How our bodies communicate information


  • Richard White (Cancer Biologist)
  • KC Maddux (Artist)


Bodies communicate information. What that means to a scientist can be very different to an artist.

Richard White is a scientist and director of the White Lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He wants to know how cancer spreads from one part of the body to another part of the part of the body and how it thrives once it gets there.

It’s called metastasis and it’s the most advanced stage of cancer, stage 4. When most people die of cancer, they die because it spreads to other parts of the body.  

The key concept here is distance. The situation isn’t only that cancer spreads but that it spread to a new location that’s not continuous with the original location. There’s separation and distance, kind of like a plant whose seed was carried by wind or insect to grow on new soil.

"Some people call this the soil and seed hypothesis", says lab director, Richard White. "Certain seeds are only going to do well in a nurturing environment." In that fashion, "certain cancers like to go to certain parts of the body." For example, "Melanoma, a skin cancer likes to go the brain. We don’t know why but clearly the brain is a receptive soil for those cells." What mediates it, in some cases, is mutations in the tumor. In others, it has to do with the process that turns genes off and on. Or it could be that the environment is changing in a nurturing way, like adding fertilizer to your soil.

White's team works to uncover mechanisms of the soil and seed model with a transparent strain of zebrafish they developed that allows them to see the metastasis and search for connections between the cancers and their surrounding environment.

If our bodies are often read, how do we use them as statements?

Artist KC Maddux is also interested in making connections having to do with body and its surrounding context. Working with drawings, photography, and other materials, Maddux operates in “body talk”.

“Your body is a message,” Maddux says. “Your perceived traits are used to approximate your coordinates within a complex identity matrix that includes gender, age, race, class, and even height, among other things. We use those coordinates as crude cairns that adjust our expectations when interacting with each other."

And when those traits change, so do our expectations. “I have lived 30 years being read as a female and six being read as a male.  I changed my body in 2011, and then strangely, my entire social world changed around me. A physical shift, essentially of hair, muscle and vocal pitch, dramatically affected the way I was received emotionally by people, especially strangers…[but] the substance of my being, of course, had actually changed very little.”

Maddux asks, “if our bodies are often read, how do we use them as statements?” Maddux’s work takes nude images of his body parts out of their traditional context, redrawing his form to convey new meaning.

Though Maddux’s body talk art operates within a social context and White’s lab within an objective one, for both, separation and distance matter and the central question is the same -- why there?

To that effect, White believes, "artists and scientists are opposite sides of the same coin. It’s great we have folks like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, both amazing advocates of science, but we need more and multiple ways of seeing -- an archive of abstraction. And what may be necessary for this type of collaboration is intimacy, and intimacy only comes with time."

The experience of getting intimate with science was enlightening for Maddux, "in the interest of establishing regularity and reproducibility of uncontaminated results, the entire environment was controlled to a great extent. This is exactly opposite my experience in studio, where I welcome chance and accident. In order to more clearly understand ourselves and our bodies, the scientists must interface with our smallest parts (like cells) in this radically mediated and "unnatural" fashion. The lab becomes some sort of translator, removing all the noise so we can more clearly see what we are looking for."

Maddux hints at the meaning of his two-part work: "There are two different functioning systems overlapping in those rooms [labs].  One is the human pursuit of logic and rational problem solving and the second is the biological, natural processes of life...we experience a biological privilege [and we] dominate the environment...I think that's why power comes up so much, you see that 10 people are running the fish lab and then you have 1,000 fish and they have tumors growing on them. [I'm not going to say] we shouldn't research cancer, [but] my right to live over the right of the fish--it's complicated."

Art Specs

Photographic print on clear film and sheetrock(not canvas as previously stated), 400$


KC Maddux
As a transgendered artist, I question how gender straddles artifice and the authentic, the social and the personal. How does the body’s surface, and the trans body’s in particular, project and receive identity? Using transparent photographs, installation, and drawing, I diagram symbolic constellations relating to gender, power, death, and sexuality, directly on the gallery walls.

Richard White

Richard is a Cancer biologist investigating the evolution of cancer metastases in zebrafish. Metastasis, the cause of nearly all deaths form solid tumors, is inevitably a collaboration between genetic & epigenetic alterations present in the tumor cells along with the neighboring microenvironment that supports metastatic outgrowth.  The zebrafish is uniquely suited to perform high-throughput, high-content screens for factors in either compartment that modulate metastatic frequency.  The information from these screens provides basic insights into the process, and can also act as a platform for novel therapeutic discovery to prevent or ameliorate metastatic progression. He is currently studying metastatic mechanisms in melanoma, and have begun work to develop models of pancreatic cancer in the zebrafish.