The social and cultural meanings we ascribe to biological processes fascinate the sculptor Jes Fan, as they do biologist and feminist scholar Deboleena Roy. Melanin, for instance—the biochemical that creates pigment in skin—can evoke a whole host of assumptions and stereotypes; it drastically affects social identity. Fan, prompting viewers to consider the materiality of race and gender, incorporates biochemicals directly into his sculptures. His work demonstrates how humans can modify the presence of substances like testosterone and estrogen, and highlights the significant but overlooked roles of microbes. Roy, in her book Molecular Feminisms: Biology, Becomings, and Life in the Lab (2018), interrogates the feminist ethics of biological lab work, asking questions like “should feminists clone?” She is also on the editorial board of Catalyst, a journal of feminist science studies, whose Spring 2020 issue featured a cover article on Fan’s work. Below, Fan and Roy discuss the possibilities of human collaborations with microscopic species, as well as the gendered and racialized language scientists use to describe microorganisms.
DEBOLEENA ROY I was so excited when I first encountered your work as the cover for the Catalyst issue on chemical entangle-ments. I’d love to hear your perspective on the piece we chose, Systems II.
JES FAN [Literary scholar] Rachel Lee wrote so eloquently about my work in “A Lattice of Chemicalized Kinship,” her essay for that issue. I made Systems II during a residency at Recess Art in Brooklyn. While there, I had a studio visit with a painter, who mentioned that the pigments he uses to mix various skin tones are actually very different from the biochemical processes in our bodies. For instance, painters might use cadmium red to paint skin with pinkish hues. But the colors of our actual flesh are produced via biochemical pigments called melanin: eumelanin is brown or black, and pheomelanin is orange or red.
I began thinking about how artists typically revert to symbols or abstraction as I became more drawn to the literal. So I decided that, rather than represent skin, I’d make melanin: eumelanin in particular. I’m a maker at my core: I have a BFA in glass from RISD. So questions like “how do I make this?” and “what is it made of?” have always driven my practice. When I think about more precarious matters like race and gender—I’ve worked with testosterone and estrogen as well—those questions become more interesting. In a way, the literal is the ultimate abstraction.
ROY That resonates with what I’m doing. My PhD is in molecular biology and reproductive neuroendocrinology. When I first began working with hormones, decades ago, I noticed that we use all these metaphors to describe their actions. One reproductive technologies lab, for instance, was trying to find a way to insert a sperm into an egg using a laser. That way of approaching the process comes from the language we use to describe female gametes versus male gametes.
FAN Right, the sperm is referred to as the aggressor attacking the egg. But in actuality, the egg absorbing the sperm is a more applicable metaphor.
ROY And in society, people stereotypically think of the feminine as docile and the masculine as active. . . . So, how did you make the melanin?
FAN I worked with a for-hire lab called Brooklyn Bio. I approached them with my residency budget and told them I wanted to make melanin, then incorporate it into my sculpture. So we genetically modified E. coli—and I was adamant about using E. coli instead of the other option, yeast. Living in Hong Kong under British colonial rule, and also living in the US for ten years now, I’ve observed how racial fear often runs parallel to our fears of microbial contaminations. For instance, one reason why the most expensive real estate in Hong Kong is situated at The Peak is because, during the bubonic plague, the governor reserved residence above a certain altitude for the English. There was a theory that the higher the altitude, the more difficult it would be for germs to travel. And if you look at Jim Crow laws, you again see racial fears running parallel to hygienic fears—especially those around segregating bodies of water.
I made Systems II in 2018, and it’s interesting to see the observations I made then ring so true today, as the pandemic takes hold of the world. Mid-March, when the lockdowns began in New York, I was actually on a plane! I was flying back from the Sydney Biennial, and some other passengers sprayed hand sanitizer at me and my [Chinese] family . . .
ROY That’s awful.
FAN I know. . . . As someone who’s gone through SARS, I’m very cognizant that one reason why Western scientists did not advocate wearing face masks in the beginning has a lot to do with this often subconscious public imaginary that white bodies are pure, that white bodies are not capable of being contaminants: they can only be contaminated.
ROY It’s a false sense of immunological superiority.
FAN Exactly. I wanted Systems II to convey the way that we are entangled with one another and with nonhuman beings, like E. coli. I give these bacteria credit as the master artists of that work. I’ve worked as a fabricator for other artists, so I react strongly against the art market’s insistence on the notion of the heroic, singular artist. You wrote about something similar in the chapter of Molecular Feminisms called “Sex Lives of Bacteria.”
ROY The question driving me for that chapter was, do bacteria write poetry? And if so, will we ever know? I know the question is really out there. But molecular biology and biotech places great emphasis on writing, transcription, translation: it’s all about taking a portion of the DNA code and re-creating it. That’s how we got synthetic biology and CRISPR technologies [for editing genes]. Feminist science studies and New Materialist thinkers have insisted that we should value what bacteria do as writing, on par with what humans do. But my question is, what are they writing?
FAN Right. And your point isn’t that their content can be deciphered. But if language is the materialization of thought or energy into form. . . . I think bacteria are doing the same thing. I’m a huge advocate of the idea that all matter has life. But that idea also makes me hesitate. When we say all things have life, in a sense, we’re diminishing some sectors of human life, such as Black and brown lives in the US right now. I was arguing with my father about this recently. I told him about New Materialist thinkers who show us how insignificant we are in the world. But he argued, “So what? A rock has no human rights.” What do you say to these kinds of rebuttals?
ROY You could look at the world through a rights framework: certain people and certain beings get to fit into that framework. I avoid arguing what has rights and what doesn’t have rights. I just say, that’s not the framework that I’m working with. Rather, I’m trying to think about different types of encounters with beings around me.
For instance, [Indian biologist] Jagadish Chandra Bose did experiments trying to find out whether plants were sentient. When people told him that he should be patenting his work, he said, nature is not for me to patent. Rights, ownership, and autonomous agency have historically not been the dominant framework in many places around the world. I’m trying to bring different frameworks into the conversation.
FAN I agree with you. In my attempt to grasp sentience beyond humans, I’m not asserting rights or even interested in that framework. For me, it’s an exercise of humility, of understanding that we are only a minute component of the world. In many ways, I’ve found the coronavirus a humbling experience. God is not female. God is not male. God is the microsphere. Humans are going to be brought down by the smallest microbes.
ROY So that’s E. coli in the glass blobs on the sculpture?
FAN Yes, I think of the glass shapes as cells. They’re slumped over a wood and resin structure modeled on mycelium [the filament networks found in fungi], and also the stolons [root systems by which one plant—for example, grass—grows out of another, creating a network] that you wrote about. I was looking at plant networks because I wanted to point out the entanglement between us and other species.
I was also thinking about the form of the pedestal. I wanted to move away from the Western idea of propping up an object up at eye level for the ease of the viewer. I wanted to center the object’s experience, and think about how the pedestal could actually care for its bottom. When people visit my studio, I encourage them to remove the glass sculptures from their bases and hold them in their hands as a way to truly understand them. Though I have to say that when I show the work in museums, there are all these bureaucratic issues preventing touch, like insurance.
Chinese antiquities—especially Scholar Rocks or jade objects that are set on elaborate, ornamental wooden bases—are a huge source of inspiration for me. And I come from a family of manufacturers: my dad ran a toy factory, and my mother and my grandfather ran tapestry factories and made doilies. So I think a lot about touch, and changing the hierarchy of our senses. Touch can be a way of knowing: intelligence isn’t expressed only in language.
ROY You’re talking about glass, and I’m talking about grass! The idea of knowing from below is central to my book. Stolons are smart, and we have a lot to learn from them. To me, that practice of holding the cells is a stolonic practice.
FAN Thank you. I like that reading.
ROY You’ve also worked with hormones, like me!
FAN Yes, I first started working with biochemicals because I was, and still am, taking testosterone. Before I made Systems II, I made a video called Mother Is a Woman (2018). I asked my mother for urine, then extracted estrogen from her pee to create a beauty cream. I wondered, if you were to put on that cream and be feminized by my mother, then what is your relationship with her, and what’s my relationship with you?
ROY I wonder how many people who take Premarin [an estrogen-based cream] think about their entanglement with horses.
FAN Right, it’s made from horse urine! My first experiments with hormones were Testo-Soap and Testo-Candle [both 2017]. I made them during my residency at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which has a rich history of engaging with craft. I was thinking about hierarchies that drew craft away from fine art: it’s often seen as too pedestrian, too feminine. So I asked myself, what is the craftiest object I can make? And I started making candles and soap, but using testosterone. That project is what led me to ideas about touch, hygiene, and beauty—the way these things are politicized and also gendered.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington