‘what they were doing wrong and how they should do it better’

In a recent article for Frieze, Tom Jeffreys points out a common contention within art/science collaborations: 

‘Artists must be perpetually vigilant to avoid simply representing or illustrating scientific research or having their work instrumentalized in the name of public engagement.’ 

Having been disappointed with many ‘art and science’ exhibitions where the former is stripped back to an illustration of the latter, I recognise where Jeffreys is coming from, even if the idea of exercising ‘perpetual vigilance’ over my work sounds a little apocalyptic—as if, unless I am constantly on my toes I will find I have accidentally produced a series of petri dish embroideries meant to convey salmonella colony growth to schoolchildren (not that that would necessarily be a bad thing). 

The article goes on to quote artist Ionat Zurr, on what the artist should be doing with science in place of illustrating it:

‘the role of the artist is to be somewhat critical, to ask: "How do those things happening in the lab affect philosophical, ontological, and ethical questions in society?"' 

This tension—between instrumentality and criticality—is familiar. I often feel caught between wanting to raise these broader questions, and feeling that to do so fixes me as the voice of dissent, somehow bringing down the otherwise positive and well-meaning ethos of the project. I have come to realise that part of being an artist or writer on a mixed team involves coming to terms with saying (or making work about) the difficult thing. In expressing such concerns, it may emerge that others have similar doubts or observations, but don’t feel it’s their job to voice them. There must be a space kept open for criticality, without it being taken necessarily as criticism.  

As mentioned in previous posts, it was expected that my role would comprise educational elements. By way of exploring some of the reasons I’ve moved away from that approach (or at least, from education in visual or written form), I’m going to look at a few examples of educational art projects, or artistic science projects—whichever end of the see-saw you think the weight falls on—past and present, that have attempted to work across cultures: Otto and Marie Neurath’s Isotype project (1920s-50s), a ‘universal’ picture language that began in Vienna, and took on commissions in the Western Region (British-colonised Nigeria); the Madagascar Ako project, a series of illustrated children’s books about lemur conservation by primatologist Alison Jolly (as described by Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble); Nerdcore Medical, a US-based company I found through researching games and study aids for medicine. Nerdcore Medical don’t claim to work across cultures, but their products offer an opportunity to analyse how seemingly neutral, educational products can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and dynamics. 

It’s an arbitrary and unlikely list, but hopefully interesting in terms of making comparisons. In doing so I hope to articulate some of the tensions and complexities in visualising medical and scientific knowledge, and exorcise one of the ghosts that has been haunting science education: that of a mythic, universal language. 

Isotype: Beyond the West

Isotype (International System Of Typographic Picture Education) was a picture language developed at the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna between 1925 and 1934. Entirely modernist in character and aspiration, it attempted to rebuild Babel by circumventing verbal and textual language obstacles: creating a universally comprehensive language of images and signs. These graphics had a simplified, functional aesthetic that could, its proponents claimed, be applied to any area of information: ‘The aim was to “represent social facts pictorially” and to bring “dead statistics” to life by making them visually attractive and memorable. One of the museum’s catch-phrases was: “To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures”.’ (Wikipedia) 

Throughout the 30s, Isotype commissions were carried out in the Soviet Union, the USA and Germany. In 1942, the Neuraths came to England fleeing the Nazi invasion, and set up the Isotype Institute. Isotype’s legacy in the UK can be seen via its influence on British road signs. 

In Reaching the People: Isotype Beyond the West, Eric Kindel describes the—perhaps inevitably—doomed application of Isotype outside of a Western context. In theory, Africa was a perfect testing ground for Isotype principles, as in the midst of shifts from colonial to self-determined powers, knowledge of economics, governance, health and agriculture was in need of clear and effective communication. Though Otto and Marie had never visited Africa, they were convinced that Isotype could fulfil its universal potential: ‘the cosmopolitan pure human approach should prevail.’

When Otto died in 1945, his wife Marie carried the work of the Institute forward. In 1953 she met with Obafemi Awolowo, the Minister of Local Government of the Western Region (Nigeria prior to independence), who had become interested in the possibilities of using Isotype in the burgeoning democracy of the Western Region. Marie’s memoir records how Awolowo spoke about what he wanted, while she made sketches: ‘simple visualizations of federal structures, indirect and direct elections, political hierarchies, and constituency make-up’. Awolowo was pleased with the drawings and invited Marie to Nigeria to develop a programme of public information.

On these visits, and working under the title ‘Visual Aids Expert’, Marie visited primary schools and hospitals, producing a series of pamphlets with titles like: Education for all in the Western Region and Better farming for better living in the Western Region. She also created a series of ‘poster-leaflets’ on health topics designed for use in surgery waiting rooms; this was inspired by her visit to a leprosarium in Benin City, where she found the waiting room crammed full of patients. If they had helpful pictures to look at while they were waiting to be seen, they would ‘…perhaps grasp what they were doing wrong and how they should do it better.’

It is strange to imagine a job like this being done now, undertaking the tasks of representation and knowledge dissemination. Or is it? In reading up on Marie’s project—and her misgivings about it—I heard familiar echoes. It seems the default forms that information assumes haven’t changed much since then; pamphlets and posters are still the go-to format of community engagement, even though they might not be the most appropriate. On a practical level, if you are given a leaflet but you don’t read and you don’t have a desk/shelves etc., where do you store it? Obviously, people are resourceful – not everyone needs the luxury of ring binders in order not to lose things – but I do wonder how these bits of paper are engaged with once the community workshops have ended and the educational campaign lost impetus. I remember being struck, on visiting a health clinic on the outskirts of a village in the Manyara Region, how thickly the notice board was plastered with peeling, faded posters and leaflets. On some of them you could just about make out titles encouraging vaccination and lists of symptoms, but the notice board was too chaotic for anything to be readable; so dense with information that it all became meaningless. 

Marie’s memoir is an illuminating case study of the would-be universal. It reveals the compromise of Isotype’s principles in extending to Africa; in that, ‘to enhance its international effectiveness, it had to take on a more local flavour, its existing elements (pictograms and other visualisations) requiring variations that were identifiably of the place.’ It became a kind of local-universal. This can be seen in a number of ways: from modifying skin tone, to depicting mothers with baskets on heads and babies strapped to their backs, images that would be far from ‘universal’ to a Western audience. These ‘realistic’ details were observed by Marie on her visits and through the relationships she developed in Nigeria, but there is an indication that she was aware of what we would now call issues of representation. To her credit, she was keen to recruit Nigerian candidates for the Visual Aids Office, who, once trained in the Isotype style, would be responsible for producing the visual information. 

Is it a 21st century projection to wonder whether Marie felt uncomfortable being tasked with representing a population she felt distant from? Did adding ‘local flavour’ of the Western Region to Isotype bring on a crisis of realisation that its previous stake in universality was in fact a splinter of European and North American particularity? Either way, the work of Isotype in Africa didn’t get much further—no suitable candidates were found for the Visual Aids Office, and government support seemed to fall away. Perhaps, as decolonisation gathered momentum, those in power considered that the job of representation should come from within, rather than without. 

The Madagascar Ako project

The Ako Project is another ‘outsider’ case study. American primatologist Alison Jolly worked on lemur behaviour in Madagascar for over three decades, until her death in 2014. Throughout her career, she watched as ecosystems came under threat from increasing human presence, at the same time as understanding the frictions between habitat preservation and the rural Malagasy—historically colonised, suppressed and displaced—who set up small agricultural plots in the forest. Education about local ecology is rare, as many villages are still without schools, and curriculums are often modelled on the old French colonial system - irrelevant to most of the population. 

The Ako Project is one of the ‘sympoetic’ projects outlined by Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene – offered as a kind of interdisciplinary happy ending. The project consisted of Jolly, lemur biologist Hantanirina Rasamimanana and artist Deborah Ross, and materialised as a series of children’s books, produced in English and Malagasy, that aimed to educate readers about lemurs and the effects of habitat depredation. Each book followed the adventures of a young lemur, one of six species and with accurately depicted habitats. Haraway describes these as ‘exciting, beautiful, funny and scary stories, distributed outside the school bureaucracies … the Ako Project nurtures empathy and knowledge about the extraordinary biodiversity of Madagascar for the Malagasy.’ 

At the outset, Haraway is quick to caveat Jolly’s subject position: ‘Of course, she knew she was not Malagasy, but at best a guest who might reciprocate appropriately, and at worst another in a long line of colonizers, always taking land and giving advice for the best reasons.’ She goes on to gloss the project’s successes: ‘nurtur[ing] new generations of Malagasy naturalists and scientists, including small children, field station guides, and school and university students.’ The Ako Project may have been initiated by a team of non-Malagasy women, but their intention was for lemur conservation to be taken over by Malagasy; Haraway quotes from Jolly’s conservation diaries, in which she described a 2013 Prosimian Conference as ‘a huge swing from all the meetings in the past dominated by foreigners.’ 

This tension or sensitivity is also familiar to me. I imagine most researchers working abroad would like to think of themselves as ‘guest[s] who might reciprocate appropriately’ – but ‘guest’ also brings up the notion of hospitality; why should the previously colonised be hospitable to well-meaning guests? 

‘The ‘culture’ that brings the colonies the European modes of visual arts has also, in living memory, brought the attempted annihilation of the land’s original peoples in order to […] demonstrate to the world its own superiority.’ Colonial hospitality: rethinking curatorial and artistic responsibility - Danny Butt and Local Time

The question of representation is also complex. Due to inclusion policies, most research projects want to collaborate with local scientists and specialists as much as possible. But if there is only a limited number of qualified professionals in that field and from that country, that means they will be in incredibly high demand from international research projects that want to work with them. Research projects can end up squabbling over partners—because no one wants to end up on the project with no collaborative links to local experts; for one thing, it just wouldn’t look good. 

Nerdcore Medical

I only happened upon Nerdcore Medical through browsing, so I don’t really know who their products are aimed at, other than the self-confessed med student ‘geeks’ the company was set up by. According to their website, NM ‘publish medical-themed study aids for students and practicing professionals, as well as gifts for a broader audience designed to raise awareness about public health.’ 

Their online catalogue is familiar in terms of RPG and gaming aesthetics, peopled with anime style creatures and characters. The difference is their educational content. The two bestsellers are The Bacterionomicon, ‘a compendium of infectious bacteria and antibiotics presented in the style of an RPG bestiary book, in order to use imagination, metaphor, and stories to aid learning and promote awareness about antibiotic misuse’, and Healing Blade: Defenders of Soma, a two player card game in which ‘the world of Soma is under siege by the Lords of Pestilence. Hideous invaders like Anthrax, Pertussis, Cholera, and the Black Death are running rampant inside the country’s borders, attempting to murder innocents.’

Both these games take the complexities of illness and infection and recast them in the familiar narrative and age-old dichotomy of good vs. evil: bacteria as monsters and antibiotics as warriors. The body and its realm of relations are moralised and split into self/other, pure/impure, native/invasive, rather than approached as a complex system of tolerance and exchange (on this note, I recently attended a seminar by scientist/artist Tarsh Bates who described how the discourse around immunology used to have a ‘cold war’ character of us vs. them, but after 9/11 this shifted to reflect a ‘terrorist’ paradigm, speaking mostly of invasion and attack). I get that infection has been deliberately simplified and narrativised for the educational purpose of the game, and doesn’t represent an ontological standpoint, but I think these dichotomies have knock-on effects in terms of what we automatically associate with them, and which can be seen in the games’ imagery.  

Here is a short trailer for the Healing Blade game. At first it just seems like a standard Tolkienesque pseudo-medieval mythical quest, but in just a minute and a half it manages to tick off an impressive number of racial and gender stereotypes: all the antibiotics are humanoid, able-bodied, the women mostly blonde, light skinned, exaggerated tits and bare thighs; the men intensely muscular and macho; the bacteria are a mixture of monsters, dark-skinned women (including a lounging, orientalised ‘odalisque’, a word I have felt even more uncomfortable with since a Turkish-speaking friend told me that oda means ‘indoors’ odalisque is the woman who stays indoors) and a depiction of aggressive ‘savages’ worthy of colonial fabulism. 

It’s not that I think any of these reductions are deliberate or even conscious on the part of Nerdcore; they borrow from a readily available stockpile of associative characteristics and features in popular culture. This is easily done when the primary aim is not to develop nuanced worlds and characters, but to communicate specialised medical language as clearly as possible. All these stock characters are already known to us - what is new about them is the bacteria/antibiotic dynamics tagged onto them. Nerdcore’s generalisations make an interesting comparison to Isotype, in that they verge on the ‘universal’ because their familiarity within Western visual culture allows their biases and assumptions to pass unchecked.  

The premise of Nerdcore Medical’s products is a good one—making infection and transmission more engaging and comprehensive. It’s the lazy-thinking of its execution that’s a problem, prioritising medical specificities before ethics of representation. Communication of information is important, but methods of communication perhaps even more so; who is accidentally excluded or silenced in the attempt? 

I’m aware it’s easy to be critical of projects from the outside; if I were to design an educational card game I’m sure it would make unintended assumptions of some sort, and someone could write a scathing takedown of its flaws, despite its good pedagogic intentions. But this is also how awareness develops. I recently read an essay, ‘Is Gender Necessary? Redux’, by the late force that was Ursula Le Guin, speaking about the implications of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). She describes the book as ‘the record of my consciousness, the process of my thinking’ around the women’s movement, resulting in the fantastical planet of Gethen, the creatures of which are androgynous, and can take on male or female hormonal dominance during an oestrus period called kemmer. Although the book was revolutionary to many of its readers, in ‘Redux’ Le Guin regrets that she did not go further with her experiments with gender and sexuality: kemmer, though radical, remains characterised by heteronormativity, and the novel makes no deviation from the generic pronoun he/him/his. Le Guin’s conclusion epitomises the dynamic that narrative so easily falls into, which is also what I believe happened in the case of Nerdcore Medical: 

‘Our curse is alienation, the separation of yang from yin [and the moralization of yang as good, of yin as bad]. Instead of a search for balance and integration, there is a struggle for dominance. Divisions are insisted upon, interdependence is denied. The dualism of value that destroys us, the dualism of superior/inferior, ruler/ruled, owner/owned, user/used, might give way to what seems to me, from here, a much healthier, sounder, more promising modality of integration and integrity.’ 

nyama nyama nyama!

Not wanting to make this a litany of critique, I thought I would share one example of medical education I came across that didn’t make me immediately wary. Nyama nyama nyama (‘meat meat meat’) is a Kenyan children’s circle game with simple rules: children sit in a circle around one child, designated ‘caller’, who conducts a round of singing. They will then call out the name of an animal, chosen at random. If the meat of that animal can be eaten, the children will jump up and shout nyama!. If a child remains sitting when an edible animal is called, or shouts nyama! for an inedible animal, they are out of the game.  

Nyama nyama nyama is also deceptively simple; which animals (if any) count as edible or inedible will be culturally specific depending on where the game is played, and who by. But it conveys food hygiene in a fun and accessible way, and I thought the game was particularly interesting with regard to representation i.e., the dynamic of infection and infected (here, food poisoning) are not pictorialised and so manage to sidestep the perpetuation of stereotypes. There is no material element to the game in terms of equipment, which comes back to my point about leaflets and posters and where they are meant to ‘go’. If you make a physical game and give it to children, whole worlds of trouble will open up in terms of who gets what, whose parts gets broken or lost, and if you give the same set to every child in the village, what about someone’s cousin who comes to stay and feels left out? 

Nyama nyama nyama also interested me from an anti-hierarchical point of view. Once the basic premise of the game is grasped, no one in the group has privileged knowledge or power, no one is the teacher or authority. Learning happens through memory and participation and, unless one person hogs the ‘caller’ role, it’s a balanced and intuitive process. It seemingly avoids what Paulo Freire, quoting Sartre, refers to as ‘digestive’ or ‘nutritive’ education, in which knowledge is ‘fed’ to the students by the teacher. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed argues for ‘problem-posing’ education, a collaboration between teacher and students, concerned with ‘the posing of the problems of human beings in their relation to the world’. 

I would be excited by a similar game concerned with disease transmission—I can imagine a kind of tag game in which someone is the infectious agent which the others must avoid through miming hygiene measures like hand-washing. Again, this could all too easily fall into a them/us opposition, but perhaps, as it is embodied rather than pictorially fixed, the opposition wouldn’t become so concretised, and would remain fluid and multiple, achieving integration rather than opposition.


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