‘Peering into the Microscope Project—On Ian Gibbins’ How Things Work’
Cordite ‘Obsolete’ Edition, 2015.
Edited by Bonny Cassidy
In 2012 Flinders University decommissioned a set of powerful microscopes. Technologies long since surpassed, ETEC, JEOL, LEITZ and the VANOX ‘twins’ (scanning electron and fluorescence scopes) had been marked for scrap; their manuals, notes and schematics boxed for collection. But before the whole armamentarium could be junked, a group of South Australian artists and writers staged a salvage run. Stripped and disassembled, the microscopes were requisitioned with their attendant documents and some specimens inside an abandoned pharmaceutical distillery in Adelaide’s inner west. “Analogue anarchy… an autopsy of the electromechanical era” described one participant, surveying the recovered wreckage. Art made in response to these blinded instruments was later collected as ‘The Microscope Project’, exhibited at the University Art Museum in September 2014. Ian Gibbin’s How Things Work offers a poetical treatment.
Gibbins was until recently, a neuroscientist and an anatomist at Flinders. For him then, the microscope parts represented more than a mere puzzle or provocation—they were “deconstructed collaborators”, his gutted staff. Hence, these are poems interested in the sense-memory of machines, the mechanisaton of language, and the possibility of accreted intimacies that persist between tool and technician. From ‘JK (Monday, morning)’ (9)
This is how it works. First, you must plug it in, obviously, switch on the power, ramp up the voltage, check the vacuum status. You rehearse the operating procedures, the protocols required for your session. But you may as well be on the moon, holding your breath lest the oxygen supply drops to empty. You peer into the squid-ink sky, your feet aglow with dry volcanic dust, just trying to keep your hands out of trouble. Are you alone?
Object presence is one feeling explored in this collection: how does the human body register, and then swiftly forget, the optic implement standing between the looker and the looked at? The uncanny effect of the microscope Gibbins implies, is to remind the operator of their own, inbuilt perceptual apparatus—how the body sees with the twitchy rigging of optic nerves and the brain’s interpretative spackle in addition to its eyes. Do you, reader, perhaps also remember a time in science class, your brow pressed upon the unfocused eyepiece of the microscope, each eye seeing something wholly different from the other? Each eye in a world, unrelated? You shut one maybe, turned Cyclopean to resist it because the experience was a little frightening—your brain out of phase with your vision. Such instants dislodge the textbook memory, I have two eyes and what they see takes some reconciling. In a click, it’s forgotten. Adjust the lens. Then, as Gibbins has it: “you may as well be on the moon … your feet aglow with dry volcanic dust” (9). The microscope siphons the mind down onto the slide. The machine has become another link in a system of seeing. Gibbins’ work explores how the operator can seem to have internalised microscope, even as the microscope closes in on human tissues. Forget the body, forget the lenses. Go into the cell. The minute rendered immense and mentally habitable.
At the end of the lab the rubber sockets of the microscope are warm. Matching indentations encircle the technician’s face. The microscope reasserts its strange presence. Some microscopes emit a noise, a whine or hum, until they are switched off and de-animated.
Gibbins is a writer with a developed appreciation of the word articulate and its double meaning: to speak, and to extend by means of a further joint or armature, to add more structures to a chain of seeing that always was, a collaborative affair (light, retina, nerves, occipital lobe, etcetera. A sequence to which we might also add various other machines today including telescopes, periscopes, satellites, cameras and smartphones). The poet wants the microscope to articulate in both senses, and so a number of the poems in How Things Work concede human creativity to machine language.