From: Marvin Heiferman
Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2007 20:07:37 -0400
Getting back to the issue of audience, and the role of art-sci in the art world, I’m happy to read in posts that artists are finding their own venues and making their own opportunities to show works and to generate dialog. As Suzanne suggested, the experiences around the exhibition Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution, (which opened at Exit Art in New York in 1999 and traveled for a couple of years) and critical responses to it helped me to understand that the art world is not necessarily the best place to go to have a discussion about images, their meaning, and impact.
Yes the exhibition got a fair amount of attention; it was a novel project we were lucky enough to have some foundation money to fund, market and promote it. What was interesting to me about Paradise Now—and particularly in its first and full iteration in New York--was the opportunity to see how art and science could co-exist in an exhibition space--whether and how, for example, scientific data and information could be passed along to viewers; how for instance displays of genetically modified foods could be juxtaposed with art works speculating about how similar products might impact our lives, the environment, etc. The exhibition included objects including the packaging for a porn tape entitled “Designer Genes,” one of Dr. Watson’s original models for DNA from the early 1950s, images from science fiction films, bumpe! r stickers from organic farming groups, as well as very provocative art works that directly or not so directly eluded to the relationship of genetic research to race, eugenics, and profiteering. The more than 40 artists in the exhibition ran the gamut from scientists-turned-artists to conceptual provocateurs to artists who aestheticized science. And that, I think, is what made the exhibition interesting. Exhibitions that have tackled similar subject matter since seem, to me, to have taken a more predictable, one-sided, accusatory approach to the subject matter, genetics is bad/art is good.
I had hoped the exhibition would trigger discussion. And it did. And it didn’t. It did among the art-sci crowd because the project was big, visible, eclectic, and gave credit to the artists who had been working, unheralded, in the area for years. The exhibition proved enormously popular for school groups--lots of students came, from elementary school age kids to groups of interns from NYU Medical School. The exhibition space was almost always crowded. One of the most interesting events was an evening in which artists from the exhibition met with research fellows at Rockefeller University and after a few drinks some lively discussions kicked in, an! d some interdisciplinary collaborations that started that evening are still ongoing.
The show got lots of press, but what it didn’t get was “serious” attention in the art press. To the art world, the exhibition seemed like a novelty event, perhaps a little too in-touch with the real world for comfort. “Serious” critics had a hard time getting serious about the work in the show. Because much of the work dealt directly (sometimes analytically, sometimes fancifully) with pressing, specific, and sometimes disturbing issues, I think it was easy for some critics to dismiss the art as being illustrative. Which is not to say that some of it wasn’t. But with over three-dozen artists, there were a lot of history, ideas and images (some pretty spectacular) flying around. I suspect that one problem I saw in the art world’s response to this, and to similar projects, is that the art world likes to set and control its own agenda, and to select the issues that it thinks are important. And for the most part, those issues--while they are often provocative, engaging, pleasurable, critical, whatever—are not often or terribly consequential.
The art world gets its power by creating a little distance between itself and the real world. I think the science part of the art-sci equation makes people nervous. Which is why (in addition to logistical issues) the exhibition, when it traveled, was pretty much stripped of its scientific and popular culture components. It became, more clearly, an art exhibition. And even so, it tended to travel not to stand alone arts institutions, but to university galleries, where it engendered interesting inter-disciplinary programming. But I still can’t forget what it was like to sit on a panel at Carnegie Mellon, where the show traveled to, and listed to the director of a local contemporary art mu! seum who just dismissed the whole art-sci endeavor--the engagement of dozens of artists in scientific images and issues--as silly, and never felt the need to explain why.
For me, the opportunity to work with scientists on exhibitions has been, and continues to be eye-opening and rewarding. I’m working on a major exhibition project now for the Smithsonian, about how photography has not only been used by, but has changed every discipline that makes use of it. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and talk with astronomers, natural historians, physicists, historians from the Air and Space Museum, keepers of the earliest known daguerreotypes of the moon. The images and the conversations are incredible. I feel lucky to meet and work with people in the sciences, where imagination and thinking routinely create and bounce off of images. Which brings me back to the art ! world. The commercial art world is, despite it’s own hype, pretty parochial. And really, most collectors and/or museums don’t want to hang what they believe are scary pictures up over the couch or the admissions desk.
The point is that images of all sorts that are being made in laboratories and in the course of research are (a) interesting and revelatory to look at and (b) may actually change the way we understand our lives (all of our lives) and the world we live in. I don’t think those are the kinds of ambitions that fuel the art world of the 21st century. That said, I know there’s lots of artists out there with a genuine interest in the issues and images of science, and I support their interest and their work. I also applaud the dedication and entrepreneurial spirit it take to create venues to show that work and opportunities to discuss it, like this conference.
to post a response, click on the "comment" button below
to return to the main page, to go www.visualcultureandbioscience.org