[-empyre-] ftemaps?! (Jack Butler)

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Mon Oct 17 23:20:32 EST 2011

Dear soft skinned space, for this entry, 
mostly a response to Johannes’ probing questions about Fatemaps.

With the pleasure of reading you all, Jack:

(text inside post)
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How did I become attracted to embryology? If you’ll forgive this bit of personal history, my passion for the art and science of embryology goes back to my earliest experiences as a precocious teenage ‘artist’. From earliest childhood I have always thought of myself as an artist, so, I did not distinguish between art and science when in high school biology class, my study partner and I incubated chick eggs, opened one daily; I drew and she wrote about what we saw and compared our findings to the text. Actually observing the embryological development of a living being pierced me to the core. I have never recovered.
Two consequences to my initial experience: my study partner’s father was chief of pathology at a big Pittsburgh hospital and commissioned me, still a teenager, to illustrate his pathological findings in the autopsy of blue babies. Neither have I quite recovered from that equally intimate acquaintance with death. And second, by the time I was eighteen, I realised that my interest in development had extended naturally to a passion for all things sexual, whether in the bed, the studio or the laboratory. Fifty six years later these remain my core concerns.

‘Fatemap’? a processual notion? Yes. A deterministic concept? Yes. An unfortunate name? Most certainly so. A paradoxical name? Yes – that is why I love the name. For me it encapsulates that necessary paradoxical mix, knowledge/ignorance, in biology, a metaphor, in art. a metonym. 

A word about ‘fatemap’, a critical concept in the field of human development. A fatemap is a potential representation of the developmental history of each cell in the body. Thus, a fatemap traces the products of mitosis from the single-celled zygote to the multi-celled adult. The oldest and the most current question: is each cell fated to follow a predestined developmental path through the epigenetic process? Or, is this ‘decision’ dictated by the environment that it encounters? The validity of this very question was denied for most of the last hundred years while all reductionist science was looking for the origins of ever smaller units of life for answers. To follow the fate of a cell from nothing into a position within a living organism requires looking into the future of its development, a teleological (epigenetic) approach, first espoused by Aristotle. Considerable sophisticated genetic research over the last thirty years demonstrates that the former theory is correct. The fate of the daughters of a mother cell from the earliest developing embryonic disc can be labeled and traced by inducible genetic fate mapping. To quote the artist/geneticist, Sema Sgaier, "Contrary to expectation, we found that a cells final destination was determined by its original position. Thus it was fated or pre-programmed to contribute to a sub-portion of the final elaborate structure.
"Sgaier then makes a leap from biology to the cosmic. (And in so doing anticipates Johannes’ question about ‘life force’ and survival methods.) "If we are ultimately gigantic structures built by millions of cells and if the final destinations of our building blocks are predetermined and genetically defined, are we as a whole fated to a certain destination?" I am not prepared to follow Sgaier on that trip of the soul, but I too have followed the trope of the fate map from my earliest career as an artist. 

The following is a quote from the paper I presented at the University of Toronto Art Centre, in collaboration with the Department of sexual Diversity studies, accompanying my installation ‘Fatemap: Would you like to know what will happen?’ (Also exhibited at Brunel University in conjunction with the DRHA conference, September 2010.)

“The next stage in this project came to me one day during a presentation of my art/science hybrid research in a lecture/performance before an audience of artists and academics. I could see that the little grey computer images of sexual development, however scientifically provocative with their claim that all bodies start in a state of sexual indifference, conveyed nothing of the drama of our embryonic bodies unfolding or the ethical tensions inherent in this research. I wanted my audience to engage, for example, with critical issues embedded in the modes of representation: is this scientific truth? child pornography? sensual indulgence or epistemological certainty? In frustration, and to get audience attention, I removed my suit-coat and my black tee-shirt and borrowed a lipstick from the audience. I proceeded to diagram genital embryogenesis on my chest. Intending to broaden the sensuous base for understanding embryogenesis to include the sense of touch and those imaginary routes to knowledge that value and embrace desire and the emotions. I had discovered a strategy to literally embody (on-body?), bio-medical research information. I later pursued this strategy in a series of videotaped performances drawing on my own body and on the skin of friends. 

And then the implications of drawing on the skin went deep. I theorized the association between visual art and embryological science in my work by reference to the psychoanalytic theory of the Skin Ego. In 1989, French Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu suggested that the ego can be identified with the body and can be experienced in terms of the skin, relating these notions to fantasy body representations.
Anzieu's theory is based on a body-centered definition of the self, developed from four sets of data: ethological data, group psychotherapy, dermatological data and projective tests such as Rorshach tests. In response to the latter, two new variables were identified, "Barrier" and "Penetration of the Boundary". It is in that shifting zone between the bodily and psychic skins -- barrier and penetration, the locus of the liminal stroke that both separates and joins, that I incorporate art and biology into one practice.

On a personal note: I so very much appreciate your questions, Johannes, and hope to continue with responses, especially to your questioning my translation/dissection of the Inuit term, Sananguargarq.  But, I am equally engaged with reading all the entries daily and want to respond to Nulifer on ‘deceleration: shock and trauma’, and David Hughes on everything. As the fates would have it, however, my workload for October has literally doubled, so my responses will be (appropriately), slow coming.

Respectfully, Jack

Sema Sgaier’s quotations are taken from her presentation at the Subtle Technologies festival in Toronto, 2006.

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