Rat Game Pieces
The assignment for Animals/People class: based on your Reaktion book animal, make TWO pin-up works of the animal – one cute / one monstrous. Two studies should be related in format. One should be cute and the other monstrous. How you define this pairing is up to you. Example of pairings: teddy bear and mythical killer bear.
Of course I chose Rat by Jonathan Burt. This book is chock full of great anecdotes and historical accounts. Burt does a great job of situating rats in our social and cultural narratives, being as they are our “dark shadow.” I’m sure I will constantly refer back to this book for inspiration and information.
For this assignment I looked at rats in captivity, pets and laboratory rats. Wild rats are really amazing, with their ability to get around our extermination agenda and take advantage of our wasteful lifestyles. But the rats we have brought willingly into our homes and laboratories tell a different story. They speak to different areas of our culture than the mysterious dark shadow– in a way they are the dark shadow in broad day light. There are great things that occur because of these two kinds of captive rat, and yet they can be seen as a symptom of our species’ need to supplement another species to achieve something as grand as curing cancer or as mundane as companionship. My experience with pet rats and laboratory rats (out of the lab context) have informed this assignment.
The rats that one may purchase from a pet store are the same species as those in the laboratory, and those one finds lurking in alleyways and subways: rattus norvegicus. Pet store rats are almost entirely derived from laboratory rats. One can find the black hooded rat, the gray, the albino, the champagne, and the champagne hooded rats in both contexts. There are no discernible biological differences between standard specimen pet and lab rat, in fact, the differences are contextual. One can order them in bulk from distributors much like one would order cat food or dog toys. One of the first distributors, “Harlan Sprague-Dawley Inc., founded in 1931, began by breeding wild rats taken from a company dump.” (Burt pg 96). The earliest intentional strains were hailed for their lack of genetic variety, an attribute that also accounts for their health problems. When separated into categories based on transgenics, basically the “same” rat could be used over and over for different experiments without having to take unintended genetic differences into account.
There are rat breeders who supply the most enthusiastic pet owners. These individuals have taken it upon themselves to breed for traits such as rex fur (curly), hairless, dumbo (droopy ears), and so on. These rats are known as fancy rats, and while they differ from wild rats and lab rats in fur color or minor anatomy, they can still interbreed with fertile offspring. Mary Douglas started fancy rat competitions over a hundred years ago. Fancy rats are gaining popularity, and have bled into other genres such as the Rat Olympics (which had to change their name to the Nebraska Wesleyan Xtreme Rat Challenge after the Olympic board put pressure on them). Presumably a pet rat owner would not want to participate in a rat experiment (excluding training), and presumably a lab technician working with rats would not want a pet rat. These presumptions are the basis for the form I chose to dichotomize pet rats (cute) and lab rats (monstrous) under the influence of their human handlers.
We project our desires and fears onto rats, and those in the home or in the lab are not exempt. In addition to the typical representations of cute and monstrous, I decided to use the projections of human emotion, utility and caution.
The pitiable pet rat
The cute rat in this case is the pet rat. Pet rats provide companionship, an “Oedipal” relationship, according to Deleuze and Gottari. We can take the role of “daddy” or “mommy.” The post-op pet rat is seen as a pitiable thing, a defenseless creature one must care for. The sutured incision on the back speaks to the removal of malignancy. The uneven sutures indicate a human hand. The pet rat is diagnosed, saved and mended. In terms of Francis Richard’s 15 Theses on The Cute, appendages are missing or reduced to simplified shapes, the shapes are rounded and wholesome, harmless. The position of the body, facing the viewer, cowering or pleading, deferring, speak to humility and vulnerability– the abject. The cute rat drools and tears: side-effects of general anesthesia? Or demanding care from an attentive owner? The stereotypical associations with the color white (innocence, nicety, purity) are played up.
The demon lab rat
The laboratory rat is Frankenstein’s monster. An cranial excavation with perfect angles marks the empty slate of the lab rat’s existence. They can be programmed to do things, their brain is an open book waiting to be read or written. The gaping hole references the large number of rats in labs who have electrodes implanted in their brains like this. The hole marks the absence of individual thought, because in the end they are unable to change the conditions of their Orwellian situation– the machine is too big and too strong, and are they even aware there is an alternative? The antenna (or is it a toggle switch?) protruding from the back signifies some kind of input or output to be initiated or received by someone on the outside. The red and black colors say “death” or “danger,” to continue the stereotypes of color. Here is where my intentions do not correspond to the creation: the body is turned away, hidden, mysterious, or as though the rat has been banished or punished. The tail protrudes from under the squat body, whiplike and phallic, ready to penetrate like a snake. These qualities put forth something menacing and monstrous, but more in realm of the wild rat, the heathen creature waiting at Deleuze and Gottari’s “anomolous” pack.
I started creating the design before I knew what I wanted to say about rats as cute or monstrous. Some of the design came out of instinct, and some came out of feeling around in the dark. The image, though it looks Banksy enough, came from this website.
I knew I wanted to do something on the laser cutter. After I settled on the image and experimented with live trace in Illustrator, came up with the concept and design: game pieces for backgammon, checkers, poker and chess. With chess you’d have to remember which pieces started off as what for the duration of the game, an allusion to the deft spatial memory of the rat. After laser etching the images on acrylic plexi-glass, I used a silk screen squeegee to smooth in the slow drying acrylic paint. I used slow drying rather acrylic than oil because it’s water-based yet won’t dry before I have time to clean the smudges and excess paint.
Below is a mock-up of the chess/checkers side of the game board. A grid of red and white squares, 8 x 8, made of felt. These fabric samples are not felt. On the other side would be a backgammon board. Each disk has a head on one side and the full body on the other. Heads and tails, as it were. I sandwiched them, glued with cyanoacrylite.
To place the pieces back into the container the players stack them in a pillar, like a roll of coins or a stack of poker chips, and roll them up in the felt game board. Black pieces are at the bottom in this shot.
Below, a mock-up of the rolled up game pieces. This is made of felt. What’s not shown here is the PVC or cardboard tube this would go in to keep it clean. Also not shown are the dice rollers or the dice for backgammon, and the fact that it would be longer.
While writing this entry over the last 48 hours I’ve been reading the Deleuze and Gottari Becoming-Animal chapter in The Animal Reader. I’m continuously blown away by their ideas about how becoming-animal is not the same as imitating an animal. It’s something between self and animal. (I had this experience while working with my friend Emma on being dogs for two hours a day. We weren’t indicating dog, or imitating dog, we became something halfway between dog and human). D&G start talking about lines and borderlines and multiplicity, all of which seem to retroactively affirm the choice of making packs of rats for games, competing against each other under the hands of humans, in the minds of humans. Veritable pawns. The pack is the becoming-animal for the individual human. “We do not become animal without a fascination for the pack, for multiplicity.” (Kaloff/Fitzgerald pg 40). This is a hugely rich text (especially with all the references to rats). I’m literally splitting my skin with anticipation…
Disclaimer: I grew up in a family where we went to every length for the health of our pets. Sometimes too far… We are a compassionate family. Having raised companion rats from pet stores and laboratories, three from the former, six from the latter, I can testify to the fragile health of these captive animals. Tracy, my first rat, black hooded, had a series of mammary tumors, which we removed through successive surgeries, but in the end she didn’t make it through the last one– she was one and a half. Then there were Hilary and Harriet, champagne hooded and champagne full– Harriet died of a speedy degenerative neural disease at the age of one, and Hilary died at the age of two from a different kind of neural disease. Ratsputin, black hooded, had mammary tumors, and Snowflake, albino, had respiratory issues (which didn’t improve inside an oxygen tent). Both were hand-raised from lab stock but never experienced the lab. Guido, Francis and Pablo all died young from unknown causes, and Sanchez had a degenerative spine condition, though he lived to three. All four adopted after high school psychology experiments.