Q&A July

A monthly Digest feature celebrating 20 years of ANAT Synapse, where we ask an ANAT Synapse alumnus about their place within the art + science + technology network.

Cat Jones, image courtesy of the artist.

Cat Jones

Cat Jones is an artist, writer, and researcher thinking across social, biological and metaphysical realms. She collaborates with neuroscientists, biologists, entomologists, and gastronomists to create immersive experiences and socially engaged artworks that subvert history, language, science and the senses. Commissions include Sydney Festival, Vitalstatistix, The Wired Lab, and Proximity Festival. She has developed and presented her work internationally working with experimental groups such as FoAM (BE), pvi collective (AU), Blast Theory (UK), The League of Imaginary Scientists (USA), The Institute of Art and Olfaction (USA) and many others. She regularly participates in curatorial and selection panels for local, national and international festivals, symposiums, organisations and funding bodies. She was Artistic Director / CEO of PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, and Co-Director then inaugural Chairperson for the Electrofringe International Festival for Electronic Arts. Cat is the recipient of a Creative Australia Fellowship 2012, a Create NSW Performing Arts and Music Fellowship 2018/2019, and the Australia Council Award for Emerging and Experimental Art 2021. She is an alumnus of ANAT Synapse and SymbioticA residencies and currently, a Creative Industries Resident at MAAS, Powerhouse, Sydney.

Can you tell us about your ANAT Synapse residency and where the research has led you?

I was investigating plant signaling and adaptive behavior, human-plant relationships, and women’s authorship in the history of botany for my Creative Australia Fellowship. As an experiment in human-plant sensory communication I invented the virtual plant illusion, a variation of the rubber hand illusion that I drew together with the concept of mirror therapy for phantom limb pain, and research around empathy in virtual embodiment. I embedded the illusion within a one on one installation experience, The Plantarum: Empathic Limb Clinic developed for Proximity Festival at PICA. At the same time I was in residence at SymbioticA to research plant science with Monica Gagliano. I met with Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Stuart Hodgetts about the various trajectories in my research and they connected me with Prof Stephan Schug, Chair of Anaesthesiology and Pain Medicine, UWA at the time. I started meeting with his associates and students about visual tactile illusions, graded exposure and mirror therapy.

Somatic Drifts, experience view, Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix. Image © 2014 Cat Jones.

Meanwhile I witnessed unique affects of the illusion on audiences at Proximity Festival. I decided to experiment with making the plant illusion into a whole body experience, called Somatic Drifts. I’d also become even more interested in its potential relationship to pain science. So I proposed a parallel research project and Prof Schug came on board as my host. My resulting Synapse residency took place across University Western Australia, School of Medicine and Pharmacology, as well as the University of South Australia, Sansom Institute, Body in Mind hosted by Prof Lorimer Moseley. My aim was to investigate the therapeutic potential of illusions within artistic augmented reality experiences and developing methodologies for collecting research data within the artwork.

The neuroscientists I met with were unexpectedly intrigued by a particular set of technical and experiential observations I’d made as a result of my design. Coming at the ‘problem’ of illusion uptake from an artistic perspective allowed something new to emerge. A few years after my residency the Body and Mind team got in touch to let me know they were pursuing the hypothesis we’d uncovered. We published the results of the pilot study in 2019 beginning a new line of pain science research.

Somatic Drifts, installation view, Radical Ecologies, PICA. Image © 2016 OK Media Group.

I had a water cooler moment about one of my other projects during Synapse too. I met Jane Chalmers in the Body in Mind lunchroom and we chatted about what I was working on. I was heading to Fremantle Art Centre to develop Anatomy’s Confection for Proximity Festival. It turned out we had a lot of references in common as Jane was researching vulvodynia. The following year we co-authored an article for The Conversation that was published on International Women’s Day. It reached over a million reads in 24 hours and was published again in print for The Conversation’s anthology of important articles from the past decade. Synapse intensified my artistic explorations of the potential of sensory communication and cognition in transformative experiences. I’ve continued explorations in tactility, expanded my practice in olfaction, and followed emergent themes around medicine and feminist futures, the subject of my Create NSW Performing Arts and Music Fellowship.

What is the biggest challenge of being an interdisciplinary artist?

Acquiring diverse bodies of knowledge and reaching an understanding of different ways of thinking is one of the enjoyable challenges. My work has lead me through the science of plant communication and adaptive behavior, neuroscience, anatomy, olfaction, ecology, futuring, entomophagy, animal husbandry, pharmacology. Keeping up with advances in each area and switching between disciplines quickly as new projects arise is another kind of challenge.

Anatomy’s Confection, participant sculpture, detail view, Proximity Festival, Fremantle Art Centre. Image © 2014 Cat Jones.

Finding ways to honour the expansive nature of this work is complex. A single project often has to live double lives in discrete sectors. Experience a project of this nature in its entirety within a single presentation context is rare. One part might live in a one off festival event, another in a public program, an academic publication, and process documentation in an archive. How can we maximize the cultural infrastructure that we have to honour such prolific practices? 

Artists in this area are groundbreakers – changing social thinking, inventing materials and methods, creating movements, feeding discrete artforms and social futures. We spend more time acquiring skills and knowledge, developing relationships, and prototyping work – cycles that require high amounts of financial and resource investment with little to no return. This is the area most in need of long-term investment and would be one of the best case studies for a universal basic income.

What kind of mentor-mentee relationships have you experienced throughout your years of practice? Is there any particular mentor or mentee that stood out for you?

Mentors and mentees are such important relationships. You learn so much from each in such short bursts of time. They develop with a particular kind of trust and intimacy. Some offer astute perspective on your investigations within the context of broader practice, others a holistic reflection in the context of other aspects of your life. Some are formal and some long-term friendships – including peers. They often turn into collaborations at some point.

Century’s Breath, Sense It Feel It, Artists on Climate Change, Sydney Opera House. Image © 2018 Prudence Upton.

I met Dr Jill Scott during my second SymbioticA residency. Jill and I share investigative interests in the senses, neuroscience, plants and media art, feminist practices. We share a language around audience relationships, from backgrounds in performance. Jill encouraged me to take a bigger leap in olfactory practice and research, which not long after lead to me learning experimental scent composition with The Institute of Art and Olfaction. Within a year of our conversation I developed Century’s Breath, commissioned by Vitalstatistix for their Climate Century exhibition series. In 2016 I showcased the project at The Hammer Museum’s AIX Scent Fair, Los Angeles where it won the Sadakichi Experimental Art and Olfaction Award. I built on the methodology of crowd sourced scent design I’d developed to create Scent of Sydney commissioned by Sydney Festival 2017.

I’ve mentored a lot of inspiring artists too. It’s such a privilege to be invited in to someone else’s practice. I was matched with Amanda Bennetts as part of Project24, a residency program run by Sunshine Coast Arts Council. It’s been incredible to witness her work quickly evolve into a formal art-science-technology investigation with the support of Ars Electronica x IDSA’s FOUNDING LAB in Linz, Austria. Amanda’s work Stealth Care: Wellness from the Algorithm is currently exhibiting at Outer Space Gallery, Brisbane as part of ISEA.

Century’s Breath, box edition. Image © 2016 Cat Jones.

As an interdisciplinary artist, who and what are your biggest influences?

Laurie Anderson continues to be an influence. As a young performance maker, I didn’t comprehend the extent of her scientific interests, or the depth of her technological experiments, collaborations and philosophical approach. I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass with her in New York at The Kitchen (NY) many years ago (and her dog Lolabelle). That same trip I was introduced to Janet Cardiff’s work and entranced by her audio-visual illusions and the way she uses magic realism. I’m fascinated by the work of Lygia Clark and am often dipping into Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter and more recently Ross Gibson’s Changescapes. Recent social performance methodologies have been influenced by Lois Weaver’s Public Address Systems.

Scent of Sydney, installation view, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, Bay 19. Image 2017 Cat Jones.

What are you working on at the moment?

Like all independent artists, I have a number of projects at different stages and in different directions. Medicament for Your Predicament, a collective pharmacy of political medicines is available to tour. Spell Kit for Navigating Uncertainty, with Ingrid Vranken (BE/NL), is an expanded essay originally commissioned by FoAM for their anarchiving project, with new iterations in development, including a workshop experience.

Combining my interests in multispecies olfaction with medicine and feminist futures the theme for my Create NSW Fellowship, I’m embarking on investigations into olfaction and health from a multispecies perspective with Tarsh Bates. We’ll be in discussion with a panel of artists and researchers at Hurricanes and Scaffoldings Symposium, Umeå University, Sweden in December this year.