Selfish Organ: A Scientific Method
Written by Masha Kurguzkina
As the heat of the New England summer grilled Providence and its inhabitants, I sat, flattening my sit bones on the stool in the long desired third floor studio at the Canal street building. A place so sterile and clean, empty desks sat everywhere ready to be disturbed by hungry art school seniors. I was hungry too, both for my creative freedom and also breakfast. Throughout the summer I was writing every morning, preparing myself for another year of artistic commitment. It was good practice and eventually did lead me to some ideas, which later gave me the courage to explore neuroscience.
In the very beginning, I was testing the waters of neuroscience and psychology by choosing to research the concept of female hysteria, which has affected my interest in exploring visuals from 19th and 20th century science. Pierre Janet established earlier ideas on hysteria symptoms: loss of body control, culvusions, depression, hysterical laughter, paranoia etc., and how to treat it in women, including hypnosis, sex, electrical shock and physical theraphy. Later, Sigmund Freud declared that female hysteria was a psychological disorder often occurring as a result of sexual oppression or incapabilities. He also stated that hysteria can occur in both men and women, and that he himself occasionally experienced it. “After a period of good humor, I now have a crisis of unhappiness. The chief patient I am worried about today is myself. My little hysteria, which was much enhanced by work, took a step forward.” (Freud 1897)
Today, hysteria is not considered a real diagnosis. The numerous and unpredictable symptoms of hysteria have been broken down into smaller fields of study. Before new technological advancements arrived, it was often confused with seizures. The close ties between the two undeliberately set me on the neurological disorders path, which I was afraid to dive into from the start. Over time, I decided to abandon the theme of hysteria due to it’s heavy psychological and historical content, and transition into a more fact based, personal topic, epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological disease caused by a disorder of neuron activity. There are various types of epilepsy, the one I am the most familiar with is categorized as Generalized Epilepsy. For this category, seizures are produced by a widespread abnormal neuron activity present throughout brain.
As I mentioned before, visuals from 19th - 20th century patient studies and cabinets of curiosities projected a dusty aura of time which I didn't want to miss. The archival portraits of women in asylums twitching their faces, holding on to their bodies, sitting on hospital beds and yelling were very haunting and disturbing. It is almost like they asked me to save them, so I did. That gave me a better visual direction, helping me with general aesthetics.
I began my research in the Fleet Library, a beautiful and monumental space. Its high domed ceiling suspends a sphere clock in the middle, like a giant eye hovering over the space to observe everyone. The best part about art school libraries is that almost all of the books have amazing visuals in them. As I was flipping through the pages in the science section, I stumbled upon grotesque photos of a human cadaver. It was all a beige with distorted rendering on all the vessels and facial features. Flipping further, I saw brain scans, studies of lobotomy, and a brain chopped in half with little arrows pointing in different directions, defining each part. It was magnificent! This book was soaking with traditional, unrefined academia and science. I could feel my blood rushing everywhere, just as if I saw my crush up close.
Lobotomy: Treatment that was discovered byAntónio Egas Moniz. An invasion with Orbitoclast (long needle) into the frontal cortex, usually through the nose to “steer fixated brain circuits.” Lobotomy was mainly used to treat mental disorders and was highly performed in the early 1940s through the 1950s. It was a failed science experiment. Patients were “treated” psychologically, but extremely damaged physically and neurologically.
I didn't know how to digest all this newfound information and turn it into a concept, but the photos was a good starting point. Later that day, I picked up books on botany with exquisite botanical plates and flower illustrations. Everything that resembled an interesting organic shape, color, or form was made part of my research. There was a lot to choose from. My goal was to stay away from extremely bright colors and straight lines, collecting visuals that either relate to nature or the human body. I was pretty much building my own cabinet of curiosities.
After my rendez-vous at the library and a four hour scanner session, I joyfully brought my research back to the studio. While forming my moodboard, I could feel a natural cohesiveness developing. I began to collage my library visuals together, trying to come up with drapes and print ideas. The beige color pallet of the cadaver easily blended with the seaweed green petals of the flowers. Blood vessels looked just like plant roots, and the brain texture mimicked the spirals of the sea shells. Based on my earlier sketches, you can see that the forms are pretty ambiguous and organic. That made perfect sense to me since I was mainly inspired by the brain, which can be presented to us in all shapes and sizes.
Brain: The human brain is composed of three distinct sub brains, each of them is a product of a separate age in evolutionary history. (Dr. Paul McLean, National iInstitute of Mental Health) All of them have different functions, properties and chemistries that were developed throughout the evolution.
The Reptilian Brain: The oldest and the smallest brain, is the foundation of the whole structure. It houses the vital control centers neurons that are responsible for our breathing, heartbeat swallowing and visual tracking. If the reptilian brian dies, the whole body follows instantly.
The Limbic Brain: Limbic brain hovers over the Reptilian brain. Some of the main parts that are included in it are; hippocampus, fornix, amygdala,septum, cingulate gyrus, perirhinal and parahippocampal regions. In the most primitive terms this brain is responsible for our emotions and memory. It stores our most basic natural instincts and senses that were first developed in all the mammals and allowed them to feel protective of their offspring and develop senses of rapid reproduction.
The Neocortical Brain: Finally, the most developed brain, The Neocortex, is the largest of the three brains. It encapsulated everything and is draped over the Limbic brain. It is responsible for our logic, speaking, writing, conceptualizing, planning etc. It is a complex structure of millions of tiny muscles fibers firing with neurons everyday to satisfy our thoughts and actions.
Materials / Fabric/ Texture
‘Epilepsy’ is a collection that is choreographed between tension and release. The delicate dance of the two symbolizes both the physical and emotional state of a patient in the hospital. A lot of the fabric manipulation that has been done is inspired and based on the feeling of tensed nerves, brain matter, body tissue, and the functionality/dysfunctionality of the hospital clothing. The choice of material developed gradually. I was mainly paying a lot of attention to color and texture.
Having very particular research visuals, it was important to stick to organic colors and natural fabrics that would mimic the human body, particularly skin, hair and of course, the brain.
Hair was an important visual cue for my texture.
Every year I go to my neurologist to do some basic checkups, one of which is an EEG analysis.
EEG: electroencephalogram (EEG), a test used to find problems related to electrical activity of the brain. An EEG tracks and records brain wave patterns. Small metal discs with thin wires (electrodes) are placed on the scalp, and then send signals to a computer to record the results.
During that process, a nurse or a doctor spreads the hair away in specific areas, applies a special gel, and places electrodes. After securing them with a net-like rubber hat, all of that compresses the head for some time while a doctor asks you to look at different levels of light and sound intensities. Sometimes an EEG is performed over a sleeping cycle, during which there is a better chance to detect abnormalities.
As I was trying to combine my own experiences with ‘Epilepsy,’ it was important to translate these memories into the garments. Hair spreads, the net-like rubber hat, and the tension from pulling all helped conceive a design idea for the wool coat. I used to have a picture of two men wearing mongolian fur coats on my wall. They were long and furry, swallowing the bodies of the owners. I knew that I had to make one just like it and make it my statement piece. I found red alpaca wool fabric, which looked just like the hair of one of the models. I figured it would look effective if her hair would blend with the coat, to fetishize the whole hair concept and make it more dramatic. My fabric manipulation consisted of simply placing bungee cords in a grid-like manner (remembering the net rubber hat) all over the fabric, sewing under the bias tape tunnels and later scrunching everything up. Voila! I created a hair coat and my model finalized the whole look with her own magnificent hair.
Later, I used the same fabric manipulation for a pair of pants.
Latex is another fabric that perfectly blended in with the intended aesthetic of the collection. In a way, it reminded me of both skin that carries the medical smell of latex gloves often used in hospitals. Beige latex specifically worked well with the mesh print dress, symbolizing a layer of fragile protection over the neurons and blood vessels, as well as introducing some blurry beige tones to the look.
Green latex mimicked the texture and color of the seaweed leaves which connected the botanical aspect of my research to the rest. The green latex dress was another iteration of the hospital gown, a silhouette often carried throughout my looks. The open back creates just the right amount of vulnerability and exposure that one would feel while wearing it in the hospital.
This stage required a lot of visits to my neurologist, with whom I had to schedule an MRI exam specifically for this task.
MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which detects inside structure and the blood flow of the organs.
The brain is the most selfish organ in the body. If the body is dying, the brain would be the last organ to survive. It hydrates itself by sucking all the water out of the rest of the organs until there is nothing left. This concept just further proved to me how important it was for me to deliver the obsolete importance and beauty of this organ. My goal was to blow my own brain out of proportion, and make it noticeable but ambiguous at the same time. Turning it into a digital print was a perfect solution.
It was hard to take inspiration purely from something so irrelevant to my practice as an apparel designer. In order to figure out the actual apparel, I decided to research medical clothes for patients, which later helped me to construct a foundation for my silhouettes.
A patient gown is probably one of the simplest pieces of clothing out there. It is specifically designed to cover but also reveal. It is loose but can be adjusted with ties, and it is soft and made out of cotton just like the bedsheets. These aspects played a crucial role in my design process. The opening in the back was adapted from that, as well as the loose fitted drape which later developed into a dress. All I had to do was to choose the right materials and adjust the length.
Something I was exploring with forming a concept for my perfume was the idea of remembering home while existing in a foreign place. The smell of the sterile halls of the clinic blending with the sweet memory of the cardamom tea and the wooden liquor cabinet in the kitchen. The clash of materials, textures and smells were united by the same concept of brain evolution and abnormal cognitive development. I saw a lot of connection in all of that.
I visualized my scent as a line which flowed through every corner of my house, stopping and absorbing every detail. It is a line of memory that lives inside me and helps me remember my home back in Kazakhstan. I focused specifically on the tea ceremony that my mom often has in the evenings, with dessert and cognac. This little ritual subconsciously navigated me towards the smell that I developed in collaboration with International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. (IFF) called [ reli (e) ving the burn ].
Born within the sweet milk of vanilla ice cream as it melts under the syrupy coat of cognac. It continues its way towards the dusty white leather couch right next to the marble kitchen table, sneaking into the woolen blanket, passing through the yarn loops. It embraces the elements of black tea mixed with cardamom as it gets poured into the porcelain cup. It is as tender as when the rose petals hit the lips after taking the first sip. Be careful, let it rest, otherwise it might burn you. The cognac stings the tongue but the silk smoothness of the vanilla wraps around it melting, reli(e)ving the burn.
We all have experienced struggles with our psychology and our bodies, and it is beautiful to accept that. Expanding our ways of learning about science in an unconventional manner and using art to help us navigate through it is one way to get rid of frustration and confusion. Combining both worlds with knowledge, precision and chaos and diving in and coming back to its surface can help us heal.
With my art I am trying to depict a view of the world from the inside of a non-standard brain. My work explores the different levels of cognitive functioning of a patient with an neurological disorder. Combining both my family and my own experiences, I dedicated my ‘Epilepsy’ collection to the human brain - the most selfish organ.