Visualizing Toxic Subjects

Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

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Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

People with illnesses caused by toxic exposure are often referred to as canaries: like canaries in coal mines, they warn others of the mounting harm of everyday exposure to the toxic products of capitalism, from personal care products to industrial effluent. As part of the Chemical Entanglements initiative at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW), we are exploring how visual representations of canary narratives can serve as activist tools and challenge gendered conceptions of chronic illness as imagined or hysterical.

 In collaboration with artist and poet Peggy Munson, CSW has produced a series of cartoon-like provocations designed to confront viewers with the violence and harm caused by toxic personal care products, particularly to women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other already-vulnerable persons. Building on this work, we aim to produce imagery to accompany a forthcoming series of oral histories. These oral histories will document the lives of activists who work to expose the accumulating damage caused by toxicants, and in so doing, advocate for change at both individual and institutional levels. How, we ask, can visualizing their narratives underscore how toxic exposure is a gender equity issue? How might these visualizations work in concert with data visualizations to persuade policymakers to take action to protect the public health? In addition to creating new visualizations, we will collect and invite crowdsourced commentary on existing artistic representations of the symptoms of toxic exposure (from graphic novels, zines, films, etc.) created by chronically ill individuals. In so doing, we will ask what a feminist approach—one that is intersectional, which advocates without objectifying, which centers marginal perspectives--to visualizing canary narratives might look like.


Hyland, Tara. 1999.  “Creative Meaning-Making: Reading the Bookworks of Lise Melhorn-Boe.”  Journal of Artists' Books 11: 11-15.

International Programme on Chemical Safety. 2002. Global Assessment of the State-of-the-Science of Endocrine Disruptors. Geneva:World Health Organization. 2002. Accessed November 20, 2018:

Johnston, Jill E., and Andrea Hricko.2017. “Industrial Lead Poisoning in Los Angeles: Anatomy of a Public Health Failure.” Environmental Justice 10 (5): 162-167.

Miller, Claudia S.1997. “Toxicant-induced loss of tolerance--an emerging theory of disease?” Environmental Health Perspectives,105 (Suppl 2), 445–453.

Porter, Catherine A., et al. 2009. Overexposed and Underinformed: Dismantling Barriers to Health and Safety in California Nail Salons. Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Accessed November 20, 2018:

Zwillinger, Rhonda. 1998. The dispossessed: living with multiple chemical sensitivities. Paulden, AZ: Dispossessed Project.

Found Image: Textures and Textiles in Teaching Toxicity

Substantive Caption:

The early works of Canadian artist Lise Melhorn-Boe inquired into the thwarted, deferred, and transferred artistic desires of women.  In Color Me Dutiful (1986), Melhorn-Boe collected stories elicited from women as to why they wear make-up, printing those desires and recollections on oval paper leaflets (i.e., faces) collected in a receptacle whose cover is a plaster cast of her own mienne.  After becoming ill with breast cancer and, then, felled by exposure to mold, Melhorn-Boe returned to the oval leaflets with a new awareness of environmental toxins that had likely contributed to her own health. Toxic Face Book (2008) returns to the landscape of the face and lists the chemical ingredients of the many emollients and hues that women use regularly.  The artist’s life history of exposures to heavy metals are also rendered via a pop-up book, No Safe Levels (2006), figuring a topography of rolling hills and peaks, the overall shape based on her body’s profile while lying sideways and inscribed with the heavy metals that turned up in her laboratory panel.  In What’s for Dinner (2011), a textual homage and spin on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party,  she prompts the picnic goer to unfold a series of meals that list the contaminants in food that contribute to total body burden. The large (40 inch) fold-out work, Body Map (2009), features a photograph of the artist’s post-mastectomy figure, with a personal and public environmental history inscribed across various body parts.

Design Statement:

We selected this visualization because:

  • Melhorn-Boe’s “thick description” art,  detailing encounters with toxicity, has been less quick to sell than earlier work. Though her table-top treasure boxes, origami-ed landscapes, and pop-up book/ quilt mashups cry out to be touched, they also record how we are contaminated and in constant contact with EDCs. The art provides an ethnographic encounter, making tactile the invisible chemicals that surround us. However, the lay public wishes to keep the knowledge about the risks of living in (post)industrial ecologies at a distance.

  • The visual art represents something soft that might offer solace against the ominous lists of chemicals/EDCs. Melhorn-Boe sews and folds stories of living in non-purity, in contaminated and disabled canary being into missives of tactile communion.

Created Image: Incorporating POC into Canary Activism

Substantive Caption:

Allergist/immunologist Claudia Miller has proposed that, once individuals reach a threshold of total “body burden,” they are susceptible to TILT (Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance) thereby reacting to small amounts of previously tolerated chemicals.  Diagnosis of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) for TILT-ed individuals is more common among white populations, suggesting a disparity in treatment among minorities. The educational and activist aims of these postcards, commissioned by the Chemical Entanglements Project at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, includes acknowledging people of color who have been at the forefront of environmental justice efforts. All three images created by disability artist Peggy Munson (who herself has MCS) feature individuals with masks over the faces. One card features an Asian woman resting at an abandoned gas station repurposed as a beauty salon, to draw the connection between toxic ingredients in many salon products and their petroleum rootstocks.  Another image shows an African American woman and her dog as they debark from a camper with a label “SAFE” scrawled on its rear. This card acknowledges the difficulty for those with MCS to find safe housing because of off-gassing chemicals in building materials. The third postcard presents a woman wearing a respirator, her arms around an African American gender non-binary individual--an image of mutual alliance and support. Each postcard has a set of check-boxes that evoke the medical questionnaires given to patients. Here, the sender of the postcard would put an “x” in a box linked to phrases such as “My symptoms grow urgent around scented detergent,”  and “Modern people have the vapors from chemical capers” that serve as messages warning that access for those with MCS runs inversely to the distribution of accessory fragrances by chemical manufacturers.

Design Statement:

We present this visualization because:

  • By commissioning art from someone in the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/ Environmental Illness community, we hoped to make insider knowledge available to a wider public.

  • It represents our naiveté around what constituted the “low hanging fruit” in explaining the under-regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to a wider public.  The sources of EDCs are myriad. We thought it surprising, and little known, that EDCs comprise common cosmetics, toiletries and household cleaners whose scents are advertised to odor-fearing consumers. We mistakenly assumed that the general population would only need to be made aware of the potential hazards in “fragranced” products. However, these images struck many as more offensive than informative.

Chae Yoo: Deepening Toxicity

I appreciated how the image brought about a strong affective response. While there is an element of humour in this image (and this is nice because it forms a continuous affective arc along with...Read more

Institutional and State-Sanctioned Toxic

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This image is was taken from Los Angeles Star, the first newspaper in Los Angeles, that covered the lynching of Pancho Daniel. The Flores Daniel group has been historically positioned by white settlers as a gang of Mexican thieves and outlaws. However, within the Mexican working-class community during 1856 and 1857, the Flores Daniel posse were seen as heroes that sought to defend their rights and fought western oppression. Their mechanisms were primarily based on taking back land and animals that were taken from Mexican families through capitalist practices through any measure necessary, including violence. Pancho Daniel and a posse of fifty men were accused for the robbery and murder of a German shopkeeper. Sheriff James Barton was investigating this murder and was killed along with four other men who ambushed Pancho Daniel and his posse. On November 30, 1858, Pancho Daniel was forcibly taken out of the county jail that he was housed in by a group of citizens and was hanged. The California Governor John B. Weller considered his lynching a barbarous execution and issues a reward for the arrest of the perpetrators. Although the perpetrators were never identified, it is within this struggle that Mexicans (and all Latinxs) have been positioned precariously with Blackness. In other words, the lynching of Pancho Daniel positioned Mexicans in an uncertain position in which technologies of control used with Black people would be applied to them, while simultaneously conveying that they would receive the benefits of the justice system in western society. Additionally, it established the use of technologies of control with Mexicans that have similar purposes to those used in schools and prisons. Furthermore, lynching with Mexicans established notions of gender in which men, particularly those in the working class, were to be held accountable with detrimental consequences if they defied the nation state and the authority of white men.


Police in Government (1974) sought to teach black youths how to behave under the façade of U.S. morality, which have been used as “…the legitimacy of physical and psychological violence against Black people in the United States and consequently served to legitimate the oppression of Black life” (Sojoyner, 2013) and were undermining Black organizing within public education and higher education. While the LAPD’s classes targeted Black youth, their mechanism to teach youth how to behave and teach moral standards did not stop with them. LLatinx students, primarily Mexican students, were also in public schools during the 1970s and were exposed to these classes and the technologies of control employed. However, these mechanisms were applied differently to Mexican students.While those mechanism were made for Blacks they were used with Mexicans. However, they were used in ways that would use state violence to control Mexicans, while giving them some of their demands to keep them working within dominating institutions that would continue to limit their organizing.



The United States adopted the term Latino in the 2000 U.S. Census. The term Latino means Latin and was created to refer to people who are from Latin America. On the one hand, Latino serves as a homogenous label that groups people from Latin America or with an ancestry connected to Latin America. It has historically served as a way to organize and empower people who share similar cultural practices. On the other hand, it ignores how diverse Latinos are and it hides and erases the lived experiences of people who have distinct histories, cultures, migration experiences, and many other factors. The current term “Latinx” has been proposed as a genderless term to make language more inclusive for gender non-binary and/or transgender folk. This term is primarily used online and in social media and is being used in academic settings, but older generations and people living in Latin America do not seem to be receptive to this term, which has been explained by linguistics floodgates and a disrespect to Spanish. However, it is important to unmask and interrogate how the Latinx community adheres to a binary view of gender and sexuality and it how it contributes to the tensions and struggles among the several ethnic groups. Existing theories and notions of race have failed to understand and complicate how Latinxs have been racialized as a homogenous group without understanding the historical and political contexts of Latin America and its various countries.

Alice Chen: Who is a toxic victim?

This is a strong image precisely for the ways that it forces the viewer to confront the information in the previous slide on U.S.  lead poisoning. In fact, playing with the order of the first and...Read more

Ruination or Renovation?: Dislocated Efforts Towards “Improving” Los Angeles’ La Plaza District

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Created Image: Union Station / Old Chinatown

In 1931, the California Supreme Court upheld a decision which condemned the land where Los Angeles’ “Old Chinatown” stood in order to construct a public transit terminal in its place. It was in this moment that Union Station was born. Over the next several years, over three thousand residents of Old Chinatown – most of whom were Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans – were forcibly removed from their homes. The businesses and cultural landmarks that these residents called home were razed in the name of infrastructural improvement and modernity. This created image highlights the literal erasure of non-white residents from the city’s central Plaza. 

Created Image: La Plaza Cultura Village / La Plaza

Over the years, La Plaza has seen numerous government and private-sector backed projects aimed at “revitalizing” the area (the construction of Union Station, the creation of the Romanized Olvera Street, etc.). However, many of these efforts are thinly veiled money-making schemes, hidden behind the guise of urban renewal. Presently, construction is in full swing for La Plaza Cultura Village, a “mixed-use” residential and retail space occupying two city blocks just west of La Plaza.  The Cesar Chavez Foundation, a partner of the project, claims that the Village will “honor [sic] the history of Los Angeles and the diversity of those who built it in the area where that history was created.” However, it remains unclear how such “diversity” is incorporated into this trendy, ultra-modern project. Backers of the Village, including the Chavez Foundation, laud that 20% of the Village’s housing will offer affordable housing options for multi-family households. Again, the partners’ interpretation of “affordable” family housing remains problematic, as rent for the least-expensive housing option – a 429 square foot studio – starts at $1,925 per month. This created image juxtaposes the proposed layout for La Plaza Cultura Village with an aerial of La Plaza in 1924 – two years before Olvera Street was “created,” and over a decade before Union Station was built.

Created Image: Brunswig Building / Homeless Encampment

Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite these sobering facts, the city still struggles with providing low-income housing to its poor and working-class residents. Though an emergency homeless shelter was constructed in the Plaza just a few months ago, the facility can only accommodate 45 adults. Such efforts, as well meaning as they might be, neglect the larger, structural issues of housing insecurities – such as high rent, low wages, discriminatory housing practices, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, projects described as promoting urban revitalization often exacerbate the housing crisis, as the rent for the “affordable” housing options in the upcoming La Plaza Cultura Village start at almost $2,000 per month. 

Shannon Bae: Lead dust storms

Although the explanation centers around the inevitability of lead exposure for the man on the bicycle, I felt that the strength of this image was that the truck seemed to be coming towards me, the...Read more

Chae Yoo: Who is a Toxic Victim?

This set of images incite an intuitive and emotional response. Perhaps the power of these images lies on the fact that, when presented together, it embodies the ways in which the research sphere...Read more

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