Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist working in the areas of technology, science, and art. She works with animals and living systems, considering the social, political, and ethical dilemmas surrounding medicine/bio-science, biotechnology, and interspecies collaborations. High is Professor in the Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Julia Swanson, SciArt Magazine Guest Contributor: As a cross-disciplinary artist, you often explore science, technology, and biology. How did you start creating this type of research-based art?
Kathy High: I first came to this science, technology, and biology research-based art through my early videos. I lived in New York City from the early 1980s on and at the time I decided to just focus on video production as my means of expression. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was creating works which were rooted in documentary that melded fact and fiction. I started a series entitled "Women in Medicine" that looked at various aspects of women as patients in relation to our medical establishment. I had been a patient and was incredibly frustrated by the ways I was often treated. I started researching the history of the medical establishment in this country, the American Medical Association (AMA). I made a video in 1989 entitled I Need Your Full Cooperation where I juxtaposed feminist examinations of medical practices, narratives of patient treatments, and archival footage. In the video I dramatized Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “rest cure” in an adaptation of her 1892 story The Yellow Wallpaper, and included critical commentary by activist/writer Barbara Ehrenreich and historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. I suppose this was my first venture into research-based work. I had read quite a bit about the development of the AMA, and the early eradication of midwives from practice through the “professionalization” of the medical field – doctor’s maintaining particular control around women’s reproductive health. It is surprising how threatened women’s reproductive rights still are today.
Underexposed: Temple of the Fetus (1993-4). Video. 60 min. Video still courtesy of the artist.
In 1990 I co-produced a video with Paper Tiger TV called Just Say Yes: Kathy High Looks at Marketing Legal Drugs. This tape was a critique of pharmaceutical company practices and the coercion of doctors to use their goods. Who suffers in this process? We researched the methods used by the pharmaceutical industry to both advertise and push big pharma drugs. Great archival footage accompanied my breakdown of the chemical pathology in western medicine as a means of social control and as market commodity. The episode began with an illumination of the ways that doctors are coerced into prescribing certain drugs by the pharmaceutical companies, as well as how the refinement and dispensing of controlled drugs has been instrumental in creating the social prestige of medical doctors. Then in 1993 I produced Underexposed: Temple of the Fetus, an experimental documentary about new reproductive technologies – mixing science fiction with expert interviews, archival film footage, and text. I was reading works by radical feminists such as Sandra Harding (author of Whose Science? Whose Knowledge: Thinking from Women's Lives) and Gena Corea (author of The Mother Machine) who were inquiring into the ethics of new reproductive technologies. Who had access to them? Who benefits? Who is harmed? What are the consequences for female bodies? It was a particularly crazy moment because in-vitro fertilization had become successful and there was a big move to promote assisted reproductive technologies. It was really amazing to engage with these feminists who critiqued the technologies, technologies which perhaps viewed women only as “vessels.” I interviewed sociologists, journalists, activists, nurses, fertility doctors, bovine veterinarians, surrogate mothers, and more, trying to get some understanding of the field.
Lily Does Derrida: a dog’s video essay (2010-12). Video. 29:30 min. Video still courtesy of the artist.
This experimental work used both narrative and documentary to “unhinge” the viewer, making one destabilized and unsure as to what was fact and what was fiction. Underexposed: The Temple Of The Fetus examined ways the news media shaped our perceptions and social attitudes around new reproduction technologies and genetic engineering. The fictional portion of the video followed the political awakening of a TV journalist who unearthed the possible complications of these new technologies while investigating them for her medical news series. As part of the dramatized portion of Underexposed, in a fake interview with the Director of New Reproductive Technologies, the doctor proclaimed: “This is not just a baby. It is a national initiative.” These science fiction depictions of IVF, donor insemination, and designer babies pointed to the advancing reproductive technologies, hinting towards the types of selective breeding and eugenics that are making a resurgence today. In 1994 I made a project for Deep Dish TV entitled High-Tech Baby-Making: North and South. High-Tech Baby-Making: North and South was an edited collection of documentary shorts by feminists from Germany, France, Brazil, Mexico, India, and the United States, reflecting upon the use of reproductive technologies around the world. This collection of excerpts looked at the state of reproductive conceptive and contraceptive technologies for women. The status of first- and third-world reproductive politics were reflected in these excerpts, such as the contrast of overpopulation issues in so-called developed countries, and infertility problems in so-called developing ones.
This was the final work in the Women in Medicine series.
 Script by Karen Malpede, performers included Peg Healey, George Bartenieff, Annie Sprinkle, Shelly Mars and Jules Backus.  This was co-production with Harriet Hirshorn for the Deep Dish TV collective as part of the series “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired “ about women and health. It was broadcast on cable television nationally and internationally. Deep Dish TV is a NYC collective who send packaged programs out through satellite – thus works were transmitted from satellite to satellite across the country, and then downloaded by local public cable stations everywhere – a kind of genius distribution system – see http://www.deepdishtv.org/
Embracing Animal (2005-06). Transgenic rats, metal, wood, glass, electronics. 20’ x 20’. MASS MoCA. Photo credit: Adrian Garcia.
JS: In several of your videos you explore the dynamics of interspecies relationships and communication, specifically the relationship between animals and humans. Can you explain what is it that you fine most intriguing about the human and animal relationship, and why?
KH: I find this area to be one of the most challenging and at the same time it is incredibly important. I have always been respectful of our non-human colleagues since I was a child. I argued with my middle school biology teacher about the intelligence of dolphins and the fact that we do not understand how to properly gauge animal intelligence or sentience – as my teacher argued for the superiority of humans over all earthly creatures. We are trapped in the Western Cartesian dilemma of placing humans above all other non-humans. This is how we are taught and it is a teaching that’s hard to undo. We still live this reality.
Animal Attraction (2000). Video. 60 min. Video still courtesy of the artist.
Now I teach methodologies of “undoing” these older ways – or rather, as Donna Haraway would say “staying with the mess.” And in the end, respect is the best tool I have that ultimately works. Curiosity, learning, listening, watching, loving – all with respect.
I first started working with animal communication in the late 1990s. It was not as popular a topic as it is today. Now animal studies is in vogue and there are tons of amazing contemporary writers and artists addressing the field who are thinking through these questions of how we can ultimately understand and relate with each other. I have engaged with this tangle of thinking through many of my works, including the video Animal Attraction about animal communicator Dawn Hayman, Lily Does Derrida: a dog’s video essay, where my deceased dog Lily grapples with the theories and thinking about human-animal relations by the late Jacques Derrida, Embracing Animal, which housed three live transgenic rats related to my own diseased body, among other works.
 Persons such as Donna Haraway, Cary Wolfe, Vinciante Despret, Susan Squier, Giorgio Agamben, Eben Kirksey, Vicky Kirkby, Thom van Dooren, Deborah Bird Rose, Ron Broglio, Stacy Alaimo, Una Chaudhuri, Erica Fudge, Carol Adams, Giovanni Aloi, Nigel Rothfels, Jonathan Burt, Akira Mizuta Lippitt, Monika Bakke, Animal Studies Group, Human Animal Research Network Editorial Collective and artists such as Margaret Atwood, Terike Haapoja, Eduardo Kac, Beatriz da Costa, Kira O’Reilly, Catherine Chalmers, Steve Baker, Olly and Suzi, Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, Art Orienté Objet, Carolee Schneeman, Sue Coe, Perdita Philips, Mark Dion, Sam Easterson, Lee Deigaard, Natalie Jeremijenko, and many more…
Bank of Abject Objects (2015). 24” x 8”. Glass, honey, ceramics. Image courtesy of the artist.
JS: I'd like to talk about poop for a minute. As a culture it is something we try not to talk about, but in your project Bank of Abject Objects you bring it front and center and create a DIY stool bank for preserving "healthy" stool. You also posit that in the future stool could become a valuable commodity owing to its multiple therapeutic properties. What first interested you in this as a theme?
KH: Who isn’t interested in poop, if they are really honest with themselves!? I became focused on poop early on in my life as I have Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. Poop is one of our body’s byproducts, an outsourced continuum of ourselves that is updated daily. It is a registry of our intake, our current health, our food and water absorption, and our fascination with filth, order, dirt, and waste.
Currently there is a growing awareness in waste studies about the value of our poop. What can we do with poop? How can we use it as a commodity? With the increasing appreciation for the importance of our poop, we have also come to see how it can be used differently than we previously thought. So, for example, with the rise in antibiotic resistance, we may want to store a sample of our poop prior to a treatment of antibiotics – just in case we would like to revisit that older gut biome configuration if the antibiotics backfire. We might consider storing a stool sample prior to international travel, or while one is younger and healthier for old age. No one really knows the complete properties of poop as of yet, but I am banking on “healthy” poop (whatever that actually means) becoming an important traded good in our bio-futures.
"Kathy As Bowie" series (2015). 42” x 30”. Photograph. Photo credit Eleanor Goldsmith.
JS: In "Kathy As Bowie" you reflect on the importance of David Bowie in your life by paying tribute to him through a series of photographs that mimic some of his iconic portraits, and you reflect on the possibility of adding his gut microbiome to your own. In many ways this is a very intimate and personal project. What was the process that went into developing this piece?
KH: I have been researching the human gut microbiome for a number of years now. This field is very much monopolizing the public’s imagination at present as we discover how much the microbiota in our guts influence our everyday decisions – such as what we eat, how we think, our moods, etc.
Because of this human gut microbiome research, I have produced and directed a video documentary about fecal microbial transplantation or FMTs, entitled Fecal Matters (to be released late this year). The creation of this video has allowed me to interview scientists, gastroenterologists, and researchers in the field related to FMTs. Fecal microbial transplantation is the transfer of one person’s poop into another person’s body. This can be done in a variety of ways, but the goal is to transfer “healthy” poop to help stabilize the recipient’s own microbiome.
"Kathy As Bowie" series (2015). 42” x 30”. Photograph. Photo credit Eleanor Goldsmith.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine (Kira O’Reilly) asked me whose poop I would want if I could have a FMT from anyone in the world. In response, I blurted out “David Bowie.” I look at a FMT exchange as still a bit mysterious and unknown. What exactly is in our gut microbiome? What “signatures” do our gut microbiomes carry about our bodies, our characters? Are our gut microbiomes really transient and changing all the time, or do they also store a kind of “history,” a memory and a longer life signature?
Thinking about David Bowie, I realized that he had been such a hero to me when I was younger, as he was such a trickster character, a risk-taker, and someone who could transform himself constantly. I found Bowie to be inspiring and he offered courage. I wanted his poop to perhaps also transfer to me (literally) some of that magic he offered us all.
JS: As a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute you had the opportunity last year to work with students in New York's annual BioDesign Challenge. What excited you the most about the work the students produced? KH: My RPI students created a speculative project entitled Live(r) Clear – a living biofilm enzyme membrane that would line your toilet to help collect discarded pharmaceuticals such as estrogen from entering our waste water systems.
This truly collaborative team of engineering, arts, and architecture students consulted RPI scientists, visited our local wastewater treatment plant, envisioned with 3D print models, and conducted extensive research to develop their project for the BDC given theme of “medicine.” I was incredibly impressed with this truly interdisciplinary team and their ability to collaborate and create a biodesign project for the first time.
I am committed to this idea of hands-on learning through participatory critical methods that place creative practices alongside engineering and science. The artists and engineers, computer scientists, biologists, science technology studies, and marketing students (among others) all contribute from their various disciplines and knowledge sets. I find that through this process everyone develops a newfound respect for each others’ skill sets.
While the BDC didn’t win an award, we all found the process incredibly stimulating. And the students are investigating obtaining a patent for Live(r) Clear!
 The student team consisted of inventors Amanda Harrold (environmental engineer), Kathleen McDermott (artist), Jacob Steiner (biomedical engineer), and Perrine Papillaud (mechanical engineer) with help also from Jerry Huang (architect).
Family Bio-crest (2016). Agar plate and fecal bacteria. De Paolo Lab USC.
JS: What are you working on right now?
KH: I am currently creating works for an exhibition that will occur this fall, 2017, at the Esther Klein Gallery, as part of the Science Center in Philadelphia, curated by Angela McQuillan. Some of the projects for the exhibition stem from work I started last year. I have been working in collaboration with a human gut microbiome scientist/immunologist, William de Paolo, PhD, who is Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center and Director of the Center for Microbiome Sciences & Therapeutics (CMiST) in Seattle. Will is helping me to develop various projects for this exhibition that also relate closely to his work.
One such project is Family Bio-Crest, a project researching gut microbiota and the bacteria and micro-organisms that inhabit our gut. I want to discover if family members share similar (or dissimilar) gut microbes because they share (or shared) a living environment, thus possibly giving families a particular gut bacterial/fungal community signature and profile. This project aims determine how much gut microbiota families share. Another project Bacterial Blanket, will speak to my “missing” gut bacteria (as a Crohn’s patient) and provide bacterial replacement therapy – with a nod to the “security” blanket that many of us had as children, treating the blanket as familiar object filling in for the missing parental unit(s).
Seduction of the microbe/Fusobacteria KH, (2016). Microscope image. De Paolo Lab USC.
Landscape of Lost Microbes: Observation of absence (2016). Agar plate and fecal bacteria. De Paolo Lab USC.