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What's In a Name?

The challenges of social practice art forms and cancer

What’s in a name? Honestly, almost too much.

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We recently created what I thought was going to be a small art experiment. We needed to come up with something for the Biodesign Homecoming tent. Every year, most of the various schools at Arizona State University participate in strutting their stuff for a variety of alumni, students, and local families. In conjunction with “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, our cancer cactus garden, we decided to create an opportunity for people to recognize the various friends and family who had been impacted by cancer. For those of you who don’t know, this garden was an idea hatched from the fertile minds of Dr. Athena Aktipis and Dr. Carlo Maley and features beautiful somatically mutated crested cacti. (See this link: for more information).

In my mind, this Homecoming thing would be a small event. We had intended that people would have the use of aluminum plant identification tags, but they had not been delivered in time so we were forced to use paper tags with the intent that we would transfer their names to the metal tags later so that we could install them in the existing cactus garden.

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This social practice artwork was staffed by the wonderfully warm and capable Chevas Samuels and her equally amazing daughter, Auburn. Chevas has first-hand experience with cancer having had endometrial cancer. They were both charming, friendly, and disarming and within an hour and a half, we had run out of tags. The ficus tree that we had bought to hang the tags on was white with tags, heavy with tags. We realized that the ficus was actually dying of tags which in itself was an interesting metaphor. The weight of so many cancer names was literally killing the tree.

So there was only one thing to do. We took all of the tags off the wilting ficus tree with the intent of transferring the names to the metal tags which would then be hung in the garden.

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Easy task, no? No. Each name, each tag was a person, an individual who had suffered a crisis of some sort brought upon by this incredibly disruptive and terrifying disease. These names became an amazingly heavy psychological burden. For a few days, I carried them around in my bag, photographing them against a variety of backgrounds. This was so deeply personal for each tag represented a person. Each experiment brought up questions. How does the background of the photograph comment on the name tags? How can I best honor them? What would they think of this? I wish I could talk to each one of these people. I wanted to know-- Who were they? How were they? Were they still alive?

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What is my responsibility towards them? This last question was an easy one for me to answer since I found each tag weighed on me personally. I would take care of each tag as though it was my own. Which meant as far as I know there are no lost tags. Each tag is being personally transferred to the metal tags by me. I send them a little wish of encouragement or recognition as I do so. It has become a sort of reverence and as a non-religious person, a sort of prayer. May they all be well.