Scales of seeing was an exercise in blurring borders between familiar and unfamiliar, and in doing so expanding my understanding of myself and my materials. My identity as a student and my knowledge of the material (cigarettes) were pushed into alien territory through encounters with the microscopes. I am more than a Public Humanities student restricted to the landscapes of my department, I have the ability to work with equipment considered “outside” my field. The box of cigarettes is more than a commercial object and becomes an art object, a scientific specimen, and an agricultural product.
I choose the box of cigarettes because I was intrigued by the multiple textures and curious about the shifting cultural significance of tobacco through time. My explorations with the microscope taught me a lot about texture, and I became engrossed with the various types of print on the package and the way the textures were transformed by deconstructing the object. However, I struggled with the superficiality of my investigation. I was very aware of the lack of research questions to guide my way and my lack of clear goal except “explore.” Although I understood more about the box of cigarettes construction and materials, this did not give any deeper insight into what the object means for its makers or users.
I was surprised by how beautiful the tobacco was under the microscope. The strands look like crepe paper streamers and are coated in a crystalline material that gives the appearance of being “sugar-coated.” This subverted my expectations that something so detrimental to your health would give an obvious “dangerous” appearance. Reflecting on the view of tobacco also made its botanical nature more tangible. While buying or using cigarettes, I usually never associate them with plants or the geographies of their material origin.
The various types of print on the package were fascinating under the microscope. The naked eye differentiates color, shape, and sparkle. On closer investigation I was drawn to the texture and imperfections as a symptom of mass production. The prints made me think about the box of cigarettes as an art object, carefully designed and fabricated.
Deconstructing was another key part of my investigation. The filter was my favorite part to deconstruct, because I found the most surprises here. Upon close inspection, I found a row of tiny perforated holes in the paper. I expected the end to be smooth with lots of tiny holes, but it looked like a cotton textile. When I broke the filter open the fine white strands of material became even more clear.
Entering the Nature Lab was similar to entering a parallel universe. It felt like a most peculiar vacation sitting in front of a microscope for the first time in ten years. It was a day of abstraction and understanding. Because the box of cigarettes is not a specimen that operates in “nature” like a beetle or a flower, I don’t think any understanding was lost by taking it to the lab. The meaning of the box of cigarettes is in its social use. Although I was in a new space looking at an everyday object out of context, I believe that rather than “losing” something the experience transformed my knowledge of myself and my materials.