Cultures of Housekeeping

by Gordon Douglas, Atopic Art Micro-Residency Artist, May 2017

Over the last three months, I have become fascinated with the organisational structures at Ninewells Hospital that help to organise communication, annotation and performance. As a practitioner, I’m already invested in researching the kinds of invisible infrastructure that govern our performance and actions in everyday life, so am feeling very inspired by the possibilities in working in the context of such a vast institution like Ninewells. I am very happy to be based in Brown Lab, a genetic-eczema research laboratory, and microcosm of the hospital at large.

Katalin Ladik, Spring Buzz, 1977, Graphic Score.

Whilst in residence, I have managed to observe a lot of different spaces that make up the medical complex. Included in these are: the Medical Records department, a monumental library, storing over 110,000 patients’ records from the past year; children’s and adult’s eczema clinics with professor Sara Brown, where she diligently guides patients towards maintaining and treating their eczema; the Arboretrum, a woodland area to the south of the hospital that’s both a relaxation area for patients as well as a living archive of tree-life; and the many public spaces of the hospital where I’ve been doing all my browsing through accessing Patient WiFi, a hospital-wide WiFi provided with Jeremy Hunt’s pledge in 2010 to contribute £1bn to wireless technology across the NHS. The hospital is a complicated and political landscape which has taken a long time to unpack even a small amount of it. I am grateful for the help of Sara Brown, ASCUS and Sara Cook in helping provide access to many of these spaces.

Bugoslaw Schaeffer, PR-IVII, 1972, Graphic Score

In all the above, I have been interested in the accumulation of information, the physicality of this and how this wealth can be charted, navigated, and transposed into knowledge. A big influence on the research I have been contemplating is the computational work of Dr. Chris Cole, a bioinformatician working with Brown Lab. A big part of his role with the organisation is the assortment of results from experiments to achieve an outcome of definitive and meaningful correlation. Chris uses techniques like k-means clustering, a designed algorithm that assembles data into an amount of clusters that you decide upon (eg. data can be organised to produce a graph with three peaks to prove the success of an experiment). Chris, and two other members from the bioinformatics department at the LifeSciences school, also host a bi-weekly drop-in to help others produce significant findings from their data.

In April, I had the opportunity to work with Dr Chris Cole on a public workshop with ASCUS Lab that aimed to draw parallels between research I have been making into the history of performance scores, and the characteristic of uncertainty in data analysis. We drew from Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Scratch Orchestra’, an egalitarian model for organising music being made regardless of level of skill or profession. The original group who were active in the late 1960s, met weekly and developed unconventional musical notation to improvise from. We invited Ceylan Hay, a musical artist, to help run choral and sonic exercises as well as facilitating the final exercise were attendees produced scores for a finale performance at the end of the session. Although in some ways, the exercises didn’t fully establish this parallel, participants were able to understand a lot more about the health of eczema through close dialogue with Sara, Chris and ex-lab worker Linda, who were on hand to talk through their research and influence the production of eczema-related scores.

Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Scratch Music’, a book documenting the prolific output of scores from the Scratch Orchestra.

Darnla and James explaining the concept of the cyclical score based on eczema treatment.

Marina and Eric showcasing an excerpt of their score.

Exterior to the knowledge production taking place in the laboratory, a whole host of social interactions are taking place which designate at what pace scientific advancements will be ‘made’. After reflecting on my time thus far with ASCUS, Brown Lab and Ninewells Hospital, I have decided the most productive course of action is to investigate and intervene in one of the weekly meetings. Every Tuesday, the Lab group meets for approximately an hour to discuss current problems including: housekeeping, contamination and the effects of institutional policy on the habitual methods and materials used in the lab. One member of the group presents their current field of research, with topics ranging across dermatology and computational statistics to genetic opportunities for predicting the likelihood of illness.

Over the course of the residency, I have been trying to interpret the various architectures that house the decisions made by the group, and the kinds of knowledge that are produced through the scientific method. Having recently read about Aristotle’s topoi koinoi and topoi idioi, “common places” and “special places” respectively, I have become fascinated by the special kinds of wit, metaphor, dynamic comedy, and rigour that constitute the group’s rhetoric. Virno details in ‘A Grammar of the Multitude’, that ‘common places’ is the new representation of society post-state, it is the space of communal rhetoric, that opposites are opposite, that more is more than less; these kinds of argument prevail over all subject arenas in a post-fordist economic model. ‘Special places’ on the other hand are being pushed to the fringes, heritages that do not correspond to the new universal model of capital. I am very interested in documenting or capturing the essence of this kind of rhetoric as a form of jargon, in an attempt to find out what it might mean to hang on to these forms of specialised knowledge production.

A Grammar of the Multitude, Book by Paolo Virno

The lab group is bound by a heritable group dynamic that is unknowingly and habitually passed between members of the group (members of the current group did not know Professor Ball who was present in 2002, but whose COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) documents still provide a semi-constitutional method for how to work with recurring hazardous chemicals). Although it is almost certain that these methods will have been re-invigorated by new colleagues or through neglect by longstanding members of the team, it is interesting to view these documents as forms of generic ‘common places’, the threatening, standardised and universal method of dealing with risk. This extends to the jargon used, and the literacy of each member to fluently perform with the pre-conditioned and rehearsed notions of the group. A meeting which begins each week with housekeeping is not only about cleaning rotas and lab responsibilities, but also about keeping the household: it’s rules, it’s values, and the way in which it’s performance, communication and annotation are organised.

Does this household built around a model that is softly enforced and reproduced through weekly meetings constitute some kind of alternative family modeling? An inheritance that is based on anti-normative reproduction and a communal goal? A recent journal on queer theory ‘Queer Theory without Antinormativity’ (ed. Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, 2015), aims to understand queer theory through a social sciences lens, questioning queer theory’s one defining aim – the active rejection and revulsion towards societal ‘norms’. The journal experiments with the idea that societal norms are actually the products of anti-normative behaviour/attitudes/lifestyles. If charted in a scientific manner, anti-normative activity might be seen as the thin extreme to all activity through which a median average can be calculated. What I understand from this assumption is that if anti-normative activity is so crucial in the development of societal norms (themselves imaginary, and impossible, constructs) then what defines society is that which is anti-society. ‘Queer’ or the horizon point within the task of anti-normative societal criticism, can therefore be read as the surface, and the end-game. Queer theory distinguishes itself from other sciences though through a re-imagining of this fluctuating horizon. As soon as anti-normative conditions become consolidated into the larger canonical ‘norm’ they are rallied against. Instead of the trajectory of health sciences towards the absolute cure of an illness, the objective is based more on rhetoric and critical method – the means for the trajectory.

In two weeks, I will host a Journal Club with the lab group. A Journal Club is discursive, scientific model of deconstructing and critiquing the published findings of another scientist.

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