Ninth Letter is proud to present “That’s What the Tumor Says,” a text performance by caraballo-farman (Leonor Caraballo and Abou Farman), a virtuoso collaborative art team that uses new media, photography, video and installation events to critique culture and politics with an incisive irony and sometimes humor’s darkest undercurrents. And a certain tenderness: I see the artists as humanists who maintain one last finger hold on the cliff of hope. “That’s What the Tumor Says” is an edited version of a VJ lecture-performance by caraballo-farman at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society, and is part of their recent project, Object Breast Cancer, which creates sculptures from scanned breast tumors and has led to an extraordinary collaboration with cancer researchers.
Phase I: THE PATIENT
The Facsimile is a medium of transmission
for the Biopsy report:
The Patient is a 36-year-old woman with biopsy-proven invasive lobular carcinoma of her left breast and with a family history of premenopausal breast cancer.
The carcinoma corresponds to a 1.8 cm irregular enhancing mass at 5 to 6 o’clock,
5 cm posterior to and 3cm below the nipple.
Received fresh, the specimen is labeled “left breast nipple margin.”
The site of the nipple is marked red and the axilliary tail is marked orange.
<>The mass is said to be “mamographically occult.”
The breast is young.
The tissue is dense.
Foucault says disease is the body losing its innocence.
Phase II: THE GENE
Myriad, the company holding the patent on the genetic mutation, issues the verdict:
Positive for the deleterious mutation BRCA2
>On the long arm of chromosome 13 at position 12.3 from base pair 31,787,616 to base pair 31,871,804 sits the BRCA2, a tumor suppressor gene, regulating the uncontrolled, wild cell divisions. It binds to the protein produced by RAD51 to repair damaged DNA.
It may also be, according to studies by Yang et al., Dong et al., Essahi et al., Farmer et al., many others et al., that much else is happening in that chromosomal soup, that we really have no idea about.
>1 wrong letter in a few base pairs and suddenly your risk shoots up to
50 to 80 percent,
3 to 5 times the normal lifetime risk.
Life. Time. Risk.
Geographic isolation, reproduction, migration
of the faulty expression between bodies,
transmitted through Kinship.
<Ethnicity is a medium of transmission for 3 billion base pairs and their errors.
The intensification of familiarity becomes the intensification of error.
Death, a matter of percentage points.
Radiation reduces the risk by x %,
take away another y% for chemo,
z% for tamoxifen
and a couple for diet.
The calculations spill over to a spreadsheet to account for insurance, and what falls between covered and uncovered. If you don’t watch out they’ll screw you every time.
The phone line transmits Ms. Lovely’s voice from Aetna:
the diagnosis code 174.4 is for Malignancy of the upper quadrant of the female breast.
the procedure code is 38972
SENTINEL NODE BIOPSY code 38525 does not need pre-approval because it is an outpatient same-day procedure.
But the anaesthesia may need some more paperwork.
Phase III: THE DATA
The malignancy is removed.
The breast tissue is the tumor’s old medium.
It is sent to pathology. It is stained, fixed on a slide and sliced up. It’s no longer rogue biology, living while killing.
It’s a stable object.
It yields knowledge, gives off data. It becomes part of a database,
a connective tissue of its own sort, algorithmically combining all the breast cancer tumors into statistical points that generate predictions and percentages.
Add half a point to death, half a point to life.
Phase IV: THE MONSTER
And then one day you suddenly say:
But what was that ‘thing’ that was trying to kill me?
What is a tumor?
What does it look like?
It’s a mass. It’s hard.
It’s round. It’s like a golf ball. It’s the size of a pea. It’s occult. It’s at 5 o’clock.
Like a ribbon.
Like a teddy.
Like a Sharpie. Like a Harley. Like a Prayer.
Like a promise.
Like a rubber ducky.
Like a super sticky.
And all of America in October.
The environment is pink.
The environment is carcinogenic.
The legal-political-socio-economic environment
is carcinogenic (is pink).
AstraZeneca (is carcinogenic) produces the most widely-used breast cancer treatment drug, Tamoxifen.
Its parent company, ICI chemicals (is carcinogenic) is a large producer of pesticides that increase the risk of breast cancer.
US federal law [is carcinogenic] allows the $50 billion cosmetic industry to put unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing and almost no regulation.
[is carcinogenic] created the Pink Ribbon.
Avon <[is carcinogenic] is the largest corporate “crusader” for breast cancer awareness.
Many of their products contain chemicals linked to breast cancer.
The tumor has no image. It’s an invisible monster.
Monster from the Latin Monstro–to both show something and warn of something.
To see is to be warned.
An omen is that which should not be seen, yet can only warn if it is seen.
To see the monster, is terrifying.
To see the monster, is to learn from the monster.
Phase V: REVELATION
The patient is a 36-year-old woman who demands to see her monster.
The MRI looks inside bodies and sees the invisible. You are slipped inside a strong magnetic tunnel like a sleeve, all your hydrogen protons get lined up spinning in the same direction.
A short radio wave blast discombobulates the protons and as they return to alignment they emit their own radio signal. The resonance of the nucleus of the hydrogen atoms in your body is what the machine reads. That resonance varies depending on the tissue–fatty tissue resonates differently from watery tissue, hard from soft. The MRI is a difference machine reading the body’s, the universe’s, electromagnetic properties.
Thus does the machine show what cannot be seen.
While the shaman sees what cannot be shown.
Every technology of revelation is embedded in protocols of occultation that regulate what is appropriate to see, who may see it, who may not.
So I made my own tumor.
Your body made your own tumor.
Imagine a room full of tumors.
Imagine a surgeon walking in.
>He wears a bow tie and is a pioneer in surgical oncology.
He walks around every object very carefully, in a quiet trance.
“These tumors are telling us something,” he whispers. “They’re trying to tell us something.”
The tumors whispered to him about volume and spiculations and he went back to start a new research project.
Sometimes this is how new research starts: scientists hear things.
In the late 1890s, the Scottish surgeon George Beatson walking through the highlands heard a shepherd’s tale. They told him that the removal of ovaries from cows alters their capacity to lactate and changes the quality of their udders.
So the surgeon went back and removed ovaries
with breast cancer.
It helped them survive.
Nobody knew how or why.
The hormone estrogen would be discovered thirty years later. Sixty years later the link between estrogen and breast cancer would get established.
Coincidentally, a team of chemists from Imperial Chemical Industries would patent the chemical ICI46474 for fertility treatment. The chemical turned out to have the opposite effect. It blocked the production of estrogen. It was like removing the ovaries chemically.
In the 1970s, ICI 46474 came on the market as the multi-billion dollar breast cancer fighting drug tamoxifen.
Thanks go to the Scottish shepherds. And their cows.
Thanks go to accidents.
To surgeons. Who hear things.
To machines. That see things.
Oncology is an uncertain science, a game of risks and probabilities, a technique of juggling small percentage points and large pharmaceutical baskets.
Probability is a numerical way of saying we’re not sure.
Oncology, says Maren Klawiter, turns you into a professional patient.
It creates a population that is effectively well but can never be cured.
A haunted population.
Phase VI: RESONANCE
The tumor is a medium for the coming together, the passing through of
Cells. Calcifications. Sonographers. Mammographers. Radiologists.Surgeons. Oncologists. Needles. Sharpies. Surgical knives. 5 centimeter Kopans hookwires. Nuclear injections. The long arms of chromosome 13. Mutations. Stereotactic biopsies. MRIs. Biowaste. CATScans. Gadolinium.Chemo showers. Warm compresses.. Genetic counselors. Magnetized atomsWigs. Lymph nodes. Padded bras. 3D software. Anaesthesia. Pink teddy bears. Shamans. You.
Without the tumor, their coming together would be absurd. The tumor is the medium of this assemblage.
What is one object for a percipient, is something else to another percipient.
A drop of water to a patient is a swarm of protons to an electromagnetic field and a turtle to a shaman.
The cells that are malignant to us are freedom fighters to the tumor. The tumor is a bunch of cells declaring independence, demanding autonomy, cells whose purpose and future are no longer aligned with ours.
A tumor is a bunch of cells that refuse to die.
A tumor is a bunch of cells seeking their own identity, their own image.
We are the medium for images.
If the MRI uses magnetic resonance to image the unseen interior of the body, Shamans use acoustic resonance to find images inside US, and cast them out.
A medium is the concentration of vibrations, the intensification of resonance through matter.
A medium is what is passed through.
And the state of being-passed-through.
I am a medium.
You are a medium.
He is a medium.
She is a medium.
They are media. We are media.
155,000 human beings die every day.
90 billion homo sapiens are dead and gone already since the rise of homo sapiens.
>Millions of species gone forever.
We walk on their dust.
We spin their electrons.
Their genes R us.
We are the formations of their information
those who came before us.
We are the scribes
And the scribes make mistakes
And the mistakes cost lives.
But the mistakes are vital.
None of this unfolding could’ve unfolded without the mistakes.
Transmission is transformation.
That is what the medium said.
That is what the tumor said.
Today will pass.
Tomorrow will pass.
This week will pass.
This month will pass.
This year will pass.
This half-decade will pass.
This is the schedule of survivors.
That’s all of us–all of you–who live on for one more day,
One more week,
one more month,
one more decade…
Passing through and being passed through.
That is what the tumor said.
That is what the tumor said.