The topic of toxicity reconstructs not only the current environmental situation, but also socio-political contexts by looking into modes of contemporary cultural and technological production … Biotechnology, through its complexity, radically reconstructs relations between politics and nature, allowing for a reassessment of how we look at life today.
Context is critical. Artists have different ways of looking at science, they ask different questions. Jennifer Willet questioned the apparatus of science by taking it into unruly territory with BioARTCAMP, a bioart laboratory in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Willet presented documentation as a three-channel video installation.
Between Magnets by Ted Hiebert was a series of photographic portraits and live performance precipitated by the nonsensical question: How many magnets would it take to attract through a human head? As with many technological phenomena the space between magnets is invisible. Hiebert became carnival, a combination of strongman and fool as he wore crowns made of high-powered magnets. What happened inside this space created room for play and critical speculation without the overriding premise of logic. During the performance an EEG machine, which registered the electric activity of his brain, added to the spectacle although the data seemed pointless. Science is reductive; carnival is excess. Most onlookers laughed, others felt concerned. Perhaps don't try this at home. Out of nonsense, non-foolish questions were generated. Within a broader context, novel technological developments are often associated with unjustified paranoia.
Unjustified biohazard paranoia made travelling Tagny Duff’s Living Viral Tattoos problematic although these works are benign. A combination of Lentivirus; a non-pathogenic HIV virus, human or pig tissue, Ha Cat cells and immunohistochemical stain resulted in fleshy sculptures with ritualistic tattoos. The virus worked as a minute messenger, transporting DNA from one cell to another. The histological staining of antibody reactions made the shift of genetic material visible. According to Duff, the resulting blue bruise or tattoo on the tissue satisfied her obsessive need as an artist to mark and monitor movement.
With regard to fears concerning GM food, and dietary restrictions, we can know too much. Such was the message by Joe Davis. Working in the area of bioinformatics, he incorporates intellectual knowledge into the biome. He is currently working with an international consortium to sequence the genome of M. sieversii, an ancestor to the domestic apple. Blending aesthetics and science, Davis aims to hack a version of Wikipedia into the apple’s genome. Paper maquettes for the public art sculpture Malus ecclesia, Wikipedia-modified M. sieversii referenced the sequencing project and the Tree of Knowledge which bears the forbidden fruit, knowledge of good and evil.
The Pelling Lab works to “understand the limits of living systems”. Re-purposed was a different type of biohacking, based on organic structure. Human cells grew inside apples, producing a chimerical blend of plant, animal and 3D sculpture. The apple flesh was not toxic to the mammalian cells as first expected. Decellularisation techniques applied to the apple flesh created a porous cellulose matrix: an architecture that supported growing mammalian cells. Long-held beliefs regarding the separation of biological taxonomies and notions of purity and pollution are constantly being challenged with recent technological advancements in genetics and biotechnology. Public monitoring of the work was possible via a Twitter-enabled microscope.
My own artwork Trust alluded to the misplaced conviction in the modernist ideologies of progress and products, based on the common good and goods. In the practical experiment Toxicity testing via Zones of Inhibition subtle territories were formed by the interaction between toxic antibacterial and bacterial host. Scientists are currently mining the natural world for novel compounds since antibiotics no longer retain potency due to the pressures of capitalism and imprudent use. Toxicity is not only desirable but necessary. Microbes evolve defeating our quest for a panacea. We should be mindful of short-sighted solutions. Sometimes medicine is not targeted toward health but rather towards cultural values. When it became legal for dentists to administer the neurotoxin Botox, David Khang went to a workshop. With a background in dentistry, art and design, performance, critical theory and psychology, Khang, combined his experiences into Beautox Me. Two HD videos were screened side by side, each with an actor performing soliloquies from Shakespeare. One performance was animated, the other lacking emotion and uncannily frozen by Botox.
Trish Adams and Aganetha Dyck aimed to elicit feelings of empathy toward honeybees due to the global crisis of their diminishing populations. Adams likened aggressive honeybee activity to urban populations in her video installation DISORDERED SWARMING. QR code technology permitted viewers and respond via smartphone. Delicate traces of honeybee activity marked Dyck’s collection of FEEDER BOARDS. Feeder boards hold sugar syrup, which sustains bees through periods of food shortage caused by the harvesting of honey stores by humans. Dyck’s low-tech but sublime methods of collaboration with honeybees are the outcome of 22 years of intimate observation of living systems, and trial and error.
The reassessment of life and its environment was the common conceptual thread in Toxicity. All the artists engaged with living systems by performing acts of trial and error, by tinkering, hacking, resisting and most importantly questioning. This is increasingly pertinent as we develop new technologies to facilitate the manipulation of life.
Niki Sperou is an artist and writer within the nexus of art, science and culture. Since 2006 she has been the resident artist at the department of Medical Biotechnology, Flinders University.
Toxicity was the first major biotech art project in Canada. Held at the Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, Winnipeg, Canada (6 December 2013 – 8 February 2014) and curated by Melentie Pandilovski, Director, Video Pool Media Arts Centre and Jennifer Willet, Director, Incubator: Hybrid Laboratory at the intersection of Art, Science and Ecology.
Artists: Trish Adams, Alana Bartol, Joe Davis, Tagny Duff, Aganetha Dyck, Ted Hiebert, Natalie Jeremijenko, David Khang, Steve Kurtz & Critical Art Ensemble, Andrew E. Pelling, Niki Sperou, Reva Stone, Elaine Whittaker, Amanda White and Jennifer Willet.
Events included a Biotech Art workshop, led by Niki Sperou; and a symposium, with keynote speakers Joe Davis, Natalie Jeremijenko and Steve Kurtz: www.toxicitywinnipeg.com/symposium/.