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In Conversation: KATHY HIGH with Sadie R. Starnes

Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist and Professor of Video and New Media in the Department of Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Her art practice, which is a curious mélange of video, performance, photography, speculative fiction and collaborative experimentation, integrates biotechnology and science. Concerned with technology’s influence on our definitions of gender, the self, and animal sentience, she is known for documentaries such as Death Down Under (2012-2013), which examined the ecology of death, and Animal Attraction (2000) on telepathic communication with animals.

High has experimented with transgenics in a number of multimedia, interspecies projects such as Embracing Animal (2004-2006), and she has staged competitions between human white blood cells through her ongoing Blood Wars tournaments. Her recent solo exhibition, Gut Love, held at the University City Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, investigates gut microbiota, the human immune system, and procedures such as Fecal Matter Transplant. Gut Love raises philosophical and ecological questions around post-individualism, contemporary medicine, and abjection through an array of surprising vehicles—from human waste to David Bowie to an iPhone app. A recent artist-in-residence for Coalesce: Center for Biological Arts and at the DePaolo Lab (University of Washington, Seattle), High approaches these topics with the curiosity of an artist, the objectivity of a scientist, and the sincerity of a patient with Crohn’s disease.

Rebecca Starnes (Rail): Gut Love investigates the human microbiome through a variety of media and approaches—from the scientific and cultural to fictional and even personal. Where did this dynamic, wildly interdisciplinary project begin?

Kathy High: I am currently researching and producing art works about gut microbiota and the immune system. I have come to this work as an artist who has engaged art and biology for the past fifteen years. Questions I have asked include: How does the medical industry look at disease and immunology? What can we—as patients and civilians—contribute to this knowledge base?

I work in this interdisciplinary area of art and science, sometimes called “bioart,” because I am curious about philosophical questions concerning carbon life—and I want to approach these questions in a hands-on manner, working directly with biological systems. Bioart—narrowly defined—limits itself to that which directly involves the manipulation of biological materials. A broader, deeper interpretation embraces the questions that bioart can raise about the role of science in society and actively integrates social reflection and a critical awareness of artistic and scientific practices as part of its raison d’être.

Beyond these questions I am amazed how much media attention the human microbiome has received of late—and yet how little people really know about it. I started on the Gut Love project out of curiosity – what exactly is a Fecal Matter Transplant (FMT)? What is it used for? How can we rethink our relationship with poop? Why are we ashamed of our bodily functions? Where did this shame come from culturally, historically? These questions and others prompted me to pursue this work and to talk with scientists, work with collaborators and tease out as much as I could. I am very much still in this process. I use my own body as a starting point to all of this work.

Rail: I enjoyed seeing your show in Philadelphia, which was installed not so far from the Duchamp collection and his storied Fountain. There have been countless satirical takes on the subject of human waste in art—from Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961) to Terence Koh’s more recent Gold Plated Poop (2007). Your “ready-mades,” however, like the Bank of Abject Objects—a beautifully arranged installation of feces preserved in honey—take us beyond a punch line. In fact, irony is not their point, right? I was startled by how fascinating it was to closely observe a matter so ubiquitous and natural. Why is it important for humans to move away from the abjection of feces?

High: I love being listed in this excretion art history! The potential of feces for therapeutic application is now becoming recognized, and our understanding of it is changing. Feces is now potential, rather than mere waste. It can be used to treat various diseases such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff), and inflammatory bowel diseases, but there is research suggesting FMTs might also treat inflammatory disorders such as lupus, heart disease, diabetes, and even autism, and the list goes on. Currently FMTs are only legally allowed in this country to treat patients suffering from C. diff, but other trials are underway.

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