Inside Rensselaer
* Kathy High

Kathy High

High Earns Guggenheim Fellowship

A Guggenheim Fellowship will enable Kathy High, associate professor of electronic arts, to continue her explorations into life blurred by biotechnology. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation granted the fellowship to support a series of projects High has developed under the heading “Vampire Study Group.”

Three possible projects for the “Vampire Study Group” are tentatively titled “Blood Wars,” “Rat Laughter,” and “21 Pigs.” High said that the Guggenheim Fellowship was an honor she had hoped to win within her lifetime, but she hadn’t expected such an early success.

The Guggenheim project stems from other recent work. In 2007, High embarked on the 16-month BioArts Initiative at Rensselaer — a collaboration between the Arts Department and the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. That project in turn led to a RAMP-Up grant, which funded a three-month residency with the bio-art research laboratory SymbioticA. For the Guggenheim, High proposed further work on several ideas spawned while in residency with SymbioticA.

“The Rensselaer community offers its congratulations to Kathy High with the news that her work has been recognized by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation,” said Provost Robert Palazzo. “Kathy’s sensitive challenges to biotechnology add a valuable philosophic dimension to the work we do at Rensselaer.”

A videographer and artist, High has long been interested in the questions raised by biotech research that employs life in stasis — cells kept alive artificially, samples of live blood and bone, animals altered to suit research.

“I’m interested in notions of neo-dead — not really living, not really dead: the idea about immortality and the quest for immortality that I think drives a lot of scientific research,” High said.

For one past project, High adopted three HLA-B27 transgenic laboratory rats — rats genetically altered to develop human autoimmune disorders. Research on transgenic rats could lead to treatments for Crohn’s disease, from which High herself suffers. High’s installation at Mass MoCA, titled “Embracing Animals,” used her efforts to provide the rats with a comfortable “retirement” as a forum for generating thought about lab animals.

“I’m not trying to pull this generalized critique of all science practices; I think what I want to focus on are issues of care,” she said. “Because this is the state of practice — animal research has pros and cons: there is waste, death, and sustained life. We need to understand what actually occurs in scientific research.”

The Vampire Study Group builds on ideas from a three-month residency (taken during her sabbatical) with the seminal bio-art research center SymbioticA, a unique facility within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. At SymbioticA, High learned skills like tissue culturing, microscopy, and taxidermy.

“They have been doing art/science there for 10 years. You interact with scientists the entire time,” High said. “I was able to see how they run the program, and I was also able to do my own research.”

The three projects of the Vampire Study Group will be documented on a website, where High said that people will be able to follow them, and even contribute ideas.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 11, June 18, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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