What happens when digital and biological life forms challenge each other and enter into a closer relationship? This question is the focal point of the exhibition Biotopia – Art in the Wet Zone that took place at the Utzon Centre in Aalborg between October 15 2010 and January 10 2011.
Biotopia presented works by the seven participating international artists: Stelarc (AUS), Revital Cohen (UK), Jacob Kirkegaard (DK), Jim Gimzewski / Victoria Vesna (USA), Paul Vanouse (USA) and Mogens Jacobsen (DK).
All the participating artists work in the wet zone between art, technology and science and are particularly fascinated by what happens when technology and the human body are interfacing. The exhibition examines the hybridization of science, biotechnology and art with an open mind and makes no attempt to separate one area from another. This tendency to work across genres even characterises the artists involved all of whom work strongly against the traditional role of the artist-as-ARTist.
The ‘wetness’ of the artistic expressions in Biotopia resides in the relation between art, technology and science; and from this relation, it seems, we have to reformulate the whole idea and field of ‘human sciences’. Is the artist the new scientist – or vice versa? ‘Biotopia provokes us to ask this question – and in the process seeks to mirror the wet zone in the current iterations of ‘media art’ and ‘receptions’ of hybrid art in the human sciences. Biotopia is an attempt to challenge and rearticulate the methodologies and modalities of human sciences in correlation to the emergent wet zone of active interrelations of artistic, technological and scientific practices.
Our understanding of humanity based on that we have full control over ‘our’ world and culture, and ‘our selves’, is in crisis.
This crisis does not mean we are going to ‘disappear’ or become ‘post-human’ overnight, but rather that we need to sense human beings, ourselves, and our role in some new ways. There are opportunities in crisis: It opens up new discoveries and insights – and, not least, new ways to recognize and gain insight. This involves several levels of the human ‘sphere’ of which I may only elaborate on some of them here: The body, subjectivity, art, science and context. Biotopia is not only about wet zone, but as much about the moist position research needs to be in, in-between the wet and the dry. Viewed from there, Biotopia looks like this (in 2010):
Let us begin with the body.
In the wet zone a body is not ’just’ a body. A body is both physical and virtual. The body is stasis and movement, solid and liquid; thought and feeling; A paradox, it seems, for the philosopher – and for the human sciences.
Stelarc: Internet Ear
With Internet Ear the Australian artist Stelarc ventures beyond the paradox and into a controversial area: the fusion of the human body with technology. By means of a lengthy surgical process the artist had an artificial human ear implanted in his forearm. A subsequent operation then installed microscopic electronic equipment in this third ear, with a view to both transmitting and receiving sound. Because of the danger of possible infection it was impossible to give the ear a technological “sense of hearing” and the equipment was removed. But the ear is still attached to Stelarc’s arm; Ear on arm.
Internet Ear, which was commissioned for the BIOTOPIA exhibition, launches the Ear on Arm project onto the Internet. With this project Stelarc aims at the limitation of infection with almost poetic, or rather epic, implications. A series of his arm with ear have been cast in polyurethane. They do not see, but “ear” the world around them.
The other factor at work in Ear on Arm, the exploration of technological sensuality, now becomes a sensuality that is distributed and expanded; a sensual technology disconnected from its original “host” and, in principal, beyond its control. We hear with Stelarc’s ear! The phrase “Lend me your ear”, in the words of the Beatles (and before them, Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar)), becomes real. Stelarc actually does lend us his ear. But what will you say?
Software and the Internet transform Internet Ear into a listening arm. You can listen along with it from (and to) Moscow or Paris, or whatever corner of the globe you happen to be in.
Stelarc’s Internet Ear has its own blog (www.earonarm.net), where anyone can contribute to the ear’s dialogue with itself. Internet Ear is an exploration of technological sensuality and the technology of the senses. Furthermore it is an open channel for listening to the world, a fusion of human being and machine, biology and bytes.
In Internet Ear, the body is not ‘itself’. It is not useful as general reference framework for understanding the world. The body is “obsolete”, in the words of Stelarc whereby he expresses the belief that as a static entity in a soul-and-body dichotomy without paradoxical implications and (self) relationships, the body is antiquated. Outdated.
A new situation emerges in the wet zone. A transformative movement, according to Brian Massumi, that is both affective (acting physically) and sentient, seems to take its place. Or: Should. Det vender jeg tilbage til. I will return to this point later. Therefore, the question is to find out what may substitute the obsoleteness of (our perception and use of) the body? Or rather, what the body THEN ‘is’ or ‘mean’?
Stelarc seems to insist that there are no dichotomies, when it comes to the body. The body is not something we can relate to exclusively as ‘outside’ (or ‘inside’, for that matter). This is because we ARE bodies – which again means that the body is both ‘meat’ and ‘idea’ when we perceive (it). Hence, he speaks about the body as a ‘physical experience of Ideas’ – here understood as a kind of natural conception process. Brian Massumi, whom to my ears have understood Stelarc’s particular interest in renegotiating our conceptual mental apparatus best of all, describes it this way: The body as Stelarc medium, is a ‘sentient concept.’ (Massumi, 2002, p. 90)
The challenge is to write the re-joining of body and thought that Stelarc performs. This requires the willingness to revisit some of our basic notions of what a body is and does as an acting, perceiving, thinking, feeling thing. (Massumi, p. 90) The challange is to write the rejoining of body and thought that Stelarc performs.
When I refer to the ’body’ in the following, I also imply ’thinking’. And when body and mind are combined, then we are looking at the issue of perception and subjectivity.
According to Brian Massumi, perception and thinking is a continuum in the conceptual performances of Stelarc (p. 92). The two cannot be separated, but are extremes in the same process. However, they are exactly that: extremes, that we are able to use – ’go to extremes’, as we say.
This is a shared feature of the artists in BIOTOPIA-exhibition: Going to the extremes, but never crossing the fine line of absurdity or nonsense. The issues are examined, scrutinized, scientifically.
Revital Cohen: Electrocyte Appendix
Like Stelarc, Revital Cohen the human body fascinates Revital Cohen. Especially, she is interested in a particular research area that focuses on creating artificial Nano-cells for medical purposes. Electrocyte Appendix is dealing with the possibility of using these cells to create an artificial body that allows people to become electronic organisms.
Electrocyte Appendix shows Revital Cohen’s desire to break down the barriers between the organic and the mechanical. In concrete terms the work has created an organ out of artificially produced Nano cells. This organ can be implanted in the human body, allowing it to function as an electronic organism. In Electrocyte Appendix Cohen is inspired by the animal kingdom, more specifically from the complex biology of the electric eel. In fact the creation of Cohen’s artificial organ is inspired by the biological processes, which enable the electric eel to produce small electrical currents. In this way, Electrocyte Appendix empowers the body to convert natural blood sugar into electricity.
The work reveals what is often the case in Revital Cohen’s work: ground-breaking investigations of human anatomy, investigations which dare to reshape the basic biological material of human beings.
Revital Cohen has strong views about the position of humans in a digitalised world, where electricity is an absolute necessity. Electrocyte Appendix and Cohen’s other artistic experiments represent a radical break with the electrophobic opinions of earlier times. Electrocyte Appendix opens a debate on the possibility of reinterpreting the human body and broadening our common understanding of what it means to be human.
It is often technology that exposes the human in new situations, which facilitate the enhancement of philosophical studies of ‘ourselves’ and our phenomena (however not as a ’creation’ of something ’new’ – which is considerably more complex affair that makes new phenomena and representations outside the existing representation framework, appear (emerge)). We will never be able to see the world as one thing or perceive it as a panorama where we may only describe it within a fixed frame – and from a static point. The point of Biotopia is to point out how things are moving out of their fixed frames. Things should not be seen as phenomena experienced by a subject ‘outside’ the phenomena, but as a result of one, so to speak, collaborative experience horizon, where body and mind interact in affective and sensitive processes. We need to move with things to try to understand them. The exploration of the body by art as both the transformer of flesh and ideas is one of the means at our disposal to achieve such conceptual movement.
Jim K. Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna: Blue morph
The richly sensual and spectacular Blue morph is the result of the collaborative work of Jim Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna. The title of the work refers directly to the world of nature, more specifically to the Blue Morpho butterfly, which is particularly fascinating to scientists because of its unique wing construction. Gimzewski came across this unique butterfly in the course of his scientific work with Nano technology.
An advanced biological mechanism enables the butterfly to create a strong, blue colour on its wings without any use of coloured pigment. Instead the colour of the butterfly’s wings results from a kind of optical illusion and it is this capability that so fascinates scientists.
The artistic collaboration between Gimzewski and Vesna found its inspiration from microscopic reproductions of the butterfly’s wings, reproductions with a strong visual quality, which Gimzewski thought could be utilised in an artistic project. He invited the artist Victoria Vesna on board and the two embarked upon Blue morph.
Using Nano-technological visual and aural material Blue morph presents a spectacular, interactive, total experience, depicting the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly. In picture and sound the work presents a narrative of the butterfly’s development, the metamorphosis of its cells. In this way, the work also represents the floating field of consciousness located between scientific and artistic artifacts and practices.
Let us therefore turn to Det drejer sig derfor også om, og dette er det mest åbenbare i udstillingstitlen, kunsten – og dets forbindelse til videnskaben.the perhaps most obvious part of the exhibition title, art – and its relation to science. I særdeleshed ligger der i udstillingens koncept et forsøg på at finde ud af, hvad der er humanvidenskabernes rolle i det fyldende felt. It is part of the conceptual idea of the exhibition to ask questions about the role of the humanities in the wet zone.
The exhibition addresses the questions of what happens to art in an age where technological and biological life forms challenge each other and establish even closer relations to each other? Biotopia examines how art evolves in this new situation, exposed (or inserted?) (In)to a situation between bits and atoms, where very media-savvy-but-not-so-media-conscious, post digital humans move about. It is this situation which constitutes the ’wet zone’ – a fluent field of conceptual movement.
“… part of the idea is to put the humanities in a position of having continually to renegotiate their relations with the sciences – and, in the process, to rearticulate what is unique to their own capacities…” (Massumi, 2002, p. 21)
Mogens Jacobsen: The Group (without you)
Mogens Jacobsen’s The Group (without you) employs advanced surveillance technology, operated on several, identical laptop computers. The installation has been put together in such a way that each of the computers involved displays a single set of monitoring eyes. The viewer directs their gaze directly towards the computer’s screen. They then turn away. But the moment the viewer looks away, the monitoring eyes return again. It is, however, possible to outwit the work. If you look at it on the sly (through your fingers, for example) the monitoring eyes react to the viewer’s gaze by looking away. In The Group (Without You) Jacobsen is working with so-called biometric surveillance technology, a technology used particularly by the surveillance industry. The hallmark of biometric surveillance is its capacity to register and recognise human identity, for example from a fingerprint or retina scanning.
While surveillance technology is the vital element in Jacobsen’s installation, the work is not simply a critique of our “Big Brother” society. Instead of focusing on a state’s surveillance of its citizens, the artist concentrates on our surveillance of one another. Today we take surveillance for granted. It is a result of the spread of technology in the public space. It is something we are all forced to accept. This is clearly the case, for example, in the current growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Perhaps we want to be under surveillance…?
“The study of something I loosely called bio power, namely all the mechanisms through which what constitutes human species ‘basic biological features may be included in a policy of a political strategy or general power strategy.” (Michel Faucault, Quote from a speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1982)
It is long since we have transgressed the border of the humanistic Renaissance project ’Utopia’ as Thomas Moore formulated it – and Shakespeare poetically refined in ’The Tempest’: The society, in which everything is in balance and there are no wars or suffering. It is idealism, and an ideal, that has driven people from religion to science in a constant search for excellence. Today, utopia is probably best left as a naive thought, something unattainable. Man’s position in this thought, and idealism’s status, forms the background for several decades of critique of humanism – and especially its fundamental dualistic view of the world (nature / culture, true / false etc.)
Jacob Kirkegaard: POLYTHERA
Jacob Kirkegaard’s POLYTHERA is a water, sound and light installation based on an idea from science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, where the slow-flowing liquid, covering the planet Solaris, slowly creating metamorphoses – transformations of everything that exists. Installation consists of a basin filled with water, which is brought to vibrate by sound of frequency 34 Hz. Stroboscopic light reveals the sound that causes the water to vibrate. This creates a visual illusion: it looks as if the water is moving in slow motion.
The low frequencies used in Kirkegaard’s installation were extracted from a drone that appears in the score of the first film adaptation of Solaris, once again emphasising the work’s close relationship to Stanislaw Lem’s novel.
In the novel astronauts have been dispatched to communicate with the slowly flowing liquid POLYTHERA, a living organism with a unique form and intelligence. POLYTHERA responds to their aggressive approaches and materialises with images of the astronauts’ repressed sub-consciousness. The sound image in Kirkegaard’s POLYTHERA is deep and smouldering, inducing viewers to sink into an almost meditative state, a state in which they can drift with POLYTHERA’s slowly rippling surface. Could it be that they will discover something new about themselves?
The wet zone is a metaphor for the basis of objective knowledge, which in its capacity to be constantly changing eludes any fixed categorization or “dualist” analysis. Conversely, POLYTHERA, as the title also suggests, invites openness towards a ‘plurality’ of possible angles and analysis – what within some scientific thinking is called ’emergence’ of the real
Paul Vanouse: Ocular Revision
Biotopia denotes a movement of people, technology and art into a wet zone in which dualisms may be dissolved, but also answered or replaced with other countermeasures, and – maybe – some hope? The art works in that sense designates ’emergences’ in the fluent field; well planned attempts to practice in the wet zone.
Paul Vanouse’s artistic practice is based on emergent media iI DNA og biologiske fænomener. He describes it as a radical and passionate interdisciplinary amateur. His works explore the complex issues and questions raised by various techno-sciences. He perceives and uses these techno-sciences as its medium.
Ocular Revision is an installation that can analyse and display alternative visual versions of DNA material. The work is a fine example of the artist’s work with a number of different disciplines, because Ocular Revision moves in a zone that hovers between art, natural science and engineering.
In recent years Vanouse has been especially preoccupied with opening up the highly specialised, closed world of science for a broader public. This is the theme he works with in Ocular Revision. With the assistance of technology borrowed from the area of natural science Vanouse has created a new, living, visual version of the complex codes of DNA molecules. A camera with a lens fitted to microscope projects large, circular images of DNA material up onto a vertical surface. But the DNA material does not behave as it usually does in the world of natural science. Paul Vanouse experiments with turning this version of DNA material into an organic, living experience, in contrast to natural science, which tends to portray DNA material in static diagrams.
Paul Vanouse’s complex installation focuses on an important and highly relevant issue: the danger of regarding human DNA material exclusively as a code to bend and break, instead of an integral, vital component of human biology.
Bios (from 2010)
Revital Cohen (b.1981 UK) lives and works in London
Revital Cohen was educated as a designer, but moves freely among an infinite number of other disciplines. She works together with scientists, doctors, animal breeders etc. with a view to creating sensational works, all of which operate in the intersection between the natural and the artificial. Cohen harbours a blatant fascination for the possibility of combining human biology, not only with machines, but with elements from the plant and animal kingdoms too.
Mogens Jacobsen (b.1959 Italy) lives and works in Copenhagen
The media artist Mogens Jacobsen is one of Denmark’s leading ambassadors in the field of digital and internet-based art. In recent years one of his main preoccupations has been the relationship between art and viewer. His audience-participatory installations are dynamic works, which actively relate and react to the viewer. Jacobsen possesses a fundamental fascination for the possible fusion of technology with life and art.
Paul Vanouse (b.1967 USA) lives and works in Buffalo.
Paul Vanouse refers to himself as a passionate amateur, who wryly and critically explores the complex questions posed by the world of science. A strong visual consciousness is a frequent hallmark of his artistic expression. In his work he draws on the same technologies as the scientist, if nothing else than to investigate the significance and effect of such technologies. Vanouse’s work has included genetic experiments that critically undermine scientific notions of race and identity.
Stelarc (b.1946 Cyprus) lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
The Greek-Australian performance artist Stelarc is a pioneer in the exploration of the interplay between human beings and technology. His spectacular shows have involved performing with a mechanical third arm and letting outsiders from all over the world control his body remotely via an advanced Internet link-up. By means of an enormous range of technological resources, including biotechnology and robotics, he challenges and tests the relationship between body and machine.
Jim Gimzewski (b.1951 UK) lives and works in California
By profession Jim Gimzewski is a scientist, working mainly with gene technology and neuroscience. But over the last 10 years he has also been involved in a number of artistic projects. These include various large-scale installations, which express and visualise the wet zone between science and art.
Victoria Vesna (b.1959 USA) lives and works in California
Victoria Vesna is a professor of design and media art, but is also a practising artist. Her works are experimental and investigative and move freely from one discipline to another. Communication technology and digital media and how they affect human social behaviour particularly fascinate Vesna.
Jacob Kirkegaard (b.1975 Denmark) lives and works in Berlin.
Jacob Kirkegaard investigates sound and its physical effect upon the environment. His perspective is both scientific and aesthetic. The artist’s work captures and records sonic universes, which otherwise could not be heard with the ear alone. By means of unorthodox and homemade recording equipment Kirkegaard detects sounds we have never heard before, from empty rooms, dunes, geysers, even the innermost region of the human ear, sounds that reveal hitherto unknown worlds.