Art (& Science) Talk with Marguerite Perret
Marguerite Perret working at the Grant Museum, University College London. Photo courtesy of the artist.
“At different times I am some combination of colleague, collaborator, educator, mentor, facilitator, archivist, witness, and activist. And all of those roles are part of my way of being an artist.” ---Marguerite Perret
Marguerite Perret is an interdisciplinary artist and associate art professor at Washburn University who creates community-based installations for art and science institutions. Her work surveys ecology and health issues by means of artifacts, decorative arts, and exhibit design. For creative research, she’s traveled to the United Kingdom to study collections at medical and natural history museums. And for over a decade, Perret has partnered with scientists, healthcare professionals, and artists---including her husband, Bruce Scherting, director of exhibits at the University of Kansas’ Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center. Last week, we interviewed Perret via e-mail to learn more about her curiosities for the natural world. She spoke to us about why she chose a career in the arts over sciences, and the importance of sharing knowledge between the disciplines.
NEA: What do you remember as your first engagement or experience with the arts?
MARGUERITE PERRET: Two stand out in my memory. As a young child, my cousins and I would visit my grandmother for weeks at a time during the summer. She lived on an ocean inlet in a small rural community in New England. The water’s edge was a briny, mucky place teeming with small marine animals, grasses, and seaweed. We would scoop out starfish, mussels, and small crabs and place them in buckets of seawater. Sitting on the dock, we made careful observational drawings of our subjects before releasing them back into the dark waters.
[Then] in fifth grade, our class had a student teacher who peppered our reading and math sessions with demonstrations on the importance of understanding anatomy when drawing animals. Her parents were graphic artists. Living just outside a large metropolitan area, I was aware that art existed in museums, but it was a revelation that artists lived in my community. Art and life were not so separate after all.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
PERRET: There are many ways to be an artist. This is a really interesting time because the definition of art and what it means to be an artist is so broad. I thought I would follow a scientific career when I was younger, but at the last minute, I checked art instead of biology when filling out my college applications. Now I think I have the best of both worlds because as things worked out, I have been able to combine these interests.
My version of being an artist centers on intellectual curiosity, engagement, and service. The work that excites me tends to be issue-based, engages the community, and has an educational component. It definitely falls outside the art-market model. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate sales when they happen, but most of my projects are funded through partnerships with various types of cultural and community-based organizations. In recent years, colleges and universities have started to offer degrees in Art and Social Engagement and Environmental Art. But when I first started working this way, it was not as common, and I wasn’t always sure where the line was. Then I just stopped worrying about these distinctions.
Collaboration is essential to my process. The kind of installations I do sometimes require extensive interaction with various skilled makers, scholars, scientists, writers, and community advocates. I also often partner with other artists. Brainstorming ideas and problem-solving with people you enjoy working with can be thrilling. There are some parallels between this approach and how a research team functions where there is a lead investigator or two, but many people contribute to the project in highly significant ways. My most consistent collaborator is my husband Bruce Scherting. Bruce is the director of exhibitions at a university-based natural history museum and has worked as an exhibition designer for major institutions. It is truly life and art without separation. Working together is a pleasure and our ideas are stronger for it, but it can get a little prickly around the house if we are not seeing eye-to-eye on how an installation should progress.
NEA: How do you see the intersection of art and science?
PERRET: In recent history, art and science have often been presented in an oppositional, binary relationship. In response, physicist C.P. Snow presented his famous “two cultures” lecture over sixty years ago. He called for a bridging of the disciplines in a manner that would benefit both, while yet maintaining a separation between what he felt were deeply divided traditions. A more contemporary approach is to consider how the histories and methodologies of art and science intersect. Both are forms of inquiry centered around experimentation and exploration, learning, and sharing. There is an interesting correlation in the ways [Bruce and I] work---between the studio and the laboratory. Some artists work in studio-laboratories. Collaboration between the sciences and the arts has the potential to create new kinds of knowledge.
NEA: What do you like most about collaborating and creating art from science?
PERRET: It is very exciting to sit down with a scientist, collection manager, or medical researcher and see the world through their eyes. A chance to share knowledge---the promise of cross-fertilization, discussions about visualization, and interpretation---is the attraction on both sides. We always find out something new or surprising that challenges our own expectations or preconceptions.
Sometimes [Bruce and I] are invited to work with a collection or institution, and sometimes we have an idea that requires a specific kind of image or knowledge. When we approach a scientist or researcher for a project, the response is almost always extremely enthusiastic. There is so much mutual interest and respect. Invariably, we end up working behind the scenes with access to objects and research data that most people never see.
I was thinking about this while working in the spirit collections (things pickled in jars) at the Natural History Museum in London. We were there for an ongoing project that documents rare and recently extinct species that exist only or primarily in museum collections. The curator was present to answer any of our questions, but then left us alone in the collections. And what a collection! I documented several ‘type’ specimens from the Challenger expedition of 1872-76. The Challenger was the first global oceanographic expedition. A ‘type’ specimen is the first collected example of a species that is described and named, and it serves as the baseline for identifying other members of that species. It is such an honor to be trusted with something that is so absolutely irreplaceable.
NEA: How do current issues in science and medicine inform your artistic practice?
PERRET: Some artists work in laboratories with bioengineers; others are artist-inventors and technologists. I am primarily interested in the cultural and social dimensions of scientific and medical discoveries. I want to know what are the intellectual and public impacts of how knowledge and innovation are administered and mediated. Who has access to the benefits? What are the risks? As social media, computer science, and biotechnology interact with and sometimes merge with the body, there are some really interesting questions about what it means to be human and how that might change in the future.
There have been some interesting recent developments in our understanding about how cancer cells create microenvironments in the tissues around tumors and insights into the molecular processes that cause Alzheimer’s disease. References to new developments like these are layered into the work as it develops. I have a tendency to work toward a visual and conceptual complexity that can be appreciated at multiple levels. Visually, [my work] is very densely packed with scientific patterns and images, sculptural elements, projections, and sometimes performance---all relating to a specific issue, but each stratified component provides a different twist, another perspective.
NEA: To date, what's been your most transformative arts experience?
PERRET: The first time someone expressed how deeply an installation that I had worked on moved them shook me up a bit. I am so in my head when I am working, and even though I often deal with difficult subject matter, there is some distance afforded through the process. But things changed when I started working [to include] historical and contemporary personal narratives in my work. I didn’t understand the power that [these] could have. I think it was the realization that art can resonate in the psyche as profoundly as any other experience. And with that comes responsibility.
NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your work as an artist?
PERRET: To create installations that are visually and conceptually expansive and accumulative. What I mean by that is while I do create objects, it is the collection of objects and images and documents---everything together---that makes the piece. There are always aesthetically interesting components, but they don’t really stand alone. They need to be part of the assemblage, whether that fills a tabletop or a large room.
All of this goes back to a painting of a bird I did in middle school. It was a failure because it became so overworked as I tried to communicate everything about that bird in this single image. I wanted the viewer to understand the bird’s three-dimensional form, its feather structure, species, [and] feel how it might move, what it eats, and even sense how it might sing. Then I saw Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine, and finally understood that the essence of something is not a realistic representation of that thing. But I was still in love with the feathers and the skeletal structure, and how it flies---the science of what a bird is. I started to take clues from the natural history museum. Multiple drawings, models and text---all displayed together. I guess I have never looked back.
NEA: Are there any past or present artists, scientists, or researchers who have influenced your work? If so, how?
PERRET: I was very fortunate to grow up near New York and to have parents who took me to all the museums. Klee was definitely a favorite. Duchamp, Arp, Ernst, De Chirico, and Magritte… pretty much any of the European artists from the first part of the 20th century. Also, Medieval paintings. Something about those two things connected for me.
As a child seated in front of the television, I was inspired by the animal behaviorist Jane Goodall and ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. I think their appeal lay in their apparent accessibility and the romantic ideal of the individual setting out to uncover the mysteries of the world. Later, I was intrigued by biophysicist Rosalind Franklin who in 1952 captured the X-Ray diffraction pattern of the DNA molecule. It was this image that enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to understand the spiral double-helix form of DNA. It was the first time I thought about the visual image as the agent of discovery, not just as a means to document knowledge.
Art and science truly merge for me in the work of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, the father and son Dresden-based glass artists. Working with simple techniques and materials in the late 19th and early 20th century, they made thousands of extraordinarily detailed models of plants, marine invertebrate, and microscopic life forms. They are best known here for the famous glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but their models are in scientific collections all over the world.
Healing Botanicals (chemo) Chair from The Waiting Room: Lost and Found breast cancer tableau, part of a multidisciplinary collaborative installation. Image courtesy of the artist.
NEA: Could you tell us about The Waiting Room project?
PERRET: The Waiting Room project developed out of my interests in medical science, history, the psychology of institutional spaces, and the medicalized body. Initially, it was an expansion of Diagnostik, an installation that Bruce and I created at the University of Iowa Medical Museum that explored mental illness. It grew into a creative collaboration examining health and healthcare more broadly through aesthetic, scientific, cultural, political, and literary lenses. The project includes The Waiting Room: Lost and Found installation, A Waiting Room of One's Own catalogue and essay collection, public events, community collaborations, workshops, and lectures. The collaborating team is comprised of myself, visual artists Bruce Scherting, Stephanie Lanter, Robin Lasser, and writer Sarah Smarsh.
The installation combines sculpture, sound, and image. As a conceptual framework for this exploration, the liminal space of the medical waiting room provides a psychologically rich context. This is the place where people wait to interface with the medical system, where patients are processed before testing, diagnosis, consultation, or treatment begins. Evoking this environment is a series of distinct tableaus with hybridized chairs composed of found and sculptural elements that embody a particular health issue. Visitors are invited to listen to recorded interview excerpts and sound compositions that provide intimate and expanded perspectives, or multiple “voices” for each health issue. In this position, viewers are made participants in the waiting community. Additional participation is encouraged through interactive stations where visitors can share their own stories inviting engagement and understanding. At the eating disorder tableau, individuals write their own stories on food wrappers, crumble them up, and push the wrappers through an opening in a sculptural chair that resembles a distended stomach. It comes out the other end in a humorous fashion. Some of the subjects we address are tough and disturbing to some of the visitors. Yet, at this station alone, more than 200 stories were contributed during a recent iteration of the installation, and when this was previously displayed at a women’s college, it inspired students to start an eating disorder support group.
We have conducted programming or reached out to a variety of patient, student, and community organizations including cancer support groups, nursing students, universities and colleges, art therapists, medical professionals, community activists, and women and families in shelters. This effort to present a diverse narrative recognizes the intensely personal experience of the individual while acknowledging the wider global implications of health care.
Currently, we are working on a prototype of an ambulatory waiting room for the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. The idea that “waiting” is now mobile seems appropriate in our current culture. The Drop-In/Pop-Up Waiting Room project will serve as a bridge connecting two narrative threads: what do we expect from healthcare, and what do providers and policymakers bring to the table. Visitors will be able to express their viewpoints by “voting” at a kiosk. The data that is collected will be animated and projected as an artwork. A soundscape based on interviews of health care professionals will speak to the passion and desire to solve the big issues in medicine today. Although this test phase will be located in a museum, the next step is to travel to community venues and public spaces. The project seeks to exchange ideas and explore the complexities, incongruities, and possibilities of public healthcare policies, access, medical research, and public opinion. It is collaboration with the medical community and the public, and their participation helps drive the content.
NEA: What issues inspire your work and what would you like to investigate next?
PERRET: I think the environment and healthcare are the great issues of our time. And they are not exclusive. Right now, I am very interested in the medical humanities, which is loosely defined as an interdisciplinary dialogue between the arts (visual, theatrical, literary, performance-based) and medical education. It is a form of humanities based in a socio-cultural inquiry and critique of medical institutions, practice, and policy. The intention of these programs is to increase empathy and understanding of the human condition in future practitioners. It also provides an opportunity for patients and the public (and we are all patients at some time in our lives) to voice their experiences and concerns.
We were thrilled when the Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity at the University of Kansas Medical Center selected A Waiting Room of One’s Own(the book of essays and exhibition catalog that is part of The Waiting Room project), to give to 250 incoming medical students as part of a program that selects one common read each year.
Next, I am thinking about the permeable nature of the body. The body is in constant conversation with the world. Toxins and changes in the environment are absorbed into our bodies and become part of our very being, often to harmful effect. Environmental science and medicine coming together.
Healing Botanical/Taxol Molecule Pattern, a detail of the chair textile from Healing Botanicals (chemo) Chair. The elements include chemicals found in plants that have been proven effective or are in current study as breast cancer treatments are represented along with scans of botanical specimens and cancer cell imagery. Among the compounds represented is Taxol, first discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew as part of the National Cancer Institute plant screening research program in the 1960s. Image courtesy of the artist.
NEA: What do you think is the artist's role in or responsibility to the community?
PERRET: There is no one answer to this question because we all belong to multiple communities and our roles shift accordingly. At different times I am some combination of colleague, collaborator, educator, mentor, facilitator, archivist, witness, and activist. And all of those roles are part of my way of being an artist.
I do think it is in every artist’s best interest to identify and reach out to the different communities around them and build relationships. Artists need to engage with their own communities, but it is also very important to interact with people outside the art community. Sometimes just being visible is the most influential thing an artist can do. I am thinking back to the first question and the impact the realization that artists live and work everywhere had on me.
NEA: What is the community's responsibility to the artist?
PERRET: Again, I wonder “which communities?” If the question is referring to municipalities and other geographically bound places, then I would say, build, maintain, and nurture the scaffolding to grow the arts. Richard Florida describes the “creative class” as an economic group comprising up to one-quarter of the workforce that is involved in various creative problem-solving fields ranging from the traditional arts to technology and innovation. That is indisputably a large and consequential segment of the working population. Additionally, art, culture, and access to nature are experiences that many people look for when deciding on where they wish to live. It just makes sense.
But art is not just an economic stimulus. Ancient humans---tiny societies surviving on minimal resources and the most basic technologies---created images and objects. They probably had music and dance and stories too. Every culture has an artistic tradition. Zoo elephants creating paintings aside, humans are the only species that intrinsically engages in art making. That is why art is so powerful; its part of our heredity (inheritance) of being human. When we support the arts, we support our own humanity.
NEA: At the NEA, we believe that "Art Works." What does that phrase mean to you?
PERRET: While I agree that the economic argument for the arts is effective, I do worry that framing the arts primarily through an economic context or as a vehicle for urban renewal will too narrowly limit what type of projects will be publicly supported. In Kansas, there has been much upheaval in regard to state funding for the arts. First, the state arts commission was eliminated. Now, it is back, in a new form, under the Department of Commerce. Will applications for funding have to meet the criteria that they create jobs or offer other economic advantages? What about work that is important but does not create direct revenues? This is all new, and how it plays out remains to be seen.
I hope we will always focus first on “art works” primarily as artist’s work, and how that serves as a means to inspire and challenge individuals and communities. The economic benefits will follow.