© 2019 WhiteFeather Hunter.

  • WhiteFeather Hunter

Pelling Lab for Biophysical Manipulation, uOttawa

Over the past four months, I've been hosted as a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa in the Pelling Lab for Biophysical Manipulation (Andrew Pelling, PI). I've been affiliated with the Pelling Lab for the last six years, first as a long-term, (periodically) visiting artist-in-residence, and now continuing some of the collaborative research I began a few years ago with Daniel Modulevsky, as well as my PhD research intersecting witchcraft and tissue engineering.

Most of my laboratory work at Pelling Lab thus far has been attempting to establish baseline data in cell culture using different commercially-available serum types - meaning I am growing a variety of human and animal cell types (muscle, connective tissue, and cancer) in human serum at different concentrations and in fetal calf serum at 10% (the industry standard), in order to build important information to then compare my serum-alternative developments to.

A very messy assortment of my lab notes on paper towel scraps.

Even though it can be useful as a measure, I despise working with data, and despise such controlled experiments. As an artist, it is counter to my usual way of working. The focus on numbers and incessant repetition of experiments, particularly when they don't yield the expected numbers (re-do, again and again and again) is anathema. The static nature of predictable results translates into tedium - for example, a fixed number of cells (say, 10,000) should double to roughly 20,000 in 18-24 hours, depending on cell type, and then increase exponentially from there. I am counting millions and millions of cells, at four different date points per week, at three samples per date point, per serum type and per cell type. It is mind-numbing, overwhelming and mechanistic work and more often than not, it fucks up - the cells misbehave, die, the math is wrong, the equipment breaks, etc. And, this is science: hellishly abstract, variable according to an infinite number of factors, and somewhat farcical in its imprecision (when precision is the goal). How do I know I'm getting every last little microscopic cell off the bottom of the petri dish? I can rinse and rinse and rinse the dish after digesting them with enzymes, and still, there will be cells left in it, washing around in the crevices at the edge of the dish or refusing to let go of the bottom of it, sticking to the sides of the pipette used to suck up the fluid, etc - every step of the process loses some cells. Therefore, all of my cell counts are approximate, averaged out, relative to each other and produce very massage-able data (like all data). And then, what about the deviant data, the outliers? If the data doesn't fit the predicted outcomes, it is tossed out as meaningless. The data must conform. I could philosophize about this all day. I am not anti-science, but I have grown weary of doing it...

Part of my research is also looking at how creative (ritual) practices might be integrated into laboratory experiments and what that might look like, do, change, or comment on. Within the context of doing tissue culture, this is wrapped up in concepts of ecology, sex/gender/reproduction, life and death -- bodies and how we treat bodies: bodies as meat, bodies as material, bodies as compartmentalized units of cells and other stuff, bodies as sociopolitical vectors, bodies as environmental agents, and bodies as the vehicle to a sense of spirituality for the individuals that inhabit them or use them.

In my months-long quest to source serum alternatives, mainly whole blood from live animals and humans (not requiring any slaughter), I've had the opportunity to connect with a couple of wonderful people who happen to manage small ranches in the area. These individuals, living in a way that is extremely intimate with the food cycle and its life/death animacy, are invaluable resources for thinking about bodily interfaces as simultaneously consumable resources and affective, familial entitites. In my conversations with each other them, I've learned about how the life processes of ranch animals very much determine the food cycle of humans who eat them, as well as how the multiple levels of bureaucracy around federal and provincial food production determine the kinds of lives that ranch animals can live.

An elk rancher I've spent time visiting, explained to me how his semi-wild elk roam a large, wooded area most of the year. The females are in estrus for one to two months of the year, meaning the males are in rut and completely unapproachable. This rancher intervenes very little in the lives of the elk he cares for, and slaughters usually once a year when the elk are more docile and come around looking for food. The animals are also tested annually for communicable diseases but otherwise, are free to be elk, within the confines of the managed woodland. The impact factor of the elk reproductive cycle on the rate and timing of meat acquisition/ production is huge - it is seasonal, and requires attunement with the animals that can only come from an intimate, practiced understanding of them. This is a deeply situational, embodied knowledge of what it means to take a life to sustain others (humans).

Another rancher I've spent time talking to is firstly an academic specializing in environmental policy and climate change, and secondly, manages a small commercial farm that started out as a hobby farm. He has mainly sheep and some pigs, egg-laying chickens and ducks. His adult introduction to rural life (he grew up as an urbanite) has imbued him with a deeply connected sense of the life/death cycle, natural or not, which has facilitated a nuanced reckoning of his own mortality and a greater capability of negotiating the psychological impacts of loss in his own life and relationships. His ranching emphasis is on silva-agriculture, a system of farming that works to support the health of the soil and greater ecology by pasturing and planting amongst treed spaces (versus cleared fields). He explained how certain bylaws become prohibitive when attempting to farm/ranch in such a way that is non-industrialized, as the regulations are all geared towards industrial farming and production and may be non-feasible for a small producer.

I asked him specifically about what rituals he and his wife may have developed in dealing with the care and then slaughter and processing of their animals, and he explained that he is unfortunately not allowed to keep his animals on the ranch for slaughter but instead is forced to ship them off to a federally-regulated abattoir. Transport distresses the animals and this kind of treatment bothers him, so he and his wife attempt to calm the animals as much as possible and say their good byes at the point of loading the truck - again, the number of animals is very small and each has its own name. To be divorced from the full life/death cycle of the animals is an alienation that he feels pervades much of urban-industrialized society. We don't learn to appreciate the real cost of our food.

These conversations are of course directly relevant to my research and practice in mammalian tissue culture, particularly where I am interested in ritual practice, spiritual connectedness through bodies, and the new capitalist promise of lab-grown meat. More to come on this later, but personally, I'd much rather be counting sheep than losing sleep over my cell counts.