Pandilovski, Melentie. “Art of the Biotech Era”, Broadsheet, vol 33, no 1, 2004. Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Parkside, South Australia.
ART OF THE BIOTECH ERA
A ghost is haunting the arts, the ghost of biotechnology.
At the height of the deciphering of the human genome, just a few years ago, it seemed as if the conceptual and scientific work was already done and that the time of technical follow-up had come. The human genome, however, is proving to be more resistant to deciphering than previously thought, presenting a number of surprises to the scientific world and leading scientists to reconsider genes which were previously discarded as 'trash' or 'evolutionary junk'.
Similarly, as biotech artists have expanded their practice, it has become very difficult for art critics to define this newly produced work, let alone find a consensus or common ground regarding it. How do we define the new art work that utilises the merging of genetics, art and information technologies, when it is augmented and accented through the interaction of these fields and in the process replaces bio-textuality and bio-imagery with a wide ranging 'moist visualisation'?
Generally speaking, cultural change is accompanied by, even caused by, changes in consciousness. In this case we are witnessing a process of changing the critical view point - away from the passive relationship often associated with art and in the direction of artwork through which we can experience the connection between the engineered and the biological. Sometimes theoreticians regard the work of biotech artists as being grounded in Enlightenment ideologies, at other times it seemed to some that it was all about the overcoming of Cartesian dualities, and so forth. But it seems to me that the answers are not to be found as straightforwardly as this - by appealing to historical ideologies or systems - and that in order to interpret the work of biotech artists we will need a different sort of tool. Perhaps to get this tool, rather than turning to the Enlightenment or Cartesian systems, we should turn to Phenomenology, referred to by its founder Edmund Husserl, as "the science of consciousness".
Husserl declared phenomenology to be the study of the structures of consciousness that enable it to refer to objects outside itself. He named the study of the substance of the mind "phenomenological reduction", which does not assume that something exists, a state that allows pointing the mind en route for real, but also absent, or imaginary objects. For us, this creates the possibility of linking the structures of consciousness through our personal experiences in a very wide range of human activities, including those of the arts and technology. Another phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger, in his 1955 lecture, 'The Question Concerning Technology' [given as part of a series of lectures organised by the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts on the theme of 'the arts in the age of technology'] is concerned with the essence of technology. Heidegger claimed that just as the essence of 'tree' is 'not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees', so the essence of technology is not itself something technological. What he referred to was the understanding of being which makes technology possible.
But in defining biotechnology let us start from the current 'phenomena' appearing in biotech art. What is it that we are witnessing or not witnessing in the art practice of this new generation of artists dealing with biotechnology [and with immersive and other new technologies]? What in fact is and what isn't characteristic of biotech artists' work?
- Their work is not image-based, even though they use the image as such: they have engaged in the process by which the artworks outgrow the concept of images. Though in fact the phenomenological experience of the image is increased.
- Their work, although utilising text, cannot be considered as text-based. Similarly, the web itself is not text-based, though it is textually overloaded.
- Their work, even though they use biomaterial, cannot be treated as based on live or dead cells, because it has a conceptual content beyond its corporeality.
- Their work, even though coding is used [in program languages or in the genetic information of organisms], cannot be treated solely as software action, because the aspects of life in the production of moist art give a much greater rigour to the processes of creation of the new work.
How then do we describe the work of these artists?
At a technical level, we may say that such work represents a vibrant collection of moist interaction between bio-data stacks moving from the representation of the manipulation of bio-matter, as in the work of Patricia Piccinini or Mez, through to the actual manipulation of bio-matter, as in the work of Andre Brodyk, Eduardo Kac, Adam Zaretsky or The Tissue Culture & Art Project. We would not be wrong in saying that artists utilise integrated media communications where the 'space' becomes the space to be augmented, accented through a process of wide-ranging visualisation, across text, imagery, bio-matter and coding.
What do biotech artists have to take into account?
In order for artists today to develop relevant bio-art projects, they have to pass through the following basic segments:
- Providing a context.
- Data compiling [biological, genetic, electronic or other].
- Establishing a relation between artists, producers/conceptualists, and biologists/geneticists.
As soon as this relation is established, an apparatus satisfying various parameters has to be implemented:
- Adaptation to technical requests.
- Consideration of as many as possible effects and side effects of the projects.
- Generating of various bio-contents and bio-forms.
- Creation of a set of connections within simple or complex bio-systems.
- Networking [in some of the projects].
- Immersion through the processes of biological and genetic exploration, virtuality and interactivity.
- Superior representation [through graphic or other programs, quality object modelling, etc.].
In this process the artists are engaged in finding out the constraints of biotechnology and genetic engineering, while bringing the viewer to an increased awareness of the artwork, represented by samples which may be experienced or interfaced by the viewers, as they are absorbed in intrinsic or hidden possibilities of interaction with the bio-artwork. Further on, the biotech artists, engaged in the process of altering the concept of personal and community bio-space, are attempting to organise it along the lines of a relationship between biotechnology, genetics, real space and a personal [or collective] viewpoint.
In this context Art of the Biotech Era, incorporating an exhibition, symposium and workshop to take place 26 February - 3 April at the Experimental Art Foundation, will investigate cross-issues of art, culture and biotechnology. Leading national and international artists and theorists will exhibit works exploring biotechnology and genomics and discuss the influence of this techno-scientific change on society, the ethical implications of genetic engineering and the concept of aesthetics in biotech arts.1
Eduardo Kac's transgenic artwork provides a new quality to the art-science-technology link. Kac defines transgenic art as "a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another to create living organisms".2 In his 'bio&net' installation Genesis, he blends genetic and cultural codes. The contents of the petri dish are engineered from the Book of Genesis [which was selected as it implies for the supremacy of man over nature]. They comprise the central part of the installation, being projected onto a central wall of the gallery space [Genesis requires a separate room within the EAF's gallery space]. The audience in the gallery as well as over the internet is invited to take part in the genetic modification of the 'artistic gene' placed in the petri dish. This is in fact a synthetic gene created by translating Genesis3 into morse code, and converting the morse code into genetic code - Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine, and Guanine [ACTG]].
In his subsequent project ALBA, Kac transfers natural genetic material from one species into another with the goal of creating a unique living being, a genetically engineered rabbit named Alba. Finally, in The Eighth Day he presents a self-contained artificial ecological system by creating transgenic creatures [such as plants, amoebae, fish and mice].
Gina Czarnecki, whose hybrid artworks result from intersections of video and computer-generated image-manipulation techniques, investigates manipulation and control by the realities of the contemporary world. Her work Infected links issues of art and technology, attempting to show the disturbing tension between the natural and the engineered.
Adam Zaretsky's pFARM performance conveys a 'tri-sub-cultural' structure comprising Organic Farming Subculture, Sado-Masochistic Subculture, and the Biotech Company Subculture, and positioning them in the hippy heartland of Woodstock, New York. As he put it, "It makes your heart proud".
George Gessert has focused in his work on the overlap between art and genetics. He is fascinated by the aesthetics of plants [selecting the plants he uses in his work on their aesthetic qualities] and by the ways human aesthetic preferences effect evolution. His works often involve plants [such as native irises of California and Oregon] that he has hybridised, or the documentation of breeding projects. In this work he raises questions about awareness, possibilities of developing an art of evolution, the aestheticisation of the biological revolution, and approaches to breeding and issues of the commodification of life.
1/4 Scale Ear, a project by The Tissue Culture & Art Project in collaboration with Stelarc, raises questions as to the possibilities of changing the human body. The most important question that 1/4 Scale Ear raises is perhaps whether the human body has reached its 'ultimate' form, or whether its evolution has not yet been completed. In the past decade, art in general, and new media arts in particular, have seen quite a few experiments showing the potential for a further extension [evolution?] of the human body, using technologies such as plastic surgery, robotics and prosthetics [Orlan's plastic surgeries, Eduardo Kac's chip implant, Stelarc's robotic arm, etc.].
However, assisted by the Tissue Culture & Art Project, Stelarc reaches a more advanced stage, by taking his cartilage and bone marrow and nurturing them in the form of an ear. The 'ear' will be surgically placed under a flap of skin on his arm where it will develop its own blood supply, becoming a permanent part of Stelarc's body.
Setting aside the issue of the artists' breaking of barriers and exploration of new frontiers, the underlining subject of these projects seems to be the question of the evolution of the human body: Has the human race reached the perfect body form? Is the evolution of the human form possible? If possible, is the evolution of the human body necessary?
Many would object to the enhancing of the human form, finding the notion repulsive. On the contrary, nobody seems to object to the expansion of human consciousness. What is it then that makes us so much in love with the human form as it is? Where does this attachment originate?
In order to understand the driving current between the centre of consciousness and the world of forms that represent human reality, we need to explore ideas of our own identity - for example, the identification of our humanity with the form of the human body.
The identification with this form, or with any form in particular, is an obstacle to the emancipation of consciousness, for our experience with the phenomenal world is conditioned by our own limitations. Through this identification, we experience the conflict between the need for the freeing of consciousness and the limitations of consciousness as such.
As we have touched upon the issue of consciousness once again, it is perhaps fitting to return to Husserl. What Husserl discovered when he contemplated the content of his mind were such acts as remembering, desiring, and perceiving and the abstract content of these acts, which Husserl called meanings. These meanings, he claimed, enabled an act to be directed toward an object under a certain aspect; and such directedness, called intentionality, he held to be the essence of consciousness.
However what Husserl does not tell us is that if we try to observe the process of consciousness we will find that when one expands the consciousness one primarily develops knowledge of the phenomenal rather than of the self. How do we deal with the subjective view then? Is the self to be found outside the phenomenal, of the obvious material and conceptual levels? Even though the self in its transcendental condition is amorphous and unstructured, it equates with the phenomenal world of forms, which are by definition limited or restricted. How then is consciousness connected to the phenomenal? In our understanding of how consciousness works we may start from its 'links', rather than from its 'centre'. What is the self to be linked with? Is it to be linked to the concept of transcendence or with the basic material world? One hint that may be of assistance is that in gradually expanding consciousness, one becomes aware of the phenomenal world. Does this still oppose consciousness to the material? It would seem so. Unquestionably the self acquires consciousness. Could it be that the evolution of consciousness necessarily demands the duality of the subject and the object?
Finally, I will conclude with the thought that the most recent turn of the century above all signals a change of consciousness - and provides us with a new cultural and communication matrix. The old interpretative systems have a hard task describing these changes. This leads to the conclusion that what is necessary is a new Phenomenology, one which will enable an easier interpretation of the processes we are witnessing.
The artists participating in the exhibition are: The Tissue Culture & Art Project [Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr] in collaboration with Stelarc, Gina Czarnecki, Eduardo Kac, Andre Brodyk, Mez, Adam Zaretsky, George Gessert, FOAM [Maja Kuzmanovic, Nick Gaffney], Michalis Pichler, Diane Ludin, Heath Bunting. The main theme of the Symposium is Biotech Culture. International and domestic keynote speakers will address issues of the influence of techno-scientific change upon society, the ethical implications of genetic engineering, research and industrialisation, the aesthetics in biotech arts, etc. The workshop, led by Oron Catts and Gary Cass, will take place 1-5 March at the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide. It is planned that an intensive workshop will take place, dealing with hands-on exploration of biological technologies and issues stemming from their use, including DNA extraction, lab safety, ethics in biological research, bacteria plating from body and environment, breeding/plant manipulations, plant tissue culture, tissue engineering and stem cells.
2 Eduardo Kac, www.ekac.org
3 "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
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