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New Media Scan 2002

BEAP: art in the lab?

Stephen Jones

Amy Youngs, Rearming the Spineless Opuntia Amy Youngs, Rearming the Spineless Opuntia
What is art doing in the biology lab, the genetics lab? Bio-technology is the future and artists want a say in it. This is art as philosophy, as investigation, not as decoration. The works in BIOFEEL and the symposium The Aesthetics of Care, part of the Biennale of Eletronic Art Perth (BEAP) offered a window on the world of the laboratory, an attempt to expose contemporary social and technological issues to the public in formats that might stimulate new thinking. The artists in BIOFEEL argue that the issues exposed by genetic manipulation and animal experimentation for commercial and medical purposes are matters that should not be left solely to scientists and entrepreneurs.


BIOFEEL was curated by SymbioticA, an artist-run space in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, Unversity of Western Australia. It was established to “act as a porous membrane in which art and bio-medical sciences and technologies could mingle” (Oron Catts, BEAP Catalogue). The group researches the potential for artistic creativity in biological science, providing a laboratory environment for artistic production and offering residencies that support interdisciplinary work and critical interaction to explore and present new pathways in our biological future. Among the projects run by SymbioticA are tissue culture and bio-cybernetic studies.

You will remember the ear that seemed to be growing out of the back of a rat (Patricia Piccinini made multiple photo-composites of it accompanying photographic models). It was made through “tissue engineering” and then surgically installed into the rat where it continued to live. In tissue engineering a scaffold of degradable biopolymer is built in the shape of the organ to be engineered and then the living cells that will become that “semi-living” object are seeded into it. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr carry out their tissue engineering work in bio-reactors set up in a small laboratory in the gallery. You can look in through the small portholes of this bio-containment facility and watch the artists ‘feeding’ their cell-cultures. They presented the results of 2 works in documentation and micro-sculptural objects. Worry Dolls, “objects” to tell your worries to, are tiny constructs of bio-scaffold and surgical suture grown over with skin, muscle and bone cells. Their forms are imprecise and unique, glutinous looking and vaguely humanoid. Once grown they are fixed in formalin and shown in small sample jars, here in a hanging spiral or to be examined through a magnifying lens. Pigs Wings explores the chimera, a hybridisation of animal forms (pigs might fly!). Also grown on a bio-polymer scaffold, this time the cells (pig bone tissue) take the form of wings, bird, bat and pterosaur. Once grown, they too, are presented in documentation and as beautiful objects. I liked best the 3 paradigm versions embedded in ostrich eggshells in glowing coloured light.

MEART – the semi living artist is an internet mediated collaboration between a culture of embryonic rat neurons growing on a Multi-Electrode Array of silicon (at Georgia Tech in Atlanta) and a pair of elegant robot arms set up as a plotter in the gallery. Sites of activity in the neural array drive the pens back and forth across a sheet of paper. There was said to be a feedback from the gallery to the neurons, so that they might learn, but its operation was not at all clear. The project has obvious relevance to artificial intelligence and the development of the cyborg, but endlessly, tediously drawn lines from the robot arm plotter pens make for something like abstract expressionism done by an obsessive compulsive Jackson Pollock. The only beauty in the project was the pair of robot arms built in Perth by Phil Gamblen.

Marta de Menezes’ studio is the biological laboratory. Her work takes on the techniques of micro-biology: microscope and magnetic resonance imaging, fluorescent dye marking, and brings us inside the body or the cell. Her Functional Portraits involves a video projection of a woman’s head onto which a series of transverse functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [fMRI] slices of her brain are superimposed. This travels from her face to the back of her head as she carries out an activity that is representative, attempting a portrait of both the person and her brain. Proteic Portrait is a digital image, printed onto canvas, of the 3-dimensional conformation of a protein formed by mapping the letters in the subject’s full name (which, being Portuguese, is very long) onto the one-letter codes for the 20 amino acids that make up proteins. 21 small pictures of the stringy stick figure-like molecular arrangements and the details of the coding make up the print.

Of the other works in BIOFEEL I will mention only Rearming the Spineless Opuntia. Amy Youngs’ wonderfully shy small cactus grows in a conical blue pot resting in a quadrapod supporting a motor and a pair of ultrasonic sensors. As you walk over to look at the piece sitting in the corner of the gallery the motor switches on and it draws up its pair of copper shells that act as an armour for this defenceless hybrid. The most accomplished work in the exhibition, and the most humorous in the way it defeats one’s attempts at close examination.

Aesthetics of Care

To what extent are the ethics of care towards humans and animals (and the planet as a whole) relevant to the kinds of problems traditionally associated with art? Here, where art is an experimental medium, exploring many areas drawn from science and new technology, why should we not engage with the problems brought to society by bio-medical technologies? If the future is to remain ours (not simply rented to us by Microsoft and Monsanto) then we must grapple with the modern eugenics of selecting special gene sequences from the supermarket shelf.

Lawyer Lori Andrews, brought from the US to give the keynote speech at Aesthetics of Care, is right on top of her material. Obviously knowledgeable about all the ethical and legal issues she gave a talk that showed a depth of knowledge of art engaging with bio-tech that put all of us to shame.

Stuart Bunt, cofounder and scientific leader of the SymbioticA group, spoke about the ethics and licensing principles used for research on live animals and enquired how appropriate the application of these principles might be to art. As he pointed out, biological materials have always been used in art but recent work using live animals raises issues of how we judge the value of the creatures and the ethics of our relations to them. KD Thornton surveyed the use of animals in art, mentioning Eduardo Kacs Alba and Chinese expatriate artist Xu Bing’s animal performance installations among other works.

Many other artists spoke but ultimately the symposium was a rather confused affair that left me feeling that, though there were some useful presentations, by the time the forum arrived in the evening so many issues had become conflated that it really ended up discussing nothing. Crossovers between questions of the ethics of animal use in laboratories and the effects of genetic manipulation on people (both directly and through food and medicine) followed upon one another willy-nilly without any attempt to draw out the serious distinctions between the two.

Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth (BEAP), July 31-September 15,

See also Melinda Rackham on BEAP.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 12

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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