Dutch curator Michel van Dartel and Egyptian artist and educator Heba Aziz gave a talk last week on Bio-Art covering different aspects of this relatively new field that emerged in the 1990s, discussing the various artistic approaches and ethical issues that it brings up, as well as its link to identity.
Bio-Art is an art where living organisms, as well as life processes, inspire artists in their work.
The Bio-Artist uses scientific technologies to either observe living organisms to produce art or to incorporate them directly into their practice.
Some artists can go as far as transforming -- and even deforming -- their own or their subject's bodies, using them as a canvas for an artwork or an artwork in itself. Since most Bio-Art is at the crossroad of art, science and engineering, many of the practices are done within the laboratory environment.
Directions, discourse and dilemmas
Van Dartel holds an MSc in cognitive psychology, a PhD in artificial intelligence, and leads the research group in human-centered creation at the Expertise Centre for Art and Design at Avans University of Applied Sciences.
Though not a Bio-Artist himself, he is interested in how art interacts with science, and in his talk outlined three main directions that Bio-Artists take. By looking at these directions critically, his talk attempted to answer bigger questions of ‘What should Bio-Art do and how can its contribution be different than the work of scientists?’
The first approach is what van Dartel called the ‘Outlaw,’ which is when Bio-Art is taken out of the space in which it is created. An example of this would be an artist holding a workshop on Bio-Art.
Van Datrel felt this approach usually missed its mark, as the process ends up being focused on grasping the science and technicalities, while the artistic aims are moved to the side.
“I think that when it turns out this way, it is a mistake to call it an art practice,” he said.
‘Science-fiction’ is another approach, which sees artists making their own ventures and speculations of what is possible, to create things that may or may not be scientifically feasible.
This kind of approach may take as a starting point a real scientific finding, or a potential direction that science is on the verge of uncovering, and plays with it to fantasise about where it could go.
The speaker gave an example of a group of artists that created an online spoof company that allows people to customize the leather of a manta ray fish with colorful patterns, to later be used to produce shoes.
What van Datrel found problematic with this project, and a trap that similar works fall into, is that it’s success was measured based on its ‘wide popularity’ and the large number of people who wanted to buy these shoes, so that it merely ended up as a fun joke.
If contemporary art is a tool for examining the world, stirring thought and raising questions, van Dartel thinks “what was missing is creating a critical discourse around the technology.”
With a project like this, the artists could have steered the public conversation towards the ethics and consequences of this technology; Is it ethical to farm custom-designed marine animals only to skin them for shoes?
“What we need right now is for artists to look critically at what is already possible and how it affects us,” he said, adding that he thinks artists should bring balanced arguments or questions to the table.
The third direction is the ‘Embedded’ approach, where artists get immersed in the realm of science and involved with the scientific production or the culture around it.
Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac provides an example with his famous transgenic artwork titled GFP Bunny. Kac created a green fluorescent rabbit through genetic engineering, by splicing it with fluorescent genes from a jelly fish (Aequorea Victoria).
To the artist, however, the project was not only about the artwork (the rabbit), but also the public dialogue that it would spark, as well the social integration of the rabbit he named Alba, which he considered it to be his pet and fought for her custody against the scientific and artistic institutions that claimed her.
Kac followed up the GFP Bunny project with a book titled 'It's not easy being green,' which traces the poetic and humorous public responses to "GFP Bunny."
Alba, the fluorescent bunny (Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine/ Eduardo Kac's website)
“Kac believed that in the past artists were imagining things or creatures, but now it is possible to make them a reality,” Aziz added during the talk.
The advantage here is that artists have more freedom to do things that could be ethically problematic for scientists. The GFP Bunny would have been highly controversial as a scientific endeavor, but as an artistic one it is acceptable and serves the discourse.
“We expect artists to provoke and find out where these ethical boundaries are… Projects [like this] show in practice where the boundaries are,” van Dartel says.
Van Dartel also brought up how what happens behind the scenes in the scientific environment is far richer than what is cleanly announced and published.
“There are conversations between scientists, failures, emotions, debates, many aspects that don’t make it to the formal scientific papers and statements the public usually sees,” he says.
They offer a type of parallel, subjective knowledge, which can be very interesting for an artist to explore and be a part of.
This point echoed what Nour El-Safoury, co-curator of PhotoCairo 6, told Ahram Online in an interview on how the discourse around art can itself be part of art.
Van Dartel gave an example of SymbioticA, an Australian artistic laboratory where artists can actively use the tools and technologies of science to explore possibilities and articulate cultural ideas around scientific knowledge.
One of SymbioticA’s project's titled ArtMeatFlesh saw the creation of ‘artistic lab-grown meat.’ They then brought together philosophers, artists, and chefs to the eat-lab-meat debate, where the different disciplines can engage in a discussion.
"While scientists examine the nature of things as they are, artists explore what something does in the world,” van Dartel said.
Bio-Art and identity
For her part, Aziz presented a panorama of different Bio-Art practices through the works of several artists, with a special focus on how they reflect or express identity.
Our biology contains a physical aspect of our identity, in finger prints, blood type, DNA, etc.
Many artists tackle this notion directly, such as Mark Quinn with his artwork ‘Self,’ where he created a frozen sculpture of his head made from five litres of his own blood immersed in frozen silicone.
Stelarc, a Cyprus-born performance artist, took it a step further by making three videos of the inside of his body.
Stelarc is also interested in expanding the body’s capabilities, and has ‘acoustically amplified’ his body by attaching a prosthetic ear to his forearm. He initially wanted to attach it behind his natural ear, but for years no doctor would agree to the project - another example testing the ethical boundaries of artistic and scientific practices.
French artist Orlan was even more extreme in 'The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan: A Struggle Against the innate' project, where she altered her face through a series of plastic surgeries based on idealised features of women in Western paintings such as Botticelli's Venus and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
The Guardian describes her work as “a series of rebirths and triumphs of will over technology” in an article where the artist says she aimed “to sculpt [her] own body to reinvent the self.”
As one of the audience members at Darb 1718 mentioned, these works border on the extremities of self-harm. Of course the artist only has control over his own body with such projects, however, even these artists face some limitations.
“What artists can and can’t do is part of the art, because it shapes it,” Van Datrel highlighted.
Michel van Dartel during his talk on Bio-Art with Heba Aziz (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
Another prominent Bio-Artist, Susan Anker, chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan, uses the iconography of chromosomes to create calligraphic artworks in “Zoosemiotics and Codex: Genome”
The DNA portraits created from people’s hair strands by Manglano Ovalle are another example, while Sabrina Raff looks at breath as a carrier of identity, and creates artwork using breath cultures. Jeffry B Geckof is one of the artists who uses bacteria culture on photographs to organically alter them.
Aziz herself has a project in which she placed her own bacteria onto photographs of places that meant something to her.
In ‘Ergo Sum’ Charlotte Jarvis donated parts of her body to stem cell research, and hosted the donation as a performance and a public anatomy lesson including a lecture and debate.
According the artist’s website, “A second self has been created, a self-portrait, a synecdoche, made from a collage of synthesised body parts. Brain, heart and blood all biologically ‘Charlotte,’ yet distinctly alien to her.”
Through these numerous directions, this overlapping of art and science is a fertile ground for questioning the world in which we live, to probe questions about identity and humanity as a whole.
As van Datrel noted, "the role of the Bio-Artist changes from a means to represent us, to a means of questioning technologies."
Bio-Art also offers a means to better understand scientific issues, and has the power to make arguments and stir social critiques that explore and challenge the boundaries of our experience with both disciplines.
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture