Art+Science
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Dialogues on “Bioart” #1. A conversation with Jens Hauser

“Glyn Daly: In a sense, would you say that the age of biogenetics/cyberspace is the age of philosophy? Slavoj Zizek: Yes, and the age of philosophy in the sense again that we are confronted more and more often with philosophical problems at an everyday level. It is not that you withdraw from daily life into a world of philosophical contemplation. On the contrary, you cannot find your way around daily life itself without answering certain philosophical questions. It is a unique time when everyone is, in a way, forced to be some kind of a philosopher.”1

                                                                                     

These words of the Slovenian philosopher are to be read in the context of an age that is characterized by: the complete decoding of the genome, resulting in online portals such as 23andMe (https://www.23andme.com/) thanks to which it has become affordable for practically anyone to have his or her entire genome decoded and analysed; Synthia, the first bacterium with an entirely artificial genome that had been created not even a decade later; and more generally within the rising trend of increasing (bio)technological manipulation that is being expressed in research areas such as stem cell research, xenotransplantation, gene therapy, neurophysiology, synthetic biology, tissue culture, and thus in an ever-growing manipulation of form, bodies, and life in general.

The questions that are resulting from this change in our approach – or rather the possibilities of our approach – to life and nature are both of a philosophical and ethical, as well as a political and economic, nature. However, new options in choosing between previously non-existent ways of acting and taking decisions always also imply the obligation to think about the consequences of these options and the implications of our decisions as well as to take responsibility for them. This demands us to be as well informed as possible about the contents and different aspects of the addressed questions and options. In times of “Big Bio” and “Big Pharma” – which have a decisive impact on the technologies and research areas listed above, and thereby also on the content and extent of the information that reaches the public, as well as an increasingly rapid development of such technologies and thus the micro-levels on which the relevant processes take place – it has become hard to stay up-to-date with the relevant information though, let alone to understand it in its full extent.

The rapid rate at which progresses in the research field of biology – which has evolved to the leading science in our society – are being reported these days make it nearly impossible to digest and process the implications of biotechnology on life, society and culture philosophically and sociologically in time in order to provide assistance when it comes to questions regarding the free will or the ontological status of man, nature and life. Given the possibilities of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, xenotransplantation, and organ printing, we have to rethink and put to the test our sacrosanct idea of what we understand by “human” and “humanity”, as well as our understanding of the nature of the relationship between humans, animals/plants, and machines.

From the very beginning artists have reacted to and commented on these new discoveries in biology and biotechnology and its factual and possible results, quickly assimilating and processing not only the new tools and techniques but also the new levels of moral and ethical debates. By working on the relationship between artistic expression, science, and technology they adopt the frameworks, tools, research findings, and processes of contemporary biological research to create works with concepts and stylistic characteristics of science and technology, adapted to the dimension of artistic expression.

These hybrid “researcher-scientist-artists”, generally assigned to the genre of “Bioart” (a debatable term, which is why I will always refer to it only in quotation marks), try to provide the necessary assistance in processing the flood of new and incomprehensible developments in biotechnologies with their works by unveiling unusual and underlining new or unfamiliar perspectives on these issues to the viewer and making him reflect on them, if he takes the time and is open to get involved.

In their work, these artists address the effects of the powerful possibilities that biotechnology provides through the clash between the “creative power of the artist” and the wonder of the living. The viewer is thus being confronted with works in the form of artefacts created – or co-created – by humans that want to make these technological changes tangible and conceptually experienceable. This staging of “aliveness” in a philosophical, epistemological or ironic way, however, involves the difficulty that most of these works are not easy to handle aesthetically and in a familiar way. Works of “Bioart” are usually located in a grey area between art and science, and therefore require the viewer to deal with both the medium used and the either critical, positive, utopian or shocking topics of biotechnology addressed in the artwork.

The somewhat unusual aesthetics of this “living” art (and the incompatibility with the system of the established art market as a consequence thereof) is definitely not the only reason why “Bioart” is not easily accessible. Not only is there a theoretical dispute regarding the terminology – recalling the well-known discussions during the early days of media art about whether the definition of the term has to be based on the medium used in the artwork or on the subject expressed in it – and a disunity about the taxonomical classifications (in the attempt to narrow down the very broad field of “Bioart” and further specify the various approaches, terms such as “Biotech Art”, “Genetic Art”, “Life Science Art”, “Moist-Media Art” or “Transgenic Art” have been created and are now often used only according to personal preference), but also the practicality of exhibiting living artworks create so far unknown challenges for artists, curators and established art institutions.

In the series Dialogues on “Bioart”, I will speak about these and other issues with curators, artists, cultural workers and other professionals who deal with “Bioart” in different ways and have been working in this field for a number of years. Through these interviews, I not only want to present them and their work, but also to shed light on their various viewpoints on, and relevant experiences with, the issues being addressed in the so-called “Bioart”, in order to bring all this into line with the larger context of the analysis of what “Bioart” as well as the connected issues and questions, actually are.

The series starts with a conversation held with Jens Hauser – German curator, writer, and cultural journalist based in Paris – in June this year. He has curated some of the most important exhibitions regarding the intersection of art and biology, including: L’Art Biotech (2003), a show on biotechnological art at the National Arts and Culture Centre Le Lieu Unique in Nantes; Still, Living (2007) at the Biennale of Electronic Arts in Perth; sk-interfaces (2008) at FACT, as part of the programme of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture; and synth-ethic (2011), an exhibition in Vienna on synthetic biology at the border between art and science. Apart from curating exhibitions, Jens Hauser has also published several essays and lectured on the issue of taxonomical problems, as well as on that of “Biomediality”.

Daniela Silvestrin: What is your educational and professional background, and how did you become interested in the intersection of art and science?

Jens Hauser: Actually it’s rather an interest in the intersection of art and technology on the one hand, and of art and biology on the other. In high school I graduated in biology as a major subject, but later I studied aesthetics, film and television studies with psychology in Germany, as well as science journalism in France – so initially I had put biology aside as a field of interest. It returned later though, while I was working as a cultural journalist at the European cultural TV channel ARTE, for which I have been working as a founding collaborator since its inception in 1992. Over several years, I focused on new forms of dance, new interactions of art and technology, digital art, interactivity and immersion. This is where I eventually discovered that the new technologies, which were becoming more and more a focus in the new art forms, were moving towards biological media – even beyond the known simulations connected to the field of the Artificial Life research, which in the mid-80s had triggered a real hype and a kind of “virtual biologism”. At this point my interest in the connection between art and biology became so strong that I abandoned the reflective journalistic perspective and switched to curatorial practice. And through the curatorial work, in turn, I felt the need to return to university.  Beside guest-lecturing in many countries, I taught at Bochum University from 2007 to 2009, particularly on the issue of inter-, trans- and biomediality – the topic of my PhD which is currently being achieved.

The current concept of media is expanding more and more. As a trained film and media scholar I felt the need to formulate a theory of biomediality which assumes that a medium is not just something that has to do with communication, but that it is first and foremost a means and a way to enable something to be formed, without itself having a form. For me, media are therefore above all “enabling conditions”. Against this background, the concept of biological media is consistent with the epistemologically wider understood concept of media.

So I started from a fascination with so-called “new media” and arrived at a notion of the term media that includes the analysis of all possible “enabling conditions”. Despite Panofsky, this is something that has not been done in the initially iconologically and iconographically oriented art theory, not even in the German Bildwissenschaften (image sciences) that seek to break everything down into and apprehend it through the lens of the “pictoral turn”. I think there is a major gap when it comes to questioning the technical and media conditions from which aesthetics also do emerge.

Daniela Silvestrin: Do aesthetics even matter in this kind of art, and if so, to what extent?

Jens Hauser: That depends on how one defines aesthetics. Aesthetics has something to do with perception; accompanying or constituting discourse may in itself already be a sort of anaesthetization. Everything that claims “Duchamp-ism” in this sense is basically an anaesthetization, conceived as a shift of the aesthetic to the discourse. This has a lot to do with self-reflectivity and self-reflection, which is inscribed in the modern era. Even in the conceptual art of the 50s and 60s, aesthetics has lost importance when focusing on realizability rather than on the realized, on latent aspects so to say. This can also mean that objects which can be aesthetic are so decentralized that they cannot even be limited to a spatial installation.

In the context of biotechnological art, an exciting example is the large scope of possibilities someone has to apprehend in the aesthetics of the performance May the Horse Live in me by the artist duo Art Orienté objet. Here, of course, it is not the pictures taken of the performance, nor the engraved aluminum caskets with the freeze-dried hybridized human-equine blood that synectotically represents the actual artwork, or which turns the work into “art”. It is rather the whole process, which takes place across a time- and space- scale that explodes the aesthetic object and moves it onto so many levels that it appears as a rhizomatically-connected network. This is a phenomenon of our time: after the lingustic turn, the pictorial turn, and the performative turn, we have arrived now at an epistemic or epistemologic turn, which basically deals with and analyzes the manner in which knowledge and objects are being presented. So this art is not about presenting knowledge, but about questioning and showing how knowledge is being produced, through an aesthetic object. In my opinion, this kind of art is oriented towards the representation of its production.

Daniela Silvestrin: Over the years, the variety of media, methods, and materials used in and commented through this art have led to various names such as “Transgenic Art”, “Genetic Art”, “Moist Media Art”, “Life Science Art”, “Biotech Art” or just “Bioart”, most of which are often used indiscriminately and without precise definition of their limits. This problem is similar to the difficulties encountered in defining “media art”, that is, deciding whether the definition should be based on the content (bio-subjects) or the methods and means (bio-media) applied in these works. Would “Biomedia Art” be an appropriate term?

Jens Hauser: I don’t know if there actually is a need for a generic term. The term “Bioart” is quite vague and refers to works that are characterized either by bio-issues or biotechnology as a means of expression. This confusion is created by the assumption that biological themes represented through other art media than organic necessarily may be “Bioart”, too. This is basically the question that already divided Renaissance artist and the alchemists – the Renaissance artist, on the one hand, was interested in the imitation, mimesis, and transition of the not quite, but latently, living; the alchemist, on the other hand, really wanted to create life. The conflict thus lies between the biomimetic production in terms of illusion, and the use of organic bio material and processes. This trope ultimately traverses the whole history of art and it is here that, trans-historically, a dichotomy looms between simulation and presentation of the organic. In her thesis Ingeborg Reichle aptly describes this as “animation of technology”, on the one hand, versus “technization of the living”, on the other. The vitalization of technology can often be found in areas that have been associated with “Bioart”, but it is in the technization of life, that is, something that was alive and then became mechanized, that I see as the real novelty of artists working at the cellular or molecular scale and with laboratory techniques.

Another problematic detail regarding the term “Bioart” is that it hides or cancels an important aspect of this art, namely what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call “remediation” in their theory; the mechanism to appropriate “the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real.”2 For Bolter and Grusin, these dynamics involve the interplay between two at first glance antagonistic techniques: immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy means transparency, the apparent denial of mediation, which prompts “the viewer’s feeling that the medium has disappeared and that the objects are present, a feeling that his experience is therefore authentic”3, while the medium has erased itself or is being looked through. By contrast, hypermediacy means opacity – media are being looked at. The remediation theory according to Bolter and Grusin presents itself as a kind of “accolade” for the hypermediality of digital media, but it does not end there. I think the principle of immediacy and hypermediacy can be applied perfectly to biotechnological art. In this kind of production of the authentic for me there are two complementary lines, namely illusion and indexicality: illusion by the fact that the medium stands down and pretends not to be there; indexicality, instead, in the sense that authenticity is being produced by that the medium is verified as such. As a consequence, indexicality resonates with hypermediacy, and illusion with immediacy.

Paul Vanouse‘s bio media works with gel electrophoresis, as an example, are very abstract. The pieces shown during the Fingerprints project at the Berlin based Ernst Schering Foundation and transmediale departed from the idea than so-called “genetic fingerprints” claim to be indexical because the DNA sequences themselves materially make up the “genetic fingerprint” rather than being images of DNA. Their truthfulness is based on the physical link between the signifier and the signified. Now, Vanouse deconstructs and challenges this assumed indexicality of DNA images. He turns the instances of biomediality against themselves, by “painting” with DNA and by showing in real time that he can totally manipulate the banding patters that usually make up the “genetic fingerprint”. However, the performative process of manipulating these sequences happens live, under the eyes of the observer. Hence, the important aspect of this art is that it is reframing the media that basically negate their own physical presence and technical condition.

However, Vanouse’s strategy is quite exceptional, because in general biomedia are primarily used because they produce authenticity, and they produce authenticity because they let the media aspect disappear and become invisible in a technical-organic hybrid, emphasizing instead the aspect of the living. By consequence, the viewer will have an experience comparable to performance art: he may approach it through a state of “co-corpo-reality. This is where I see a parallel to systems theory which often takes over the biological notion of autopoïesis from Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela: a researcher observing a biological system constitutes the case of one biological system observing another one. One effect of this “co-corpo-reality” is that one may have a completely different relationship to a potential biological subject than to an object that is dead or just a simulation. So the thing that is important for me is the tension created between a subject and the artwork he or she is studying and that, in turn, is alive itself, or at least shows elements or characteristics that are being associated with the living. The generic term “Bioart” often creates the illusion of referring only to an aesthetic object to be concerned, whereas the important aspect of these artworks lies much rather in the tension created between the viewer and the viewed.

The thing that interests me especially about biomediality is how biotechnological art demonstrates the transition from physics to biology in the notion and concept of media, as well as the resulting changes in our understanding of aesthetics, philosophy, and the world in general. For me, this art is about a meta-level where the conception of the world is being changed by the leading discipline of biology and where biologists are entering all types of discourses: where once people spoke about “networking”, their aim is now that of letting “new contacts grow”. Together with this metaphorical change also our conception of oneself is changing, which is why this research for me actually is a philosophical undertaking. Instead of just searching for and analyzing new forms, images, aesthetic surfaces, and discourses, I am much more looking for the message that is inherent to biomedia themselves  – “the medium is the message”, in the truest sense of the word. In addition, this concerns all different scales at which the biological appears, and at which artists can intervene: from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the prebiotic to the ecologic, from working with protocells to working with genetics, single cells or tissue, single organs or whole organisms, whole populations, ecology, or even astrobiology.

Daniela Silvestrin: An essential characteristic of “Bioart” works is their perishability and mortality. This makes it almost impossible to archive these works and creates a lot of difficulties and problems regarding their exhibition for curators, organizers and institutions involved – which is why people hardly ever get the chance to experience these artworks (a)live. What are the consequences of this difficulty to actually encounter these works and getting to experience the “co-corpo-reality” you were talking about?

Jens Hauser: I think the effects I just described will wear out over time, anyway. If artists will work with tissue culture in three or four years from now, many people will already have seen such works live. This art is being inscribed in a certain counter-cyclical period or phase compared to digital, dematerialized, abstract and cognition-based media art. Owing to the dematerialization, biotechnological artworks first suggest or trigger a certain effect of presence that is very apparent at the beginning, but where it is unfortunately problematic that these works can hardly ever be experienced live.

At the exhibition sk-interfaces in Luxembourg in 2009/2010 we had six “live” biotech artworks; this was probably the exhibition with the biggest bio-infrastructural effort in art history, especially because the works were supposed to be exhibited over a period of 15 weeks. This required for instance that the artist Jun Takita had to re-make his piece Light, only light, made of transgenic moss capable of emitting light and covering a mould of the artist’s brain, three times. Oron Catts had to fly in from Australia three times in order to grow new cell cultures on polymer scaffolds for his piece. These are efforts that in the end do not really pay off, of course, but which are very important. During the exhibition L’Art Biotech in Nantes in 2003 some visitors came back almost every day in order to see whether Tissue Culture & Art‘s victimless frog-steak sculptures in the Disembodied Cuisine project were doing well.

Many works can be characterized by the oscillation between what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has called “meaning cultures” and “presence cultures”. The production of presence is central to these exhibition projects, next to the creation of “co-corpo-reality”. It is not enough to just understand these works and to forget about the enabling biomedia as soon as one is able to divide the meaning from the medium carrying it. In the curatorial work, the presence of biomediality is a very important aspect for me, and I have always tried to avoid ways of displaying that focus only on images as signifying to create meaning. In the field of performance art there is a big controversy about the moment in which the production of images has become more important than the performative act itself. The same goes for biotechnological art: there are pieces that are conceptualized in view of their pictorial efficiency, others in view of their performativity through which they are capable of creating presence, uneasiness, and “co-corpo-reality”.

I noticed that many main players in the digital media art circus have proved to react to such work with gestures of incredible resistance. This is an interesting phenomenon, especially as this resistance in the digital media art scene seems to be even bigger than in the traditional contemporary art scene. This can be explained by the fact that “Bioart’s” rematerialization has sculptural potential and brings back subjects already known in art history, such as the hybrid or the chimaera.

In this respect, I think that conferences and publications in the field of media archeology are quite important in order to write a media history that is not just a history of images and their reception, but at the same time also a history of science and technology. This endeavor to explore the role of biomedia within the bigger picture of media history started only a few years ago, and so far many media art festivals have missed the opportunity to participate in this debate, or only started timidly.

Daniela Silvestrin: In order to create artworks based on Biomedia artists have to gain very special scientific knowledge and skills, and often work in close collaboration with scientist – “Bioart” works thus are often located on the blurry boundaries between art and science. A well-known, and heavily discussed, example of an artwork that seems to be hardly distinguishable from a mere scientific project is Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny Alba: the artwork seems to be “art” just because it was created by an artist, there is no “added value” to what scientists have done and created several times before – a fluorescent transgenic animal. Where is the limit between these artworks and purely scientific experiments?

Jens Hauser: Kac‘s work GFP Bunny is about the conversion of a laboratory object into a social subject. In all the controversies and polemics about this work there has often been the claim that it would only be a scientific “Ready-Made”. In his works, Kac always deals with the analysis of scientific means and epistemic moments. This is something most critics did not understand in his work Natural History of the Enigma either, where he created a Petunia flower called Edunia through which – metaphorically – rushes the artist’s blood. This work has been read almost only on its most superficial level. Here, the artist plays with the fact that the gene sequence that he had isolated from his own blood was now producing a protein in the Petunia’s veins. The people who are already satisfied with this idea or metaphor will only see a “plant in whose veins runs the artist’s blood”; would this be the only meaning of this piece it would be mere kitsch. But if you dig deeper it will occur to you that the built protein in the veins of the flower, which are already red originally, is colourless. That what is monstrous about transgenic manipulation is not visually perceptible either. All the biological and biotechnological metaphors are being deconstructed and reduced to absurdity through their use in pop-culture and Hollywood movies. Eduardo Kac wants to highlight in his works that knowledge is being produced through science, and that science produces meaning with the help of metaphors which are not being thematized or acknowledged as such. As an artist he knows where metaphors originate and reclaims them by exaggerating them so much that it almost hurts. For me, this is an epistemic moment – “art that is representing its own production”.

“Virus” and “clone” are also two basic metaphors of the 1990s and 2000s. Why are there almost no artists who work with real biological viruses or clones, and if they do, only against this mainstream tendency? I know only one artist – Tagny Duff – who works with and really foregrounds biological viruses, instead of just using them as a means of transport for DNA. Her work focuses on the very biological side of viral contamination instead of just using it as a metaphor, as so many digital media artworks do. Such a combination of materials on which biological metaphors have been grounded with other metaphors creates Aufklärung, contemporary enlightening.

Daniela Silvestrin: The metaphors and the complexity of most of these artworks can hardly be understood without background knowledge. Are people willing to get involved and to look beyond the superficial appearance?

Jens Hauser: If an artwork is done well – such as the visceral displays in TC&A‘s Victimless Leather project for instance – it’s possible for those who see the piece and are confronted with it nevertheless to create a very direct connection with it, even if they don’t have any background knowledge on how tissue cultures work. Another example is Yann Marussich‘s performance Bleu Remix, in which a direct connection and thus a relationship with the spectator arises through both a sense of miracle and perturbation. Emotions work as a bait to stimulate the spectator’s interest and will to get deeper into the individual background of a piece, that is, to get the spectators to new levels where they start to scrutinise the artworks cognitively. This is why this art tries to first “suck” spectators in through the potential authenticity of biomedia, in order to then enhance discourse and meaningfulness.

Good artworks are often either humorous or disturbing. This potential to involve the spectator viscerally and stimulate debate is what makes this art also very interesting for instances beyond the typical art scene. In fact, in the beginning, it was rather academics, philosophers, bioethicists, activists, or people who organize symposia about genetically manipulated organisms for example that were interested in this art, much more than the contemporary and media art scene. In 2003, the organization PETA proposed TC&A to grow one of their victimless frog steaks for PETA’s president; they tried to use them for their PR machine. The sociopolitical potential of this art thus has been realized on many different levels, which is the reason, maybe, why this art is suspect in the eyes of art professionals in the contemporary art scene.

Daniela Silvestrin: You are addressing a critical issue: “Bioart’s” potential to be used for other than artistic purposes – scientific, political, or economic ones – and for getting the artists to produce their works in accordance with certain predetermined statements or positions. Do you see a real threat for the artist’s independence?

Jens Hauser: No, I don’t have serious concerns about that. I don’t know any case in which artists have let themselves be used for industrial or economic purposes. But there is one area where this question has to be, and is currently being asked explicitly, which is in the new field of Synthetic Biology. Art, creativity, and innovation often get mixed up and confused, as we can see for example in art and science cooperations such as the MIT‘s regular iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) competitions. In these competitions the students use so called bio-bricks as a kind of construction kit based on standard parts in order to tinker creatively. The dangers of not examining and scrutinizing such an approach enough are being seen and addressed by artists who work with Synthetic Biology. A good example is the artist Tuur Van Balen and his project Pigeon d’Or, where he uses the logic of biobricks while at the same time turning it into the absurd: he uses them to manipulate bacteria, which in the pigeons’ digestive system they will transform their excrements into soap. He thereby addresses issues regarding the microscopical use of biobricks as such, but also the ecological questions as well as epistemic questions concerning the fields of xenobiology and metagenomics.

Hence, especially art involving Synthetic Biology as an engineering science is a very exciting field to observe this problem area: how far does this creative tinkering with biobricks go, and where does critical examination and scrutinizing occur regarding this trend to understand biology as a mere engineering science?

  


[1]          Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Žižek (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 54.

[2]          Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000), 65.

[3]          Ivi, 70.

Cover picture: Jun Takita, first version of Light, only light at INRA laboratory, Versailles, France, 2004 – Photo: Yusuke Komiyama 

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