Cheese, Please

At one point, I had 12 liters of milk in my fridge. Bags of pasteurized milk sat next to an array of capped and labeled falcon tubes in an uncanny tableau of pre-experimental chaos. Inside each of those tubes were hand swabs of bacteria that I’d collected from Concordia staff members who agreed to participate in my little food provocation.

Last year, I made a cheese cultured with bacteria that naturally live on my hands. I cheekily called it ‘a handmade cheese’ but wanted to up the stakes. Last week, I made the same kind of cheese, but I used other people’s hands and served it to the public to theoretically scrutinize and taste.

And scrutinize they did: “By staging encounters that ask the viewer to engage directly (for example serving cheese made from the bacteria on human hands), Hey makes space not only for thinking, but also feeling our way through these kinds of epistemological and ethical splits,” recounts Milieux member Alix Johnson, who attended the event I organized for the occasion, Engaging with the Microbial Other: an exhibition of recent ferments and prototypes on December 6, 2017.

I made this cheese because its physical form tugs at the ethical fabric of what we consider to be a legitimate food, what constitutes contamination, and who gets to decide. What’s too ‘out there’ to be considered edible? Then again, what’s ‘too close’ for comfort? How do the answers to those questions change from individual to institutional scales?

This was more than just a proof-of-concept; this was a deliberate attempt to engage with the likes of directors and heads of committees that enable/hinder certain forms of research. I asked for their hand samples, invited them to the exhibition, and fed them (along with the greater public) their ‘handmade’ cheese. Well, “fed them” sounds like I pried open their mouths and force fed cheese samples. Far from it: people ate more than 80% of the samples, while I stood on the other end of the room to keep from adding any social pressures.

Responses ranged, but the most common reaction was that of curiosity. They taste so different, they’d say, referring to the variability in flavor and texture in the three samples of other-people’s handmade cheese. One sample didn’t coagulate as much, indicating very little microbial activity, and had a texture closer to yogurt. Another tasted almost sweet, like mascarpone.

Said one Masters student, “I found the exhibition fascinating. I readily acknowledge that food preparation is a science, however, I’ve never really thought about the reaction of bacteria in our food. Nor have I ever considered the ways in which our own microorganisms can be manipulated to produce something edible.”

Or even delicious: One of the people who offered their hands for swabbing said that they liked their cheese the best. They didn’t know it was theirs when they tasted it, but I informed them afterwards, and we confirmed that their ‘handmade’ cheese was the one they preferred. Makes you wonder if that was by chance.

Open Up! On Laboratory Cultures

SenseLab. Mobile Media Lab. Speculative Life Lab. As I’m giving a tour of the Milieux Institute, I catch myself repeating the word “lab” and thinking of the varied problematics that each of these labs take up in their respective research. Rather than trying to pin down definitions of what constitutes a lab or police what counts as a lab, I find it more useful to wade through different laboratory spaces and observe what thematics emerge.The history of traditional, bounded, scientific laboratories can be limiting and have a legacy of exclusion. In a recent interview, Dean Duclos of the Faculty of Fine Arts commented that calling a space a lab already privileges certain kinds of intelligences over others. She adds, “It’s an interesting time for us to think about how we can use some neutral terms—like zones, hubs, or fields—to then parlay into discussing or even adding a new contemporary history onto the way we think about [these spaces].” Some labs in and around Milieux are deliberately mixing vocabularies and methodologies in order to bridge these gaps and welcome a larger variety of research interests and approaches.

FLEXIBLE LEXICONS

mLab is a lab devoted to methods in games research. As one of its members, Sarah Ganzon, explains, “the mLab feels like our play space that also happens to be our work space,” adding that in many ways “a lot of things we do destabilize the work/play divide.”

The notion of play can extend beyond subject area and figure into the philosophical backbone of a space. This is also true for the Topological Media Lab (TML). Navid, one of the co-directors, explains that TML uses play as a self-perpetuating process. This constant opening up to more and more play imbues research with childlike wonder and the power of “what-if.”

Similarly, Céline Perreia describes the SenseLab as creating an open space for possibilities to emerge. Epitomizing the emergent properties of process philosophy is SenseLab’s current project on “anarchives.” The oppositional prefix an- alludes to the too-linear, too-curated nature of traditional archives. The anarchive is meant to act as seed for future projects which, in the room SenseLab occupies, doubles as a space full of latencies. Trying to describe the complexity of research necessitates an equally complex vocabulary set. Whether it be play-work, what-if, or even (groan) research-creation, these mish-mash thematics —or what Dean Duclos calls a hyphenated practice— allows for the type of complexity that labs thrive on.

THE CREATIVE COLLECTIVE

How do we come to ideas? And, how are those ideas decided upon within a lab? Céline at SenseLab reported that nobody comes in with an independent project at SenseLab: “We all think creatively together without any sort of preformed idea.” Navid at TML referred to a similar ethos, describing the process as “felt knowledge, which isn’t taught, but felt through living together.”

Sarah at mLab reiterated that “Mia [Consalvo, the director] allows us to bring our own research interests into the lab space, and because of the diversity of interests that we have alongside hers, I think that allows for a lot of creativity.”

Creativity, then, emerges as a collective phenomenon instead of an inherently individual trait. Parallel interests generate the buzz of a group, contributing to the liveliness of research labs.

“Access alone is gold dust around here.” – Dean Duclos

Supporting hybrid programs like the Convergence Initiative: Perceptions of Neuroscience and FOYER, Dean Duclos described that one of the fruitful seeds of thinking across disciplines is when participants get to cross fields literally as well as figuratively. A space where engineers can walk into artist spaces and vice versa, seeing and feeling the very stuff of knowledge production, live, in situ, and in vitro.

She lamented that even her status as Dean could not open the engineering labs. She described how “Access alone is gold dust around here,” and I immediately thought about my own keycard to access the Speculative Life Lab. By the very fact that it is a scientifically registered laboratory space, access is limited to the few who have cleared the requisite trainings and standardized tests. The term “laboratory” then, while latent with possibilities for openness, wonder, and collective research, is still a term of exclusion.

Porosity is the lifeblood of all that is lively, from cellular respiration to the creative spark of research groups. I agree with Dean Duclos, who comments, “We’re sitting on this delicious network of ideas and it’s just a shame to think that we spend so much time in our cubbyholes.” I spend so much time in my own cubbyhole of EV10.835, aloof to the myriad of other fantastic ideas taking root in other labs within Milieux. How could we cross over more from one lab to the next?

As a start, I invite you, dear reader, to please come by. Yes, our door has the tiniest of windows and, while laboratory protocols prevent me from propping open the door, I would happily walk you through our peculiar, playful space.

Research-Creation, Relational Affect, and Reimagining Ethics

“We cannot assume nor perpetuate the notion that quality knowledge is emotionally detached.”

So argued Owen Chapman, keynote speaker at the Joint PhD in Communications Conference (CODO) on February 2, 2017, hosted at UQAM. Chapman, co-director of the Community and Differential Mobilities cluster at Milieux and associate professor of Communication Studies, was one of the first to complete a research-creation project to fulfill his doctoral dissertation. In 2007, his project integrated sound-sampling with ethnography to explore how digital technology and creative productions informed academic research. Throughout his work, Chapman questions how the affective dimensions of research-creation led to it being considered “less academic.” He critiques the idea that feelings compromise the veracity of objective truths or that creative work constitutes only partial knowledge. In many ways, research-creation stands for a different way of engaging with materials based in texts, objects, or phenomena. At times embodied and at times affectively engaged, research-creation brings to the fore other ways of knowing that do not privilege objective distance. Research-creation gets closer to that which is studied. As a result, it may be one of the only ways to push beyond the confines of prescriptive ways of knowing.

Research-creation as a relational method

 Research-creation, like all processes of inquiry, originates from interest and intrigue. Sometimes these interests align with the personal — such as inspiration from a family member or an unsolved childhood mystery — that require unconventional modalities like family-as-method, friends-as-method, or (in my case) cooking-as-method.

 

The work of research-creation combines thinking + doing + making (and, just as well: rethinking, redoing, and re-making).

 

The (re) prefix and iterative nature of research-creation makes it a dialog, an ongoing methodological conversation between research subject, creative intermediates, and oneself. Research-creation requires more of me than traditional, text-based work because I must continually engage with what is happening in real-time to capture all of the ‘data’ that emerges forth. Attuned, the quality of my “data” can only be as good as my ability to participate relationally so that I can feel my way through the work.

 

In this relational engagement, it matters who I am and what I bring to the ontological table of knowledge production. I embody my work. My work in research-creation becomes specific to me, my body, and my affect so that my work becomes quite un-replicable. 

Research-creation as embodied ethics 

Given the degree of my involvement, I must also hold myself accountable to reflexive questioning so that I’m always aware of my positionality.

 

In the Haraway-ian style of situated knowledges, research-creation puts knowledge production within the researcher-self as an embodied ethics in practice. These ethics inform what/how to do work from a particular vantage point, the particularity of which places research-creation in direct opposition with objective knowledge production and institutional “regimes of truth.”

 

That said, I wonder if any discipline would not benefit from such reflexivity? As a philosophical musing, what if all “academic” inquiry were situated?

Or, in a Latourian sense, what if all research were grounded in matters of concern—situated, social, and diffuse—versus matters of fact that are reified in hierarchy and architectures of truths. Matters of concern cannot afford to be affectively detached.

 

Creation or not, how can we reimagine ethics so that all academic research simultaneously looks in, looks up, and looks out? Perhaps, it is in this “looking out” where relational affect and embodied ethics come to matter. Indeed, in his closing remarks from the keynote speech, Chapman reiterated that research-creation is about traveling together, supporting others, other voices, and other ways of knowing not traditionally vetted or legitimized in the Academy.