by Kathy HIGH (United States), 2005
"Rats are delicate creatures. They need lots of attention and care. They are very intelligent animals. Their metabolism is very close to humans - which is why they are used in laboratory testing. The rats in the MASS MOCA exhibition are transgenic rats, meaning they have human DNA mixed with their own. So they are kind of our cousins. These rats need to be checked often (frequently each and every day!), and the caretaker must spend time watching them to learn about their needs. Please do not consider the rats just pets, but a creature that co-exists with us. In other words, please treat them with a lot of respect".
Kathy High is a celebrated Yew York film and video artist, with a history of producing works that deploy feminist and queer criticism in the context of science, medicine and the body - and more recently BioArt production. She is an associate professor and Arts Chair at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and editor for FELIX: A JOURNAL OF MEDIA ARTS AND COMMUNICATION.
High's most recent work, is called Embracing Animal.
Embracing Animal was commissioned as a part of the Becoming Animal exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and exhibited at MASSMoCA in May 2005.
This work focuses on the plight of three transgenic lab rats, Matilda Barbie, Tara Barbie, and Star Barbie.
Each were born in a laboratory environment where they served as breeding rats - and were subsequently adopted by High to live out their days after donating approximately a year of their lives, and two litters each to the propagation of scientific research.
Transgenic rats are widely utilized as viable animal subjects in laboratory research.
Rats are genetically close relatives to Homo Sapiens, and produce similar results and symptoms as a stand-in for the human organism.
High's rats are HLA-B27 transgenic rats, exhibiting a phenotype similar to humans suffering rheumatic and auto-immune disorders.
They are bred purposely for use in laboratory research utilizing gene transfer methods.
This involves inserting human DNA into rat ovum, witch are then transplanted into surrogate rat wombs, and grown in vivo until birth.
Any resulting offspring that do not carry the desired gene expression are terminated.
Matilda, Tara, and Star Barbie all proved to be successful transgenic specimens.
After their usefulness in the laboratory expired, High purchased these rats and invited them to share her home, her life, and their common experiences (rats and High) in living with chronic disease.
High, who suffers related auto immune disorders (Crohn's disease and Scarcoidosis), has taken steps to improve the rats' quality of life and treat the rats for the very diseases they have been genetically bred to possess.
She has implemented homeopathic treatments in conjunction with close observation and empathetic communication - the same treatments she chooses for herself.
She charts their health, living habits, and experiences with journal entries, photographic and video documentation.
High suggests in an interview with Suzanne Anker that she is not the soul author of this work/research/life, but that the rats are active participants: "We're working together."2
In the gallery environment, Embracing Animal becomes an all-together different entity.
While Matilda, Tara, and Star Barbie are living in High's home they can be read as possible pets (though the artist insists they are not), or as an interesting animal rescue story, or even as a talisman or stand-in for the artist's own diseased body.
However, none of these descriptions carry with them the subtlety of the double edge relation between transgenic animal and human cohabitant in understanding this complex work.
For me, this reading becomes clear when the site is changed from the home to the gallery.
The rats are carefully ushered into the gallery space a day before the opening - long enough for them to gain some experience of their new environment before being inundated with gallery goers - but delayed intentionally to allow gallery crews to complete construction work that would prove very loud and damaging to these sensitive creatures.
High installs an elaborate environment for the rats, with multiple cages - transparent tubes, toys, feeding stations and hiding spaces. Along side the cages are a series of oversized glass test tubes with monitors built into the bottom of each tube playing video loops of a variety of animal/human interactions. This is all contextualized by an informative (and endearing) website that outlines High's personal and research interests in Embracing Animal, as well as a number of images and videos of the rats in High's home. The last, and arguably most important component in the installation, is the artist herself.
I am not suggesting that this work requires the artists' presence as an art translator for the viewer, but that the piece works best when we can see Kathy High interacting in collaboration with her rats. When this happens - the rats become a locus for a matrix of generosities - demands - readings - understandings. They are cute, and strangely grotesque. They demystify our fears of transgenic animals - but instill a greater fear in a science and a humanity that would engineer such feeble animals for human gains. They are not pets - but they have human toys - a Fisher Price farm set. Is this a zoo? We are touched by Highs gesture - rescuing these animals from the fate of research specimens - and yet she writes of her own research with the rats - most notably administering homeopathic treatments and charting the effects. To what end? Is High only again instrumentalizing these organisms to serve human desires? It seems that the rats need her - but High also seems to need them. It is at this juncture, that Embracing Animal is most successful - in exploring the truly complex relationship between human kind and transgenic laboratory grade animals.
1 : Kathy High, Embracing Animal.
2 : Kathy High, Artists in the Science Lab, interview with Suzanne Anker, on The Bio Blurb, Radio PS1 MoMA, Edition #6.