Sunday, 21 June 2015

an Arctic adventure

I've come to spend the midsummer at Kilpisjärven biologinen asema to do a residency with the wonderful Ars Bioarctica.

The idea is to do some work and see if there is collaborative fun to be had anywhere, at any rate I'll be spending some quality time with these guys:

Kilpisjärvi is in North-western Finland.  We're in Sápmi, where the Sámi people traditionally live, also known as Lapland, or the 'land of the midnight sun', if you wish, a very special part of the world.

My house is right underneath Saana fjell, a sacred mountain, here it is in the actual midnight sun at actual midnight:

It's midsummer today but it's only the beginning of springtime

Still a bit of snow lying about.

It's a bit of alright here.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Painting with eukaryotes

Right then, this time I'm making paint for muticellular organisms for a change, can you guess which?

Ha ha, that's right, humans, lovely, fantastic humans.  I've been teaching a wee course in 'Winter flowers in egg tempera' at the Botanics.

 It's a bit of a tall order as it's a very procedural business, you have to prime and gesso your own boards and then mix your pigments with your egg yolk and then get to grips with how to use the paint, which isn't quite like anything else.
If you want to know how to do it,  Koo Schadler is excessively good at it and generously shares her how-to expertise here.
We were doing this sort of thing:

I'm fond of doing this as it involves plenty of old-fashioned craftsmanship which is great for slowing down the thinking.  There's a lovely textility to the work, the paint is applied in lots of translucent layers of small brushstrokes so you get a very lively surface which is very appropriate for an animist-mechanist type like me, who likes to think of the joyful seething animation of everything as it cavorts about its business.
And there is something glorious about the organism-ishness of the thing you make, with its wooden support, and its rabbit-skin glue colloids, and its boney, chalky ground, and its fatty eggy skin.

Why flowers in particular? Simply because that's what we do at the Botanics, we look at flowers. 

What are we doing here?  These classes are marketed as opportunities to "develop your skills and abilities", the idea being that a person could choose to use them as a basis for all kinds of follow-up work later on, if they wished, or simply enjoy them as a sort of hardcore way of having quiet fun.  So they have to function as 'leisure' or 'hobby' activities and be transformative-educational at the same time.  I've been wondering, what is the difference between 'leisure' and 'culture'? *

Seems like a bit of a luxury, maybe. But I wish there were more of this sort of stuff in the world. A number of my students were very clear that they were doing it purely for the recreation, and yet each of their pieces emerged to have its own story, to be a small document of their being-in-the-world, their relationships with their plants and their materials, their thoughtfulness and their intelligence.

As for me, I don't have a scooby why the world might need an enlarged dissection of a cycalmen in egg tempera. But there you are, it's got one now, and it'll have to make of it the best it can.

One of the great things about this medium is that because you use food to make your paint, you are viscerally aware of the consuming nature of doing your doing. Especially as you only use the yolk.  I'd been  guiltily throwing out the whites for ages. (Sometimes after a long "gonna make you into meringues, honest," limbo at the back of the fridge, leading to the F.A.Q. in our house, "Um, is this some Art.... or Science....?") But look! The Universe provides me with a Marvellous Egg-white Dispenser, in the form of Blue, my wonderful studio neighbour's wonderful pal.

*The answer to that of course is; "If it's done by youngish men, then it's certainly Culture, and if it's done by older women, then it's certainly Leisure."

Friday, 14 November 2014

New Model Organisms

One of my projects at the moment is having a look at some of the wild and weedy legumes growing in my neighbourhood.  Here's some Medicago sativa, a.k.a. alfalfa or lucerne. It's a very important crop especially for fodder and makes great sprouts, not so common in the wild round these parts. I found it growing by the doorway of an industrial paintshop down by the Waters of Leith.

It's also a 'model organism' - a term that denotes a species that gets unusually prodded and pointed at and stared at by scientists.

I didn't set out to draw model organisms - scientist pals often lament that everyone studies one or two species and knows loads about them and next to nothing about all the others we live alongside. Never mind, sez I, it's not as if we'll know a right lot more about any of 'em by the time I've finished with them anyway.

Here's another one, a Nicotiana benthamiana. Unrelated project, unrelated plant, this one is a gentle tobacco relative that is always getting experimented on by virologists because it has so few defenses. 

I can't tell you what we're doing with it because it's Top Secret. 
(Ok it isn't really, just a Bit Secret.  I just said that to sound important. Look! There's going to be Red Lab Coats! Artists love lab coats because it makes us feel legitimate which we don't normally get to feel. It's one of the downsides to having an independent practice and nobody enjoys it but you just have to suck it up. Or get a job. Some artists try to compensate by making grotesquely inflated claims about their achievement and value but I don't think they should bother, do you? Anyway, a coloured lab coat scores extra points, the higher the biosecurity level, the more points you get. Perhaps we should put our Labcoat Kudos Points on our CVs instead of the grossly inflated claims. )

Anyway, this I can say: there will be viruses. Here's the babies in the nursery, 

 an infection-contraption
and an infected plant
 and a poorly one.

What will I add to these discussions about these so-much discussed plants?  Is there actually anything special about a picture that has been made by human hands, with this particular, direct, continuous bodily contact? Aside from it being easier to do certain ways of ordering ideas, prioritising types of information, ordering forms I mean.  I feel that there are special powers of storytelling but I couldn't tell you what exactly.

Romance, at any rate. Not that the work of scientists isn't work of passion, of care, of love of all kinds, it is of course, often profoundly so,  though it does sometimes lose a bit in the presentation. But I think it is actually very hard to do colouring-in without making that stuff explicit, visible, and readable.  Regardless of whether you think you're being "objective" or not.  What do you think?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Five plants that nodulate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria

Hooray! Here they are, my lovely nodulating pals, this year's work. It's on show now until the 28th September 2014 at RBGE :

Acacia cornigera (L.) Willd.  - bull's horn acacia.

Lathyrus vernus (L.) Bernh.  - spring vetch.

Strongylodon macrobotrys A. Gray - jade vine.


Myrica gale L. - bog myrtle.

Hippophae rhamnoides L.  - sea buckthorn.

I'll maybe say a bit more about these later, but right now I'm going to sleep.  Goodnight, and thank you all.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A fabulous specimen

Thanks to the amazing Lulú Rico Arce for inventing this fabulous way of preserving a whole mass of inflorescence!

With us in spirit

Hee hee.  I've come all the way to Kew to paint a pickled pea-pod. These are from the Spirit Collections, which are indeed perhaps the most magical of all.  The specimens are stored in Copenhagen Solution, a cocktail of 70% industrial methylated spirit, 28% distilled water and 2% glycerol.

Some flowers too...

I'm very excited because they keep copies of illustrations here right with the specimens. Rightly so. I'm fascinated by the way herbarium specimens function as forms of data, whilst also being preserved bodies of living things, if not loved then certainly treated with gentleness, care and respect. (Apart  from having been murderously lopped and appropriated in the first place, of course.) Similarly for the illustrations, which sit in all kinds of interesting spaces between art & science, information and entertainment, explanation and description,  professionalism & hobby or menial work, depending on when they were made.  Everything here is getting reorganised around APGIII classification, and pictures get a nice magenta-coloured box.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

It's all Foucault - and no knickers.

Here's me, performing my femininity again, doing The Bloody Avant-Garde at Anatomy last week.

Splendid photos here by Richard Dyson.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

It's all stamens and no style.

Here's a picture of home studio corner today.  Note the fabulous jug of Goo, which had contained my bog myrtle specimens in some sphagnum and peaty muddy water so it would feel at home -  had to take the specimens out to dry out but I can't bear to throw out the substrate in case there are marvellous life forms lurking in there.

Anyway today we're looking at the flowers of the marvellous Vachellia cornigera or Acacia cornigera or bullhorn acacia . There's my specimen in a jar behind the paintbox.

So the nice yellow rockets are the inflorescences, and each of these individual tufts is a flower. Hundreds of them.

Very very small, and slightly sticky, though inclined to jump into outer space if you come at 'em with a scalpel. Can't say I blame them.

Thing is, there are hundreds of the male parts, but I'm buggered if I can find the female parts. Look! And that's the tip of my scalpel blade there, so you get a sense of how big they are.

That little brown effort there at the top is some sort of dysfunctional ovary, I think....

and finally, a wee pod.  I went through a large part of that inflorescence and only found five or six amongst a hundred or thereabouts, whatever is going on there probably accounts for the very small fruit to flower ratio - you can see the fruits on this herbarium specimen from Kew.

Some jolly sketchbook guff for your viewing pleasure. I got very interested in thosesmall brown cups in between the flowers, I think they are probably trichomes of some sort. They start out as fishy scales covering the flower buds;

and persist on their stalks as trumpet-shaped structures after the flowers fall off.

The first attempt at a posh version of the dissection. I used a dip-pen with paint in it for the fine lines, which just weren't fine enough.

Traditional tiny paintbrush fared much better in the second attempt. Also ultramarine violet for darkening the yellow, very nice, made for lovely soft granular greys.

Soundtrack for today is TWiM #73: Eyeing Root Nodule Development , delightful to listen to although a bit disrupted by the Leith Emergency Services Symposium: "Coping with the Consequences of Poverty, Discrimination, Disenfranchisement and Alienation" which takes place outside my window every now & then. Happily I think everyone walked away from this one.