You know how some charmless and dull cities on the continent pride themselves with the title of "Europe's best kept secret"? I bet Luxembourg wouldn't dare to pretend to the label. The place is as charmless as a man wearing Ugg boots. Don't even get me started on their food. Yet, i keep going again and again to Luxembourg because of its edgy and exciting art offer. My last visit was spurred by the second chapter of the exhibition sk-interfaces at Casino Luxembourg.
Yes, i had already seen sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society at FACT in Liverpool but the Luxembourg version, i was told by friends, is bigger, bolder and even better than the first one. They were right. Several pieces have been added to the show. The performances are extremely well documented and there is a corner to watch videos. The space itself is kinder to the artworks. There's even extra drama as the poor Victimless Leather (A prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific 'Body') garments had caught some disease on their way to the Casino and were slowly eaten by decay.
It's as if the first exhibition in Liverpool had been a superb rehearsal of this one.
Curated by Jens Hauser, the exhibition sk-interfaces presents some 20 artists who question the ways in which today's techno-sciences alter our relation to the world: digital technologies, architecture, tissue cultures, transgenesis, self-experiments or telepresence - the artists appropriate these methods and explore the permeability between disciplines and between art and science. Their interfaces connect us with different species, destabilise our definition of being human today and reflect on the question of satellite bodies. Oscillating between the physical and the metaphorical, the political and the meditative, the utopias and the dystopias, the exhibition invite us to reflect on how we are perceiving the shifts brought about by technologies, some of which we might not be as familiar with as we ought to.
One of the best surprises for me was to discover that the Critical Art Ensemble was not only showing Immolation but also a video i was very curious about: Marching Plague (little did i know, until the press person at Casino told me so, that the video is also available for online viewing.)
Critical Art Ensemble's film puts into a highly skeptical perspective UK-US bioweapons research and the paranoia surrounding bioterrorism. In the video, the CAE and some volunteers follows the steps of Operation Cauldron, a series of biological warfare trials conducted by the UK governmentoff the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1952. These secret trials investigated whether germs could be used as a weapon for ship-to-ship combat. Their tests found that germs were as unreliable and unmanageable on the sea as they were on the land.
The film humorously demonstrates that the public's fear of "bioterrorism" is not only based on incomplete awareness of the facts but has also been exploited by governments to justify the creeping costs of biological warfare programmes. Money which could otherwise be dedicated to the fight against existing or emerging infectioius diseases.
inthewrongplaceness is an intimate performance that Kira O'Reilly developed on her return from a residency at SymbioticA in 2004. The impact of working with pig's tissue in a lab setting instigated her thoughts on the similarities between the pig's skin and her own. By inviting members of the audience to approach one by one and touch both her own and the skin of a dead, nonhuman animal, O'Reilly encourages visitors to engage with the complexities of the relationships between skin, touch and species. The artist also explained in an interview: It was also very much influenced by a book called Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq, about a woman who turns into a pig. She spends quite some time in the middle of the text oscillating through in between stages, neither entirely one nor the other.
I didn't see the performance but it seems that it took place in a room that is part of the exhibition. On the walls and on the floor are props such as flowers, taxidermied birds and corpses of small animals in formalin.
Plage d'hiver ("winter beach") grabs all our senses with a physiological reconstruction of a beach. A skyline of ultraviolet light along with the dark glasses visitors are recommended to wear upon entering the 'beach room' and a cloud of iodine project our body to another latitude, another a season. We breathe the effluvium of the marine aerosol and our skin reacts to the UV-a rays. Rahm has reproduced the angle of sight corresponding to the reflection of sunlight on water which reaches the retina from below as if in duplicate.
Plage d'hiver translates the ubiquity typical of modernity, where seasons are adrift all year long, to the point of overlap in a sort of perpetual spring; a modernity where night and day merge in a white luminous light, diurnal and nocturnal alike, and where distances are reduced until they, too, overlap with the immediacy of globalization.
Antal Lakner's Passive Dress - Double Gravity Suit is a suit ergonomically fitted with weights that make its wearer perceive 1.5-2 times the normal earthly gravitation weight. The mere attempt to keep a normal posture, to stabilize the body or make small gestures becomes a slow-motion meaningless fatigue. The suit challenges men to maintain one of its unique characteristics: we are indeed the only ones among the vertebrates in having a completely erect posture.
I'll end with a couple of images with my favourite artwork in the show: the Roadkill Coat that the members of Art Orienté Objet stitched using the fur of small animals they found dead by highways.
sk-interfaces. Exploding Borders in Art, Technology and Society is on view at Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain until 10 January 2010. Photo on the homepage: Axel Heise.
One of the rules of this blog is never to make announcements of events. Every rule comes with its exceptions... The November programme of the VASTAL workshops and lectures is out!
The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. is Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute on Art and Life Sciences. It's free, open to the public and i hope you'll allow me to remind you how much we enjoy them:
Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop
Wednesday 11 November
Body Art Lecture with performance artists: Kira O'Reilly, WARBEAR, Jeanette Groenendaal and Boryana Rossa.
Thursday 12 November and Saturday 14 November
Body Art Lab which, i'm told, will involve blood and sex performances in the Glove Box. "Various performance artists will be ritually cleansed and enter the glove box one or two at a time. Various performance artists take turns in the box interacting with the public or other actors reaching into them with the gloves. This is experimental Body Art with a biological theme that references experiments, lab animals, the pure and the impure as well as the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies. "
Tuesday 17 November
Animal Personality Art and Science Lecture and Lab with Dr. Kees van Oers or one of his colleagues and Koen Van Mechelen.
Dr. Kees van Oers studies the genetic background, physiology and fitness consequences of variation in avian personality. In 2005 he obtained a personal VENI-grant to study the evolutionary genetics of personality using a linkage study in a natural population. This work is currently extended in collaboration with the Animal Breeding and Genomics Center in an NGI-grant on songbird genomics.
Koen Vanmechelen is a Belgian conceptual artist whose work engages with issues of genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness. The artist is currently working on The Cosmopolitan Chicken project, an experiment to develop a super-hybrid chicken.
Koen Vanmechelen's The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project chickens will be installed from Nov 5 to Dec 6 at the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. Vanmechelen is also having his first solo exhibition in a U.S. gallery at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington.
Featuring live chickens, the exhibition also includes taxidermy and blown-glass sculptures, video, and photography, as well as drawings and paintings in tempera made from eggs laid by chickens bred by the artist.
In the 19th century, despite the best efforts of body snatchers, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outstripped the supply. One solution to this gruesome problem came in the form of lifelike wax models. These models often took the form of alluring female figures that could be stripped and split into different sections. Other models were more macabre, showing the body ravaged by 'social diseases' such as venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.
You would never ever get me into a Gunther von Hagens show but if the Wellcome Collection puts together an exhibition of arty anatomical models and historical artefacts, surely i can go. Art, history... Does it mean it's not going to be shocking and sometimes gross?
The answer to that question is a big 'no' but Exquisite Bodies nevertheless takes you on a fascinating ride, one that blends Victorian freak show, forgotten pages in medical history and crude lesson in anatomy and diseases. The artefacts were not only used in medical schools, some of them were exhibited for educational and entertaining purposes in museums around Europe. The last public museum of that kind in London, Dr. Kahn's Grand Anatomical Museum on Oxford Street, was smashed to pieces by the Metropolitan police a century ago. Suddenly that kind of information was deemed 'indecent and demoralising'. By the look on visitors faces today, it seems that the most sophisticately educated among us have not lost their appetite for the gore and the sinister.
A quick walk through the exhibition:
The most shocking anatomical models can be found in the second room of the exhibition. Just like heavy velvet curtains hide a series of graphic (i fear that id i write 'life-like', i'm going to put you all off sex for a month or two) human genitalia in extreme stages of disease modelled in flesh-coloured wax featuring real pubic hair, i'll conceal those images behind links.
The book 'A survey of the microcosme; or, The anatomy of the bodies of man and woman' enables readers to peel off the body's layers and perform virtual 'dissections' by lifting the flaps to reveal internal organs. First published in 1619, it was the first anatomical atlas to make full use of this method of illustration.
A wrist with a 'cutaneous horn' growing from it. At the time some believed that the malformation may have been caused by exposure to the sun:
Around 1900, a waxworks museum was established by fairground entrepreneur Señor Roca in the heart of Barcelona's red-light district. The location was no accident, the collection targeted the local inhabitants with spectacular visual information about the contemporary 'plagues' with which they were all too well acquainted: tuberculosis, alcoholism and syphilis.
Known as 'The Parade of Monsters', it originally contained a mechanical wizard, a 'house of murders' and a section devoted to human oddities alongside embryological and anatomical models and jars of human parts.
"Le Grand Musée de l'Homme", a popular attraction at fairgrounds in Brussels until the late 1950s, hid its pedagogical message among models of bearded lady, Cyclops and two-headed calf.
Exquisite Bodies is open until 18 October at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Anyone who ever asked me what to do in Paris has heard me rave endlessly about the Palais de Tokyo. That place makes other contemporary art museums and galleries look 'ringard', outdated and out of touch. The Palais is open from noon to midnight. An entrance won't entitled you to a 2 euros discount on a hefty glossy catalog. No, Sir, when you buy your ticket you are handed out a magazine with all the info you need to visit the exhibition and go further in the discovery once you're back home.
The ongoing exhibition, GAKONA, is set under the aegis of Nikola Tesla and its name refers to a village in Alaska. Little more than 200 inhabitants live in Gakona. There's a service station, a small school, a post office, a couple of diners and a scientific research base: the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program.
The researchers at the HAARP are studying the transmission of electricity in the uppermost portion of the atmosphere. But because of its military funding and the fears associated with electromagnetism, HAARP is surrounded by a cloud of controversy. Its forest of antennas has been accused of beaming electromagnetic waves that are extremely hazardous to human health, of disrupting climate, of having all sorts of influence on human behaviour and of being weapons able to disrupt communications over large portions of the planet.
The icon of the show is Parapluies (umbrellas) by Roman Signer. Two Tesla coils charge up, approx. 5 minutes later an alarm sounds and a blast of electricity spectacularly lights up between the extremities of the umbrellas. I'm not going to delve on this one, have a look at this video or this one instead.
Now Haarp, by Laurent Grasso, is a sculpture clearly inspired by the aforementioned program, not only does it look like its model but its potential effects are invisible as well: are there waves passing through the antennas? Are they harmful? Should we be worried? How real is this?
Chizhevsky Lessons, by Micol Assaël, is a gigantic generator of static electricity. The name of the artwork refers to Alexander Chizhevsky, a scientist who explored the correlation between solar activity and historical events such as wars and revolutions.
Right before being allowed to approach the installation, you are warned that people wearing pacemakers or hearing aid and pregnant women should not go any further, advised that you should "avoid touching other visitors' faces, especially the eyes" and promised that the work would "load the body with static electricity." Thank you very much!
What visitors experience is the unpleasantness of static electricity re-created artificially with a cascade generator, a transformer, copper plates, and wires that fill the space with negatively charged ions. The discharge only occurs when touching an object or person oppositely charged. Although the installation is not dangerous it definitely invites visitors to step out of their safety zone and explore uncontrollable physical, emotional and psychological experiences.
GAKONA is on view until May 3 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
As i mentioned earlier, finally got to visit The Wellcome Collection, a museum in London dedicated to health and medicine. The Collection is based on the artefacts amassed through the years by Sir Henry Wellcome. This turn-of-the century pharmaceutical entrepreneur and collector was hoping to create a Museum of Man one day. The Wellcome Collection features a permanent exhibition of his artifacts as well as temporary exhibitions. They are spectacularly fascinating and have the good taste of mixing scientific and artistic displays.
When i checked the place out, War and Medicine was on the programme. It was, to say the least, quite graphic. Not grossly graphic but elegantly upsetting. As James Peto, the curator of the show, explained, the necessity to repair and heal has to adjust constantly to advancements in the art of hurting and killing:
"I suppose what the exhibition is really about is the struggle of doctors, nurses, surgeons and research scientists to keep up with the pace of development of weapons and armaments," Peto says. However, progresses do not prevent the existence of disheartening paradoxes: "Survival statistics among soldiers are hugely improved, but civilian casualties of terrorist attacks and bombs apparently intended for soldiers seem to be growing."
Concentrating on the modern era, the exhibition explores the intimate relationship between warfare and medicine, beginning with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War in the 1850s, and continuing through to today's conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The prologue of the show is a video installation by David Cotterrell who spent a month in Afghanistan gaining first-hand experience of life beyond the front line, after he realized that he is part of a generation that not only was not required to join the military but that is also the last one to have living relatives who experienced the Second World War.
He observed and captured the daily life of soldiers through film and photography that immerse viewers in the realities of contemporary battlefield medicine.
War and Medicine displays all sorts of memorabilia: old posters warning soldiers against STD, gas masks, bandage with instructions printed on it, old surgical instruments, tin facial prostheses, a brain specimen damaged by a shell splinter and kept in formol, photographs, a portable liturgical kit to enable military chaplain to deliver the last rites, etc.
One of the core discoveries of the show for me was that each major conflict has stimulated great advances in a particular branch of medicine. For example, a series of photos showing the result of pioneering skin grafts on a soldier with a missing nose attests that a priority of WWI was facial reconstruction.
WWI brought soldiers disfigured by shrapnel from exploding shells and gunshot wounds. Facial reconstruction would start in a rudimentary fashion with tin face masks. Made of thin copper, the mask were sculpted to match the portraits of the men in their pre-war normality. They were then painted and finished while the patient wore it, in order to most accurately match the tone of the flesh with the enamels (via.)
On Project Facade is a stunning silent film clip that shows Anna Coleman Ladd and Francis Derwent Wood crafting and fitting tin facial prosthetics to injured servicemen circa 1916.
Surgeon Harold Gillies, considered to be the father of plastic surgery, persuaded the army to establish a purpose-built site that would treat facial injury in a more sophisticated way. The Queen's Hospital, Sidcup opened in 1917. Gillies and his colleagues developed many techniques of plastic surgery; more than 11,000 operations were performed on over 5,000 men (mostly soldiers with facial injuries).
The most fascinating story is the one of Harold Gillies' German counterpart, Jacques Joseph who treated many soldiers who had received facial wounds during World War I. In the 1920s, he set up a private practice where he developed and performed rhinoplasty on many of Berlin's Jewish community (to which he also belonged). He would sometimes even 'fix' the noses of poor Jews for free helping them to "vanish" into German society.
Joseph died in 1934 but his reputation survived World War II, partly due to the many rhinoplasty instruments he designed, which still bear his name today.
At the time, plastic surgery was much less a matter of vanity than an attempt to cure the psychological depression that arose with a loss of the appearance of a bomb-damaged soldier. The section of the exhibition dedicated to psychological trauma was actually where one could see the most unsettling material.
Extracts of a film shot right after WW2 show soldiers who were released from the army because of emotional difficulties. Titled Let There Be Light and directed by John Huston follows U.S. soldiers from World War II as they are treated in a clinic for a condition then described as "psychoneurotic" illness, (commonly known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD).
You can find extracts of the movie on youtube.
The film was commissioned by the US but the way it portrayed the suffering of shell-shocked soldiers was so uncompromising that the movie remained banned until 1981. "What this also highlights is how far we've come in terms of taking psychological issues seriously - at the time, these men were referred to as 'psycho neurotics'. It's the same condition that led to men being executed for deserting their posts in the First World War," says Peto.
And now ladies and gentlemen, a mix-match of images from the image gallery of the show:
The original version of this cotton bandage was designed by Professor Friedrich von Esmarch, who had been Surgeon General to the German army during the Franco-German War (1870-1871). This later example, designed for use on the battlefield, could be used open or folded and applied in 32 different ways as per the printed instructions on its surface.
In order to accommodate the massive numbers of casualties in World War I, numerous buildings were requisitioned as military hospitals, including mansion houses and casinos.
One of the most elaborate hospitals was the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which opened its doors to hundreds of wounded Indian troops returning from the battlefields in France.
In the aftermath of World War I, eight million veterans returned home permanently disabled. Social reintegration presented a range of issues from employment to disability rights and war pensions. Like many charities extending their remit in the wake of the war, the YMCA set up an Employment Department that found jobs for 38 000 ex-servicemen.
I can't think of any artist who manages to outdo Adam Zaretsky in the art of combining a somewhat comical approach with a keen reflection on the legal, ethical and social implications of new biotechnological materials and methods.
Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and the lovely yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact the music had on the bacteria. In case you've never heard of this romantic singer, let me spoil your day with a video of one of his smashing melodies:
Zaretsky is a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts at The Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He's a bioartist, performer, researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world, including the MIT's Department of Biology, the Conceptual/Information Arts department at San Francisco State University, SymbioticA at The University of Western Australia and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Integrated Electronic Arts Department.
As you might remember, Zaretsky teaches Vivoarts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology, at the University of Leiden (NL.) The Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores the intersection between art and biology and discusses the many cultural issues involved in bioart -and more generally in the field of life sciences- through a blend of hands-on laboratory protocols, critical readings, and the production of contemporary artwork. The ethics of producing living art are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.
I posted it last year already but in case you haven't seen it yet, here's 'Dangerous Liaisons', a short documentary on his class at Leiden University:
Zaretsky believes that we should "embrace our visceral and experimental mutant kindred. Life is not perfectionism. Life includes the open, onanistic and seemingly unacceptable faces of radical variation." As he states:
If I am a representative of any ideology, it leans towards appreciation of Full Breadth Genetic Alterity. If we are in the process of engaging in auto-evolution, then diversity, the inherent biological love of difference, implies that the human genome should be engineered with as wide a range of genre humans as there are art movements and swanky tastes in the world. Posthuman integrity is only guaranteed by an expanded aesthetics of anatomy, the more obscure the better... ! Let's alter our identity as a species by birthing versions of ourselves into every permutative potential of fleshbound imagination. Let's have a punk banquet of anatomy, a buffet of new senses, fancy new and multiple genital-orifice smorgasbords and the mad collage of multi-species brains. If we are to go this route, let's not start by being monocultural, paternalistic snotbags with assumed distinction ruling over the aesthetics of betterment. We must be done with the rhetoric of human enhancement.
I had the pleasure to share panels with Adam Zaretsky several times. The most recent was Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics, an event that the lovely rhizome people had invited me to curate. Now that i've finally recovered from the surprise he made us by starting his presentation with an extract from a biotech porn video he was working on, i feel that it is high time to 1. invent an opportunity to share another glorious event with him somewhere on this planet before it implodes 2. blog an online Q & A i had with him so that you can get to know him better. I focused this short interview on the work he has been doing in The Netherlands.
The experiments you describe in the video took place in the context of an avian embryology lab for non-scientists at Leiden University. How much knowledge did the participants have of biotech before they entered the lab room? What was their background? Does it take a long time before they can 'get their hands' into the genome?
The VivoArts : Art and Biology Studio Honors Class at Leiden was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Since my class another Art and Biology Course has been taught at Leiden U. by Jennifer Willet and in April the third version will be taught by Boo Chapple starting spring 2009 (so sign up now.)
Thanks go out to Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg of The Arts and Genomics Centre for investing time and brave direction to make these courses a reality and for organizing the breadth of disciplines being exposed to this sort of Bioethics Art Practice. The participants were from Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, Biology and even Theology... But, there is no Art Studio practice degree at Leiden U. so we put out the word and a few artists applied or just showed up.
The simple answer to your first question is, no experience is necessary. All Vivoarts labs are hands on labs for the untrained. I guess it's a sort of biology brut or outsider biology. Informed opinions on present-day and near-future bioethical conundrums are more readily coaxed out of non-biologists through a hands on approach. It takes time to get approval to teach non-professionals and students whose focus is not biology or bioethics. After clearance, the students can come in with zero experience and leave having made time-based, hybrid, new media, wet-lab, living arts pieces: transgenic embryo sculptures, GMO bacterial paintings and/or tissue cultured embryonic stem cell totemic fetish objects.
The difference between a technical scientific learning session and a Vivo-artistic laboratory approach is mostly qualitative. While engaging in the technics, we also deal with the relational issues surrounding this type of process: pain, death, responsibility, curiosity, the meddlesome sadism of a personal genetic footprint/signature/graffiti/, risk assessment between foreign species and the ecosphere as well as critiquing admonitions against the urge to fondle the folds of mutant love.
There were some reticent parties on campus. They claimed that they were worried their patients might be afraid that artists a la Moreau were treating them. (...) I think that the reaction to an art class in the lab doing 'important' transgenic embryology work in the name of non-utilitarian, 'frivolous' artistry reflects a fear of demystification of transgenic process. Is the fear of attention given to playful transgenic embryological research procedures limited to wariness to contend with animal rights advocates often knee-jerk responses? Or, is it because often enough, well-funded Transgenesis research is as equally 'useless' or has just as little chance of producing important data as a hands-on Transgenic Developmental Biology Embryological Sculpting Lab for Social Commentary. But, these balkers are University researchers. Why hide from eager students in a castle of learning? Transgenic human production is a contentious cultural issue that is in need of interdisciplinary research before it goes to market. If we want an informed public to help us gauge the eventual results of aesthetic human engineering, we need people with experience who have their own ideas about the process, the results and the price of genetic tinkering.
You mention in some of the written documents that plasmid injections were made with homemade tools. Hackers and amateurs around the world are experimenting with technology in a creative way as part of a broad DIY culture. Do you think that this DIY approach could apply to biotech art experimentations like the ones you perform? Where are the limits?
About half of my labs are 100% DIY. A lot of the Art and Biology crew are interested in the demystification of technology. The dorkbot skillshare mentality is more than a hot geek dating service. It's about showing that the technology, in this case biotechnology, is comprehensible and actuate-able with home brew strategies and some kitchen sterile technique.
For instance, the microinjectors for our embryology lab were made of glass pipettes pulled over a flame into small-bore needles. The plasmid was literally sucked up and hand pressed into the living embryos. We squirted into the embryos. The hope was that the microinjection needles were smaller than the embryonic nuclei and that, without microscopes, the plasmid would be injected or find its way into some nuclei for incorporation into the genome of the unborn pheasants.
This is not how an embryologist would work. The odds of success are already low without such haphazard application technique. Expensive machines are used to pull glass needles of the exact bore which will penetrate the nuclei of the organism of choice (mouse, rat, human, frog or fly embryos for instance.) Injections 'usually' occur through the microscope and XYZ microcontrollers guide the payload into the organism with finesse and acuity. Microinjectors cost over 100,000 euro and are not usually available to the general public (although I did use one at MIT to inject wasabi and cream cheese into Tobiko.
But less accurate methods like gene guns or direct injection of DNA are also used in today's gene therapy trials. These human trials, which may be producing germline alterations, emphasize the porousness of our collective genome. The history of embryology is built on cheap contraptions and closet incubators. Look at chicken breeders, both their social status and their successes. How many of them used strange feed or other 'pushing of life' techniques to make their prizewinning mutants?
So, I would say that persistence will outweigh the technological edge especially because no one has any idea of what life is, what the future holds and what the long term effects of even supposedly 'controlled' experiments will have on ecology, living being and the concept of species integrity. As far as I can tell, a tattoo gun with a single point needle dipped in the right plasmid concoction might be a great nano-transfectant for the lotek-biotech artist who still likes to draw. If it takes a lot of microinjections to get success when working blind... then gene tattooing is the way to go. (You could also buy a cheap microscope and improve your odds at least 30X.)
(Warning: Gene insertion may eventually cure cancer but right now it can also cause cancer. (i.e. Leukemia, see the case of Jesse Gelsinger).
Now, when it comes to DNA sequencing and plasmid design, this is just starting to be a tabletop possibility with cheaper sequencers and biobrick sets from the megaMaterialists over in Synthetic Biology. But, the learning curve is steep and can be expensive if you don't want to work with ready-mades. Designing your future pet's body plan or your own prehensile tail or an extra brain in your lovely daughter's derriere... that will take some trial and error. The effect is not just material. The genes are multifactorial. We haven't a clue as to what metabolism is. We can't even distinguish between enhancement and a living curse. But still, I'm hopeful.
The lab obviously triggered many questions and debates. One of them drew a thought-provoking parallel between animal research and animal sacrifice, a pratique which nowadays seems outdated and almost barbarian. I know that you are careful to comply with legal limits and are deeply concerned with the ethics of what you are doing and preaching. But did you mention this parallel between sacrifice and research in order to highlight the more sinister aspects of research? What are the most sobresalient points of the research/sacrifice debate that took place among the participants of your class?
First I wrote this:
Funerals Rites for Transgenic Pheasants: Rituals of Bio-Art Practice
Some artists are utilizing lab technique as a new medium to produce living and often mutant living art forms. As these 'sculptures' live and die, often at the whims of the artistic investigator, the personal, non-repeatable moments take on a ritual air. What kinds of rituals do interdisciplinary Art and Biology practices entail? How do they reveal the implicit rituals of science? What new performative rites come out of mixing ethics and esthetics in the laboratory? Scientists also have their methodologies of creative flourish and humane sacrifice. But, scientific and artistic play is often based on different paradigms of what the act of experimentation is. As artists learn laboratory technique, the rituals of science and new rituals of sci-art unfold, decouple and reconfirm magical thinking in both arenas. How does animal research relate to the history of animal sacrifice? What is the role of subjectivity in developmental embryology? Is transgenic protocol also a ritual for the cultural production of liminal monsters? And how does mutagenesis impede or coerce the imaginary in the lifeworld? Through an analysis of artists confronted with the responsibility of ending the life of transgenic pheasant embryos, (which they had altered with plasmids in the name of art,) I hope to show living rituals for new biotechnological processes as they are invented.
But to be more down to earth, this is complicated and needs regular talk too. First of all the students were guaranteed a good grade even if they choose to be ethical observers. So there was no pressure to be hands on. Secondly, methods of humane sacrifice were discussed even if the concept is an oxymoron. Legally, embryonic birds are not organisms in Europe. What they really are is unclassifiable, but they are not free living nor do they have fully developed nervous systems. So they are conceived to be dim or not fully on. They may be thought of as a group of cells on the way to becoming a full-fledged, free-living organism. For this reason, they do not have rights in any way nor do they have a single preferred humane sacrifice method. Actually, humane sacrifice is not a prerequisite in embryonic end of life issues.
Of the scientists I quizzed, the methods of sacrifice commonly applied were death by: autoclave, refrigeration, put down on ice or poured down the drain. I added to other options for my students: valium overdose or ritual sacrifice. The valium overdose was my idea of the most humane sacrifice for an embryo. It may have been the first time that an embryo was given such a respectful euthanasia. But, the ritual sacrifice option was wide open and I can tell you that we are still living in barbaric times.
Also, I offered to play executioner for my students. Often I had to not just respect their choices but enact them. It was a horrific part of the lab for me. But, I did learn a lot. I wouldn't dismiss the value of sacrifice in science, religion or even secular posthumanism. Some rituals were moving funerals about the traumatic pasts of the slayers. Some underscored visions of techno-obliteration, the War Machine (Critical Art Ensemble, see the first chapter of The Flesh Machine), which accounts for way too much of the world's economic and productive focus. Some of them were heartless and natural and sincere. One student's acts even inspired remorse for outsourcing an incineration. It is as if serial killing and bureaucracy were still strange bedfellows. All and all, the sacrifices were conducted in a responsible way even if they were non-utilitarian. The lab showed the range of human behavior when dealing with GMO snuff issues and unborn politics and it gave experience of the viscerality of transgenic process to the students.
Photo from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica
To be quite frank and honest, I am still in a strange state of being torn around these issues. I think abortion should be legal and believe in a woman's right to choose. Yet, I believe in embryonic isness: that there is something dignified about a developing organism. I am anti-war and think capital punishment should be abolished. I support some animal research as I have seen results that do help with disease. I do think the focus should be on AIDS and Malaria instead of prostate cancer and new cholesterol blockers. But it is not that simple. Often enough, I approve of experimental curiosity in general. I understand that we have a strange human gymnastic need to scope and poke everything to see how it 'ticks' or even just as pornography. I do think most biological research is just in-group magical empiricism but I also think that it is effective in a social cohesive sense. So, I guess I am old fashioned when it comes to ritual sacrifice even with a lab coat shaman behind the lab doors. Nonetheless, we humans could be less nationalist and provide global food, shelter, clean water, free rent and a 'work-optional' baseline to all humans. And, if you believe the news, many Bioart practitioners, myself included, lay claim to a sort of relational bent, attempting to go beyond anthropocentrism in the name of respect for the non-human actants of the earth. That is, many of us do consider all life to have an existential specialty which is their own and which is often superior to Homo sapiens narcissism in diverse ways of niche working and play. Yes, if we have it in us, we need to give back a lot of the land mass we have 'cultivated' on the crust of this planet to non-humans for their rights to freedom, space and daytime walks. But when it comes to embryos, I admit, I eat bunches of them on a weekly basis: caviar, eggs, raw seeds, grain, and bean sprouts. Being alive is a sort of hypocritical stance.
We cannot apologize to the organisms we use, even our flowers after death, because I doubt they would accept an apology. We cannot thank them, as some of the native peoples of the Americas still do, for providing us dinner or art materials, because I doubt they would say 'you were welcome.' In a sort of Taoist or Fatalist sense, we can try to welcome the hunger of the living consumers of our living and hence dying bodies (whether they be human, other animal, vegetable, bacterial, insectoid, fruity or fungal) as they come to feast on our inevitable temporary-ness, our becoming food for others. For this reason, I am anti-embalming and believe in green burials as we are just mulch in the long-term sense. In the short term we are entropic, greedy, sensual, hungry holes in need of sustainable release through passionate spectacle. (see my video Retool Earth.)
I often refer to this type of trial by fire lab as a Milgram Experiment without authority. I proclaim myself an amateur, I give the option to not participate and yet, when given the legal thumbs up, most people will do what they know is ethically tarnished. At the same time, fear of implication in the lifeworld, shame of causing death in general, while causing death, is more dangerous than modern primitivism. The Nobility of Neurosis (J.G. Ballard re/Search) is part and parcel to the Latourian concept of modern distinction as a farce. So, although I wish the Hague War Crimes Tribunal had authority over the nation I live in which has no respect for the Geneva Convention, the Nurenberg Code or the Declaration of Helsinki, fertile eggs are still a popular food particularly in green non-vegan circles. A well-made fertile egg omelette is no casual funereal ritual. Baroque and gourmet productions take time and the nuance and the taste is not lost on the pallete.
Just to underscore that I am thinking while acting the clown...
The fertile eggs were named during incubation. This is a list of their names:
One of your documents mention a project in Spain? Why Spain? And where exactly would you like to perform new researches? Can you tell us briefly what this project would be about?
Actually, I talked to Marta de Menezes of Ectopia in Portugal (another Bioart Residency to look into) and she said that Bull Fights, the Politics of Primitive Tradition versus the Elimination of any Appearance of Injustice and Bull Sperm Sorting for Breeder Profit (transgenic as all hell) were all popular pastimes in Spain. So if I was in Spain or Portugal, I might like to look for some off target mutations in the garbage bin of a major Bull Sperm Sorting outpost. Really, the FACS Bucket text was just an idea for a residency that ended up getting published in Portugal. Due to parenting responsibilities, I can't spend more than two or three months a year outside of the US. The WAAG Society and The Mondriaan Foundation have decided to host/sponsor a public course and performance over the next year in Amsterdam. I would also like to work on making more transgenic pheasant embryos so I can fine tune my imaging and maybe even discover something that might make a reductionist out of my otherwise sticky fingers. I am looking for more funding so send money people to Lucas Evers
Right now, I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Woodstock, USA. I am gearing up to initiate VASTAL: The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. I would prefer it function independently of any university so it would be obscure, DIY and edgy. But this would need a real budget even for a two-year planned obsolescence trip. I also consider pFARM to be conceptually ready to make the move to something more than a small collective. The Organic Biotech Fetish Farm has started to attract devotees and as a cult grows, so must its infrastructure. We are still accepting applicants on subservient grassroots level at this time. Although I have traveled widely, I ask myself which other nation is there that deserves the kind of lessons I mete out. I can smell the Ku Klux Klan hay in every corner of the world markets but the USA has taken Superpower-Slumlord to a new low. So, I figure New York is my tropical island in which to experiment with human volunteers and their gonads... VASTAL 2010 ... Know any strange hosts?
I wish i did. Thanks Adam!
In the news: Adam Zarestky is participating to the show Imagining Science that runs through February 1, 2009 at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Zaretsky and The pFARM Collective are part of the exhibition Corpus Extremus which opens in February 2009 at Exit Art in NYc. The book Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change has won an award in the 2009 New York Book Show in the Scholarly & Professional category.