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Fantastical Beings - Project Updates

Dear Reader,

This is a textual and visual dump of my thoughts, readings and updates on the project, Fantastical Beings. Writing this blog piece is also a way for me to make sense of my thoughts and the progress. Before we enter this black hole, allow me to give you a brief introduction of the project.

Fantastical Beings is an online exploratory undertaking to attempt at and talk about the gender and sexuality based anthropocentric notions imposed upon plants and animals, in science. The outcome will be a website with interactions, and quick load time to start a dialogue with the public around the projected sex and gender expectations. A part of the British Council Grant, the project will be launched for the public on March 01, 2022. Here is a link to the original proposal.

The following blog is divided into three parts-

  1. Initial thoughts and research: I talk about the books I started reading, my initial intentions with the project, development of project clarity and how I reached a narrowed down brief

  2. Why are mammals called mammals?: In this section, I talk about the process to develop the online comic exploring the history behind class mammals. It includes details about the story structure, writing, visual styling and technical developments. *IMPORTANT* Link to the latest WIP online comic [warning: scroll speed is on the higher side right now]- .

  1. Gendering of plants: <to be added soon>

Initial thoughts and research

Once the proposal was sent, I started the project by reading the following -

  1. How I became a Tree by Sumana Roy. In the book, Sumana talks about the various "identities" plants, trees, flowers have taken across literature and folk lore. Reading this was particularly interesting because of the co-relation of flowers seen as something feminine (psst there are male flowers too!) and the (2) and (3) I read.

  2. Nice Apples and other problematic plant language- The author talks about the sexualised adjectives used to describe fruits (read Figs by D H Lawrence), flowers and plants. They also talk how the modern botanical taxonomy arbitrarily imagines plants to be heterosexual while giving male parts higher position in the taxonomy hierarchy. This is particularly funny because most plants are hermaphrodites and the taxonomy also ignores the role of pollinators. Linnaeus in Philosophia Botanica, described the reproduction process in plants as one of marriage bed or Suhaagrat in Hindi!

  3. Why Mammals are Called Mammals? Gender Politics in the eighteenth century Natural History, essay by Londa Schiebinger. The essay is one of the most eye-opening writings I have read post Inferior. Written in a simple language, Londa talks about and make strong argument various socio-political forces that played a role in Mammals being named Mammals. This essentially doesn't mean the Class category needs to be changed, but it is definitely a strong example of a scenario where scientific work hasn't been objective.

  4. Nature's Body: Gender in the Modern Science, book by Londa Schiebinger is another read that has helped me gain clarity on what I was grappling with in my project. The book expands upon how we have perceived nature and in many ways used it to reimpose social structures that are patriarchal and sexist.

  5. Against Nature by Lorraine Daston. Yet another must read. This book was crucial to pick up new questions- look at anthropocentric notions on flora and fauna, beyond gender and sex, but also within, in various forms. Nature as something with a rulebook and a goal; nature as something formed through the combination of plants, animals, geographical landscape and human settlement and culture and lastly, nature as something with universal laws that exist without exceptions. What stuck to me was how we only imagine our human brains to have rationality and anything else can never surpass the way we think!

Hmm.. so many readings! but what after that?

I have to be honest- I did not realise how much the topic will expand for me in just about a few weeks. I became thirsty to know more and also stressed that I won't be able to talk about everything I would like to within this project. For the purpose of the grant and my learning, I need to break down everything into smaller chunks where presently, I pick topics and ideas that I have utmost urge to share and let the rest soak in my mind. But what did I exactly want to talk about? Some crucial notes and insights that helped gain clarity -

  • Even though nature has kaleidoscopic identities in sexuality and formation of gender in social systems- it is not okay for me to use those as examples to start a conversation on human identities and sexuality. How we all exist and our relationships with each other is so complex and varied, that they become incomparable, unless they are evolutionary close.

  • There is a need to realign the project intent to first make myself and the audience aware of forms in which our anthropocentric biases exist- only then will I be able to think about coexistence beyond that.

  • Words by Londa Schiebinger stuck to me- Science is the closest we can get to truth and objectivity. Science is also a subset of culture. Whose truth was I reading since childhood, in science textbooks, magazines, news portals? What did it do to us all? The systemic prejudices need to be challenged, otherwise we could never get close to the truth and objectivity.

  • Could I perhaps use this project as a starting point to do that? A simple, baby step to create something that audiences across various backgrounds can relate to at one go!

After much over-thinking, I got my answer. The story behind the becoming of Class Mammals fascinated me as much as it angered me. In a distorted way, it was the perfect example of how science was not developed objectively. The sexualising of plants into binary in taxonomy and in literature was yet another example to talk about the same. More so, I was shocked that we all learnt taxonomy in our schools, but never looked at things through this perception and never realised how and where to question.

Hence, came together two instances (mammals and flowers) of gender biases on nature in the form of names and metaphors. Following is an account of development of both the projects in their research, ideation, to execution.

I will start with Mammals as that is what I am initially focussing on.

Why are mammals called mammals?

The Thinker Man observing women and animals, breasts, breastfeeding and contemplating about what these mean together. Text on the image: Through the Homo Sapien's eyes, the mammae of a Woman brings humans and beasts closer, while the wisdom of a Man separates them.
Poster made with Ritika Jathar about the project for a residency application
  1. What do I want to capture? What is my intent? Based on what I picked up from the paper, I was inclined to talking about (a) how a man's perspective towards woman and animals are both skewed, (b) question the idea of rationality - who created it? and for who?

  2. Specific Elements from the paper that I want to take forward- (a) Forming connections between the absurdity of ways in which taxonomy was thought of with the man's (and only a man's) active participation in anything public, anything important, anything revolutionary. Use this as a cue to create inquiries on the siloed and patriarchal nature of knowledge creation. (b) Use this as a tool to talk about perception of breasts across non-western cultures as well, including the presently existing stigma on public breast-feeding.

  3. What am I actually going to create? An online comic to tell (and retell) the story of becoming of the Class Mammals by bringing to limelight the perception of breasts and gender politics in the 18th century Europe.

  4. How am I going to do it? This question is my favourite one to answer. Dr. Londa's essay was beautifully written and her storytelling was crisp yet detailed (a formidable combination!). Rereading her essay multiple times, automatically induced in my mind, visuals, emotions, dialogues and everything in between. I only had to make sense of this mess in my mind and craft it in the form of a comic.

Psst.. Following is a more structured update of the project, but if you would like to see the messy bit, click on this miro board link.

Story Structure

Visual storyboarding-

A rough storyboard I prepared while visualising the Parts A - E

Technical requirements

Doing the above process helped in narrowing down technical requirements of the online comic. They are as below-

- Seamless horizontal scroll using trackpad and mouse.

- Horizontal arrows that could be used by viewers in case trackpad / mouse isn't functioning.

- Parallax effect such that the foreground and background can move in different speeds.

- In phone- have a window that asked viewers to tilt their phones.

- A button on top right to open the about window.

At this stage in the project, I began to collaborate with illustrator, Ritika Jathar and web developer Akhil Patil to help me develop the ideas further.

Visual Styling (initial thoughts)

Reading the essay and developing the story structure inspired deeply the need to use historical visuals but with a twist such as to provoke mood and questions that we want in our audience's minds. We decided to use drawings, paintings, photographs from across time and play with effects, colour tones and composition to develop a collage and zine-like comic. This gave us enough freedom to use the bank of visual resources from the Wellcome Collection's public domain mark images.

A combination of warm of warm and cold colours would be used to set the tone of activity in each frame. Is somebody thinking? Perhaps, lighter colours with cloud would work best. Are people having arguments? Warm colours with distorted figures would set the mood.

Testing the visual style before proceeding forward

We tested the frame one of the story to check whether our approach will work out or not. This provided us with important insights on how public domain images will determine the composition and mood creation. This meant we had to not only become comfortable but also enjoy working with this constraint to create a strong visual story. We used the paper texture as background, would give us a blank yet fun canvas to play with.

Storywriting with visualisations

All text below is the work in progress text for the final story. In the following section, I will show the development of the story and visual frames only through the screenshots of drawings.

Part A: Setting Context

Mood- Create a scene of richness and Aristotle deep in thought about the world. Prehistoric times in a more moody and dreamy manner to provide a sense of far away world.

Final frames below-

Once upon a time, in this world run by western men, many attempted to understand nature and its many mysteries.

Scholars, philosophers, naturalists. Some well-read, some rich and some powerful -- They thought a lot. Then they grouped, ungrouped and regrouped plants and animals. After that? They thought some more about how the world works.

Aristotle wondered-

Now as I set myself up to the task,

I wonder what life is made up of.

What life do beings live?

Do they crawl / jump / swim?

Or have no movement at all?

What makes new life?

Is there sex or no sex?

Do they breathe in or out? Or do neither?

Sure, this is how we are all different

and this is how some of us are similar.

Part B: Setting Context

Mood- Create a scene of richness and Aristotle deep in thought

about the world.

Further thoughts by Aristotle-

Gave some the bios

of reproduction and growth

thus, flora had the vegetative soul.

Some got to move, some with senses

smell, touch, taste and the marvels

They had sensitive souls, the Zoes

Alas, thought came only to some

Only to the humans

conscious decision makers

These were with rational souls, the Psychê

Part B and C: Introduce main character/s, set the problem of the story

Person 01: Some got hair? Some dont? Maybe that's the basis of nature

Person 02: But wait! We can eat some and we cannot eat another? Well, I guess that's how species are made..

Person 03: Animals without blood or heat have no soul

Linnaeus: Well, humans are blood animals, with soul and four feet

Person 01: Outrageous! Humans are beasts cannot be put together!

Linnaeus: Here, I, Carl von Linne, "Knight of the Order of the Polar Star", propose Class Mammalia in Systema Naturae, edition 10.

Mammalia, these and no other animals have mammae (breasts in human). All females have mammae of strict number that produce milk and males have mammae too. Well, except for the horse!

Person 02.1: UGH DUDE! Mammae are "functional" only in half of these animals- Females!

Person 03.1: Platypus? Is that a platypus in the group? They give birth to their babies and don't even feed their babies!

Linnaeus: These can become monotremes, exceptional mammals.

Also, the female monotremes have mammary glands, so what if they don't produce milk?

Person 01.1: In that case, isn't Lactentia or sugentia better? If not mammae that produce milk, they all at least suckle breasts?

Person 02.1: Agree! There are also other, more universal features! Why not, Pilosa, surely we all have hair? Why not, Aurecaviga, surely we all have hollow ears?

Linnaeus: Come on! the term is pleasing to the ear, easy to say, and to remember and is not more than twelve letters long

Plant Taxonomy (TBC)

Further resources I want to explore when I get the time and mental space to -

  1. Feminism and Science

  2. Queer Ecologies

  3. Beyond the Natural Body: An archeology of Sex Hormones

  4. Sita by Devdutt Patnaik

  5. The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant

  6. Evolution's Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden

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