Original essay published in FIVE:2:ONE: An Art and Literary Journal issue #20, 2018

Science Advances, But For Who?

by Reyes Ramirez

            Science and its practitioners are always held as the bastion of truth in America, free of bias where the “facts & numbers don’t lie.” However, many POC & LGBTQ communities know this to be a flawed premise, whether it be: the lack of POC/LGBT STEM practitioners; scarce access or outright denial to medicine & technology; or simply accepted lies and myths regarding POC/LGBTQ physical & mental health by those in the medical field.

           Àngel Lartigue’s exhibition La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No, which I’ve had the privilege to see at BOX13 (where he is an artist-in-residence) and G Spot Gallery, challenges conventional understandings and acceptances on the process of science. In Lartigue’s ambitious exhibition, there’s photography, performance, sculpture, screen-printing, zines, and fashion design that fuse with work sheets, lab coats, equipment, chemistry, and diagrams. By injecting artistic modes & practices into scientific methods, Lartigue builds a new foundation and lineage of science that invites the creative, the wondrous, and the personal into a flawed institution built on the detriment and exclusion of POC/LGBTQ communities.

 

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To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents… To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind…

-Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)

 

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            Imagine a scientist or doctor; a common ideation entails: a white coat, pen, and paper. I suppose this is meant to give an air of impartiality and provide authority to inspect, question, and analyze. Lartigue’s scientific uniform and process subvert the supposed inherent nature of non-bias or impartiality of whiteness and science. Not only that, but the Sub Scientist’s uniform changed with each DNA Extraction Booth performance, as opposed to keeping one standard outfit.

            Once, the Sub Scientist wore a sleeveless lab coat, a black jockstrap, a black tank top, a black cap, black latex gloves, and a necklace lined with red clay calaveras; once, the Sub Scientist wore a see-through, sleeveless lab coat with loads of hair attached to the back, a black jockstrap, a blonde wig, a dark & fat beaded necklace, black latex gloves, forearm-covering gauze, and a black, leather choker; once, the Sub Scientist wore a sleeveless, black leather jacket where the arm holes were sharply frayed, sleeves replaced with gauze and covering both arms entirely up to the black latex gloves, a black jockstrap surrounded by a black skirting made of a frayed fabric, sort of leg warmers composed of black gauze that segue into shiny, black oxford boots, all capped by a black hat caked in paint or clay with a patch that declares “brown things are queer” on a logo of a syringe about to poke into the bottom of a luminous bulb with wings. If you don’t get a chance to see the Sub Scientist live, Lartigue provides large images at each exhibition of the Sub Scientist in his quintessential uniform: a white, button-up shirt with the bottom portion cut off and tucked in by a black tank top, white gloves, deep blue leggings under a black jockstrap, red and grey sneakers, bulbous and sheeny blue goggles with a gold frame, a huge necklace the shape of a red clay abacus or lyre with calaveras, a crown of phallus-like or ligaments or body parts the color of fleshy earth, all draped over with a white lab coat printed with the black image of La Santissima Muerte. Each appearance of the Sub Scientist is different, but they all have radical, wild interpretations of the scientist as performance, rethinking and reimagining the role as something otherworldly, perhaps magical, but revealing.

           Lartigue’s interpretation of the scientist provides a clear identity that pushes back on this daunting figure of cleanliness and a devouring, white void. Is there value in having an unbiased, impartial image from a doctor or scientist? Absolutely. But there’s value in openness and transparency as well. It can be sad to think about, how humans are so flawed and biased that they cannot admit it. To help others and/or for help to be accepted, we must wear masks such as uniforms which serve to remove individuality. The Sub Scientist is proudly brown skinned, sensual, queer, and speaks to you as an equal. There is value in a figure being transparent about their beliefs. After all, who are scientists and doctors loyal to? The truth? Research? Investors? Sponsors? Health? All? As people of color have particularly and historically experienced, this isn’t always too clear.

            The Sub Scientist is clear and open with what beliefs he aligns with. In the Sub Scientist performance with the leather jacket uniform, Lartigue was attached literally by beads (similar to the kind tu madre pinched between her dedos as she prayed porfa, porfa, porfa) to a large canvas with an acrylic painting slathered in red clay. The painting depicts a tree losing its leaves which have all piled at its base where a banner lays and has the word ‘eugenics’ written upon it but backwards. This is a reverse image of the logo for The Second International Congress of Eugenics of 1921, a conference where doctors and scientists from all over the world presented ‘research’ and ‘results’ on how to ‘improve human heredity.’ What is eugenics but the process of justifying genocide and segregation in service to the white, patriarchal imagination, of maintaining their own ‘purity’ and ownership over the bodies of non-white people? Lartigue’s process of DNA Extraction may not be scientific, but why was the ‘study’ of eugenics an institutional base for governments around the world? The Sub Scientist literally attaches themselves to values opposite of white, hetero-patriarchal normativity. Shouldn’t we hope all doctors and scientists do the same?

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In the United States we are slowly waking to the consciousness that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values. We are engaged in a serious struggle to maintain our historic republican institutions through barring the entrance of those who are unfit to share the duties and responsibilities of our well-founded government. The true spirit of American democracy that all men are born with equal rights and duties has been confused with the political sophistry that all men are born with equal character and ability to govern themselves and others, and with the educational sophistry that education and environment will offset the handicap of heredity. South America is examining into the relative value of the pure Spanish and Portuguese and of various degrees of racial mixture of Indian and Negroid blood in relation to the preservation of their republican institutions.

-Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, from The Second International Congress of Eugenics Address of Welcome (1921)

 

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            Upon entering the space featuring the opening for La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No, you’d see a crowd swelling around the artist, as the residents of Macondo did around Melquiades when he first brought ice. Lartigue would explain the process to those visiting the ‘DNA Extraction Booth’ (poesis mine): 

                        Using only household items

such as salt and water

to mouth swish cheek cells

then soap to break up the saliva cells

after spitting back into a cup and last,

rubbing alcohol to precipitate the saliva DNA

to the surface before transporting it

into vial tube with a toothpick,

the method takes less than 5 minutes to execute

all while the participant observes.

In the end, the participant takes home

a sample of extracted DNA from the scientist

in exchange for their own.

 

            Sure, the process outlined above may not make perfect sense, pero mira. When it comes to people and the personal, there is no such thing as the impartial and being prodded by someone in uniform inherently carries the weight of a judgement or analysis at the end. I mean, sure, that’s why you go to the doctor or a lab: to get results from a professional. But there’s just that disconnect where you’re to provide every little detail about yourself (habits, family history, pains, concerns, blood, piss, shit) but receive only a piece of paper, or results from an online portal, and maybe a call from an RN. There will be lab work done with processes you won’t understand either. No, Lartigue’s DNA exchange and a medical lab test do not hold equal weight within the realms of scientific research, but the imagination and a work of art aren’t beholden to the same values. In this case, the experiment is for a larger purpose.

            As mentioned above, the Sub Scientist wears a different uniform each performance. But one constant with each occurrence is that his equipment is laid out before him, either on a table or on a spread-out tarp on the floor: a molcajete of salt, a jug of water, a bottle of soap, a container of alcohol, cups, bowls, napkins, petri dishes filled with images of angels and the remains of some sort of organic material, toothpicks, a clay totem filled with vials which have tags attached that read “Raza sin Extinguir.” These are the tools of the magician, of the alchemist, of the healer, of the scientist, of the artist. Once the Sub Scientist gets your saliva sample, you will get to see them mix it in the aforementioned process. In a clear cup, you’ll see your essence diluted, mixed, congeal, and extracted with a toothpick. You will see bubbles form and rise to the top of the water like vapor into a cloud, like the first land rising to the surface of the ocean, something that resembles perhaps the formation of a constellation, or the beginning stages of a creation of a new being. Most importantly, it’s the genesis of wonder. Lartigue asks an existential question with this process: “In 100, 500, or 1,000 years from now, what would become of the flesh that was extracted & exchanged? After the original source body has passed, will it be a mummified preservation?” Maybe there isn’t a real answer, but the question stands there like a fresh death sentence. What will happen to your essence once the body is no more?

            What’s so captivating about this process is that you see it happen in real time as the Sub Scientist explains all this to you. Maybe you are looking Lartigue in the eye during this explanation. Maybe you are talking to someone else. Maybe you are looking at his uniform. Maybe you are taking a selfie. Either way, you get to participate in this process as an active agent and respond to it. In lab tests, you, a non-scientist, will not get to see your blood tested for a disease you may or may not have. You, the non-doctor, will have your eyes or breasts or genitals prodded or poked without inherently knowing what the process really entails or means. The Sub Scientist practices an inclusive interpretation of science that makes the scientist a participant in the process as much as you are. Really, it’s a balancing of the power dynamics between patient/subject and doctor/scientist.

            At the end of your DNA extraction, Lartigue hands over his essence in a vial for you to take. What will you do with it? Perform your own tests? Throw it away? Save it? Pass it on to your children? Will they save it and pass it on to their children? Down to 100, 500, or 1,000 years of your bloodline? It’s poetic. Don’t we all hold the essence of others in our being and pass them on as well? In this instance, you can hold it in your hand.

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The plaintiffs in […] Madrigal v Quilligan, were working-class Mexican-origin women who had been coerced into postpartum tubal ligations minutes or hours after undergoing cesarean deliveries…

            Madrigal v Quilligan, which ultimately pitted 10 sterilized women against obstetricians at County General, began in May 1978. The plaintiffs charged that their civil and constitutional rights to bear children had been violated, and that between 1971 and 1974 they had been victims of unwanted operations: coerced into signing consent forms hours or minutes before or after labor, not told that the procedure was irreversible, or simply sterilized without giving any consent... Although they varied by age, occupation, and number of children, their stories were strikingly similar. All of them had been approached about sterilization after having been in labor for several hours and had endured difficult childbirths, eventually performed by cesarean delivery. Their lawyers averred ‘these women were in such a state of mind that any consent which they may have signed was not informed,’ and that in 3 cases, no consent was obtained. Rebecca Figueroa was falsely given the impression that she was submitting to a reversible procedure. Elena Orozco was told that her hernia would be repaired only if she agreed to be sterilized, which she refused repeatedly, ‘until almost the very last minute when she was taken to be delivered.’ At no point after being admitted to County General in 1973 did Guadalupe Acosta sign a consent form. Dolores Madrigal did so after a medical assistant told her that her husband had already offered his signature, something that was patently untrue. Their accusations were supported by the affidavits of 7 additional women, one of whom stated that a County General doctor told her after her cesarean delivery that ‘I had too many children’ and that ‘having future children would be dangerous for me.’

            Despite corroborating testimony about sterilization abuse at County General, the judge decided for the [County General physicians], whom he determined had acted in good faith and intended no harm.

-from Dr. Alexandra Minna Stern’s article “STERILIZED in the Name of Public Health” (2005) regarding Madrigal v. Quilligan (1975)

 

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            There’s so much more to Lartigue’s exhibition, even more aspects that go beyond conventional conceptions of the gallery space. Sure, there’s some of the things you’d usually encounter at an art exhibition in La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No, like sculpture, photography, and paintings. Not that they aren’t amazing. In fact, they add layers to the overall challenging of scientific and artistic institutions and the revealing of the personal that informs science and medicine that the Sub Scientist Booth does.

            The sculptures, among many, in La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No are most prominently represented by an abacus. The frame, in the shape of an arc, of the abacus is crafted out of red clay with wax threads serving as the rods upon which clay calaveras, serving as beads, can be moved horizontally; in each clay calavera is a vial of extracted DNA from participants in the Sub Scientist Booth. It’s beautiful and raw, the tool of the Sub Scientist crafted by his own hands and consisting of essences from the earth and the human body rather than the cold, clinical instruments of the lab. Then there is a series of photographs taken at various locations in Texas entitled Self Portraits as I were Muertx that depict Lartigue in two forms: dead & alive. Haunting as they are mesmerizing, the photographs add to the notion that science and ritual are manifestations of the human imagination that seek to delay or nullify the inevitability of death and the fear it inspires; there’s a dark beauty to that process.

            What stands out to me is the ever-inclusionary nature of Lartigue’s art practice. Littered on the floor throughout one of his exhibitions were scientific worksheets that allowed people to take notes and participate in the thought process that the Sub Scientist introduces to our reality. The worksheets have been translated into various languages, such as Arabic, Spanish, German, etc., to include as many people as possible that make up the cultural and linguistic diversity of Houston. Lartigue has made them available to download for free, perhaps to proliferate his ideas beyond the gallery space. People can also buy a zine, Laboratory Notebook, that features the notes of the Sub Scientist in the form of photographs. It’s in this visual form that the Sub Scientist presents his findings to create an alternate reality where science, the spiritual, and the magical are intertwined without the constraints of scientific and academic language that only the few can understand.

            Like I said, there’s so much in La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No that I haven’t even gotten to most of what’s there. The multitudes that Lartigue captures in his exhibition is a testament to his talent and ambitious vision. You can look at the images as much as you want, but it’s being in the space with these pieces that creates a feeling of the spiritual and the grand that’s rooted in the body and the earth. You just have to catch Lartigue’s art in person whenever you can to really see and feel how liberating an inclusive and boundary pushing vision of science is, one that actively incorporates the human and the spiritual. Lartigue’s exhibition is so refreshing because POC health, mentally, physically, or spiritually, has never been a priority in science, and he puts the QPOC experience at the front and center of an imaginative and inclusive process.

 

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            Extant research has shown that, relative to white patients, black patients are less likely to be given pain medications and, if given pain medications, they receive lower quantities. For example, in a retrospective study, Todd et al. found that black patients were significantly less likely than white patients to receive analgesics for extremity fractures in the emergency room (57% vs. 74%), despite having similar self-reports of pain. This disparity in pain treatment is true even among young children. For instance, a study of nearly one million children diagnosed with appendicitis revealed that, relative to white patients, black patients were less likely to receive any pain medication for moderate pain and were less likely to receive opioids—the appropriate treatment—for severe pain.

            These disparities in pain treatment could reflect an overprescription of medications for white patients, underprescription of medications for black patients, or, more likely, both. Indeed, there is evidence that overprescription is an issue, but there is also clear evidence that the underprescription of pain medications for black patients is a real, documented phenomenon. For example, a study examining pain management among patients with metastatic or recurrent cancer found that only 35% of racial minority patients received the appropriate prescriptions—as established by the World Health Organization guidelines—compared with 50% of nonminority patients.

-from Drs. Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver’s article “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites” (2015)

 

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            I’m not saying any of this to generally discredit scientific studies or that we should completely distrust scientists or doctors; nor do I think Lartigue’s art only speaks on this subject, as his art holds more complexity and ideas on craft, photography, and performance than I can fit in one article (which is why Lartigue’s art is so amazing.) Rather, it’s that Science, ultimately, is a human product and filled with our flaws and biases just like any other human creation. Lartigue’s art injects the flawed, personal, magical, and wondrous into scientific methods and process so that we may reflect ourselves in it and ultimately, reveal that the scientific process inherently maintains as much bias, insecurity, fear, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny as our collective conscious allows it to and thus, demands a new foundation and lineage of science to best serve those who require its advances most. Can we call it advancement if only few can access it? Can we call it progressive if it can only come to be through horrific practices on the oppressed? Who are we as a society if our most intelligent and degreed individuals maintain outdated beliefs and opinions? After all, it took white men with degrees, experience, and money to meet and discuss and conduct years of experiments to justify racism and genocide. Why can’t we take knowledge and run with it for ourselves, mi gente? A lasting image from La Ciencia Avanza Pero Yo No is a large canvas painting in the same vein as the anti-eugenics logo from above; on a large canvas stained with clay is a diagram outlining the process of the DNA exchange, genderless beings, one labeled as PUBLIC SCIENTIST and the other PUBLIC PARTICIPANT, coughing skyward huge drops of spit into vials that arrow point from one to the abacus and the other to a square labeled OWNERSHIP OF SUBSTANCE… It’s this ideation of the miraculous process of DNA swapping that bears a striking semblance to Mayan murals/drawings of their processes. It begs the question, what if our conception of science and health was inclusive of all peoples from the start? Can a sort of utopia exist?

            Imagine, with whatever faculties of science, love, and magic you can muster, a world where technology & medicine offers itself to all without having to value itself by oppressing and hurting the vulnerable. Conceive a reality where science and art is not built upon and doesn’t uphold colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchal values. What about a nation? Tenemos que hacerlo. Àngel Lartigue’s art dares to offer that urgently needed vision. 

To learn more about Reyes Ramirez's work visit here.

© Angel Lartigue 2021