Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hauser: Epistemology versus Ontology?

From: Jens Hauser
Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2007 21:17:13 -0400 (EDT)

In the in-between of session two and three I would like to interject some remarks that are mainly refering to comments posted by Suzanne Anker, Eugene Thacker, Ingeborg Reichle, Oron Catts, Jill Scott and Miriam van Rijsingen.

They are dealing with the dialectical construction of the interrelations of"epistemology/ontology", "representation/presence" and "lab context/lab(re)presentation". I find Eugene's following question, in reference to Rheinberger's notion of "epistemic things", really excellent and fruitful: "Why exactly are we assuming that epistemology supercedes ontology inthe lab or the studio?"

In the context of "wet bio art" (which I'm most interested in) this question contains multiple layers:

  • Does the "lab" context refer mainly to the way that artists gain knowledge in a laboratory set while considering their practice as "art as research", or do they need a laboratory set in order to display works/biofacts in order to communicate with an audience
  • Is the display of a "biofact" more an effect of presence or of representation
  • Is the display of a "biofact" (and even the experience to produce it) meantto stage shiftings in ontological categories (semi-living, or else), or tothe hermeneutic production of knowledge?

A lot of what Jill has been presenting refers almost to the experience of "artists in the lab" embedded in a context enabling them to gain insight in scientific contexts in a strategy of "art as research", and only secondarily to the displays, or mediating instances, through which this insight then would be expressed in a form that audiences may engage with emotionnally or cognitively. Therefore, we are not suprised that a lot of this "art as research" work is then presented as documentation (video, writings) of the research process, which means that the heuristic dimension to approach "epistemic things" becomes more important than the staging of ontological difference, let's say in artworks/installations. Has the "nature" of art to be qualified through the

learning period of the artist or through the concretization that can be experienced by an audience? I feel that this question indeed is all but new, and can be traced back to previous reflections on "the blurring of life and art" (if we take Kaprow), and ends up in Boris Groys' argument that "art has shifted its interest away from the artwork and towards art documentation as art becomes a life form, whereas the artwork becomes non-art, a mere documentation of this life form." (see Groys: Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art Documentation. In: In: Documenta 11_Plattform 5.Ostfildern, 2002; pp. 107-113.) My problem here is that then the documentation/representation of the process of "art as research" becomes itself again a representational sign that only refers to "art as life itself", thus becoming the representation of epistemic things rather than their presence that can be experienced by those whom the artists are supposed to communicate with(an "audience"), because of their status as artists - which in turn gives themacces to the lab in an art/science context.

The question of the "lab" pops up differently when we speak about the staging of a lab in the context of a gallery display. A good exemple is "DisembodiedCuisine" by the TC&A. See: in other installations focussing on the topic of biotechnologies, theartists here have hidden the lab away (though it was technically needed) undera black dome, and emphasized the public's view on the semi-living entities rotating in bioreactors, and thus insisting on the ambigious ontological status of those "biofacts". The lab condition itself here has not been visually placed in the center of attention in terms of simple theatre props, or as the represented context of knowledge production. In the "continuous process of signification" then we find another point that Eugene has adressed in a provious post: "There is no picturing in the traditional sense with bio-art. One works with the very "stuff" of life, as it were. But then there's also the notion that what paint is for the painter, DNA or cells are for the bio-artist. The latter position makes it possible to view even a cloned mammal in terms of representation (painting, sculpture, etc.), while the former position, it seems, posits a kind of materiality that works against representation." Is it so? This again refers to the difference between representation and presence, and to the domination of epistology over ontology. Could we simply "paint with stuff"? It might not be coincidence that Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr in their displays often use tissue culture techniques that infact exist since decades (Alexis Carrel lab) so that the "ontologicalstaging of stuff" could be seen as the representation of epistemic things andat the same time as the presence of biofacts. In this interesting twist reliesa lot of the potential of TC&A's work, to my opinion. This may echo in whatRheinberger himself picks up from N. Goodman when talking about the notion of"representation", that, in his terms, would less "reflect" than "grasp andproduce." (see: HJ Rheinberger: Experimentalsysteme und epistemische Dinge.Frankfurt/Göttingen 2001/2006; p. 133). Can xeno-transplantation bere-presented by co-culturing of pig and human cells in the context of art? In the very McLuhan sense that a new medium might be reflected even in terms of older media ("television paintings"), the staging of (earlier) tissue culture that artists can handle as a material placeholder for the epistemic things in high end research seems to be a good example. Wet transgenic art employing GFP may be read at a comparable level, as the GFP technique iself is very basic, while its staging of presence/ontology may strongly communicate with audiences, unless we would really believe artists to be the geniuses that can make present ie systems biology otherwise than through representation. But: What such kind of displays that stage biological presence can do is engage the viewer emotionally so strongly so that s/he may raise epistemological questions of even higher complexity that what can be obtained through art relying on a pure hermeneutic approach. Another question in the context of "artists in the lab" and "social and cultural implications of biosciences" is what Roger Malina often mentions as the artist's capacity of "making better science". This notion is of course based on a primarily cognitivist and not on an aesthetic approach, and it has a dimension of utilitarisme and (institutionally) framed meaning-making that we need to take into account. On the other hand: Refering to the post by Susan Squier, what is the status of the chicken that Belgian artist Koen Van Mechelen cross-breeds to produce thesuper-bastard -or the animals to be produced in Wim Delvoye's forthcoming"pet shop"? As a result, I feel that the classifying grid of "art(ists) from/in the lab "does not adress the crucial issues, especially when we think of the progressing democratization of tools. How to construct a sterile hood for 15$ out of a vacuum cleaner and a hamster cage!

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