Speaking at the inaugural London LASER event at the University of Westminster about some of Arts Catalyst’s seminal projects over the past 20 years:
Speaking at the inaugural London LASER event at the University of Westminster about some of Arts Catalyst’s seminal projects over the past 20 years:
An artist hand-rears a flock of moon geese as future astronauts; a man meets the moon and stays with her for the rest of his life; the word SHE mysteriously floats across the lunar surface; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata bounces off the moon in morse code; artists organise a protest against moon colonisation …
REPUBLIC OF THE MOON
Agnes Meyer-Brandis | Katie Paterson | Liliane Lijn | Leonid Tishkov | WE COLONISED THE MOON | Moon Vehicle
Opening: Thursday 9 January 2014, 6:30-8:30pm
Exhibition: 10 January-2 February 2014, open daily 11am-6pm
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London SE1 9PH
Events, including Kosmica Full Moon Party and family workshops, throughout the run. Book now!
Today, China claimed success in landing its ‘Jade Rabbit’ robotic rover on the Moon, the first soft landing there for 37 years. Now China wants to send a human to the Moon. Does this and India’s Mars plans herald the start of a new Asian space race? Back in 2006, NASA announced it would establish a base on the Moon, but this plan was shelved when Obama took over from Bush. Japan and Russia also announced similar plans at the same time.
But why send humans back to the Moon? One argument is that it would be valuable for science, enabling us to study the geology and other conditions of our natural satellite. It’s also been suggested that the Moon could be a valuable base for studying the universe, providing a site for astronomy. Another argument is that the Moon can help to provide the Earth with solar and nuclear power: developing large areas of the Moon into solar farms might enable energy to be beamed back to Earth, or Helium-3 could be mined to use in nuclear fusion. But most arguments for returning to the Moon hinge on its potential use as a ‘launch’ site for expeditions to Mars and beyond, ultimately providing the potential for humankind to leave an endangered Earth.
Many have waded into the debate for and against colonising the Moon, but what have artists to say on the matter? From earliest times, artists and writers have imagined journeying to the Moon, although the topic did not become popular until the 17th century with the invention of the telescope. One of the earliest of these stories is by the English science fiction writer Francis Godwin, whose The Man in the Moone (1638) imagines a man flying to the Moon using a contraption pulled by geese. But it was Jules Verne’s visions in his novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870) that directly inspired the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard who created and built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.
Now that a new space age is dawning, with a new geopolitical dimension, The Arts Catalyst is bringing together a group of artists to re-imagine our relationship with the Moon.
The exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’, which launches The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary year, will transform the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into a lunar embassy on Earth, filled with artists’ fantastical imaginings and playful protests against lunar exploitation. With works by artists from across the globe including Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Agnes Meyer Brandis, Katie Paterson, and WE COLONISED THE MOON, and contributions by artists, scientists and space experts, the exhibition mingles personal encounters, DIY space plans, imaginary expeditions, and new myths for the next space age.
Declaring a temporary autonomous zone of the Moon in a small part of London, the Arts Catalyst invites people to come and reflect on the future of the Moon and our relationship with this celestial body that has, for 45 years, held a dual role in our imagination – both as a romantic silvery disc and site of dreams, and as a place of rocks and dust and strategic and scientific possibility. Animating the exhibition and enabling interaction, there will be talks, debates, workshops, a Kosmica full moon party, a pop-up moon shop, and playful protests against lunar exploitation. Hope to see you there.
The first version of Republic of the Moon was co-commissioned and presented by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, Liverpool, in 2011.
I’ve just returned from the enormously successful KOSMICA Mexico 2013 in Mexico City, organised by Nahum Mantra, Laboratorio Arte Alameda and The Arts Catalyst – three nights with more than 400 people every night (mostly in their 20s) packing into a huge gallery to listen to art and science lectures and performances on space topics for four or five hours at a stretch!
While I reflect further on the extraordinary level of interest and excitement shown for this event, I thought I’d pop up a version of the talk I gave there, as it reflects on some of the reasons why I feel it is important to do such events outside Europe and the USA .
Cultural activities and the space programme
As an organisation commissioning artists’ projects that focus on science and technology as shaping forces in society and culture, outer space has been a place of particular investigation for The Arts Catalyst. Our work in the field of space activities has been wide-ranging: from launching artist-designed rockets to ‘space stations on earth’, artists’ residencies in astrophysics labs, and art and science experiments in zero gravity.
Although Arts Catalyst is more comfortable with an autonomous or DIY approach to space activities, technologies and domains, we have worked with some of the major space agencies to try to introduce a cultural component to their programmes. Between 2005 and 2008, the European Space Agency (ESA) contracted The Arts Catalyst to advise it on a cultural policy for cultural utilisation of the International Space Station, and to develop and undertake preliminary feasibility studies for a series of pilot artistic projects. This we did, producing a comprehensive report, an executive summary, and a selection of proposed projects checked by space technology specialists for feasibility.
Following this interesting yet ultimately rather frustrating experience, in partnership with Roger Malina of the Leonardo Institute The Arts Catalyst co-founded – and I currently co-chair with Malina – the International Astronautical Federation’s Technical Activities Committee for the Cultural Utilization of Space (ITACCUS), which seeks “to promote and facilitate the innovative utilization of space and ground segments of space projects and systems, and space applications systems by professionals and organizations in the cultural sectors of society internationally, including all areas of the arts and humanities”.
The ITACCUS membership comprises individuals who act as liaisons to their organisations, and we currently have members from most of the major space agencies around the world as well as several cultural organisations. We continually seek liaison points from unrepresented countries. ITACCUS committee members believe that artistic and cultural activities should be directly included within the space agencies’ fields of activity, so that the wider meaning of space exploration can be considered and opened up.
As a committee of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), ITACCUS contributes to the IAF’s annual report to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on which the IAF has observer status. In my role as co-chair of ITACCUS, I was invited a few years ago to address the about the activities and goals of ITACCUS to this UN committee, at a time when COPUOS was chaired by the Columbian diplomat Ciro Arévalo Yepes (also a member of ITACCUS).
The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was set up to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space. In presenting the activities of ITACCUS to the many country representatives on the UN Committee, I argued for the importance of cultural activities in space activities, and the direct involvement of artists and cultural practitioners in space programmes.
To understand the role of the UN COPUOS, I want briefly to introduce the concepts of global commons and space governance.
“Global commons” is a term typically used to describe international and supranational domains (those that lie – or should lie – outside the political reach of any one nation state), particularly in which the earth’s natural resources are found, and which are considered the common heritage of humankind. Global commons, according to the United Nations, include the deep oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere, and outer space. Over the past few decades, there have been various attempts to legislate to protect these commons, to differing levels of success.
The Law of the Sea is a body of public international law which governs relationships between nations in respect to navigational rights, mineral rights, and jurisdiction over coastal waters. There is also maritime law. However, these bodies of law do little to nothing to protect deep oceans from human threats.
Currently, the Antarctic Treaty regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 50 signatory nations. It sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on that continent.
Since 2004, the artist Amy Balkin has campaigned to include the world’s atmosphere – that narrow band of air surrounding our planet on which all life depends – on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. However, most likely due to political pressures involved in what would essentially ban the increase of harmful chemicals in the atmosphere, most UNESCO-participating countries will not agree that the earth’s protective layer makes the list. For the visual component to what is largely a research and activist based project, Balkin assembles various letters and petitions that she has sent to country-based representatives of UNESCO as well as their responses.
Space law: who owns the Moon?
Many, including the UN, consider outer space to be a global commons. It is often asked: Who owns outer space? Or, as someone at Kosmica Mexico asked more specifically: Who owns the Moon? Did the US or Russia stake their claims by putting flags or national symbols on the Moon?
In fact, before the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Chilean musician, poet and lawyer Jenaro Gajardo Vera became famous between 1953 until his death in 1998, as the legitimate owner of the Moon.
This is his claim, which appeared to be legitimate, according to Chilean law at the time. It says:
“Jenaro Gajardo Vera, es dueño, desde antes del año 1857, uniendo su posesión a la de sus antecesores, del astro, satélite único de la Tierra, de un diámetro de 3.475.00 kilómetros, denominada LUNA, y cuyos deslindes por ser esferoidal son: Norte, Sur, Oriente y Poniente, espacio sideral.”
“Jenaro Gajardo Vera, is the owner, since before year 1857, joining to his possessions the one of his ancestors the celestial body, only satellite of the Earth, with a diameter of 3,475.99 kilometers, under the name of Moon, whose boundaries are, due to being an spheroidal body: North, South, East and West: outer space.”
According to Gajardo, his goals were:
- To make a “poetic protest taking part of the selection of potential inhabitants of the satellite,” because he wanted a world without jealousy, hate, vices nor violence.
- To acquire the moon in order “to join the Social Club of Talca, which had a membership requirement of having a property”
Such a benign motive for space ownership was a topic of interest to the media, but nothing to worry about, but in the 1960s, as the “space race” built momentum, the issue of space ownership became real and pressing. In 1967, United Nations sponsored the “Outer Space Treaty”, which established all of outer space as a global commons. The treaty reserves space for the good of mankind, and effectively prohibits private ownership of arbitrary parcels of empty space. It has been ratified by 102 countries, including all the major space-faring nations. The International Moon Treaty was finalised in 1979 and entered into force in 1984. It forbids private ownership of lunar real estate. However, to date only 15 states have ratified the agreement, and none of these are major space-faring nations.
So, in answer to the question ‘Who owns the Moon’, the answer is: probably no one. The United States and Russia (the Soviet Union’s primary successor state) own the equipment left on the Moon, but – according to the Outer Space and Moon treaties – they have no claim to the territories on which they are located. Antarctic bases have similar status.
However, governments which have not signed the relevant treaties may dispute the UN’s authority in this matter. Similarly corporations and individuals have tried – and continue to try – to challenge this. There are significant commercial and military interests in space, even if the Moon’s military and industrial benefits to are still speculative.
Lower Earth orbit
Rather than “Who owns space?”, perhaps the question should be “Who controls space? Who is responsible for it and how shall we be held accountable?”
Of course, space includes all the cosmos, our solar system and the Moon, but I want to focus on the space in which most of our space activities actually take place – Lower Earth Orbit. Despite the fantasies of the first space age, and the excitement generated by the recent achievements of Hubble, the Mars probes and Cassini-Huygens, our space age today for the most part now extends no more than 300 miles or so above our heads to the zone of satellites and space stations.
Near earth space has become ordinary, no longer remote, actively contested, and polluted. Space is in every part of our everyday lives. GPS, weather forecasting and satellite telecommunications bring space into work, education, leisure and healthcare. Commercially and militarily, there is a vast amount at stake in terms of access to and control over Earth orbit.
If all that were not enough of a challenge, the orbits of debris that space activities have left around our Earth and the prospect of a nuclear future in space are also issues that need to be constantly addressed.
The Bogotá Declaration, 1976
A space ownership issue of current practical importance is the allocation of slots for satellites in geostationary orbit. A geostationary orbit is where satellites orbit the earth above the equator, such that they appear stationary from the earth. The geostationary orbit is itself made up mainly of communications satellites, which have revolutionized communications and which, of course, have important defense and intelligence applications.
Naturally, early on the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the most valuable and coveted spots in geostationary orbit, leaving latecomers to bear the cost of less favourable positions. In 1976, eight equatorial countries – Brazil, Colombia, Congo, Equador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zaire – claimed sovereignty over the geostationary orbit, in the Bogotá Declaration, drawing attention to the inequity of orbital allocations and attempting to assert sovereignty over those portions of the geosynchronous orbit that continuously lie over the signatory nation’s territory.
The issue has never been ratified, though it has been debated on several occasions since within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The Bogotá Declaration was the subject of a project by artists Alejo Duque and Joanna Griffin exploring the poetics of the declaration as well as the “inequalities in technological power, the physics of orbit and its contested spaces”.
The artists’ intention was to develop a new manifesto based on the Bogota Declaration. They wanted to try to discover what the geostationary orbit can mean to us and define our own protests, rituals and love songs in relation to it. The artists suggest that geostationary orbit, if it is thought of as an architecture, as a part of the human-made built environment, can be likened to the compelling circles of prehistory, such as Stonehenge in UK and those in Senegambia. They were struck by the poetry of the Bogota Declaration: its fervour in challenging the great powers, and at the same time its description of the extraordinary architecture of this necklace-like ring of satellites encircling the Earth.
Duque and Griffin’s project was collaborative and open to participation through the network of a wiki and the networks that emerged through the acts of making work. The aim was to build up a common voice and stand that could raise awareness of this orbit, its political complexities and its poetics. The project comprised writing, drawing, experimental music and events, exchanged online, on the ground and through space.
Listening from space
Artist Trevor Paglen uses specialized equipment to document carefully researched sites of secret government activity, and in two series of works he has drawn attention to military intelligence activities in lower Earth orbit. In his photographic series Limit-Telephotography, he uses high-powered astronomical telescopes to capture classified military bases and installations that are sited in some of the remotest parts of the United States andbuffered by dozens of miles of restricted land.
His photograph They Watch the Moon is of Sugar Grove, an NSA “listening station” in West Virginia. Sugar Grove listening station is part of the ECHELON classified and automated network of ground stations, developed to intercept and relay data communications. The station is located at the centre of the “National Radio Quiet Zone” in West Virginia and Maryland, within which radio transmissions are severely restricted. The listening station was designed in part to take advantage of a phenomenon called “moonbounce.” Moonbounce involves capturing communications and telemetry signals from around the world as they escape into space, hit the moon, and bounce back towards Earth.
In The Other Night Sky, Paglen employed sophisticated telescopic equipment to track and photograph nearly two hundred classified American spacecraft orbiting the earth, using long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The artist used data compiled by amateur astronomer Ted Molczan to predict where a given “black satellite” will be in the sky, and was assisted by a global network of amateur satellite watchers. While the US government continues to espouse the virtues of secrecy, it isn’t able to prevent amateur astronomers from calculating the orbital paths of spy satellites or artists from drawing our attention to the space-based tools of military intelligence.
Paglen is also part of a new wave of artists attempting to place art into lower Earth orbit. Commissioned by Creative Time, Paglen’s The Last Pictures is a project to mark a satellite with a record of our historical moment. For nearly five years, Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be. He worked with MIT materials scientists to develop an archival disk of images capable of lasting in space for billions of years. Last year, the television satellite EchoStar XVI took off from Kazakhstan with the disc attached, and entered a geostationary orbit. When it nears the end of its useful life – in about 15 years – it will use the last of its fuel to enter a slightly higher graveyard orbit, where it will power down and die. The Last Pictures will continue to circle Earth until the Earth is no more.
This year, an artist-built satellite was also launched, again from Baikonaur Cosmodrome. Korean artist Hojun Song’s OSSI (Open Source Satellite Initiative) is intended to show how individuals and amateur groups can make their own connection with space in a direct and practical sense, and provide open source tools to do so.
Meanwhile, the Mexican Space Collective – a group of artists based in Mexico City and working with the Laboratorio Arte Alameda – are also planning their own satellite, to be launched from Tonga Spaceport.
Constructing our own space future
If space ‘belongs’ to all humanity (albeit not in the property sense), how do we all take ‘ownership’ – and hence responsibility – for it? How do we make our own space futures, that are not entirely dependent upon and controlled by the existing international and national space agencies and major corporations and governments?
In particular, how do those countries that are not already represented in a significant way in space, take their place as the shared beneficiaries (culturally, technologically and economically) and trustees of this global commons?
A new collaborative programme between the University of Texas (El Paso and Dallas), The Arts Catalyst and Laboratorio Arte Alameda intends to address these questions. It sets out to ask how the space imaginary – which has become synonymous with the ‘great’ national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars Landers and Hubble, and the images produced by the major space agencies – become rather an expansion of our contemporary social imaginary?
Through this programme, we want to work with artists who engage in disruptive, alternative and collective interactions with space and space technology, who create technological and imaginative alternatives for space occupation, and who reappropriate the technologies of space and the data from space, in a way that connects people to new bodies of knowledge and new ways of relating. We are particularly interested in drawing on projects by artists and collectives from Latin America, and ultimately from the countries of Africa and other non-traditional space nations, that respond to the imperative to develop and reflect an alternative poetic and political relationship with space.
In my presentation to the UN COPUOS, I suggested that a new philosophy and vision for space was perhaps overdue, one relevant for the 21st century and a changing world of power relations and environmental and economic challenges. At this time in human civilisation, when we are so dependent on science and technology, and at the same time when our technologised and industrial world presents many challenges for a sustainable future, I believe activities and developments in outer space should be considered from different cultural perspectives – not only those of the established space powers, and not just those of scientists and politicians. The future of space needs a societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many countries and many disciplines can take part.
As David Koch – the wealthy industrialist whose company is responsible for the dumping of a three-storey high city block sized pile of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil sands refining) in Detroit’s Assumption Park – funds a new plaza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m prompted to wonder what we in the UK arts sector will get up to in response to Government calls for reductions in public subsidy to be replaced with corporate and personal philanthropy, as per the American model.
Viewing the ongoing hubbub around BP’s ongoing sponsorship of our major institutions, Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, how can we finance our work without sparking quite such a furor? And anyway, how much do we want to benefit a multinational?
In The Arts Catalyst latest commission with FACT, Liverpool, artist group HeHe (Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans) propose a radical solution: cut out the middle man, let’s extract our own fossil fuels.
In FACT’s ground floor Gallery 1, HeHe have begun initial exploratory tests to extract shale gas through an innovative process known as fracking, turning the space into an experimental drilling site. Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’: pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in subterranean rocks, releasing the gas trapped several miles beneath the earth’s surface. HeHe’s initial explorations have already discovered that the area directly beneath FACT consists of Holywell shale and might hold at least 20 trillion cubic feet of gas. This energy will be used to ensure the future operation of FACT and the energy created will be exported directly to the local community.
Whilst fracking is a controversial procedure which has caused mass public debate in the US and currently in Britain – and certainly there will be some unquantifiable subterranean noise and minor ground tremors in the gallery, as well as probable minor explosions and effluent discharge – it’s all being done with public safety and public benefit as a priority.
HeHe’s Fracking Futures ties into a long history of mining and extraction in northwest England, and looks to the contemporary context wherein sites around Blackpool, Manchester and Southport have been, or are currently, in the process of being approved for fracking. This artists’ installation aims to draw attention to current debates surrounding the process, both economic and environmental.
DIY Biology is a growing global network of individuals that aims to promote citizen science and access to biotechnology. Participants may call themselves biohackers, biotweakers, bioartists (or simply artists), citizen scientists or amateur/independent biologists, depending on their approach and background. Interests of DIY (do-it-yourself) biologists include building their own low cost lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment.
Manchester’s MadLab (Asa Calow and Rachael Turner) was invited to be The Arts Catalyst’s first “institution in residence”. They took up their residency with us for two hectic weeks of Lab Easy in March. The residency offered both a professional development opportunity for MadLab, and the chance to run a series of workshops to engage a wider London public in the methodologies and ideas of DIY biotechnology. Ambitiously, Lab Easy held almost daily public workshops: from culturing bioluminescent bacteria to DNA extraction, cellular gastronomy to genetic modification. There was also a family day, an evening DIYBio salon and a peripatetic market foodlab in Deptford Market.
The residency attracted an extraordinary international gathering of artists, biohackers, designers and scientists, many of whom helped to devise and run the workshops. Not a day went by when someone from another DIYBio space across the globe turned up with a rucksack and unpacked various experiments. They included Dr Mark Dusseiller of Hackteria and Biotehna, Gjino Šutić from Zagreb, Ellen Jorgensen from GenSpace New York, Cathal Garvey from Cork, Thomas Landrain from La Paillasse Paris, Brian Degger from of Maker Space Newcastle, Kristijan Tkalec from Biotehna Llubljana, and Martin Malthe Borch from Copenhagen. MadLab and collaborators filled the Arts Catalyst space with wonderful conversation and strange experiments – as well as piles of petri dishes, boxes of pipettes, biotech kits, bits of electronics, soldering irons, trays of soil, jars of pond water, live fish, dead squid, bits of lego, a live biomechatronic heart, and in one corner a plastic cupboard area marked ‘Do Not Lick’, containing the outputs – I believe – from the self-cloning bacteria workshop (AKA genetic modification for beginners).
The Arts Catalyst’s involvement with amateur biology largely stems from its collaborations with Critical Art Ensemble, SymbioticA, and other artists and art groups since the early 2000s. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a US art collective of tactical media practitioners who appropriated scientific knowledge and practices with the aim of bringing biotech into the public domain for critical examination, a tactic they called “contestational biology”. Arts Catalyst presented CAE’s GenTerra in London and Oldham, and collaborated on Marching Plague, projects which contributed to CAE member Steve Kurtz’s 4-year hounding by the FBI on unfounded suspicions of bioterrorism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz. In partnership with SymbioticA, a biological arts centre from Western Australia, we have run a number of ‘biotech art’ workshops, introducing artists and creative practitioners to hands-on experiences and critical and ethical discussion around biotechnology practices, including the BioArt Workshop in 2005 and Synthesis workshop in 2011. We have also worked extensively with the ecological artist Brandon Ballengee, whose practice incorporates primary biological research, largely into amphibians, and whose interests include the effective role that public volunteers (citizen scientists) can play in amphibian conservation efforts. We are interested in both the critical interrogation that artists can bring to advanced biology, as well as their playful, experimental and participatory approaches to art and research into living systems.
Coincidentally Claire Pentecost, an artist and a long-term collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble, who was centrally involved in campaigning against the FBI’s case against Steve Kurtz, was London during the residency researching a new project on soil science, and called in to visit. It was a fascinating meeting of two generations of practitioners involved in DIY Bio and a moment of realisation of how the Kurtz case altered the amateur biology landscape at least in the US. Whereas, in 2004, FBI agents invaded Kurtz’s house in hazmat suits, arrested him and saddled him with mail fraud charges that took him four years to clear, in 2012 the FBI invited and flew 60 or so of the most prominent members of the DIYBio movement – from across the US, Europe and Asia – to a 3-day FBI organized conference in California. How times change.
At the DIYBio Salon, Claire asked about the politics and critical stance of the new generation of DIYBio practitioners as represented at Lab Easy. Ellen Jorgensen from Genspace felt that DIY Bio was a movement of individuals with some unifying principles – freedom of expression, freedom of speech – but a spectrum of politics: some saw a DIY biology lab as a political statement, while others just want to do some science; some wanted to push boundaries, while others wished to operate within the regulations of established science. Cathal Garvey (a trained geneticist with a Class 1 licensed lab in his spare bedroom) spoke out passionately against patenting: “Most of you are not aware that you do not own your own DNA”; and Marc Dusseiller (nanoscientist and co-founder of Hackteria) spoke of a gradual movement towards a world without patents, as more people and companies, particularly in the developing world, are becoming involved. He felt that DIY Biology plays a role in a cultural shift towards openness: part of a pattern of movements including open democracy, open access to publications, open data, and open science.
More pics below …
PS. Interesting blog post (in Danish) about LabEasy from one of the collaborators, Martin Malthe Borch.
The artist Beatriz da Costa lost her long, fierce battle with cancer on the evening of 27 December 2012, at the age of 38.
This is not an obituary, but simply a personal reflection on the Arts Catalyst’s work with this courageous woman and inspired artist, who at her death had not yet achieved her full potential, but had still produced a remarkable and influential body of work. (There is a full biography on Wikipedia.)
I first met Beatriz in 2003, at our second presentation of GenTerra at the Natural History Museum in London, as part of our CleanRooms exhibition, a work on which she had collaborated with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Beatriz had been unable to attend the first presentation in 2002 at Gallery Oldham, due to ill health. GenTerra was one of CAE’s “participatory theatre” works, which enabled its audiences to consider the consequences of creating transgenic life forms. GenTerra was a fictitious biotechnology corporation “balancing profits with social responsibility”. Lab-coated assistants (members of CAE) introduced GenTerra’s bioproducts to the audience, and would explain the practical applications of such research, such as disease treatment and xenotransplantation. Audience members were taught how to grow and store their own transgenic bacteria. They could then choose to spin a bacteria release machine with only one of its ten chambers holding active transgenic bacteria. They were told that the bacteria they might release into the environment was a benign strain and had to decide whether to play this game of ‘genetic Russian roulette’. The bacteria release machine was designed and made by Beatriz.
It is interesting to realise now how widely and deeply Beatriz’s interests as an artist paralleled and intersected with those of the Arts Catalyst, yet we did not work with her as a solo artist until 2009. Beatriz specialised in the intersections of art, science, engineering, and politics. She and her collaborators – including as a founder member of Preemptive Media, and a collaborator with Critical Art Ensemble – frequently engaged the public by running workshops that translated challenging new technical and scientific developments into accessible activities. She was an innovator in the use of technology and biotechnology in her art, with a remarkable drive to intellectually grasp and gain the technical skills to engage with emerging areas of science and technology. In 2008, she co-edited the MIT Press anthology Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience.
In 2009, we presented Beatriz’s project Pigeonblog as part of Interspecies, an exhibition and programme which explored artists’ attempts to collaborate with animals. Pigeonblog was a collaboration between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers, a citizen scientific data-gathering initiative designed to college and distribute information about air quality conditions. Pigeons carried custom-built miniature air pollution sensing devices enabled to send the collected localized information to an online server. Pollution levels were visualised and plotted in real-time on an Internet map. Interspecies was shown at Cornerhouse, Manchester, and at the A Foundation in London.
That year, we also invited Beatriz to create a new project for the exhibition Dark Places, a series of commissioned artists’ projects exploring spaces and institutions below the radar of common knowledge, and examining how artists are evolving strategies for art as a form of knowledge production.
Beatriz’s project for Dark Places, A Memorial for the Still Living explored the ‘dark places’ of zoological science and presented a sombre reflection on endangered species of the British Isles. Produced remotely, with Beatriz sending detailed lists of species and specifications, the artwork manifested as a striking art installation which confronted visitors with the reality of British species threatened with extinction. Continuing the artist’s investigation into interspecies, her interest was to confront visitors with the only mode of encounter left once a species has become extinct: the description, image, sound or taxidermed shell of a once thriving organism. However, rather than focusing on already extinct species, her focus was on the ‘still living’; species classified as being under threat, but which still stand a chance for survival if immediate action is taken. Beatriz posited that, after they have been eradicated from our planet as a result of hunting, loss of habitat or climate change, our only opportunities for interaction with these species will be with bottled and mounted specimens. The possibility of an encounter ‘in the flesh’ will have disappeared, with humans reduced to studying preserved examples of each species.
To realise this exhibit, Beatriz worked collaboratively with the Arts Catalyst team and the collection curators at the Horniman Museum and the Natural History Museum in London. Central to the installation were taxidermed specimens of endangered animals alongside preserved botanical samples of plants under threat. Each specimen was given a ‘birth date’ (the date of classification and inclusion into the corpus of western science) as well as a ‘death date’ (the date of projected extinction).
A Memorial for the Still Living was shown as part of the Dark Places exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton (1), and then as a solo exhibition at the Horniman Museum in London. To coincide with the exhibition, the artist released the Endangered Species Finder, a mobile application that facilitates encounters with other species within their ‘natural’ environments. Beatriz believed that experience and encounter, not just policy and regulations, are what ultimately change our behavior towards our environment. Through her encouragement of a ‘go out and meet the species before it’s too late’ attitude, she hoped to make a small contribution to the collective effort of examining our current relationships to non-human species.
Of course, the project and its title, A Memorial for the Still Living, acquired a powerful poignancy after Beatriz’ diagnosis with breast cancer and as the disease progressed. Constructing the installation exactly to her specifications became invested with great importance for us, and I will mention here our producer Gillean Dickie, who worked creatively and collaboratively with Beatriz to fix every small detail as the artist wanted it.
Whilst more than 13,000 people saw the installation in Southampton and London, Beatriz herself never saw it in its physical form because she was too ill to travel. We documented it on video and photographs for her, and when she felt well enough, she came to London in early 2011 to talk about the work in a public event at the Arts Catalyst. Our curator Rob La Frenais took the opportunity to record an interview with Beatriz about her work, an interview which we will make available soon.
There is no doubt that we would have commissioned Beatriz again. We were in early discussion with Botanic Gardens Conservation International about a potential project with Beatriz, and we also – as she became more ill – discussed showing her powerful video installation, Dying for the Other, in the UK, a work which documented the lives of mice used in breast cancer research and humans suffering from the same disease. In order to produce Dying for the Other, Beatriz documented scenes of her own life during the summer of 2011 and combined them with footage taken at a breast cancer research facility in New York City over the same time frame.
Despite her worsening condition and the many surgeries that she endured, Beatriz – Shani to her friends, as we were by now – was often in contact with us, discussing projects, being interviewed by Skype for a research project by an embedded researcher with Arts Catalyst, discussing future plans until she could no longer think clearly or type and it had become clear to us all that her time was running out. It is of some consolation that she died at home, with people she loved, yet still unbearable and unfair that we have lost this vibrant, clever, committed woman and artist.
1. A Memorial for the Still Living was commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and co-curated with the Office of Experiments, John Hansard Gallery and SCAN, for Dark Places.
In ‘Transformism’, the Arts Catalyst’s latest exhibition which has just opened at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen reflect on our compulsion to alter and shape the materials, objects and living entities around us. They wonder at our ingenuity, and contemplate our relationships with biology and matter as they are radically transformed by human agency, whether the impulse is artistic or scientific.
Today, in our attempts to rework our living and material world to fit our beliefs of how it should be, we have powerful new tools. Molecular biology, nanoscience and engineering are converging, provoking scientists to dream up all kinds of transformed matter: vaccine-producing bananas, fluorescent cats, bacteria that excrete diesel, trees that clean up pollutants, nanorobots that can enter human cells. Science proclaims a new revolutionary age, in which we can make almost anything, if we only understand and imagine it. Yet the urge to create new forms and objects, whether driven by need, desire or simply fantastical dreams of what might be possible, is ages old. To understand where we’re headed, we should have some perspective on where we’ve come from.
Melanie Jackson’s investigations into mutability and novel forms are rooted in her awareness of the visual, sensual, historical, political and scientific aspects of materials and plants, and her interest in the intertwined role of myths and fantasy with aesthetics and technology. She is intrigued by scale, conscious that many new types of matter, such as liquid crystals, microscopic biological entities and smart materials, are rendered invisible because of scale or concealed within a hermetically sealed interface, yet they impact dramatically on our macroscopic visual and tactile environment and our dreams of magical abundance.
The Urpflanze (Part 2) is the second part of Jackson’s ongoing investigation into plant form, aesthetics and transformation that takes its lead from Goethe’s concept of an archetypal plant, the Urpflanze, from which all plant forms could be generated. Contemporary science similarly imagines the potential to grow or print any form we can imagine, by recasting physical, chemical and biological function as a substrate that can be programmed into being. Jackson’s work begins in the botanical garden and looks to the laboratory, from clay pits to the factory floor, from analogue to digital clay, from its own animated pixels to the interior of the screen in a series of moving image works and ceramic sculptures.
Revital Cohen’s work explores themes relating to nature, technology, and human behaviour. In particular, living creatures that are produced and used as artefacts fascinate her. Her interest in these designed animals – whether pets, farm animals, or living drug factories – is driven by what motivates and influences the breeders and scientists, and what this commodification means for our relationship with these fabricated living beings.
In Kingyo Kingdom, Cohen explores the genus of fish that have been designed for aesthetic purposes, questioning the definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What are the design criteria involved in creating living creatures? Cohen’s interest in the cultural perceptions and aesthetics of animal-as-product took her to Japan where exotic goldfish have been developed over centuries of meticulous cultivation; breeding out dorsal fins and sculpting kimono-like Ranchu fish tails. Kingyo Kingdom explores the unique culture of breeders, collectors and connoisseurs with footage from the Japanese national goldfish competition, questioning the design and commodification of this species.
‘Transformism’ is the latest manifestation of the Arts Catalyst’s extensive investigations into how arts practice, culture and contemporary science interpenetrate and influence one another.
The philosopher Bernard Stiegler has asserted that the divorce between the rhythms of cultural and technical evolution is symptomatic of the fact that today technics evolves more quickly than culture (1), but perhaps there is more interplay than we realise. The works in ‘Transformism’ meditate on the vibrations and circulations of our changing material world and explores our complex relationships with the things we create, in the process softening the boundaries between culture and technology.
Transformism is at the John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ, from 22 January to 9 March 2013
The Transformism exhibition guide, with an essay by Isobel Harbison, is available from the John Hansard Gallery or can be downloaded in a variety of e-formats from The Arts Catalyst website.
1. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus