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New Natural: Appropriating evolutionary discourse for multi-level narration in comics
This application describes a project focusing on evolutionary discourse as a starting point for artistic research in comics. Specifically, it aims to engage with forms of communicating the slow, multifactorial and complex phenomena of evolution, which are seldom considered in quotidian experience or successfully represented in fiction. The project will take the form of a comic book and it may be described as an experimental speculative fiction, which will reflect on the consequences of human activity to evolutionary processes. Evolution, or the changes in heritable traits of populations over time, presents a problem of representation, in that it dwarfs human experience of time and causality. The ability to represent and reflect on evolution has become a critical skill, as societies must now cope with the long-term effects of human activity on biodiversity, and their ability to interfere with natural systems at the planetary scale (Steffen et al., 2007; Quintero and Wiens, 2013). However, the present structure of media representation obscures the processes of evolution: we are surrounded by linear narratives involving singular characters that act on motivation. The scope of interactions in evolutionary processes requires a focus on populations instead of characters, fields of possibilities instead of singular motivated actions, and networked, feedbacking chains of causality instead of purely linear sequences of events. Whether in literature or film, evolutionary rhetoric has been repeatedly used in fiction as a device to express anxieties related to identity, class and morality (Hurley, 2004). In the process, the theory of evolution is distorted into pseudo-scientific jargon, in order to lend credit to improbable events. Evolution is commonly misconstrued as directional or purposeful, leading towards the absolute improvement of individuals, and suggesting hierarchies of being characteristic of pre-evolutionary thought (Mayr, 1994). Generally speaking, fiction does not take into consideration that the value of biological change is always relative to population and environmental context. Most importantly, mainstream fiction does not provide narrative experiences that adequately simulate the complexity of evolution. This has been mostly the case in comics, where evolution has been a topic in many humorous, educational and sci-fi publications, which streamline or reduce evolution to caricature. Thus far, these challenges of representation have been the exclusive concern of scientific literature, which routinely uses verbal and visual rhetoric to discuss evolutionary phenomena. For the natural sciences, evolution functions as a framework to produce meaningful narratives out of discrete data (Almeida, 2015). This process is aided by specialized visual vocabulary, which organizes data into perceptible images (Lemke, 1998). My previous theoretical work investigates how narrative emerges in an evolutionary diagram composed of sequences of images, a form that is superficially close to the conventions of comics (Almeida, 2015). However, scientific discourse includes many other visual devices to present information, including abstract forms of representation, such as graphs, that radically deviate from the traditional devices of comics.
Having always been interested in both biology and comics, I graduated in Microbial and Genetic Biology at the Faculty of Sciences of Lisbon University. During this period, I was able to conciliate my undergraduate studies with comics making, having contributed to the faculty's student newspaper "improp" with a short series of comics pages, and having won the second place in a comics competition organized by the international comics festival of Amadora, "Amadora BD." This story was later published in the comics anthology Blazt. Soon after, I began my doctoral studies at the Telomere and Genome Stability Laboratory, under supervision of Miguel Godinho Ferreira. I dedicated myself fully to my research in telomere biology, having only collaborated sporadically with the in-house science communication group with some illustrations for internal publications and outreach activities. By the end of my PhD, I resumed my relationship with comics and founded an artists collective for comics making and reflection, Clube do Inferno. Since then, most of my comics work has been associated with projects or publications by Clube do Inferno. Soon after I completed my PhD, I became a post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Lisbon University, where I have been developing theoretical and practical research in comics, focused on the intersections of visual communication in biology and comics.