Monday, March 12, 2007

Heiferman: That audience issue....

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.

Marvin Heiferman

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1 comment:

Steve Miller said...

Technology has given us another career, maintaining e-mail, web sites and surfing the blog sphere. With that in mind, please forgive any repetitions should this posting be another mirror of something already said. It’s been difficult to find the time to follow the entire discussion. This subject is vast and time has limits, so I have been lurking and putting the demands of an exhibition ahead of blogging. In defense of my on-line slacker attitude, I chime in with a few personal observations

One of the things that always drew me to the subject of art and technology was that this visual vocabulary is a new language system that represents our time. The opening statement of this conference makes that clear as well. Artists used the science of perspective in the Renaissance and freed themselves from Byzantium. I’m not sure the language of science will become a commercial aspect of mass culture or release us from it or anything else. However, it is the computer (a scientific development) and its’ special affects that decorate mass culture and help create our spectacles. The film “300” just earned 70 million in it’s opening weekend. The technology of Google, My Space, You Tube and Instant Messaging is the new pop culture. Those examples may not be science but the Internet is the new international media and the Internet is building a massive audience and its’ favored billionaires. On a smaller scale, the fact is that this an Internet blog allows for an impressive global participation. None the less, science still sits outside the mainstream.

Marvin Heiferman asked, for me, the most provocative question; who is the audience for this on-line debate and for the images or words created by scientists, artists, playwrights, historians, and social anthropologists in this world of Sci/Art? Of course WE are: those who are participating in the conference evidence its’ value. No doubt, there are probably as many answers to the audience question as the number of participants. It should be noted that I have often had conversations with several contributors to this conference about audience. Who is the audience and how energy is spent trying to further develop this audience?

It was interesting to see from Marvin’s observations that with the “Paradise Now” exhibition, a significant part of the audience was non-art world. “Paradise Now” provoked a discussion. It is curious that this discussion took part in academia more than in the art world. As Marvin mentioned, for some art critics, lots of the artwork came off as pseudo-science, a one liner, looking like the illustration of an idea, or aestheticized science. As a participant in that exhibition, I may fall into some of these categories. Yet in spite of my aesthetic roots, for this particular project, I made a “scientific” investigation. I extracted a collector’s blood and replicated their DNA and photographed their chromosomes under an electron microscope and silk-screened these images onto painted canvas. It was my effort to redefine the traditional art category of portraiture. Access to new technologies in 1993 allowed me this privilege. Working with science permitted an investigation inside the body on a molecular level. The result was not science but perhaps worked better as metaphor. Science now allows us to look inside the individual and the work we need to do is an inside job.

Scientific research and artists working in the lab with scientists is still an important part of my process so that was an interesting topic of discussion for this conference. Part of my practice has included working with Dr. Stephen Adler at Brookhaven National Labs where Dr. Adler was writing code for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider as well as with Dr. Rod MacKinnon the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. His research involved understanding how a positively charge ion moves across a cell membrane. The point of all of this is to recognize that even though I go to the lab for my sources, my goal is to make art. It’s ridiculous to think that I am a scientist or know enough about science to make a contribution to that body of knowledge that is specialized and specific. However, there might be some artists who come from a position in science so that they might actually make a contribution to that base of knowledge.

Art is about something else, another form of knowledge. Some art today pushes hybrid forms where, amazingly enough, a glowing green bunny can be genetically conceived and the material of laboratory grown skin can be a new canvas. It’s incredible and stimulating to think that these materials can be a new medium for art. Maybe it’s not so surprising. If Warhol can make mass media a new medium, the field of art is wide open for any variation ranging from the revelations of science to the cultural obsession with fashion.

Back to that nagging question of audience. It’s an important question. Matisse said “audience completes the work” (or something like that) and part of this conference is about art. The technical aspect of science makes a particular demand on the viewer. As someone else noted on this blog some people found this artist’s images of brains repulsive and scary. In 1993, many people said my portraits reminded them of death or a negative experience they had in the hospital. As Marvin said, some of the issues surrounding at and science just make people nervous.

A recent tour of 5 New York art fairs certainly proved that, this year, the Art/Sci movement has not made the commercial art fair circuit. Evidently, it takes the P.T. Barnum skills of Matthew Barney (the mutant)or Damien Hirst (the pharmacy) to get aspects of the Art/Sci debate to a larger audience. For many years Ashley Bickerton has been raising the issue of surviving the environmental apocalypse. These three examples are noted because we live in a complex world where the concept and it’s dissemination are not mutually exclusive and one of the ways to create audience is to get the art to market. It’s not the only way, this panel is another. One can argue that a larger audience share can dilute the message but, some artists, like Warhol, seem to have it both ways. Can the Art/Science crowd?

For the most part, artists working in this area of debate will show their work in exhibitions. Any art exhibition that is driven by a strong agenda includes plenty of art that gets selected to fulfill the mandate of the agenda but, is not necessarily good art. While the Art/Sci agenda is vast, the category may be too narrow to reach a larger audience. This may be especially true in the current art world that appears to get much of its’ energy from the power of market forces. Art/Sci is successful as an impassioned niche (as seen in this conference) and the popularity of “Paradise Now”. The proof that this audience is expanding is that the on-line conference has been extended past its’ original termination date! Perhaps the size of the audience is a red herring rather; it’s the opportunity for content driven work to communicate.

In the end, art is a very different animal than scientific practice and the goals are different. Some artists will always be interested in science and that can create a crossover genre and an interesting hybrid. More importantly, science does offer an attempt to escape the “conspiracy of art” recognized by Jean Beaudrillard in one of his last books. His premise is that the homogenization of aesthetic language makes the visual styling of Target and Starbucks not much different than the many good looking well made cultural products available throughout the world. Within this universal “sameness” the symbolic value of art is lost. Foucault looked in the margins to define the center and understand civilization. For precisely because of its’ non-mainstream status and with its’ specialized language, science provides a meaningful visual medium for art. It may be that the issues of science are fascinating to discuss but, it’s the artist who must rise to the occasion.
Steve Miller