what is a human subject?

Written by Antoinette LaFarge on July 9th, 2016

I have been asking myself this question since the middle of the second week of my residency at the ICI. It is not just that this residency as had a lot of associated tasks—my last ICI residency did also. It has more to do with the nature of the tasks. For my last ICI residency, I did things like choose a sample of dirt and choose a book that had had particular meaning for my work. Here is a partial list of the tasks for my current residency:

  • complete four questionnaires related to my work processes
  • take part in a recorded conversation with an ‘interlocutor’
  • plan and carry out a joint activity with a member of the ICI staff
  • keep a lab notebook of my work during the residency
  • come up with several short maxims
  • complete a book project of some kind
  • write several blog posts (of which this is one)

Given that the point of this residency is to reflect on the nature of what is called, often very loosely, ‘visual research’, I have no issue with any of this, and have been enjoying most of it. (For some reason, coming up with maxims has been tough.) But the cumulative effect of all these tasks has been to make me feel less like a practicing artist and more like the subject of an experiment in which I am one of the human subjects. I feel very scrutinized— even the room I work in is being regularly photographed (I am told) to create documentation of my research process. So on top of the self-consciousness that comes for any artist when reflecting on how the work is, or should be, or might be, accomplished, comes that other self-consciousness of being under sustained observation. I have not consciously noticed that I am altering my habits or activities under this well-intentioned surveillance, but it is after all a law of physics that the very act of observation affects what is observed, so it must be the case that whatever can be learned about my relationship to visual research from this process will be shaped by the conditions of the residency itself, including the observational aspects.

Maybe the question I am trying to grapple with is not so much what is a human subject as when: Did I become one when I signed up for this residency? Am I not one because by generally accepted standards no research or experiment with defined goals is taking place? Am I not a subject because I am an observer as well, taking my own notes, pursuing my own ends? (I would just add that insofar as human subject laws are designed to ensure both informed consent and ethical treatment, neither is at issue here since the ICI is scrupulous on both fronts: I am only interested in this question as a philosophical matter of where the boundaries of this term ‘human subject’ lie.)

When, in other words, would a situation involving an artist hanging out with some friends and colleagues—scribbling stuff down in her notebook,  messing about with her tools and materials—become the kind of thing that human subject laws are designed to regulate? I googled ‘human subject’ law and practices and kept running up against a wall: no one seems to care what happens outside of large institutional settings and/or outside of the sciences. So at the moment it appears that even if I am involved in ‘visual research’, I may be a subject and I am certainly human, but I am probably (possibly?) not a human subject.

 

You must be logged in to post a comment.