Oncomouse

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Oncomouse by K-PÉ, 2013, oil on board

This small, round painting in oil on board is typical of the provocative work created by street artist K-PÉ. Entitled ‘Oncomouse’, the painting has resulted from a process that the artist refers to as “in-appropriation”; it is made using materials and techniques that he has borrowed from the tradition of icon painting.

The OncoMouse or Harvard Mouse is a type of laboratory mouse that has been genetically modified using modifications designed by Philip Leder and Timothy A Stewart of Harvard University to carry a specific gene called an activated oncogene (v-Ha-ras under the control of the mouse mammary tumour virus promoter). The activated oncogene significantly increases the mouse’s susceptibility to cancer, and thus makes the mouse suitable for cancer research. The rights to the invention were owned by Dupont until recently. The USPTO found that the patent expired in 2005, which means that the Oncomouse is now free for use by other parties (although the name is not, as “OncoMouse” is a registered trademark).

Patent applications on the OncoMouse were filed back in the mid-1980s in numerous countries such as in the United States, in Canada, in Europe through the European Patent Office (EPO), and in Japan.

“Depending on the source of information, we are led to believe that humans share between 95 and 99% of our DNA with mice. This shared set of genes is what makes research on what scientists call the ‘mouse model’ effective. What I wanted to do is make an experiment. I wanted to transfer this “OncoMouse” gene into the DNA of  a very famous mouse – the world’s most famous mouse – and see what happened as a result.”

K-PÉ (from artist’s statement)

Mickey Mouse is an animal cartoon character created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, the Academy Award winning animator, at the Walt Disney Studios. Mickey is an anthropomorphic mouse who typically wears red shorts, large yellow shoes, and white gloves. As the official mascot of The Walt Disney Company, Mickey is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in the world.

Mickey first was seen in a single test screening (Plane Crazy) but officially debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie (1928), one of the first sound cartoons. He went on to appear in over 130 films including The Band Concert (1935), Brave Little Tailor (1938), and Fantasia (1940). Mickey appeared primarily in short films, but also occasionally in feature-length films. Nine of Mickey’s cartoons were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, one of which, Lend a Paw, won the award in 1942. In 1978, Mickey became the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“What interests me most about this Mickey character is the fact that he is a little machine designed to be replicated. He works on a system of easily drawn curves – you can find instructions on how to do this, no problem, if you look and the early animators were fully versed in this code … he has his own graphic DNA, if you like, that is easily reproduced, within a complex system that gives him life. That’s what animation means: the state of being full of life or vigour. In 1941 – before the famous animator’s strike that tarnished Walt’s reputation – there were about 1200 artists making drawings at Walt Disney Studios. It was one of the biggest machines for making art that the world has ever seen. The Disney studio was a very well organised labour force – like an organism – with each part having its role to play. My Oncomouse might be seen to have introduced a troubling note of disease into that organism …

What the actual OncoMouse says about human greed, cruelty and the scientists that tried to capitalise on it doesn’t really need any further explanation from by me.”

K-PÉ (from artist’s statement)

Cave Canem Part I: Loving The Alien

April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

BUZZ-V1 (The Lab Model), 50cm x 50cm, Oil on Canvas

Cave Canem | beware of the dog

In Susan McHugh’s excellent book Dog (published in 2004 by Reaktion), she describes the domestic dog – Canis familiaris – as a liminal creature. By this she means that the species occupies a position quite literally on the doorstep between the human world and nature; guarding the entrance to that mysterious, dangerous and chaotic terrain … a place – or space – that we often prefer to feel separated from by the thin, membranous, comfort-blankets of culture and linguistic distinctions.

According to some genetic evidence dogs may have occupied this threshold for 500,000 years – though this is debatable and archaeologists would immediately point to the lack of evidence in the fossil record.  Whatever the pre-historical circumstances, we have shared our meals and habitations – and in some cases our graves – with dogs for at least 12,000 years. These millennia of co-evolution and domestication – some might argue mutual domestication because humans have also adapted to the needs of dogs – have led to the morphing of canine body shapes and  a convergence of canid and hominid mental states. We have come to understand each other on a physical-hormonal and psychological level; becoming attuned to the nuances of each other’s body language and emotions.  

When we decided to bring a dog into our family, I was determined to avoid the pitfall of seeing him as familiar – I wanted to hold on to the strangeness of the presence of this beautiful, furred, four legged creature, with his super-sensory olfactory system and bizarre, wagging tail.

I really wanted to see how surprised I could become by the ‘event’ of bringing Canis familiaris into my domestic space.

Donna Haraway in When Species Meet has written about the profound ontological complexities that derive from viewing human nature as an inter-species relationship; of the importance of taking seriously these complexities, these ‘lively knottings’ that tie together the world we inhabit. She discusses becoming ‘worldly’ through the process of ‘grappling with rather than generalising from the ordinary’ – of enriching experience through knowledge and unprejudiced encounter  … 

My intention in these three short articles is to think hard about this most familiar of companion species, to really take my relationship with my dog seriously. 

Part I: Loving The Alien

“Most of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves. Everyone has seen how jealous a dog is of his master’s affection, if lavished on any other creature … a dog carrying a basket for his master exhibits in a high degree self-complacency or pride. There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear and something very like modesty when begging too often for food.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

Is this love? When I look into your beautiful eyes; so bright, and the colour of polished tortoiseshell, I wonder if it could be. But then you turn your gaze …

My brief love affair with Charlie began early in the summer of 2011. As soon as I met him I knew that we were destined to be together. The romance lasted through the heat of June until, all too soon, the dreadful truth was revealed. Charlie had problems – serious issues – he was prone to biting children.

As far as we could tell, Charlie was a collie/Labrador cross. We had ‘re-homed’ him from the RSPCA in Chesterfield. We didn’t know much about his past, but now we can surmise that he had a history of abuse at the hands of small children. The pain of separation was greatest for my wife and child. I had more of a sense of detachment, and – owing to my own family biology – probably a greater desensitisation to loss, but I still found it very hard to say goodbye to Charlie.

We now have a new companion animal called Buzz. He is a Labrador retriever. If you enter the words yellow Labrador retriever into google images you will see exactly what Buzz looks like. He is an off-the-peg designer dog, a textbook example of the most popular dog breed in the UK. He is descended from Avon (“Buccleuch Avon”) and Ned, two dogs given by the Earl of Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch’s Labrador breeding program in the 1880s. If you examine him closely you will discover that he has webbed paws and an ‘otter tail’ for swimming. Other aspects of his nature – his placid disposition and his apparent  willingness (or desire) to please have come about through a combination of biotechnology (breeding) and emasculation.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the delightful Buzz and I now find that Charlie is less and less in my thoughts … though I doubt that I will ever forget him entirely. You never forget those that you love …

So, this issue of love. As we can see – according to Wikipedia – ‘love’ is a word that means a lot of things. But what does it mean in this context? Did I truly love Charlie and did he love me? I think I love Buzz – and I have told him so many times – but does he love me? It is difficult to be objective when talking about emotions – some behavioural scientists believe that every attempt should be made to explain the behaviour of other species without referring to emotions at all – because emotions are ultimately subjective and therefore not a ‘proper’ subject for scientific enquiry. This tradition of thought, known as Morgan’s Canon after C. Lloyd Morgan – and which essentially condemns attributions of complex emotions as anthropomorphism – reads thus:

‘In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower in the psychological scale’.

Morgan wrote this in 1894, these days we would substitute the word ‘simpler’ for the word ‘lower’. In my opinion both of these terms would seem to echo anthropocentric judgements of relative ‘value’ – and I am not entirely comfortable with either of them.

In any case, many Biologist’s prefer the less loaded term ‘attachment’ to the word ‘love’…

But is it really true that Buzz is just a Cartesian, biological mechanism? Is my assessment of our growing emotional bond always to be tied up with an inevitable anthropomorphism? I am not sure that I would agree with the 81% of dog owners that would ascribe the emotion of jealousy to their canine companions, but I do believe that it is possible to hold a logical view that allows us to credit dogs with emotions that might be comparable to our own – yet still acknowledges the “otherness” of these – other – animals.

The massive amount of kinky human neocortex does, in neurological terms, suggest a more complex consciousness, a greater self awareness; but it also allows us the ability to distance ourselves from emotion – which can be very handy, in a lot of ways, if you want to rationalise your privileged human status.

As I stroke Buzz my blood pressure drops – as does that of Buzz. This is the effect of natural opioids – endorphins such as the neurohomone dopamine – that are produced in the mammalian brian during social bonding activities; during play and mutual contact. Although this occurs in a number of loci within our neural hardwiring, there is a particular concentration of this activity in the limbic system; also, poignantly enough, the locus for the sense of smell, which – at up to 100 million times greater sensitivity – is something not to be sniffed at in our canine companions.

When it comes to stroking there is another chemical mutually released – the motherly hormone oxytocin.

Chemical love? I ponder on the extent to which our brains mirror this intoxication, this shared and heady cocktail …

Like dogs, human beings have also developed the ability to honestly communicate their emotions in order to benefit the sustaining family units that have brought us together out of prehistory.  I have no doubt that my affection – my love – for Buzz is returned to some degree, and that he craves my affection no less than I myself do from the other members of my family.

Although, however much I love him, he will never be one of my children – he doesn’t even look like me. He looks, well, rather alien to tell the truth …

Next – Part 2: What is a dog?

The Lab Model

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Lab Model (BUZZ/3.5) 

Preliminary sketch for painting. There will be three paintings in this series: of a dog, a cat and a mouse. All will be painted at approximately life size.

An animal model is a living, non-human animal used during the research and investigation of human disease, for the purpose of better understanding the disease without the added risk of causing harm to an actual human being during the process. The animal chosen will usually meet a determined taxonomic equivalency to humans, so as to react to disease or its treatment in a way that resembles human physiology. Many drugs, treatments and cures for human diseases have been developed with the use of animal models. Many (but not all) laboratory strains are inbred, so as to make them genetically almost identical. The different strains are identified with specific letter-digit combinations; for example C57BL/6 and BALB/c.

Although some (but not all) of us might be comfortable with the use of rats and mice for this purpose, I felt that the idea of visually transposing this concept – through the use of a little modified colouring – onto my own pet Labrador might be worthy of investigation.

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