As part of the process leading up to the exhibition, you both visited the endocrinology lab at the King’s School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences and spoke with the PhD students there. Tell us more about the experience.
A: Together, we read my essay on queer birds, called ‘Queering endocrine disruption’. It’s about ibis birds that showed increased male-male pairing after exposure to environmentally relevant levels of methylmercury. Scientists were worried about this because it’s not good for the reproductive rate to have birds in male-male bonding. But as I explore in the essay, should we assume that increased same sex pairing is necessarily harmful to animals. According to whom? How do we make that decision?
We also talked about their work with mice and the potential for the masculinisation of female embryos if exposed to certain hormones at certain times – basically the feminisation of male mice. But then we asked, why do know that feminisation of male mice is bad?
There are assumptions built into the way that science is done. So, our discussion really centred around key ideas of embodied experiences in the world and the ways in which different modes of study understand them.
Nina, why did Anne’s essay resonate with you and what was your objective of using feminist critique to translate science?
N: For the exhibition, I wanted to translate not just science, but feminist science-technology studies of science. That is, instead of always assuming science as the baseline that needs translating, I was thinking about a translation of a translation.
Anne’s essay was a great starting point for thinking through feminist science-technology studies today. It brought earlier debates up-to-date. In particular, the ways in which ideas of compulsory heterosexuality come into the making of science and scientific orthodoxies. She has done a fantastic job of unmasking and unpicking some of the assumptions – her and her research were absolutely crucial as the mediating factor between myself, as an artist, and the endocrinologists.
For the final exhibited video, you also use Susan Leigh Star’s critique, ‘On being allergic to onions’ – how did you see the two essays connecting?
N: I was interested in juxtaposing Anne’s essay with Susan’s because both talk about processes of standardisation and non-standardisation. There is this idea of normative couples – often heterosexual couples – and Anne’s essay points to the panic we get when this ‘norm’ gets unsettled, like in male-male bonding in birds.
Meanwhile, Susan’s essays talks about people who are marginal or at the boundaries of different identity positions regarding sexuality. I see direct lineage between the two feminist critiques on science and the standards – often unspoken standards – of scientific investigations.
Where do drag kings come into this translation process?
N: So as I said, I wanted to translate a translation, but I also felt there was a need to perform a translation. This was partly from the need to engage a different kind of audience. The audience for written essays, whether it be Anne’s or Susan’s, tend to be highly specialised and disciplinary. Whereas drag kings are having a moment culturally. They understand that gender is mutable. They use their routines to play with gender and engage with a whole different audience – while also owning and transforming the ideas according their own embodied experiences.
A: Exactly. Translations are an important process in making critiques relevant to different people. We were able to speak to the drag kings about what they thought about the two essays – and I also shared my own thoughts. We got a real exchange of ideas and translations. It was same with the endocrinologists.
N: The final video is basically a re-voicing of the conversations with endocrinologists, with the drag kings also lip syncing some of the science and performing their own translations via their routines.