I better check the Material Safety Data Sheet….
No toxic effects. Good.
I’ll look up another one just in case?
Reproductive effects in laboratory animals. Damn.
What do I do?
It’ll be fine. It was used as drug for years. It’ll be at a level thousands, maybe even millions of times lower than that dose. It’ll be fine. Reproductive effects. Reproductive effects…..
I can’t do this, can I? No. No, I can’t.
So, that was my train journey home as I checked the toxicological data for the super-smelly thiol I was going to use for Cryptic Nights and came to the realisation that I couldn’t use it. I didn’t have numbers, or exposure levels – I just couldn’t release an inhalant into the atmosphere around an audience who hadn’t, or couldn’t, make a choice about being exposed to it. DMP, the thiol, (shown below) is not a household compound, not normally around people, nor naturally found.
While I tried to come up with an alternative, I started thinking about science and safety, and art and risk. Simon and I collaborate together and try to find areas where art and science are mutually beneficial, perhaps synergistic. Cryptic Nights is one of those collaborations: a chance for science to become art, for experiment to become performance. What about safety? How safe is science? How safe is art?
Science deals with the physical, the material, the measurable. I can look up the MSDS (material safety data sheet) and find out the exposure limits, or the effects of a chemical on rats or mice. I can use data, or perhaps even my own experiments, to classify, quantify and understand the risks and the dangers of being exposed to any chemical. This can even be done on a process or procedure: the whole subject of risk analysis is big. It why planes don’t fall out the sky. It’s why the banks did.
Art doesn’t deal with the physical, it deals with the emotional – perhaps the soul or the spiritual depending on how you see these things. It’s why fables and parables are still remembered. Two thousand years a Jewish rabbi didn’t give the crowd around him statistics of how many adult children return home during a financial crisis – the told them The Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Science can affect my body: but art can affect the rest of me. Society knows this. It classifies films and videos for age ranges; it worries about the internet. Society censors images and experiences that will affect peoples minds, in the same way as it controls the substances and process that will affect peoples bodies. Many of my friends will avoid certain books, or other artistic experiences, because they become upset, or disturbed, by them.
But with such a powerful medium, where’s the risk assessment? I can look up the numbers and work out how to keep the science in the performance physically safe: Simon can’t do the same thing. (Although I do have a mental image of rehearsing Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride in front of an audience of white mice to assess the long term effects!) Already I can see how certain scientific activities that I’m planning for the performance are stirring memories for the people involved: but what happens if a member of the real audience was badly burned by a school titration that went wrong, or blinded by ammonia in a some accident or event? Our use of ‘chemical smells’ might be a strong trigger.
How powerfully a piece of art affects you depends on ‘who you are’, your individual characteristics, but that’s the same for the effects of a chemical on our bodies. During my PhD I work extensively with a protein call Hen Egg White Lysozyme: now I’m allergic to the protein and can’t work with it without my nose running. During the same years I loved the Alien/Aliens films: now I’m mentally allergic to them and can’t watch them since they re-initate nightmares.
Is ‘risk assessing’ art too difficult? While the effect of science can often be understood and predicted because those effects are often reproducible, perhaps art just has too much variability.
Our mental and emotional bodies are very different, and so the effect of art is perhaps not reproductive. Which is where I started.
Reproductive effects. Reproductive effects….That’s years for family. That’s a lifetime for an individual. No. No, I can’t.