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Posts tagged ‘bioart’

The performance (and performativity) of science

B&W photo. Man dressed as giant butterfly

Jan Fabre, A Consilience, 2000. With Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Keeper of Entomology, Natural History Museum

The text of short talk that I gave at DASER in Washington DC a couple of weeks ago, as part of a themed event on science and performance (you can also watch it here – and see the other speakers’ talks):

Whilst the Arts Catalyst’s work is primarily situated in the visual arts, we see our work – the artistic outputs of our work – as ‘experiences’, in which the medium itself is not the main criteria. I would like to look at three projects that the Arts Catalyst has commissioned, which centre on or incorporate performance as an artform or tactic, and to discuss them through the lens of ‘performativity’, a term which has increasingly entered the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades.

Previously used primarily within theatre and the performing arts, the term ‘performance’ – or the notion of ‘performativity’ is now often employed as a principle to understand human behaviour. The notion that we ‘perform’ our role in society has roots in the 1940s and 50s in the writings of scholars such as Erving Goffman, who in his highly influential book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), emphasized the link between social life and performance. In the 1990s, Judith Butler famously theorized gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. Scholars interested in the notion of performativity stress the active, social construction of reality, as well as the way that individual behaviour is determined by the context in which it occurs.

The concept of performativity in the social sciences sprang from its use by the language philosopher J L Austin, who argued against the predominant view in philosophy at the time (1970s): that the chief business of sentences was to state facts. In particular, he described a type of sentence, ‘performative utterances’, which perform a certain kind of action (such as ‘I name this ship …’). This concept of ‘performativity’ has been picked up, developed and extended by theorists across many disciplines. It has broadly come to be used to describe theories, models or activities that affect and are affected by their actions, rather than being objective observations or truths.

In the study of science, until recently, experiment – science’s interaction with the world – was viewed as something secondary to theory and technology was barely theorised at all. But a new generation of historians and philosophers have pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. In the 1990s, Andrew Pickering argued that studies of science should go beyond science-as-knowledge to include the material, social and temporal dimensions of science [1]. Rather than seeing scientists as ‘disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations’, he suggests that we should start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency.

Two artists, one dressed as a beetle the other as a fly, converse

Jan Fabre & Ilya Kabakov, Eeen Ontmoeting/A Meeting

From the earliest days of the Arts Catalyst, I have been interested in commissioning art, in any medium, that reflects this ‘performative turn’, exploring how scientists shape society, culture and the world and are also shaped by them, rather than art that simply represents scientific discoveries or technologies.

The first project I want to speak about, Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, we were inspired to commission when my colleague at the time Rob La Frenais interviewed the Belgian artist Jan Fabre and returned to the UK to show me a film that Fabre had made with the famous Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, in which Fabre represents the world of the beetle, and Kabakov the realm of the fly.

We invited Fabre to undertake a residency at the Natural History Museum in London, a working scientific research institution as well as, of course, a world-famous public museum. He proposed to interview senior entomologists, each to be costumed in the guise of the insect of the scientist’s focus of study. Fabre himself was an amateur entomologist. To our surprise, the scientists not only agreed to participate, but there was such enthusiasm that we practically had to hold casting sessions.

In the end, five scientists, including the Keeper of Entomology Professor Dick Vane-Wright and the Deputy Keeper Dr Rory Post, took part in a series of conversations held in the museum’s extraordinary backstage collections. As well as discussing their scientific interest in the subject, each was happy to ‘perform’ a number of physical actions of the insects of their field of study. Through this, the film – shown in the museum as a two-screen installation – played on the notion of how the insects and their behaviours act on the humans who study them, as much as being purely the objects of scientific curiosity.

Extracts from Jan Fabre’s A Consilience, 2000, featuring Professor Dick Vane-Wright

In my second example, we brokered and facilitated a collaboration between the French dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois and the multidisciplinary scientific Biodynamics Group at Imperial College London. They worked together from 2000 and 2005, studying control and movement of the body in weightlessness, including a number of zero gravity flights with the European Space Agency and the Russian Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, that we organised.

This work led to installations, performances, films and scientific papers, as well as a published scientific paper and a whole new area of scientific research for the Biodynamics Group.

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (video extract), 2000

Kitsou Dubois – Trajectoire Fluide (performance), 2003

In the spirit Pickering’s introduction of a ‘performative image of science, which aimed to rebalance our understanding of science away from an obsession with pure knowledge and towards recognising science’s material powers, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – in their book Laboratory Life – suggest that the aim of science is not to provide facts or representation about nature but rather to ‘perform’ it [2]. Among their cast of actors are the new products of science, such as genetically modified organisms.

In the US group Critical Art Ensemble’s participatory performance GenTerra (2002), performed as part of Arts Catalyst’s CleanRooms exhibition, audience members could grow and own a sample of transgenic bacteria and, after an intensive learning experience, make their own decision on the ‘release’ of transgenic organisms into the environment.

Since the 1970s, spectacularly rapid developments in the biological sciences have become a source of concern as well as excitement. Many scientists warn of the dangers of commercial pressures to push forward with biotechnology, a technique that contains many unknowns and many defects, leading to real and possible dangers to our health and to the ecosystem.

Man in white coat shows petri dishes of bacteria on release device to young boy

Critical Art Ensemble, GenTerra, 2003

Critical Art Ensemble’s work from 1993 to around 2006 sought to expose misinformation about biotechnology that came from such sources as market directives and science fiction. As few people have direct experience of working with biotechnology, the subject can seem abstract and too difficult for a non-specialist to understand. A key Critical Art Ensemble tactic therefore was to bring this science out of the lab and stage it in the public domain – giving people direct experience of common scientific processes and reliable information on a one to one basis.

The artists’ projects described above give present a few brief examples of how tactics of ‘performing science’ can focus attention on science’s ‘performativity’: on science as a series of actions that affect the world.

(This talk drew on an essay I wrote about Critical Art Ensemble’s work for the book: ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ in Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Janis Jefferies and Rachel Zerihan, Published by Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (Princeton University Press, 1986).

www.artfund.org/arthappens-artscatalyst

Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIY biology residency at Arts Catalyst

Shoestring Lab workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Shoestring Biotech: build your own lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence workshop, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and canapes, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Gjino Sutic's live mechatronic heart

Gjino Sutic’s live mechatronic heart

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).

Bioluminescence, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioluminescence, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

DIY Microscopy & Water Bear Hunting, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

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.

 

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cocktails and Canapes: the genetics of taste, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Bioeletronics, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Bioelectronics, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Cellular Gastronomy, MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab, MadLab's Lab Easy, 2013

Deptford Market Food Lab,
MadLab’s Lab Easy, 2013

Proposal: an arts/science* ethics advisory panel initiative

Man with an ear growing on one forearmTransparent lab jar with unidentifiable piece of meat-like substance in it

* arts/science, in this context only, implies art that needs or would value science ethics expertise

Following from the artist-initiated events, Gina Czarnecki’s Wasted Debates round table, and Anna Dumitriu’s Trust Me, I’m an Artist with Neal White, I want to suggest a possible structure for an independent arts ethics advisory panel, since a number of artists have said that they would benefit from expert ethics advice on their proposed projects, both to reassure funders, venues, collaborators and media, and to advise the project itself.

This might apply to artworks that use human remains, art that involves people ingesting certain substances, art that involves animals, or art that involves genetically-modified or bioengineered substances or living things, as examples.

I propose that an advisory panel system is set up. The term “ethics committee” may be more useful as a reassurance to some bodies, but a panel implies a more advisory function rather than providing ‘rulings’ or issuing ‘approval’ – which I feel is more appropriate to an art context – and perhaps a less static membership.

The requirements for such a panel are, I believe:

– appropriate balance of expertise

– independence from the proposed project under review

– accessible for artists

– flexible and unbureaucratic

I suggest we need a database of advisors, drawn from science, the arts and ethics, who may either nominate themselves or come via some sort of nomination process (what do people think?). We also need a public list of panel conveners. The conveners play a key role.

How it would work

An artist could approach one of the conveners to ask them to put together an independent panel to consider the artist’s proposed project (or a project underway). The advisory panel would have appropriate expertise, including – I suggest – at least one artist, relevant scientific and ethics expertise, and a curator or exhibitions organiser.

The panel would discuss the proposal and provide the artist with written comments and advice (rather than a ‘ruling’), and would include attached to the document the names and qualifications/expertise of the advisory panel members.

This written statement could then be presented by the artist to venues, funders and collaborators to support a project proposal, and provide information, advice and reassurance on key ethical, legal and safety issues.

Of course, the statement can and may be disregarded by the artist, at their own judgement and risk.

Provisos

My provisos to this proposal are that, to be sustainable, particularly assuming that demand will grow, it would be better if the process could be systemised to reduce workload (perhaps a panel meets once a quarter to review several proposals), and the conveners and panel members recompensed, unless their occupation covers their time on such a panel.

A funding or research body might support this, in which case the initiative might have to be constituted to raise funds. Alternatively, funds to convene a panel could be built into fundraising applications and sponsorship proposals for the art project (so a standardised list of fees would be needed).

Thoughts please!

These are just some thoughts, based on discussions and experience of cross-disciplinary panels. I welcome your comments and further suggestions or alternative proposals.

Images (L-R): Stelarc, Third Ear, Tissue Culture & Art Project, Victimless Leather, 

Wasted debates: using human remains in art

Illuminated translucent sculpture

Gina Czarnecki, Palace (2011). Photo: Sam Meech

Recently, I took part in a round table discussion on the use of human remains in art. The discussion participants included ethics experts, scientists, artists and curators. It was impressive in its breadth and depth of expertise. The round table was part of a series of events connected with Gina Czarnecki’s exhibition at Bluecoats, Liverpool, which includes a series of works from her Wasted series, which use donated human tissue (from living donors).

The topic relates to some of my interests in ethics in art and the display of human remains, and the discussion has sparked a lot of further thought. I would like to explain a little of the specific context in which this event took place, and give a brief summary of the discussion (you can also watch the full discussion online). In a later post, I want to suggest a possible way forward in terms of ethical reviews of artists’ projects.

I’ve known Gina Czarnecki for several years and had the privilege to work with her in 2002, when Arts Catalyst commissioned her work Silvers Alter for our exhibition CleanRooms. Most of her works in the exhibition at Bluecoats are film and interactive installations. Czarnecki has a striking and distinctive aesthetic working with image of the human body. However, one room displays her new body of work, which represents a new departure, shifting from moving image to the sculptural form and a preoccupation with the material. These works all incorporate ‘discarded’ body parts such as children’s milk teeth, and bones and fat from living, consenting donors, and explore the significance of these parts in relation to to history, mythology and science, as well as raising issues of consent and donation.

Image of a human being prone against a dark background

Gina Czarnecki, Infected (2009)

At the opening of the round table, Gina Czarnecki explained that her father was a concentration camp survivor, and this family history influences her work. She also explained her long-term exploration of biotechnology and its impact on the human image. I felt that this context was important in understanding her work.

People specifically donated their body fat and bones to her Wasted projects via a surgeon. (Children directly donate their milk teeth). But the surgeon was later advised that his involvement in the project might compromise his license to practice, not because of any ethical transgression, but because of “bad press”. Czarnecki voluntarily returned the bones.

Czarnecki, and her collaborating scientists, Sara Rankin and Rod Dillon, had a series of similarly disheartening experiences: approaching institutional collaborators to collaborate, who would at first be interested and then balk because of the lack of “ethical approval” (Rod Dillon outlines some of this process in his blog post).

In fact, there is no legal need for an artist to have ethical approval for the display of human tissues from living people, if they have given their consent. Nonetheless the institutions were nervous. But even were there a need for ethical approval for some procedure as part of an artist’s project, no body exists to give such approval. So there is a Catch 22, which is causing problems for increasing numbers of artists. Also, as Gina pointed out, quite apart from just allaying collaborators’ and funders’ concerns, many artists would like to have ethical approval for what they are doing, as well as sound advice on biosafety. A number of experts on the committee thought it was very strange that no one was prepared to say that this work was “ethical”.

At one point, the conversation became – as it often does in cross-disciplinary dialogues – bogged down in whether or not some of the participants liked or understood Czarnecki’s work. But to me the point, in terms of a discussion on ethics, is not whether someone likes Czarnecki’s Palace artistically or not, or whether it conveys clear ideas (about the science it engages with, for example). As Bronac Ferran noted at the meeting, art’s function isn’t necessarily to be aesthetically pleasing or to increase understanding, but often it is precisely to disrupt, confuse, and provoke. The point rather, in terms of ethics, is whether, at an early enough stage in the works’ development, the artist has informed herself and considered the ethical (and legal) implications of the work in detail, has an understanding of the possible implications, and can discuss how these might be addressed in the process and presentation of her work and any long-term consequences.

There is, of course, the thorny issue of “benefit”. Scientific ethics committees work by considering whether the potential benefits of a piece of research outweigh the risks (assuming that there are risks). I assume that it is not always straightforward to see the potential benefits of a piece of scientific research, let alone a work of art. I suppose there are both practical benefits to society – in art, perhaps this is the showing of the work publicly – and less tangible ones, in contributing to the “body of knowledge” of art (in the same way that science can contribute to knowledge as well as to technology or medical applications). In which case, perhaps the only way to assess the likely “benefit” of an artwork, if this is necessary in the context of risk, is to look at the track record of the artist, rather than relying on a subjective response to a specific proposal.

In a forthcoming blog post, I’ll try to outline a proposal for how we might practically approach this “grey area” in dealing with ethics between artists’ practice and the institution.

Two people (seen from the back) watch a video installation on which are naked people

Gina Czarnecki, Silvers Alter (2002)

Let’s experiment with ourselves

An artist in a respiratory air mask sits in a plastic tent. Test tubes and bottles on a table in front of him.

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

Self-Experimentation and the Ethics Committee of 1

A report on the event ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration

Artist: Neal White
Ethics committee: Professor Bobbie Farsides (Chair), Professor Michael Parker, Professor Bob Brecher, Dr Julian Sheather, Professor Richard Faragher, Helen Sloan 

Last week, Arts Catalyst hosted ‘Trust Me, I’m An Artist’ one of a series of events taking place around Europe, created by Anna Dumitriu, investigating ethical issues arising in some art and science collaboration and considering the roles and responsibilities of artists, scientists and institutions. At each event, an internationally known artist proposes an artwork to a specially convened ethics committee, in front of an audience. The committee, following the rules of ethics committees they serve on, discusses the proposal and reach a decision. The panel then informs the artist of the decision and, with the audience, discusses the result with the committee.

Artist Neal White gave a fascinating, provocative presentation about his project: The Void, in which he recreated Yves Klein‘s “blue urine” experiment. In May 1959, on the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition Le Vide (The Void) in Paris, Klein served special blue cocktail, containing Methylene blue. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue for about a week. Since this event took place in 1959, Methylene blue as a stain has been established as toxic. However, it is also a component in several medications, is used to reduce symptoms of cystitis, and in other forms for treating methemoglobinemia.

Blue liquid falling in a stream

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

In 2004, White proposed a research experiment whilst artist in residence at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He proposed to re-stage Klein’s event as an experiment to establish what were the safest, or least toxic, dosage of Methylene blue in an alcoholic cocktail required to turn urine blue. Visitors would be faced with a choice: either to consume an artwork that contained the ingredients of Methylene blue, with only the clinical information provided, or to keep the artwork they were given (the pill and information) as an intact form, signed by the artist.

The artist intended the experiment to be both a cultural experiment which utilized a clinical trial under closely monitored conditions, and a challenge to the limits of artistic practice in its engagement with science, and specifically in its engagement with the politics of consent and belief, and the institutions themselves (White’s practice incorporates a strong current of institutional critique). His aim, he explained to the committee, was also to question the physical site of an artwork and our willingness to participate, beyond a visual experience, in an embodied experience of art, and join the ranks of the “self-experimenters”.

White’s presentation was impressive, and raised interesting issues not only around the nature of an artwork, and the fascinating ethics raised by medical self-experimentation (which has a long history), but also how we perceive authority and expertise, the limits of autonomous decision-making, and the nature of the ethics committee itself. White explained that the NIMR ethics committee had turned down his original proposal, but that he had performed the art experiment in an art gallery setting instead. However, he did not explain to the panel the reasons for that committee’s decision.

The structure of the event was that the artist then left the space for half an hour while the ethics committee discussed his proposal.

Because of their brief – that they follow the rules and procedures typical of the host country – the ethics committee (a highly-qualified and experienced group of experts) struggled for half an hour to find a way to engage coherently with the proposal. Bob Brecher asked whether the proposal was for an artwork or art research, because ethics committees only deal with research. This uncertainty about how to categorise the proposal was rather a shame, as it meant the conversation continued to return to this basic issue and thus to stall, which reduced the opportunity to explore some of the interesting ethics. The audience didn’t get to see the artist’s completed ethics form, which had clearly confused members of the committee. Richard Faragher, who throughout seemed most opposed to the proposed, noted: “To stand before an ethics committee you are making a claim that the benefits (of your research) outweigh the risks”. Faragher could not see the ‘benefits’ of the ‘research’ at all. Helen Sloan, the arts curator on the committee, challenged the concept of ‘benefit’ in respect of art. Professor Michael Parker commented with characteristic common sense: “My view is this is an interesting artwork, relatively low risk. The problem is the (nature of an) ethics committee”. Julian Sheather wondered whether the artist was playing a joke on the committee. “If so” he mused, “it’s rather a good one.” The audience was clearly desperate to jump in to the debate, but that wasn’t to be allowed until after the decision was given to the artist.

Glasses and dishes on a table, rubber gloves, a sheet of paper with 'Menu for the Void'

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

When Neal White returned to the room, Bobbie Farsides gave the overall verdict of the committee: “A low risk artwork, but possibly not within the remit of an ethics committee to decide on”. Faragher disagreed strongly and said that he would not give his permission to the experiment to go ahead.

In the lively discussion that followed with the artist and audience, the audience joined in enthusiastically. Some were disappointed that the committee had not engaged with the breadth and subtlety of Neal’s presentation. But perhaps that was in the nature of the brief that they were given. White explained that when the NIMR had turned down the proposal, they had done so not on the basis of the harm it might do the participants, but because they did not want any potential “bad” publicity at the time.

The discussion continued about the “benefit” of his work, Sheather complaining that artists seem to set out to shock and so it was difficult sometimes to see the benefits. It always saddens me to hear this, first because it only applies to some artists, and – if you press the person who says this – it’s almost always the same names cited (Chapmans, Emin, Hirst, and the Sensation exhibition). And, frankly, I’ve been far more profoundly shocked by things that have taken place under the umbrella of science than any art I’ve encountered, but I wouldn’t make judgements on all scientists based on that.

Neal White had the last word when he quoted the late artist John Latham on the ‘benefits’ of art: “The contribution of art to society is art”.

A series of newspapers, each titled 'The Self-Experimenter'

Neal White, The Self-Experimenter. Image: Office of Experiments

A tale of singing worms

Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (2011). Photo: Jan Sprij

I’m just back from Leiden in the Netherlands, where the Waag Society had invited me to give a presentation at the award ceremony for the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a collaboration with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. This was the second year of the award, which can be won by artists and designers who graduated no longer than five years ago.

The jury handed out four awards of €25000 to designers and artists to work with partner scientists with whom they were matched at an earlier stage in the competition process.

The winners were Lionel Billiet (BE) who proposes to develop lichen graffiti on buildings, Susana Cámera Leret (ES) and Mike Thompson (UK) who want to explore the metabolomics of urine and develop metabolic paintings, Tiddo Bakker (NL) who will give plants a voice through measuring their activity with a tension meter, and Zack Denfeld (US), Catherine Kramer (AU) and Yashas Shetty (IN), who plan a series of recipes that imagine near and far future diets of ageing Netherlanders.

The final works of the winners of last year’s awards were exhibited upstairs at the Naturalis, Leiden’s Natural History Museum (on until 8th January ). I liked Matthijs Munnik’s ‘Microscopic Opera’, an audiovisual installation in which tiny nematodes perform an abstract opera under microscopes. Munnik developed a system to translate the movements of the c.elegans worm – a model organism often used in research labs – into sounds in real time. I found the “music” of the worms’ opera rather appealing and I enjoyed the simplicity of the concept and the effectiveness of its execution.

Reunions and resistance – Critical Art Ensemble

Great to meet up with Steve Kurtz at AND festival, Liverpool, last week, recovered from his four-year ordeal of FBI intimidation.

Photo of Steve Kurtz in panel discussion smiling in black jumper and blue jeans

Photo of Steve Kurtz by Steve Reynolds

Kurtz’s story is well-known and much written about. But for those on another planet at the time: in 2004, Kurtz, of art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), together with his scientific collaborator Dr. Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, were slapped with charges of bioterrorism by the US Dept of Justice. These were triggered by CAE’s art projects critiquing commercial biotechnology and US biowarfare research, and Kurtz’s biological lab equipment and supplies, discovered because he had called 911 to report that his wife had died of heart failure.

Men in white hazard suits enter a house marked of by yellow warning tape

The FBI searching Kurtz's house


When the bioterrorism charges could not be substantiated – after several months and a pile of public money – the DOJ downgraded the crime to “mail and wire fraud”. These charges involved a minor contractual technicality over Ferrell’s sale of some harmless bacteria to Kurtz for his project “Marching Plague” (commissioned by Arts Catalyst). Under the US Patriot Act the maximum sentence for these charges was five to twenty years. The FBI continued for four years to try to find ways to reinstate the bioterrorism charges.

Critical Art Ensemble, Marching Plague, action on Isle of Lewis (2006), commissioned by The Arts Catalyst)

Ferrell eventually pleaded guilty to these smaller charges to avoid a federal trial, leaving Kurtz to forge on alone for both Team Art and Team Science. Ferrell wasn’t so much scared of the DOJ as just extremely ill. He has had non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the past 30 years, and three strokes since the charges were brought against him.

In 2008, after a long expensive legal battle, a judge finally dismissed all charges against Kurtz.

But has Kurtz really recovered, as he says? He talked at his keynote lecture at AND festival / Rewire conference about the Lacunian “big other”, and the policeman and the lawyer who now sit in his head. Critical Art Ensemble will be at Documenta next year, enfolded into the bosom of the mainstream arts world, presenting critical work that is powerful but covers subject matter that other artists do. Is CAE going to play it safe now? Has the FBI won, in some sense, by quieting their critique and dulling their actions?

What inspired me so much about CAE was their tactical invasion of specialist knowledge economies, such as biotechnology, that are controlled and commodified.

But talking to Steve, I am reassured and immensely cheered. He is a remarkable man, battered but resilient, and absolutely unbroken. Expect more mischief-making and provocations in new and unexpected knowledge domains. I will report.

Three smiling people in a dark bar

Absolutely sober Arts Catalyst / Steve Kurtz reunion at AND festival. Photo:: someone in a bar


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