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Posts tagged ‘human remains’

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)

Human specimens: a labyrinth of morality, science and law

Aaron Williamson, Specimen Mirror, performance, with the skeleton of Charles Byrne, Hunterian Museum, 2011

I was interested to see this debate come up in the media just before Christmas:

Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of ‘Irish giant’

The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal called for the skeletal remains of a man called Charles Byrne, the so-called ‘Irish Giant’, on display in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, to be buried at sea. Byrne, who lived in the 18th century and was 7′ 7″ tall, was an object of curiosity for the  famous surgeon and anatomist Sir John Hunter. Byrne became so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse after his death that he left specific instructions for his body to be buried at sea. But when he died, aged just 22, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and stole the body. Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display ever since. The BMJ paper’s authors claimed that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned and Byrne’s remains should be buried according to his wishes, but the Hunterian Museum rejected this call, saying that it considers that the educational and research benefits merit retaining Byrne’s remains.

This story has a particular interest for me because, in May last year, we co-organised an event with the disability arts group Shape at the Hunterian Museum. Titled ‘Labyrinth of Living Exhibits’, the event addressed the issue of human specimens in such collections.

The Hunterian is little known, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There are thousands of specimens on display, the remains of the once vast collection made by Hunter. Many still carry his classification as either ‘morbid’ or ‘normal’. The unsettling collection contains many human parts, including whole skeletons and human foetuses. The focus of Hunter’s collecting was clearly biased towards ‘the different’ – extreme cases of growth, “abnormality” and disease.

In the Labyrinth of Living Exhibits, artist Aaron Williamson curated four simultaneous, specially commissioned, site-specific performances, which infiltrated and responded to the collection, performed simultaneously by disabled artists Aaron Williamson, Sinéad O’Donnell, Brian Catling and Katherine Araniello.

Katherine Araniello, BiPAP 1 (Living Experiment), photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

In Araniello’s work, she took on the guise of a guinea pig escaped from a laboratory in a dark, slow and subversive performance. Brian Catling’s performance Out of Its Depth, in fact, began at the Hunterian in 1979 in response to a “specimen” which the Museum housed until recently: the body of a one-eyed child (now locked away out of public view). Wearing a latex, one-eyed mask, Catling walked through the collections or stood by a pillar, peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience’s curiosity. In Williamson’s own performance, Specimen Mirror, he distorted his own facial features by pressing them against the glass cases of the collections, in response to the flattened suspended specimens.

Brian Catling, Out Of Its Depth, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

A lively panel discussion followed the performances. Aaron Williamson opened the discussion by describing the impetus for each of the performances, explaining his curatorial interest in the responses of artists who are “set apart from the norm” through illness or medical prognosis.

The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, then gave an honest exposition of the Hunterian’s collections of “disabled people as objects”. He explained that the museum was set up in the 18th and developed in the 19th century, and that in those centuries museums were in the business of “classifying” difference. Human remains that came into museums were classified against the “norm”, which at that time, he said, was male, heterosexual, white and European. Anyone else was pathologised. The Hunterian Museum, Alberti explained, is not a medical museum, but a medical history museum, and what it displays are the legacies of prejudice. Alberti said that he felt very passionately that it was important to understand and show to the public the representation and construction of difference, and that the display had to be seen through this historical lens. Araniello disagreed with Alberti and said she didn’t feel that it was helpful at all to have such images and specimens on display for the public, and that it did more harm than good in continuing to objectify and pathologies people.

You can watch video recordings of the full panel discussion here.

Panel discussion of Labyrinth Living Exhibits, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

So I found it fascinating to see the debate about Charles Byrne’s remains raised again in the media, quoting Alberti saying “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

It is a complex debate between science, education and morality, complicated by a man’s dying wishes and a nasty case of corpse robbing.

But there is also a wider context for this debate in the claims on human remains in all other museum collections. Since the late 1970s, human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have often been contested by the museums and by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence, echoing the Hunterian’s arguments over Byrne’s remains.

This is a topic that has interested me for several years. At one point, I was involved in some very early stage discussions with another London museum about an exhibition on such a theme. Whilst the exhibition never developed, there has been much progress in this area over the last decade. Increasingly, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial. One sticking point was legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this changed in 2004 (under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act), and nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old held in their collections. In 2011, for example, the Natural History Museum returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island community. There is an interesting video about the return on the museum’s site.

But in a book published last year, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argued that museums were being “over-sensitive” to demands for greater “respect” for human remains, and removing specimens from public display that were valued by museum-goers.

It is an interesting and ongoing debate. Do you have examples of other art projects or exhibitions that have explored these issues? I’d be interested to hear.

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