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A Creative Couple’s Strange Synthesis of Science and Art

Covering subjects from to post-election anxiety to the microbiome of the gut, the work of Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich marries science and art.

Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich, Worries Bash (2017, all photos courtesy of the artists)

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich live in an apartment dotted with the detritus of past art installations. A diagram of a model sauna hangs on the wall. Fluff from pillows for an exhibition, Pink Noise, lightly dusts the furniture. Then there’s the large brown piñata-like blob that sits in the back room. It was part of Worries Bash, a participatory art installation that Foley and Rabinovich set up in the summer of 2017 in Berlin.

Worries Bash responded to the heightened public anxiety in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election. Foley and Rabinovich recorded people’s day-to-day worries. An example: “Having no income, having no car, being alone. That something might happen to one of my sons.” Then the artists created an interactive sculpture, which when whacked gently like a piñata, would trigger a “worry,” one of many that played in a continuous audio loop as part of the installation.

Misha Rabinovich and Caitlin Foley at their apartment in Somerville

The effect was surreal and a potent group rejuvenation ritual, Rabinovich said. “Powerful art is when artists are able to problematize things in a way that gets you to reflect on them differently,” Foley told me. Worries Bash “was a juxtaposition of a jovial environment with very real and intense worries.” Visitors seemed to find it cathartic.

The pair met in 2006 in Troy, New York. Foley was an arts administrator at a performing arts center in Schenectady, and Rabinovich worked at a video publishing start-up that fizzled in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Rabinovich studied electronic arts as an undergrad, but Foley helped him, in [whose] words, “come out” as an artist. They went to graduate school together, Foley for fibers and materials and Rabinovich for transmedia art, and then lived in Los Angeles for two years. These days, in the Boston area, they’re quickly becoming mainstays of the local art scene.

A drawing of a swam of bacteria from Shareable Biome

Foley and Rabinovich often use their art to explore the transmutation of waste, which in many cases requires audience participation. In Mobile Sauna, realizing that saunas bring people together and have their own social history, the artists, along with collaborators Zach Dunn and Maximilian Bauer, set up a traveling sauna that encouraged the Syracuse community to participate. Sweat collected through paper towels was used to power a battery, which implied that even waste could be productive. Foley and Rabinovich will bring a similar installation to Boston as part of Sweat It Out, a project with artist Heather Kapplow that won a Creative City grant.

Foley and Rabinovich have now been collaborating for eight years. “It’s kind of miraculous that we’ve been able to do it for so long,” said Rabinovich, who grew up in Moscow, but has lived in the United States for 25 years. “I think the fact that we started with a group of four (along with Dunn and Bauer) made it a lot easier. Because it wasn’t a dichotomy, it was a collective.”

The card game “Superturd,” created as part of the Shareable Biome exhibition (photo by Sharon Koeblinger)

In all their work, Foley and Rabinovich marry science and art. Such a fusion is showcased in one of their favorite projects, Shareable Biome, which is a series of drawings, video, lecture performances and interactive data visualizations about a widely-discussed medical procedure called fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) — sometimes called a “poop transplant.” (The procedure is used to restore a range of healthy bacteria to the digestive system.) The art project draws on data from OpenBiome, a Boston-area bacterial research facility, and resonates with Foley and Rabinovich’s interest in waste.

The data visualization aspect of the project traces, through a video, the various locations where the therapy has been shipped across the United States. At the end of the segment, barren deserts, where the procedure has not been adopted, become visible. Why were people in some states more open to trying FMT than others? Foley and Rabinovich believe that a lot of it has to do with entrenched cultural bias, and our inherently squeamish attitudes toward poop.

An infographic that shows geographic areas that received shipments of fecal microbiota transplantation treatments; gray circles show shipments of varying size, while red and blue portions refer to political leanings by geographic area

“We’re really interested in the fact that we have all [these] solutions we need within the culture, to survive long-term, but our culture is not able to keep up with the technology,” Rabinovich said. “Art is a way to get that message out, it’s a way to present the possibilities.” Shareable Biome can be seen as a metaphor about the dangers of monoculture, whether in restrictive societal norms or in the fecal bacteria that regulate our bodies.

Rabinovich writes computer programs and web apps for many of their exhibitions, while Foley loves to illustrate. Despite the tech-heavy focus, they’re careful not to label themselves scientists. “Art and science inspire each other. We’re always open to possibilities,” Rabinovich said. “Science is all about observing the world as it exists. Art is not constrained by that. We don’t discount miracles, and we are open to things being fake when they need to be.”

Shareable Biome is currently on view at the Open Data Institute (Floor 3, 65 Clifton Street, London). Worries Bash will be on view at Proof Gallery (The Distillery, 516 East 2nd Street, South Boston) from May 5 to June 16.

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