Mangling Methodologies Across Performance Research, Biological Arts and the Life Sciences

Tagny Duff

Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University, Montreal


Text score # 6
Take 10,000 plastic pipette tips,10,000 flasks with a human cell line and red nutrient solution. Place pipette tips and flasks point side up, on the floor of a PC2 laboratory. Make a red carpet of immortalized human cells and plastic.

Text score # 7
In a large empty laboratory room. Bright sunlight pours through the windows. A pile of human performers lie on the floor with dead mice. Someone comes in with a pail full of blue dye. Dumps it over the bodies. The water stains the floor dark blue. Someone comes in with a pail full of bleach and mops the stain.

–Text score written by Tagny Duff and quoted from her lab book compiled during a residency at SymbioticA, The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, 2007

Imagine the events outlined in the text scores above as occurring in a science laboratory setting. Voices, sounds, body movements, color: all sensorial processes performing the antithesis of what is expected in the location. The experiential dimension of protocols and methodologies required within the space are configured, reconfigured into twisted knots. The rule sets are applied and then folded into and unto themselves with other rules sets. To speak of the range of methodologies and rule sets applied from across molecular biology and performance research generates strange voices. My voice shifts pitch, speed and mode of articulation as I engage with techniques and rule sets from various disciplinary and methodological habits being learned and unlearned. I struggle with the desire to write in first and third person. The grounding of research constantly shifts as one set of rules is remediated to the next. I stutter and trip between the cultures and practices of the science laboratory and artistic creation. This mangling process both embeds and extracts different voices, movements and struggles through tissue ‘culture.’ A set of knots expand and contract across the meshing of interdisciplinary research cultures; the daily practice of pipetting nutrient solution into tissue culture flasks overlaps with video recording and photography practices, impromptu performances, along with careful note taking, diagram sketching, and making adjustments to protocols for growing cells in the sterile tissue culture laboratory.

Working in the Lab. Photograph by Joshua Schwebel, 2009.  Used with permission.

Working in the Lab. Photograph by Joshua Schwebel, 2009. Used with permission.

Methodology as I am referring to implies a set of procedures, techniques, rules, or modalities that inform various knowledge sets. While methodologies are usually considered as discipline specific, such modes and processes are influenced by many methodological approaches outside one’s field. For example, tissue culture engineering techniques are relegated to the discipline of biological sciences, although they are also used in some cases as artistic ones. Likewise, scientists may borrow techniques and methods from the fine arts. Nobel prize recipient and scientist Alexis Carrel, for example, is known for his use of needlepoint to practice hand-eye coordination for surgery and tissue culture engineering techniques, and his laboratory protocols borrowed many techniques of performance used in theatre production.

One engages with methodology – that is, technique and rule sets – to generate processual modes of creation. It can be a conscious decision or intuitive and vague. It may also be a rejection of methodological approaches. Artist John Cage, for example, developed chance operations – the use of silence, randomness, and improvisation in sound and performance – as a type of anti-method to generate new processual modes of encounter by rejecting rehearsed and premeditated methods of performance rule sets in art and adapting philosophy from Zen Buddhism and other Asian cultural influences. The borrowing (and rejection) of rule sets from various disciplines generates a recognition of new rule sets and constraints that may be embraced by disciplinary genres, disciplines, and institutional apparatuses such as performance studies, studio art, and communication studies program in colleges and universities. Such methodologies may also be circumnavigated, mutated, reconfigured to activate novel processual modes of knowing that are not yet in the world. This “mangling” of rule sets and methodologies is key to generating new modes of research-creation practices. Rather than turn away from method, it is useful to both adopt and unlearn methods, or, more specifically, mangle methodological approaches from both art and science. Mangling rule sets introduces the diagrammatic – something not yet formed or represented through a rule set – to invigorate the cultural and knowledge sets already operating in various fields of knowledge. How can one engage in a productive mangling across performance research, bioart, and life sciences? Process via rigorous interdisciplinary engagement requiring new modes of collaboration is key.

I. Process, performance research and the methodological mangle

Performance research engages in a process of asking questions and visualizing potential ways of seeing and experiencing the world through hands-on engagement in situ. It is about asking “what if?” and “how?” It is not about reinstating performance as an art genre, nor does it describe a fixed work of art as is often expected in the production of art and display practices. Performance art, and performance research, has been closely associated with process. Tanya Mars, a major contributor to early feminist artist-run center culture (Gallery Powerhouse/La Centrale) in Canada suggests that the practice of performance is a method of thinking through visual images and ideas. Media theorist Kim Sawchuk, writing on Tanya Mars’ work over the last four decades, likens her method to “performance as research,” something she notes as akin to that of a qualitative researcher, where “learning through doing” and “[p]erformance as a method of enquiry is not only about successful results, but about an ongoing process that leads to further questions.” [1] As Sawchuk notes, process is a major element in methods of enquiry used by Mars.

In many ways performance artist and theorist Suzanne Lacy articulates a similar notion to Sawchuk and Mars’ framing of process and performance research. Lacy explains: “Performance and conceptual art helped to isolate the process of art, sometimes even substituting process for object.” [2] She notes a continuum of processes that performance-based artists engage in. She outlines a shift in focus from the privileging of the artists’ subjective experience as process, found in works from the 1960s to the 1980s, to a more recent process of reporting. “In the role of reporter, the artist focuses not simply on the experience but on the recounting of the situation; that is, the artist gathers information to make it available to others.” [3] Lacy posits the most effective process is moving from reporting (of what happened, how things were done, etc.) to a process of analysis incorporating skills usually associated with social scientists, cultural theorists and investigative journalists. Lacy’s call for analysis is not to frame art as an object unto itself, but rather to amplify the social dynamics and affective qualities of aesthetic intervention. The methodological approaches associated with such research areas are increasingly applied in art-making practices today, particularly as more artists enter graduate level university programs and engage with methods of analysis found in the humanities. Such methods of analysis borrowed from the humanities may render the writing of an art project as an analytical report, a case study, or an objection of theory. The sense of “analysis” Lacy intends does not follow the same meaning. Rather, the textual property of ideas becomes yet another aesthetic element. Analysis, in this way, is not understood as a traditional methodology of practice intended to fix a creative work within a defined form, but rather to generate something else: something more in addition to and through the visual images created.

When an artist adopts the position of analyst, the visual appeal of imagery is often superseded by the textual properties of the work, thus challenging conventions of beauty. Their analysis may assume its aesthetic character from the coherence of the ideas or from their relationship to visual images rather than through the images themselves. In this way, art of analysis draws on the history of conceptual art during the sixties, when artists explored the dematerialization of art as object and its rematerialization in the world of ideas. [4]

To implement these modes of engagement, particularly regarding how to change the way one thinks and makes through art, Lacy suggests that, “Entirely new strategies must be learned: how to collaborate, how to develop multilayered and specific audiences, how to cross over with other disciplines, how to chose sites that resonate with public meaning, and how to clarify visual and process symbolism for people who are not educated in art.” [5] Lacy’s call resonates with how research-creation projects may engage with performance research, a process-based mode of artistic enquiry, and the laboratory sciences. To create strategies of engagement across the disciplines of art and science and engage new audiences, the mangle of practice must be considered.

Performance research practices continue to contribute much to the insertion of aesthetic, cultural, socio-political, and activist intervention into the social sciences and humanities via works investigating urban planning, community development, aesthetic philosophy, human rights, etc. The fields of the life sciences, including molecular biology, environmental science, genomics, biochemistry, and cell biology are becoming another area that artists, particularly those interested in performance, are engaging with hands-on. Contemporary performance-based and biological art based artists are not only representing methods and practices occurring in the life sciences, we are working with the same techniques and methods applied in the science laboratory context. The relation of performance research to biotechnology and the site of scientific technique and method introduces complexities that are not necessarily the same as Lacy outlines in her exploration of how art might engage with methods found in the social sciences and cultural studies. The mangle, as a processual mode of engagement across artistic practices and life sciences, requires more unpacking.

II. Rewind: Process as mangle

Earlier I mentioned Lacy’s observation that process was substituted as object in early performance art and conceptual art works. In this case, process as I am implying is not an object, but rather a mode and practice of thinking and making that appropriates and remixes various methodological approaches. Process is the key mode that I foreground in the performance research practice conducted in the science laboratory for my own artistic works. My insistence on process emphasizes the temporal-spatial dimensions of practice unfolding in excess of coding and framing of process as method. Process is a way of thinking through and with events and bodies before they become fixed into recognizable form. As philosopher Brian Massumi notes, “The latter [coding and framing] are not false or unreal. They are truly, really stop-operations.” [6] Process allows for variance, shifts in points of view, and emergence. It can be strategically used to redirect and reconfigure methodological habits.

Process goes hand in hand with mangling. The mangle, a concept articulated by science and technologies scholar Andrew Pickering, highlights the necessity of engaging with “real-time structure,” particularly the laboratory, to reflect on how the process of scientific research is impacted by resistance and accommodation to novel approaches to practice. He notes: “Practice as modelling, I thus realized, has an important real-time structure, with the contours of cultural extension being determined by the emergence in times of resistances, and by the success or failure of ‘accommodations’ to resistance.” [7] Pickering suggests that the practice of science is the temporal and spatial platform for the embedding and contestation of methods through resistance or accommodation of methods – indicative of cultural values. Furthermore, he suggests that, “This temporal structuring of practice as a dialectic of resistance and accommodation is, in the first instance, what I have come to call the mangle of practice.” [8] Here, Pickering notes the practice of laboratory science as a specific place and temporal plane where cultural tensions are articulated through accommodation and resistance to various rule sets and modes of engagement. Like philosopher Félix Guattari he calls for a turn to the humanities for alternative processual mode of knowledge building and also calls for leaving methodological approaches in science behind and turning to the humanities. [9] While I sympathize with this desire, as an artist and scholar who works in wet labs and collaborates with scientists, I find it an unsettling sentiment that I cannot fully support. Certainly, there are stagnant processes and rampant methodological crises in the humanities and art that are equally troubling, yet to discard them in pursuit of a more scientific methodological approach would not assist in growing productive rule sets. By mangling rule sets, however, old and novel processes and methodologies may be regenerated.

Let me clarify the previous paragraph with an example from my own research involving reconfiguring methodologies and cultural modes of conduct in the wet laboratory with those of studio art and performance practice. There are many instances I might mention, but an event that occurred while doing research at SymbioticA, the Centre for Excellence in the Biological Arts in the Department of Human Anatomy and Biology at the University of Western Australia, reveals how working with methods from the fine arts can impact methodologies applied in the science culture and practice of tissue culture engineering. For instance, I was unable to access viral vectors due to the fact that only one graduate student was producing them for the research group, and I was told they would not be able to contribute the time towards preparing the Lentivirus. I turned to the practice of working with ‘readymades’ and found industrial materials, often used in sculpture and installation-based art practices. I combed the Internet and found a sale on a custom-designed Lentivirus made by a US-based biotech company. I ordered the viral vectors and they arrived by courier shortly thereafter. The viral vector, an industry-based technology, was reappropriated and repurposed as an art-based material (as well as biomedia) for the sculptural works. This process of bypassing the laborious and time-consuming laboratory production of viral vectors created a disturbance in the culture of the research group. The lab considered purchasing the viral vectors through private biotech companies as a way to economize and expediate the methods of growing viral cells in the lab. This event also shifted the methods of artistic creation, introducing viral cells as a type of readymade and the biotech industry as an extension of the artistic production. This is an example of how by engaging with the artistic technique of the readymade, the order of production and the rules in place to conduct the temporal and spatial flow of research in the laboratory was destabilized and “mangled.”

Frozen Lentivirus used in the making of the projects Living Viral Tattoos and Cryobook Archives, 2010.  Photo © Tagny Duff. Used with permission.

Frozen Lentivirus used in the making of the projects Living Viral Tattoos and Cryobook Archives, 2010. Photo © Tagny Duff. Used with permission.

The mangle, such as the one just outlined, reminds us that methodology is not stable or fixed. Actions, events, and modalities emerge through process. Human, non-human and material agency introduces the unexpected, the unforeseen, thereby potentially destabilizing methodological frameworks. Engaging with process can generate and circumnavigate methodological habit. “Habit is an acquired automatic self-regulation. It resides in the flesh. Some say in matter. As acquired, it can be said to be ‘cultural.’ As automatic and material, it can pass for ‘natural.’” [10] So-called “natural” cultural habits and diagrams acquired in science and art are tested and challenged by this cross-pollination of methodological approaches.

Engaging with the mangle involves challenging habits of methodological practice – particularly what is known through modes of representation, and embracing the diagrammatic. The diagrammatic is a mode where the processual unfolding of the mangle expresses itself. It is a speculative and unknown ‘real.’ As philosophers Deleuze and Guattari note, “The diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.” [11]

The mangle, as proposed, challenges the art and science divide articulated by C.P. Snow. [12] As more scientists engage in artistic practice and methods, and artists work with the very same scientific techniques as trained scientists, the mangling of methodologies is emerging in science labs, class rooms, studios, conferences, publications and art galleries. The borrowing of methodologies across the arts and life sciences has been occurring for much longer than is often noted. Leonardo da Vinci is the obvious example, but such mangling by Intermedia artists in the 1960s onwards are rarely cited. Dick Higgins outlines art/science as a major force in Intermedia via his iconic diagram and artists like Joe Davis have been working in wet labs with techniques from molecular biology since the ’70s. As the notion of biological arts or bioart is emerging as a genre in the discipline of art, and more artists and students are practicing wet lab techniques in the studio and science lab, the methodological approaches in the academic institutions that maintain the infrastructure for such research-creation are often relegated to disciplinary-specific approaches still following a two culture divide.

In order to promote a pragmatic mangling and diagrammatic approach to interdisciplinary research, a commitment to expanding the current focus on building Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) research to include the Arts (STEAM) is required. This new focus will help facilitate collaboration across the disciplines in order to expose researchers, artists, and students to various disciplinary methodological approaches through rigorous and in-depth exploration. A recent white paper, “Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design,” edited by the internationally recognized artist Roger Malina, Carol Strohecker, and Carol La Fayette, calls for this very same focus. In the report researchers, artists, and scientists working across art and science in Europe and North America identified problems impacting practitioners collaborating in interdisciplinary art/sci projects today. The editors outline a number of topics of concern and action plans to address them. The most critical point echoed for promoting a STEAM approach is for collaborators to learn research-creation methods from each other. They write: “Authors repeatedly note the importance for collaborators to learn the content and methods of their partners domains.” [13]

Collaboration with Fluxmedia, Department of Communication Studies and Biology Department at Concordia University and Synbiota,2014.  Tagny Duff and Sathiyabama Kanaganayagam preparing for a synthetic biology class using the Genomikon kit to create genetically modified organisms to “paint” 3D dioramas of various landscape scenes coated with agar. Organized by Tagny Duff (Fluxmedia), Justin Pahara (Synbiota) and Sathiyabama Kanaganayagam (Biology) with additional support from Sonia Ruiz (Biology). Photo © Justin Pahara. Used with permission.

Collaboration with Fluxmedia, Department of Communication Studies and Biology Department at Concordia University and Synbiota, 2014. Tagny Duff and Sathiyabama Kanaganayagam preparing for a synthetic biology class using the Genomikon kit to create genetically modified organisms to “paint” 3D dioramas of various landscape scenes coated with agar. Organized by Tagny Duff (Fluxmedia), Justin Pahara (Synbiota) and Sathiyabama Kanaganayagam (Biology) with additional support from Sonia Ruiz (Biology). Photo © Justin Pahara. Used with permission.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a need for artists and scientists to learn the content and method of each field to revitalize the processes and methods across the disciplines. This requires an engagement with the culture of production, the informal networks and socialization in the areas of knowledge creation. Collaboration is required, and in order for this to occur, respect and trust in the diverse methodological practices by practitioners from the various disciplines is needed. This is further echoed in the report:
Collaborators’ commitments to ongoing, cross cutting learning is necessary to build trust and ensure the quality of results in terms of both depth and breadth, beyond obvious SEAD areas such as scientific illustration and education.

Artists could lose interest if the collaborations are framed only in terms of communicating science. Scientists need to understand that visualizations, lab specimens and models need to be translated as artistic works in order to become appropriate for display in galleries and other artistic contexts. [14]

It takes time to learn the culture and methodological approaches applied by a collaborator working in another discipline. This type of interdisciplinary research-creation practice shows a slower, yet deeper process and methodological development that is necessary to enhance intensive interdisciplinary research and new knowledge sets. This kind of mangling is very fruitful yet requires support by artists and researchers on the ground, flexible institutional infrastructure, and longer research timelines for researchers. In order to build a diagrammatic approach and to generate potential new directions for new worldings, new modalities, and methodological approaches to contemplate the planetary challenges facing us today, the way we practice research must be reconsidered. Research-creation practices with an openness to self-reflexive, rigorous, and considered mangling across disciplinary methodologies are necessary to introduce the Arts to the STEM disciplines and vice-versa. This collaborative approach is already introducing novel and dynamic processes and methods across various select university programs and art centres today, but more delicate unknotting is required to tease apart the habitual weaving of disciplinary methodologies.


  1. Kim Sawchuk, “Performance (Art) as a Method of Inquiry,” Ironic to Iconic: The
    Performance Works of Tanya Mars, ed. Paul Couillard (Toronto: Fado Performance Inc., 2008), 16.
  2. Suzanne Lacy, Leaving Art: Writing on Performance, Politics and Publics 1974-2007 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 177.
  3. Ibid., 176.
  4. Ibid., 177.
  5. Ibid., 178.
  6. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 7.
  7. Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London: Continuum Press, 2008).
  10. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, 11.
  11. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism
    and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 142.
  12. C.P. Snow outlines the long-standing division between art and science in his book The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).
  13. Roger F. Malina, Carol Strohecker, and Carol La Fayette, eds., Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 20.
  14. Ibid., 20.


Tagny Duff is an artist and scholar. Her work is concerned with troubling the imperceptible performance of life and liveliness by engaging with and alongside of viral and microbial agents. Duff is founder and director of Fluxmedia, a research-creation network of artists, scientists, students and scholars interested in the intersections of art and the life sciences.