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Gina Czarnecki, Peace Offerings & Promises Gina Czarnecki, Peace Offerings & Promises
Gina Czarnecki has written of a childhood trip to Poland with her father, a survivor of WW2 concentration camps, and the impact this has had on her art. Czarnecki’s film and installation artworks are informed by the human body in terms of disease, evolution, genetic research and by the technologies of image production. The work is often made in close collaboration with specialists in these fields. Czarnecki draws parallels between the reduction of human life to genetic units (through DNA analysis) and the technology of digital imaging with its modifiable pixel units, finding both can work as arbiters of, and smokescreens between, us and the ‘truth.’

Czarnecki has applied these ideas to her most recent work Contagion which is being funded by the prestigious Sciart Awards in the UK, Victoria’s Art and Innovation program and a Melbourne City Council Arts Project award. The Wellcome Trust’s Sciart scheme “supports imaginative and experimental arts projects that investigate biomedical science” and has its equivalent here in the Australia Council for the Arts’ Synapse program. Contagion uses mapping techniques employed to track contagious diseases such as SARS. Recently relocated to Australia from the UK, Czarnecki has collaborated with dance artists at Australian Dance Theatre (winning the 2006 Reeldance award for best dance film with Nascent), musicians, programmers and scientists working in the field of epidemiology. Her work is at the cutting edge interface between science and art and here she talks to RealTime about Sciart, Contagion, and her other interests.

Science and art


To give you a sense of the project, the scientists involved with Contagion are epidemiologists based in Australia. James Fielding is from the Victorian Government’s Infectious Diseases Unit. Steven Corbett, who I got in touch with regarding the 3D computational mapping of SARS, is now one of the leading scientists involved with developing control systems for a potential bird flu pandemic. Nick Crofts runs the Turning Point drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre. All of these people are specialists not only in epidemiology but also specifically in observing the patterns of human interaction and behaviour under various extreme conditions.

Keith Skene is my long term collaborator and is a micro-biologist interested in the evolution of ecosystems. We mainly work together over a Guinness, having really good conversations about the migration of birds, pollen and forensics, slime moulds, or the way systems evolve when newcomers join them—which is the basis for this project. Adaptation, evolution and change: mutation. What’s essentially human? The biological in its physical and psychological forms. That’s the territory I share with these scientists. And then there are a number of other related things I am seriously interested in which come together in this project.

Mapping disease


One is the notion of purity, contagion and the spread of disease. I was sick for some time in Scotland following a trip to Kumasi, Ghana. The doctors in the isolation ward where I was being cared for suspected Ebola (making a scary front page newspaper story). Consequently I learned a lot about the virus. Ebola is transferred exactly the same way as AIDS, but it’s not as successful as the AIDS virus because it tends to wipe out entire communities, so it’s contained in that way. So then I started to look at successful diseases and their change over time, how they are transmitted and their effect on the way the world has evolved. For example, invading armies disregard local rules that are transmitted verbally through generations, unwittingly spreading disease. Europeans invading America, Australia and the islands caused so much biological havoc that a lot of [indigenous] communities were totally destroyed, which provides a theory as to why it was easy for white people to invade and dominate most of the planet.

Contagion uses the SARS outbreak in Amoy Gardens in Hong Kong 2002 as an epidemiological example. I’m interested in it because there are 3 schools of thought on how it was transmitted—rat droppings, sewerage and airborne. In the case for airborne, 3D computational graphics were used. I’m interested in the possibility that the compelling visualisations, or the ability to visualise the outbreak, provided a kind of proof authenticating one theory. When the news of the potential airborne nature of SARS became public, what followed was, as Stephen Corbett describes it, a “pandemic of fear” which can be far more dangerous than the virus itself. Humankind’s only remaining threat is either ourselves or single cell, microbiological disease which is invisible and mostly indiscriminate.

What is perceived as the disease’s incubation period, the mortality rate, the risk factors and the epidemiological laws are used as a starting point for the programming rules of the interactive installation, Contagion.

Mechanical reproduction and imaging the truth.


Contagion is also about an interest I have always had in the image and authenticity—how we have come to accept certain symbols or images as ‘visual truth.’ My most recent video installation, Spine 1.2 (union) gave rise to a lot of questions about falling bodies. Critic and curator Sally-Jane Norman made an association between this work and imagery of 9/11 on a news list. I am interested in how quickly an image is attributed to, or contaminated by, a certain event, or becomes owned by a nation’s history, as in this case.

We depend on context to recognise an image of truth. Science, law, medicine and the military present images and we take them as authentic, but so many of them are artificially constructed. Art can present fact but it’s often perceived as fiction. Medicine has been developing imaging technologies to prove the existence of something—scanning, ultra-sound, infra-red. On a train journey in the UK I sat opposite a Gulf War engineer who said “Of course we kill people, but we see them as little green dots on the screen and we just zap them.” On the one hand we have the technology to be able to see inside a womb and find foetal deformities, but we also use the same technology as a smokescreen between us and the reality of human destruction.

God, pigs and disease


This question of truth and authenticity is linked to the demise of organised religions and the rise of scientific theories. The word quarantine comes from the number 40. It was allegedly a Christian system to stop contamination; a boat had to be docked for 40 days before anything could be brought ashore. It was so successful that it is believed to be the reason Christianity succeeded so well in certain places where other religions didn’t observe quarantine rules.

Then you look at the pig, the animal genetically most similar to us and the only other animal that can catch influenza. The close proximity between humans, pigs and birds in Asia is thought to be the reason why bird flu seems to be stemming from there. The pig becomes the carrier or the host which transforms the virus between humans and birds. We seem to have detached ourselves from traditional reasons for abstaining from eating pork because we have dissociated local tradition from spiritual belief, science and medicine. So I’m interested in mapping the history of western biomedical sciences alongside societal rules and the development of control mechanisms for disease in an increasingly populated world.

The installation


I was sitting in Federation Square in Melbourne watching people watching themselves on the big screen. The quality of interaction made me reassess previous assumptions about interaction in more sanitised art gallery settings and inspired me to push interaction within my work further. I began by considering how the general public interacts with or responds to surveillance on a day to day basis.

In my work I want people to have a visceral experience, albeit digital, and so I’ve been developing an interface with Tim Kreger of a big colour palette in the installation space where people can mix colours in a liquid way. This makes up one projection on 3 circular screens in the space. The way the colour is mixed is based on action and interaction and the spread of disease across changing environmental conditions. Participants are aware that through their movements they are spreading an infectious disease, but it becomes a compelling and intoxicating game. We’re using surveillance software that’s been specifically developed to recognise people based on motion and average colour. So if you leave the room and come back again, you will be recognised. This interest in the human body on a micro and macrocosmic level, the articulation of movement, interaction and mapping, connects strongly to the many installation and dance projects I have previously done. Combining the observation of movement and time is my current exploration.


Contagion will be trialled at the Sydney Powerhouse Beta Space in October and will premiere in Melbourne in March 2007.

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 33

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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