Centrespace, Visual Research Centre, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland, 2011

Public studio in curated environment for presentation, exchange and production; publications made in situ with designer Marco Stout of


Collaboration with The D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design


On Growth, & Forms of Meaning

2010 marked 150 years since the birth of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the biologist, mathematician and classicist whose landmark book On Growth and Form pioneered the science of bio-mathematics and has had a profound influence on art, architecture, engineering and anthropology among others. Major artists and thinkers from Henry Moore, Le Corbusier and Jackson Pollock to Claude Levi-Strauss, Alan Turing and Stephen Jay Gould have drawn on his work. The book's fascinating diagrams have become icons of visual thinking. 

The curated space of On Growth, & Forms of Meaning hosted a series of multidisciplinary discussions that used D'Arcy's work as the starting point for informal ‘experimental’ natural conversations exploring ideas around visual thinking, both orally and visually. The content of these conversations was captured by Tracy Mackenna through ‘writing in situ’ and conveyed to Marco Stout, active in the same space developing a publication through image and text.

Through processes of staging, performing and translating, the combined presentation of artefacts and on-site generation of artwork in an environment for the interrogation and analysis of a subject positioned the artists’ research and practice within a multidisciplinary framework. New work developed through participation, analysis and reflection in the site of display and production.

The conversations took place configured around objects selected by Edwin Janssen from University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Museum. These artefacts acted as vehicles that enabled knowledge transfer and exchange, through conversation. Tracy Mackenna and Marco Stout were resident, ‘listening-in’, Tracy writing live, which allowed a subjective, interpretative response to take place. Conveyed in written texts to Marco Stout, these texts isolated from ongoing multi-disciplinary conversations happening in the same space, were altered through digital visual processes by Marco. This consideration of the identity and authority of the subjective voice links directly to the foregrounding of subjectivity through personal material in Tracy Mackenna and Edwin Janssen’s 2004 commissioned video work Growth, Form and the Inevitability of Herself in which the growth cycle of a garden is shown in relation to the human process of ageing.

The first conversation, between Wendy Wheeler and Sara Cannizzaro, was about the contribution that D'Arcy Thompson's work on natural form and growth made to the growing interdiscipline of biosemiotics: a new way of thinking about nature, culture, and art. Developing from research in biology, the biosemiotic insight is that living things, far from being reducible to mechanical cause and effect relations, are made from, and have their being in, information flows consisting of signs and interpretations – and, hence, meanings. This semiotic basis of the growth and development of both natural and cultural life makes it possible to open a conversation about the ways in which we are tied to earth and environment, which shape us, and also about the ways in which cultural and aesthetic life evolves – collectively, individually, and abductively - from earlier emergent forms.

The second conversation was between Murdo Macdonald and Paul Harrison. D'Arcy Thompson was an inspiring visual thinker not just for scientists but also for artists whose enduring influence also on Dundee artists can be clearly seen. In conversation with Paul Harrison, whose recent practice-led PhD research made significant use of Thompson's On Growth and Form, Murdo Macdonald explored the wider Scottish visual thinking tradition of which D'Arcy Thompson's work was such a notable part.

Tracy Mackenna and Marco Stout worked in the public studio during and after the conversations and welcomed visitors to explore their publishing process. The publication was made through visual and verbal dialogue between them, and extended Tracy Mackenna’s practice of ‘performative writing’ – writing generated live in response to a set of subjects within a curated environment. With a focus on interpretation and reinterpretation, the conversants’ conversations were combined with contextualising visual material reflecting the zones of interaction generated by this project - collaborations and conjunctions between experts.

The printed publication On Growth, & Forms of Meaning is a new addition to the Visual Research Centre’s Centre for Artists’ Books. Produced in the visual publishing studio it contains hand-written, digital and silk-screened printed pages and can be purchased via t.mackenna@dundee.ac.uk

Growth, Form and the Inevitability of Herself

Printed publication On Growth, & Forms of Meaning

Digital publication On Growth, & Forms of Meaning

Visual Thinking