Sunday, March 11, 2007

Reichle: Epistemic Objects

From: Ingeborg Reichle
Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2007 04:02:07 -0400

I would like to come back to Suzannes remark about the term "epistemic object" which was important for my writings about artists in labs and the effects of these "new" approaches in art on the reception to a wider audience. At the same time when I started to work on "Kunst aus dem Labor"(art emerging from the laboratory) in the field of art history, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger ( Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, MPIWG) began in Berlin a project called THE EXPERIMENTALIZATION OF LIFE:Configurations between Science, Art, and Technology ( Contemporary art projects were not on the agenda, but the effects on the "objects" under investigation in the laboratory (from the 18th Century onwards). In this working group, Rheinbergers research was focused on recombinant DNA technology, which was for me very interesting, because I was interested in transgenic art at that time.

With this contribution I will post some ideas I have about "epistemic things" and "biofacts" in the context of "bio-art"

"Epistemic Things"

Molecular biology as well as other fields in the life sciences to a large extent construct and design the objects of their research today themselves, thereby producing technological artefacts which owe their existence to the culture of experiment and the expanding technological systems of the laboratory. At the same time these organisms in the laboratory often now have an epistemological status in terms of knowledge models that merely serve as representational models. In this way the technofacts of the 'third nature' have, today, to a large extent replaced life forms of the first nature as the reference objects of the laboratory. Reports of experimental results as well as the discourse of research organisations are therefore primarily focused on these manufactured, epistemic objects, whose modelling takes place within the immense science complex and the physical infrastructure of the laboratory. Such an implementation of model realities without a reference makes possible a controlled technical manipulation of the processes of life, which then leads to a denaturalisation or artificiality of the object under investigation.

The development in the 1970s of recombinant DNA technology led to a fundamental change in the way molecular structures and processes of living organisms could be made available for scientific experimentation. From an epistemological perspective this new access to organisms represents a break with previous methods and approaches in molecular biology: Macromolecules themselves became manipulative tools of recombinant DNA technology and thus were transformed into technological entities. The nature of these is such that are no longer distinguishable from the processes in which they intervene, and in the molecular biology lab they begin to resemble industrial production systems, becoming in effect molecular machines. As a consequence of this development the organism acquires the status of technological object; the organism or even the molecule itself becomes a laboratory. The entire range of modern life sciences are on their way to becoming a new science that not only treats, dissects, processes, analyses, and modifies its materials - living organisms and parts thereof -but rather constitutes and constructs these as biofacts, which can no longer be described as being a part of a "natural nature". This construction, however, does not correspond to an understanding of the production of matter as a form of 'creation' in the sense of the bringing forth or generation of life, but is rather to be seen as a process of transformation and conversion of matter.

The neologism biofact - combining "bio" with the term "artifact" - was - combining "bio" with the term "artifact" - was developed by the philosopher Nicole C. Karafyllis as a hermeneutic concept, which allows to ask for the differences between "nature" and "technology" in the area of the living. "Life" thus is examined by her in an intermediary perspective between subject and object and is outlined by reflecting on the term "growth", because not only by recent biotechnological progress, where "life" is regarded as a quality applying to epistemic objects within scientific categories, but also by the anthropological concept of hybridity, the borders between the natural and the artificial become vague on the phenomenological level: Artifacts are artificially devised and created objects. Constructed things were until now always in the category of objects. An artifact, referring to something man-made, serves as a collective term for such diverse, artificially created objects as buildings, art works, and machines. Artifacts generally are dead or inanimate. Biofacts are biotic artifacts; that is they are or were once alive. The categorization of the technical treatment of life is certainly not new, nonetheless there was until now no systematic term to include the technological manipulation of original natural growth. This terminological lack occurred, among other reasons, because philosophy of technology focused, first of all, on systematically classifying technology and always viewed nature as 'the other' and the 'opposite' of technique, something from which one could distance oneself.

This is a translation of a chapter of my book: "Kunst aus dem Labor. Zum Verhältnis von Kunst und Wissenschaft im Zeitalter der Technoscience".Springer, Wien/New York 2005.

All the best,

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1 comment:

roger malina said...


I think your foregrounding of the "epistemic object' is useful= and raises the question of whether the "experiment" has the same status in science as it does in art.

Elie During has written some about this topic in particular re the 'role of the prototype"

and there was a conference on the topic in Manchester in 2005.

The concept of experiment and prototype have migrated from scientific fields to general culture, but the visual object is not always viewed the same way by artists and scientists. There is much discussion in the visualisation community about the process of rendering images in a way that they are communicable to a larger public.

This is compounded by the way visualisation of "computer simulations' are acquiring similar status to visualisations of data in experiments= there can be conflation of the epistemic object.

roger malina

the manchester conference summary was:
“Experiment-Experimentalism: An international interdisciplinary conference on science and the avant-garde”
Manchester Museum, Manchester, 11-12 March 2005

Artistic practices are often described ‘experimental,’ but what exactly is the nature of relations between art and the notion of experimentation
in science? The conference Experiment-Experimentalism aims to explore this question by bringing out rigorous, parodic and poetic connections between experimentalism in the sciences and in the visual arts from the early twentieth century to this day. Bringing together historians, art historians, historians of science and technology, artists and philosophers, this conference will seek to track the migration of such terms as ‘research’ and ‘experiment’ from science to cultural spheres, and to address different issues and themes such as the emphasis on process over results, as well as notions of chance and risk in the avant-garde and science.