As research in the biological sciences continues to be no less challenging and spectacular, the possibilities and questions at the intersection of art and biology multiply. The experimentation happening in new media, methodology, and practice is often an exploration in collaboration and applied knowledge production.
Marta de Menezes has been working now for a decade with biological techniques and materials as her medium, and has often done so in collaboration with scientists, and in particular, with biologists. She is a phd candidate at the University of Leiden, and the artistic director at Ectopia, an experimental art lab in Lisbon. By recently employing the tools of analysis in systems biology to the field of art practice, de Menezes is taking a reflexive and immersive approach to art research. It’s one that embraces complexity and could translate into a deeper understanding about the historical development and embedded structures of art and biology related exploration.
Accessibility to technology, situatedness, policy effect, and public response are possible clusters to be made visible in the artistic tendencies of her field, and are also factors that admit challenges and potentialities for art research in traditional institutions and elsewhere.
Jamie Ferguson: I’m interested in speaking with you about artistic research. The term is still very much a compound. Using language from taxonomy or genetics, it’s a hybrid, and one in a constant negotiation of its boundaries, definitions, and also its legitimacy. You describe yourself not as an observer or science researcher, but as art researcher, where art research tends to manifest temporally on the fluid borders between art and biology and other areas such as robotics, mathematics, physics, and ecology, etc. Why is this interface integral for your research and practice?
Marta De Menezes: It’s easier! Research doesn’t have to be at the border of anything but it is an easier, effective way to experiment with new things, if one is looking for things outside of the obvious sphere…
Jamie Ferguson: It’s an approach that searches for new applications for knowledge and methodologies -something I think research can do well when coupled with some experimentation. Yours is a practice influenced by the way biologists conduct their own research, and recently you are engaging with an analysis of your own work situated in relation to other works in the field, by adopting a methodology that derives from systems biology. Why this approach? Why look at strategies pursued by artists developing artworks in collaboration with scientists?
Marta De Menezes: Mathematical analysis of complex data, a systems biology approach, allows me to look at what seemed to me a complicated data set. Art theory is a confusing field, as is art, as is my field of art and biology, and the parameters that we use to evaluate and assess or study culture didn’t seem to fit. This is not a movement in the sense there are common backgrounds, geographical or conceptual commonalities between artists who practice art and biology. It seemed lame to keep calling it all ‘art & biology’ simply because we are all working in some way with biology. It’s not enough. I thought there must be other ways to analyze cultural data that do not fit within given formal parameters. Each is working in its own context, working with its particular concerns, concepts, and I was looking for a way to analyze this.
So I looked at biology where we find complicated problems that cannot be solved by a single line of thought, where many variables and dynamic input must be considered, where one needs a systematic analysis. If we substitute some of the technicalities that concern systems biologists (ie. huge amounts of data that doesn’t seem make sense, that we cannot put into one bag or compartmentalize due to contamination factors), it is in this context that the problems I am concerned with emerge.
Jamie Ferguson: You suggest looking at the growth of biology as a discipline in order to better understand the gradual naturalization of its promises and consequences; a fact you say has marked the development of the artistic discourse tremendously. An important aspect of many current artistic practices is collaboration, and you point out that this might have developed in a similar way to the scientific practice. Why is this way of working fruitful for you? What are some important aspects? I’m thinking in terms of possibility, experimentation and also failure…
Marta De Menezes: I look at scientists who are doing work that is of interest to me. I’m not necessarily limited by geography. I look online, I look for my friends. If I have a problem related to genetics, for example, if I know someone in the field, they might tell me that this is really not their thing but they might also recommend someone closer to what I am trying to develop, and then I go to them. It is certainly fruitful. I’m trying to express issues that are known to the realm of art, such as identity, an old question, but I want to express a contemporary identity. Where do I find a contemporary identity? I cannot use paint to express cells and molecules or dna information. It makes more sense to me to use to biology itself.
Jamie Ferguson: You are concerned with an analysis of ‘the art practice’, something you see as yet to be taken seriously enough by traditional academics. Are there certain factors you see as decisive for art research to exist effectively in an academic setting?
Marta De Menezes: Well, I think it is very important it does exist in the academic sphere. I think art still has trouble admitting that it produces knowledge. In our knowledge system today art has been neglected to entertainment, even by its own profession. It is very difficult to engage in a discussion, a less emotional one, about knowledge generation through art. A lot of people are still unclear of what art is for, and so the idea of art creating knowledge is still a very touchy subject! I don’t think it’s a question whether it does so or not, but a question of how, and how this could become part of academic knowledge.
Artists have always done research, they produce, the work is displayed publicly, other artists are affected and influenced by this work, they produce something else; there is a build up of information but it often occurs in very informal ways. I think we have to begin to take ourselves more seriously and see this as a contribution to knowledge generally, not only artistically. Art will have to be taken seriously as a pursuit of knowledge and advancement to build upon. It is a very important part of culture, where culture is based on the knowledge of the community of its particular time.
Jamie Ferguson: Considering the absorption of art and biology and its practice into mainstream institutions (which presumably means that the work has successfully reached some standard and interest), it’s true that biological art has only recently been exhibited and acquired by mainstream museums and galleries for different reasons. The peer review process, however, has to be done outside more typical academic realms, with a critical mass of practitioners in alternative, more dynamic structures and spaces, those that have had an integral influence on the field. You say it’s critical to assess an institutionalization point, as it has the capacity to shape the avant-garde. What, perhaps, could a practical research field look like at this sort of cross road?
Marta De Menezes: I daydream a lot! I do see that one day it may happen…You know, I compare a lot of art to science, art to biology, because biology is the science field I know best. A few years ago, I read a great article about how architecture shaped the way we do science today. Ideally, I would try to do the same with art. I would have architecture change the way we produce art and research art. Instead of the science that was being done in the cellar, as Marie Curie did for example, eventually research centres within the university emerged, places where people could share material, administrators, space, management, facilities, machines, etc.
Someone would lead that department and ensure its developing flow. It was a slow move of course; at a certain point one researcher would have a group in one wing of a building, and one in another, but today work is done in more open spaces, they can see each other, they go for coffee together, and I think this is how the dynamics of research changes.
We should…well, there is no money in Portugal for constructing new buildings right now, but this would really change how art is made. Spaces with a physical connection to where research is being practiced in academia, I think, could change dramatically the way research is being done in art.
Jamie Ferguson: The coupling of art and biology has for a large part been developed in collaboration with scientific research institutions. In your experience, is science practice impacted or changed by these collaborations with artists?
Marta De Menezes: This is a variable. There is no specific protocol for approaching the lab and there is no objective to assign to science and I don’t think there should be one. One runs the risk of telling others how to do their work; nobody likes that. It’s interesting that we like to mix with each other, but one doesn’t really want to mix the subjects. Science is science and scientists are the contributors to their field, as is with art. Artists are those who are true to that set of knowledge. It’s difficult to change this and I’m not sure it’s useful. For myself, when I walk into the lab, I do try to make it interesting.
It has to be challenging intellectually. These people are thinkers who are trying to solve puzzles, different than my own, but if I can give them a challenging question they will come aboard happily, and I like them to do the same for me. If they challenge my point of view, ask why this way and not that, then I can look for ways to make my idea for the project more clear to the public, to scientists, to other artists, to art viewers. One does change perspectives more than anything else, and this is the best challenge. Either the scientist changes the artist’s perspective or the artist the scientists’. This may have a small or large impact. One never knows…