Exploring the nature of categories: Things That Art

We speak to medical anthropologist, artist and writer Lochlann Jain about their new book, Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity

As the world becomes more complicated and unclear, it’s easy to see why we are constantly, unconsciously categorising the things around us. But, while these categories may seem to bring ideas or objects together, they can also be incredibly divisive and drive society apart. Hoping to shed light on these – sometimes arbitrary – labels and turn categories on their heads, Stanford University professor Lochlann Jain has created a playful book that shows categories’ often irrelevant and surprisingly multi-faceted meanings.

Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity explores the possibilities and pitfalls of categories, making readers take a step back to reflect on the way we categorise our lives, and why we do this. A non-binary queer individual and an award-winning anthropologist, writer and artist, Jain’s unique perspective offers an insightful way to question what is outside the categories we create.

In Things That Art, Jain has dissected a range of categories and broken them down through a series of delightful, humorous and often unusual illustrations. With the book recently published and now available to buy, we spoke to Jain to find out more about Things That Art and what inspired this exceptional collection of illustrations:

Tell us about Things That Art?

I was in a faculty meeting doodling; the doodle became my colleague’s nose, and then a bunch of different kinds of noses emerged from my pen, which I put under a heading, “kinds of noses.” Right away with that first collection (my sister’s nose, the nose of wine, a porcine nose, etc.) an implicit set of questions arose: what noses know what, how do we distinguish and recognise noses, who gets to do the recognising, and so on.

It was nearly accidental that I drew the nose – and yet noses turn out to be so rich with meaning. Who knew noses were so political? At the time, drawing offered some solace during an unhappy period. I continued with that series among my other drawings, and over the years I drew over 100 of the Things That collection.

Things That Art both locates and creates frictions in the elements of the drawings: word, illustration, and collection. The goal is to undermine some of the expectations set up by the familiar forms that it builds on – that is, primarily the form of flashcard (word and illustration) and then the museum or zoo (curated collection of similar/related things). Many of the drawings use these elements to create little paradoxes and gaps where not everything matches up.

The concept of the project is that these gaps can shine a light on, and thus get an audience to think with me, about how categories work, and our assumptions about what belongs together and why/how. For example, how is money as a form of the representation of value (and state power) similar to lipstick as a form of representation and value (and gendered relations)? What kind of world/imagination makes these similar?

I found the form of the word/image/collection generative in that it could push a fundamentally poetic project (making connections and leaps among meaning, sound, and the shapes of letters and words) into a visual mode. Things That Art investigates the registers and grammars of naming and abstracting in relation to each other, sometimes in arbitrary ways. The conceptual leaps thus make intuitive before rational sense, and can create possibilities for knowing otherwise, disturbing fixed identities, and lateral thinking. At least, that’s the aspiration.

What interested you about exploring the way we categorise our lives?

Categories are highly political in ways that it is easy to misrecognise. I was interested in playing at that boundary among political, poetic, and barely sensical, to see if it could give new ways of thinking about categorisation.

What was your inspiration behind the project?

To explore old ideas in new ways: philosophy through drawings, categories through non-catagorisable, binaries through non-binaries, etc.

Why do you think we naturally try to create categories?

I don’t think we can think without categories… that’s part of the reason it’s easy to forget that it’s a political process. For example, we say the difference between and a girl and boy is obvious, it’s in their genitals. But that can easily elide all the other information – not related to their “private parts” – that we ascribe to girls and boys. That’s a straightforward example of something that happens at every level of how we (must) put the world together.

What do you hope readers will take from Things That Art?

A sense of surprise, of fun, and the idea that intellectual provocation can be revealing. Professors get a bad rap.

Why choose to display these linguistic explorations as art? Do you think art is important within our day-to-day lives?

I guess that depends what you mean by art. I display them as “things that art,” which is slightly different.

Again – that depends what you mean by art, and who you include in “our”. I hugely appreciate that so many of the galleries and museums in the UK are free because I love looking at paintings and drawings.

What were the challenges of the project?

Drawing take a lot of time, and redrawing takes a lot of time. It’s difficult to know when to stop – I find this in my writing as well.

Do you have a favourite category from the book, or one that particularly stands out for you?

I think a lot of them are kind of weird and in a way they are parts of my subconscious, even to myself. For example, who thinks of someone with a pitchfork in their head as “things at the farm”? But some of the other drawings point out that there are long histories of weirdos; for example, people who used graduate students and chimpanzees as test subjects for car crashes, or people who used bloodletting as a means to resuscitate a drowned person. So maybe I’m not so weird – I least I just drew it rather than actually doing it!

Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosities is available in hardback, published by the University of Toronto Press

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