the food colouring came next. Just as I’ve mixed FBS, PS and DMEM under the biosafety hood (see http://humanimalab.org/?p=497), I’ve mixed water and two shades of red food colouring on my kitchen table. The use of a glue gun reminded me oddly of the pipette guns we have the lab. Though their functions differ (one extrudes melted material, the other pulls liquid up or pushes it down), I grasped both with my right hand – despite being left handed. Both entail pressing on something for movement to occur. Both perspire relation: not only am I pressing down in both occasions, but both of these technical objects have buttons to be pressed.

arte-crafts and cell culture crafts

Left: The craft of cell culture in a biosafety hood Right: Arts and crafts with artefacts from the lab

Having completed my bricolage, having been through a new yet resonating session of arts and crafts, I brought my arte-craft to campus with me on Thursday. It rode the bus with me, travelled from class to class sitting safely in a plastic bag. I finally rejoined my fellow HAL members. It was sitting outside as the sun was setting that I regained contact with my new object. To my demise, it had leaked. I thought the hot glue would be enough to seal the coloured water within the petri dish, but I had evidently been wrong. With this came another resonance: if ‘that‘ is science, then it is also art!


Sources

Fox, Sarah (August 2013). In the Stacks with Sarah Fox: Etymologies and Source Materials. Retrieved from http://craftcouncil.org/post/stacks-sarah-fox-etymologies-and-source-materials.

Merriam-Webster (n.d.). Bricolage. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bricolage.