Witches Gloves, Dead Men's Bells, Fairy's Gloves, Bloody Fingers, Gloves of Our Lady, Fairy Caps, Virgins' Gloves, and Fairy Thimbles. At the beginning of Dorothy Cross's first web-based project, Foxglove: digitalis purpurea, a child's voice recites these names for foxglove, a common wildflower that grows in abundance on the West coast of Ireland. Children who pluck the tempting bell-shaped blooms and wear them like thimbles are admonished not to lick their fingers afterwards, lest they go blind. While the flower can be lethal if ingested, the drug digitalis, which is derived from foxglove and is most commonly used as a heart stimulant, can have the side effect of causing people to see in blue.
It was this potential for disturbed vision that intrigued Cross when she first considered the invitation to make a web-based project. The web -- increasingly the central interface to every kind of information -- relies on technology to generate images. Cross was interested in the parallels between technology's vulnerability to failure and the fragility of sight, as well as the frustration inherent in any limitation of vision, whether biologically or technologically-based.
Cross recorded the foxgloves in full bloom and a young neighbor girl interacting with the flowers. She wove this footage together in a format that plays with the notion of altered sight. After an introductory section, the core of the project consists of circles of short video clips that shift color to blue and eventually disappear in response to mouse interaction. Depending on the viewer's navigation, there may eventually be nothing on the screen until the mouse clicks where a circle had been, which leads to the appearance of another randomly-selected video. Several of the clips featuring close-ups of the girl or of the flowers' interiors jump to large images, which interrupt the screen, then shift colors and give way to subsequent videos.
While the viewer watches and then interacts with the project, an audio track plays the voice of the girl reading excerpts from a text written about the foxglove by Maud Grieve. Grieve's A Modern Herbal was first published in 1931 and it continues to be a popular reference for the "medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and folk-lore of herbs." Grieve's writing is at times clinically dry, but more often almost poetic. A passage recited in the project describes the flower in relation to bees: "The foxglove is a favourite flower of the honey bee. The projecting lower lip of the corolla forms an alighting platform for the bee. As he pushes his way up the bell to get at the honey which lies in a ring round the seed vessel at the top of the flower, the anthers of the stamens are rubbed against his back. Going from flower to flower up the spike, he rubs pollen thus from one blossom onto the cleft stigma of another blossom, and thus the flower is fertilized."
Cross has worked in a variety of media since the late 1980s, including video, sculpture, photography, installation, and more recently, large-scale public commissions. Nature is almost always a central element of her work, either as material, subject or background -- frequently-used materials in her series of works include cow udders, snakes, and jellyfish, and settings for her public commissions have included Dublin Bay, a grotto that serves both as a slate quarry and a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and a spillway along the Niagara River. Sexuality, loss and desire are recurrent themes in her work, especially in relation to religion and a broader Irish cultural heritage. While many of her works explore these themes in a provocative, almost subversive manner, Foxglove: digitalis purpurea tracks on themes of loss and sensuality in a more oblique manner.
The idea of blue vision led Cross to consider incorporating some element of blue movies in the project, perhaps flashing intimate images but in a way that made them impossible to decipher entirely. The term "blue movie" refers to porn, and likely came from the early part of the 19th century when burlesque dancers "dipped into the blue" -- a blue spotlight was used at the most risqué moments. This use of "blue" to mean indecent or obscene appears to date back hundreds of years to when Puritans in the United States enacted strict "blue laws" meant to regulate moral behavior. Digitalis isn't the only drug that can lead to blue vision; it is also a side effect attributed to Viagra. "Blue vision" appears to have completed a round trip from metaphor to physical reality and back.
In Foxglove: digitalis purpurea, Cross's juxtaposition of the girl and the flowers resonates with an earlier work, Medusae. Cross is very deft at interweaving scientific and poetic inquiry. In 2001 she received a Sciart award in London designated for collaboration between artists and scientists, and worked with her brother Tom Cross, a professor of zoology, on a video about jellyfish. Cross researched the life of a Victorian amateur naturalist Maude Delap, who succeeded in breeding jellyfish in captivity a hundred years earlier. Her brother set out to research Chironex fleckeri, the world's deadliest and fastest swimming jellyfish. Little was known about either subject at the outset. Cross interwove footage from both investigations into a beautiful video where scientific pursuit, memory, and narrative provided complimentary pathways to different kinds of knowledge. In Foxglove she again gives us nature and ourselves, this time incorporating the interactive potential of the web to provide a playful space for reflection.