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Gender Exhibit Launch-11 ;

Gender translations: bringing together disciplines to explore gender and the world

Professor Anne Pollock and Dr Nina Wakeford

Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King's; Goldsmiths University

21 May 2020

Drag kings, a feminist social scientist, an artist and endocrinologists all came together to explore gender for a recent exhibition at the Science Gallery London. Professor Anne Pollock, from the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, and artist Dr Nina Wakeford discuss how this helped to expand questions about gender and the importance of sharing and translating different disciplines.

Anne, you were a season advisor for the GENDERS: Shaping and breaking the binary exhibition. What did this role involve?

A: Science Gallery London brought together young people from Lambeth and Southwark, as well as academics like myself, artists and activists of all ranks to act as consults for the curator. Together, we explored what we need to say about gender today – helping the curator to deliver an exhibition that is much more relevant for the King’s community on the one hand, and with young people in the local community on the other.

I also worked with Nina, whose piece in the exhibition explores gender through the language (or translation) of feminist science-technology studies – my inter-disciplinary field.

On that note, how exactly did your research fit in?

A: One of my main research areas is racism and health – and of course, racism is always intersectional. We can’t understand the impact of living in a racist society without also understanding what it’s like to live in a society that is also stratified by sex, gender, sexual identity, sexuality, disability, age, immigration status, etc.

So, my research questions what it means to live in society and the way we are shaped by embodied inequality. I’ve also always been deeply informed by feminist research. For example, I see questions about nature as always being political. Whenever we ask a descriptive question about what is going on with nature, we’re also asking a normative question about what nature should be.

A key part of a feminist intervention is highlighting the need to understand ourselves as embodied humans navigating the world and that numbers-driven analysis isn’t always the answer to figuring out the best way forward. We need to actually think about humans (and animals) in space, in relation, in community – and for that you have to pay attention to process and the questions we ask.– Professor Anne Pollock
Gender Exhibit Launch-11

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.

 

So, going from what happened to a mouse in a lab to a journal article is already a form of translation, but one that is standardised in science. An essay is translated into a visual diagram, which is translated into scientific fact – but it could be translated as an anecdote about the mouse. My art is just adding to the different kinds of possible translations.– Nina Wakeford

Before the exhibition, the same group of endocrinologists attended a drag king show in Lambeth. What do you see as the benefit of bringing these groups of people together?

A: I think for the students, they were able to appreciate another way of asking questions about gender. They got to see the drag kings in their natural performance habitat. And it’s not that they are necessarily going to do things differently in the lab – the experience gave them the opportunity to reflect more on their existing work. It was a way of bringing the scientist to the art practitioner, and the scientist to the humanist and the humanist to the scientist, etc. By that I mean, putting these knowledge forms and modes of expression on the same page.

N: And what was nice was that the day after, the drag kings then went to visit the endocrinologists in their natural habitat.

So, you are all exploring questions about gender. Yet by collaborating and sharing, you were able to translate your ideas and question your questions?

A: Essentially. Questions are often constrained by the chosen language. There is a lot that a laboratory can understand about gender and there is a lot that it can’t. For translations to be relevant, it can’t just be science experts communicating. It’s not just about giving facts but about thinking how we can engage with scientific ideas in a way that is curious and speaks to the broader cultural phenomena that are happening. I think you can only do that with a diverse group involved.

This process seems to really highlight the common ground between these disciplines.

A: Absolutely. It’s about being polylingual. I feel like when we open up our language and thinking, there is a lot of common ground between science, social science and the arts.

And if we want people to really engage with science, we have to look beyond pedagogical training and see science in the making. I think there has been this false binary that has made young people not want to go into science. But many of the most talented scientists are both scientific and creative. Surfacing this is helpful for young people – and whether they go into science or not, it shows they can still talk to scientists.

N: I agree. I think it’s really important to have different translations in order to encounter and engage with the world. And we should challenge any language or thinking that seeks to have complete authority of the world.

 


 

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About the exhibition

Genders: Shaping and breaking the binary  presents a playful and kaleidoscopic view of genders and its relationship with science, as well as factors like class, culture, race, age and sexuality. The season aims to open conversation through personal perspectives on and beyond the female and male ‘binaries’. Drawing on the latest research from King’s College London, the season examines ideas of gender today.

The exhibition features artworks, scientific research and collaborative projects, and invites audiences to interact with and speculate upon the factors that shape our behaviour and our understanding of genders. Science Gallery London aims to offer a safe space to discuss, debate and connect with others on this most personal of subjects.

In this story

Anne Pollock

Anne Pollock

Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine


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