Ecologies of Skin, Gender and Landscape: an Experiment with Practice as Research

Freya Verlander reflects on an experiment leading seminar participants on a virtual ‘skin safari’. This article is part of the series ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’, guest edited for The Polyphony by Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton.

My paper for ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’ explored the ecologies of skin, landscapes, and gender, in relation to microbiologist Mary J. Marples’ article “Life on the Human Skin” (1969). I opened by taking participants on a condensed virtual ‘Skin “Safari”’ inspired, partly, by dermatologist Monty Lyman’s chapter “Skin Safari: Of Mites and Microbiomes” in The Remarkable Life of the Skin (2020). This functioned as an inroad to Marples’ earlier work on ways of thinking about the skin and its microbiome (drawing comparisons between skin and landscapes). I suggested how Marples’ works can be understood as inspiring medical humanities outputs – specifically, W.H. Auden’s poem “A New Year’s Greeting” (1969) – and concluded by suggesting how the skin’s microbiome is made visual in contemporary microbial artworks.

The narrative I developed, below, framed the semi-theatrical excursion I led across the skin. This forms part of my developing research as practice within the medical humanities and, more broadly, responded to the challenges of the withdrawal of touch, how to touch without touching, and the movement of teaching/performance online, during the pandemic:

I want you to look closely at the skin on the back of your hand. Closer than that. Even closer.  What do you see? Veins? Hairs? Creases at your knuckles? Perhaps you see scars and remember their stories? Perhaps, you see your tendons jump under your skin as you wriggle your fingers?

But what if we look closer still? Does the narrative change?

As dermatologist Monty Lyman explains, “in the same way that Earth has radically varied ecosystems and habitats, including oceans, deserts, and rainforests, human skin has a number of habitats that support completely different populations of flora and fauna.” The warm, swampy, areas between the toes, for example, are very different to the dry surface of the legs, or the oily habitat of your face (Lyman 24) …

And, while we’re on the skin of your face, it’s worth noting that so are these…The demodex mites [image of demodex mite]. Right now, they’re clinging to your eyebrows and eyelashes. And, at night, the male demodex swims through the oil and sweat on your face. Looking for a mate. The females live in your sweat glands and hair follicles. They come out to mate and return – under your skin – to lay eggs…

I hope you’re still sitting comfortably. Although, perhaps you’re feeling more conscious of your skin as a lived in – and, indeed, lived on – surface?

This short interactive excursion facilitates “skinbodied” experiences and activates the skin as a sight and site of embodied engagement. It also opens the skin up as a surface through which we can think. The activity approaches the skin in three different ways: firstly, by looking at it as surface and, secondly, by activating it as a lived site, and, thirdly, from here, beginning to think about the skin as ecosystem.

Marples’ “Life on the Human Skin” makes the skin’s ecosystem accessible to a general readership and invites imaginative engagement with the skin/its communities. The article opens with the reflection: “When someone is told that his skin supports a large popula­tion of microorganisms, he may look a bit uneasy and respond that he takes a shower every morning” (Marples 108).  Marples continues: “His un­ease will scarcely be lessened by the in­formation that showering or bathing, which washes away some of the skin, exposes [other] microorganisms hidden in its crevices and therefore increases the total population on the skin surface […] the mere thought may well induce involuntary scratching” (108). And it’s these (sk)involuntary-type reactions that I hope participants will have when moving from looking at the skin’s surface, to seeing the mites and activating the skin as lived-in/on site. When I see participants visibly recoil from the mites on screen, I know this has worked.

To mitigate this feeling of heightened skinbodied awareness, Marples encourages perspective taking. She suggests: “If, on the other hand, one considers the skin from the standpoint of its nat­ural inhabitants rather than in terms of the appearance, comfort and defence mechanisms of the human host, a fasci­nating world comes into view” (108). Marples effectively, and imaginatively, worlds the skin as ecosystem. The imaginative analogies Marples draws between the skin and the natural world, alongside the description of the skin as world for microbial communities, inspires Auden’s poem “A New Year Greeting,” which addresses the yeasts, bacteria and viruses living on the skin. Auden depicts the skin as a microscopic-world with imagery of natural landscapes and disasters, including the “tropical forests of arm-pit” and the “desert of fore-arm” and “cool woods of my scalp” – terms borrowed from Marples’ article (111). Auden responds to Marples’ provocation to imagine “the skin from the standpoint of its nat­ural inhabitants,” as the narrative voice wonders how the microbial communities would be affected by and, indeed, interpret our everyday acts (such as dressing or showering) – akin to hurricanes or floods.

The skin in relation to the natural world provides an inroad for the ways in which skin, landscape/climate, and gender have been conflated in (not unproblematic) symbiotic imaginings of female skin (see e.g., David Howes’ “Skinscapes: Embodiment, Culture, and Environment” (2005)). I concluded with reference to medical humanities projects including Joana Ricou’s ‘Naval Gazing,’ which used microbial swabs from participants’ navels, and Mellissa Fisher’s ‘Microbial Me’ which produced agar sculptures. Marples asked readers to imagine what the skin might look like from its microbial inhabitants’ perspective, but these artists make those microbial communities visible – taking microbial swabs of the skin and growing them on agar platforms – enabling us to see the skin’s microbiome in new, creative, ways.

This paper enabled me to experiment with forms of “skinbodied” engagement as part of a developing practice as research and my wider pedagogic practice. For example, the experiment in this paper informed the development of my IAS funded workshop: Virtual Skin “Safari”: (Other)Worlding the Skin and Transforming Skin-Based Narratives, in collaboration with a team of dermatologists and artist Mellissa Fisher. This workshop further problematized the term “safari” – in terms of encouraging an understanding of the skin as an ecosystem that the participant is very much a part of.

*****

Freya Verlander’s PhD thesis “(Skin)Aesthetics: A Study of Skin(s) in Spectatorship” combined conceptual modes in the analysis of skin in theatre and performance, from psychoanalytic theories, to philosophical ideas, to dermatological research, and contemporary neuroscience. Wider research interests beyond this project include related enquiries in the field of medical humanities, specifically the intersections between the humanities and dermatology, the olfactory senses (including taste) in relation to the skin in theatre, as well as how science fiction depicts the skin and skin conditions.

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