Tuesday, March 13, 2007

RE: SESSION THREE: bioscience and bioart

From: Eugene Thacker
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 14:51:36 -0400 (EDT)

Hi all -
I have to admit that I concur with many of Michael's statements here, though I remain interested in innovations in both and across both areas. Personally I'm not convinced that we are anywhere near being "beyond" the two cultures (let alone in a "third culture" as that book by Brockman suggests).

(i) There's a conceptual issue involved, in that we often *begin* discussion presuming the categories of "artist" and "scientist," if only for heuristic reasons. That's fine, we all do it, whatever. But there's an important discussion to be had about the function of those categories in making possible a discussion at all. The "artist-scientist" dichotomy often comes tometonymically stand in for the "two cultures," whereas there are far from being identical. I'm not sure a philosopher would be on the side of the artist, or a programmer on the side of the scientist, etc.

(ii) But I'm always reminded of the way that the various institutional sites relentlessly - and invisibily - interpellate us into these positions as well. I would include here the very literal spaces of the classroom, the art studio, the media production "lab," the science lab, the conference/convention/symposium, and online variants of these. There's no reason to think that Peter Burger's critique of the "institution of art"doesn't apply to other fields as well.

(iii) This conceptual issue, and its articulcation within institutional sites, lead us to think about the refractory effect that many of our basic concept shave. For instance "creation" may mean something very different for one artist and another, let alone between those artists and a scientist. How different can the concepts become while still remaining the same concept? (The concept of "purpose" is another one; Kant famously posited a weird "purposiveness without a purpose" in the asthetic...).

A while back I tried to - in a somewhat provocational manner - sort out some of these problems in a short article that started by flaming Jeremy Rifkin andthen talking about bio-art. I quote from a part of it here:
"-Bioart usually benefits the artists more than the scientist collaborators.While there are a great many examples of scientists collaborating with artistson projects, there are a few asymmetries worth noting. First, the work itselfis usually shown in an art context. Second, if publication occurs, it is morelikely to be in an art journal than a scientific one. Third, when instances ofprofessional recognition arise (e.g., tenure & promotion), the artist getsrecognition, while the scientist often does not. Fourth, artists and scientists work with very different funding budgets. Very different.- The context for bioart is often the site of the gallery. This may not beproblematic in itself, but when bioart claims to be speaking about biotech interms of education and public awareness, then we have to wonder about the siteof this engagement. The art gallery is itself a specialized site, quitealienating for many people. How can art claim to reach a public about science,when it still has not resolved its inability to reach a public about art?- In bioart, "gee-whiz" science often overwhelms critical engagement. That is, bioart often eschews ethical considerations in favor of technical ones. Anyone will admit that learning how to work the automatic sequencing machine is cool, but it is worthwhile to reflect on it a little. The old question can I do this versus should I do this is worth reconsidering in the context of bioart practices as art practices.
- Bioart can sometimes become PR for the biotech industry. In some cases the aestheticization in bioart can feed into the "rhetoric of wonder" abundant in popular discussions of the genetic understanding of life. It is fascinating that your DNA stretched out is five feet long (or whatever it is) And?
- But not all bioart is formalist. In fact, a number of artists enjoy and cultivate the "outsider-artist" persona, which indicates that bioart may be attempting to fashion itself as the new avant-garde (oh no, not again!). By pitching itself as transgressive, bioart risks replaying the tired narrative of mainstream recuperation. Except that recuperation will this time be activated by government research institutions and biotech companies with programs titled "a celebration of art and science." (Might we someday see artists as spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies?)..."
[ full article: http://rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?thread=7028&page=1 ;]


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Anonymous said...

Bioart is an indication that science is an area where some of the most innovative, consequential and exciting investigations are happening today. It is natural for artists to migrate towards this territory since that is in keeping with the ways that modernism's concept of innovation continues to unfold. Does it matter who benefits more, the artist, the community or the scientist? We are not talking about "Big Science" in this frame of reference where millions of dollars are at stake. Nor are artists reaping significant financial rewards since their hybrid practices are outside of mainstream parlance.

If the end result is more in keeping with knowledge production, everyone benefits. When speaking in terms of education and public awareness, the transparency of opaque issues provided by greater dialogue can only aid in discovering what the issues really are.

Since 2003 when the Rifkin article was published in the Guardian, much has changed with regard to Bioart.

MFA Graduate Student - SVA

Anonymous said...

Scientist’s should challenge themselves to utilize art within a scientific context. Cognitive neuroscientist, Semir Zeki, is an example of a scientist who collaborates with artists to advance his research. In his text “Art and the Brain” he uses examples of Cezanne’s, Calder’s and Matisse’s work to illustrate neurological discoveries supported through aesthetics:

“...that we have learned enough about the visual brain in the past quarter of a century to begin to study the biological foundation of aesthetics. Aesthetics, like all other human activities, must obey the rules of the brain of whose activity it is a product…”


MFA Graduate Student - SVA