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Where's the Switch?

Alex Goikoetxea's research focuses on the potential role of stress in the process of sex change in the New Zealand spotty wrasse, through histological analysis of the fish gonads (testes and ovaries) from groups of fish manipulated in captivity, and the correlation of the observed changes with the expression of particular genes. Male and female spotties are easily distinguished by colour and size. The females have an inky spot mid-flank from which the species takes their name. Males have light 'electric-blue' wavy patterns on their cheeks. (1)

This artwork focused its attention on the story behind the genetic assay and imagined the gene encoding positions in the hormone feedback loop for sex maintenance. In a recent genetics and art project, I learned that we have millions of cells in our bodies and each contain long lengths of DNA. Rather than the image of a rigid twisted ladder, the DNA inside of a cell looks more like a bowl of noodle soup. According to genetics researcher Julia Horsfeld, cells solve the 'packing problem' of squeezing all the DNA into a body by looping and binding. The conceptual model used to explain this involves the chromatin strand forming loops held in place by a molecule called cohesin, which acts like a climbing carabiner. (2) It guides how the chromosome folds into a compact space, but still has the ability to freely move when needed. When the 'switch' is flicked in the dominant female spotty, the genes controlling sex determination are revealed, the loops 'shift' and the genes for maleness are 'turned on.'

Warp yarns were produced using a multiple ikat dye process to tie in the 'gene positions' in the skeins of yarns. Ikat is a technique by which skeins of yarn are bound or tied and dyed before weaving. (3) It was an elaborate process to create the markings on the warps. The warp went through multiple dye baths, was dyed in sections, then rebound to either retain an under-colour or to overdye an initial white section and then dip-dyed to unify the overall schema. The colour palette was drawn from diveNZ photos of reef environments where New Zealand spotty fish are endemic. The end result of the weaving project produced a pattern very similar to DNA gel electrophoresis patterns. The textile had soft shifting colours reminiscent of light under the sea, where the colours are ever-changing, and the ikat 'blur' suggested the constant motion at a cellular level until conditions are favourable to 'flick the switch' for change.

Each pair of (vertical) warps tell the story of the genetic potential for individual fish to be both female and male at birth, with the gene positions for sex clearly marked. Reading from the left, the first two warps are 'female,' with typically male-like expression genes turned 'OFF.' The 'male' warp(s) have the same information, but is wider (to represent its dominant position in the social hierarchy of the group) and is reversed, because it has flicked 'ON' its maleness genes and undergone its complete functional gonad restructuring and the change from female to male in external appearance. To signify the transformation to male was complete, I added a strand of electroluminescent (EL) wire to the 'male' warp, running its length in 'electric blue.' He still retained the female element, but his transformation was highlighted by the electric blue line of EL wire that now pulsed down the fabric. At the right end of the piece were the 'transitional' or 'indeterminate' sex warps. These contained the same basic genetic information, but the gene positions were now less well ordered and they appeared in flux, as they are in nature with the 'initial phase' males.

Pam McKinlay has a Bachelor Arts and Diploma of Home Science (clothing/design and textile science) from the University of Otago. She works at the Dunedin School of Art and Research Office at Otago Polytechnic. Her art practice is in the sphere of Sci Art.

Photographs: Pam McKinlay.

(1.) "Notolabrus celidotus, Spotty Fish," Marine Life Database,

(2.) P McKinlay, Christine Keller with Julia Horsfield, "It's Written in your DNA--Or is it?" Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, 18 (2017), 82.

(3.) Ikat is derived from the Malayan word mengikat, which means "to bind, knot or wind round." Ikat is produced in many traditional textile centres around the world, from India to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan (where it is called kasuri), Africa and Latin America.

Caption: Figure 1. Dyed warp and workbook used to develop dye palette. Figure 2. Weaving in progress. Figure 3. Skeins ready for first tie-offs. Figure 4 Dyeing in progress, with last tie-offs.

Caption: Figures 4 and 5. Pam McKinlay, switch 0001[??], 2018, hand-dyed wool (multiple ikat dye baths), woven on 8-shaft table loom, EL wire. Installation and detail with EL wire turned on.
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Author:McKinlay, Pam
Publication:Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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