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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

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