the final panel of Subtle Technologies was dedicated to the workshop on tissue culture that took place the week before the festival.
here are a few pictures.
below: the participants shared their impressions. Most participants confirmed the difficulty implied with working with biological material. it takes a long time, continuous engagement and experience to be able to use this material with success and, eventually, to get any result. In addition, it is easy to get carried away by the wonder of the tools, the procedures and by the excitement of working in the lab. However, as one of the participant observed, it was refreshing to be constantly reminded to keep a critical eye on the material, the discipline and the environment they were working in. Most of them confirmed that their excitement was always mixed with a general feeling of awe deriving from the particular material with which they were engaging.
below: Oron Catts explains that the culture that has been growing in the past few days in the lab will now have to be distroyed.
below: opening the box containing the culture
In a world where we understand technologies as means to an end, that is as "tools" that "do something" or that "help us solve problems," Nicholas Stedman's "Blanket" is a special case.
His blanket does not fulfil any repetitive, conventional task, nor does it maintain any cold distance with the "user". Rather, it evokes sensual and sensorial perceptions as its touch caresses and plays with the body of the person who dares engaging with it. This work, on the one hand, reconsiders the way we conventionally perceive technological artifacts, while, on the other, infuses them with more poetic and sensorial connotations.
the present collaboration with performance artist Kerry Segal contributes to enhance the sensoriality of the Blanket. Segal does not simply interact, but explores, learns and exchanges gestures as if the Blanket was a companion, rather than just a task-intensive machine.
below: a brief sequence of the dialogue between Segal and the Blanket
below: the internal body of the blanket: 31 motorized joints interconnected by aluminum
linkages into an XY grid
Below:the two artists reflect on their ongoing collaboration and how the artistic practice of both equally contributes to the project.
As part of her collaboration with neuroscientist student Erin Fortier, performance artist Joce Tremblay spent 72 hours as a "Circadian subject," confined in a basement room, which she now defines as a "cave," consensually forcing her body (and neurological system) to a condition of full isolation from the external environment, included natural light, external sounds and human interaction. the objective was to test and experience (an auto-biology) the way the molecular clockwork (the Circadian Rhythm) decodes information by responding to and interacting with external and environmental inputs and how this ecosystem mutates as the external circumstances change.
In the meantime, Fortier was monitoring her peer's activity through the Internet.
here are some comments she shared with the audience once she was finally released from her confinement: In addition to extreme isolation and boredom, the artist experienced a change in her sensorial perception of sound, time and space, while her body was adapting to a new environment, as she garnered an awareness of how time cues are environmentally, socially, naturally and artificially dictated
To conclude the three days debate on the role and the location of the body within the ecology of medicine, the sciences and technology, Kirsty Robertson's reflections represented a worth conclusion.
focusing her intervention on the intertextuality of the skin, Robertson mapped the role of the skin as an ambiguous element that floats at the intersection between the world of textiles, art and the medical domain, while it embodies the --corporate and metaphorical-- battles and the risks of such worlds. Some recent artistic practices bring forth evidence of such interwoven and complicated series of relationships.
Zane Berzina's responsive textiles, for instance, faithfully map the skin by responding thermo-chromatically to the touch.
Below: Zane Berzina, Skin Maps, light microscope micrographs, various magnifications of
human skin surface, textile, 2000-2004
In the case of Freddie Robins' Skin-a good thing to live in, the knitted sweater takes the sahpe of a pink swater, that fits as if it represented an alternative to and a second skin.
Below:Freddie Robins, Skin - a Good Thing to Live In, machine knitted wool, hand
29/05: May 27 continued
When we think about the body in relation to technologies or to medicine, we always imagine a body that is abused, manipulated, taken advantage of, or, worse, ignored.
In her professional experience, Healey sees patients who seek her help to recover parts of their body forever lost to accidents, to extensive surgery or to illness. neither do they perceive her profession negatively, nor is their idea of the body populated by cyborgs, hybrids and so on. they just want their body to go back to the way it was.
a member of the American Anaplastology Association, Healey's role is to reconstruct missing body parts such as noses, hears and other facial features, using materials that haven't changed much (or haven't gone too much technological) since the foundation of the discipline.
This requires a competence that can be performed by a person with a training in the arts. Thus, the role of the artist, in this field, is crucial. To be fair, artists have always been called to help practitioners in medicine and to build anatomically accurate models. as we observe the early wax anatomical models, we cannot help notice their resemblance to the statues of saints and martyrs sitting in Christian churches. The same artists working for their embellishment were often using the same models in the anatomical workshops.
29/05: May 27
In a number of ways, this last day of symposium appears to pay special attention to public accessibility, the relation with and the perception of science.
The recent exhibitions launched by the Ontario Science Centre (an agency of the government of ontario) show its mandate as informer and educator. This can be perceived in the public display and demonstrations of scientific breakthroughs and technological tools, programs geared towards education in schools and directed to a young audience, as well as a space that accommodates artistic exhibitions and installations.
Said that, as an exhibition space, the Science Centre, like any institution of this kind, has to make choices on what can and what cannot be displayed, what exhibitions to promote or to endorse.
It is then obvious that the latest exhibitions displayed at the science centre focus on "cutting edge", "controversial" or "debatable" science. In this context, it is no wonder that exhibitions that involve the representation, construction, and manipulation of the body were able to gather lots of attention from the media and from the public.
this is the case of the "amazing" (note the amplifying attribute) aging machine
the controversial Gunther von Hagens BODY WORLDS 2
Digifest/Fusion exhibition in 2006
a new exhibition that explores a possible human voyage to Mars
While the goal of a science center might be to provide public accessibility to science, Dolores & David Steinman cope with the construction and perfection of biomedical visual models (in this case models and animations of blood vessels) and how such models may be received by individuals (the patient, the general public, the scientist).
In an era of "fascination with visibility and imagery" complex and technology enhanced images are often preferred tools that can help visualize raw data or mathematical models. thanks to their immediacy, visual models may be preferred to language. yet, they can generate miscommunication due to a lack of common language, manipulation of information, differences in interpretation of data.
29/05: May 26- Exhibition at I/A
Although presenting a very dissimilar topic Jack Butler's installation focuses on another underrepresented and often dismissed problematic: almost a life-time research, Genital Embriogenesis engages with the representation of the genital differentiation of the embryo and questions the arbitrary assignment of sex (female or male, while intersexual appearances are judged as "diverting" from the norm).
His work consists of a multipart installation, whose goal is to challenge the conventional ideas of objectification and pornography involved in the representations of genital embryogenesis.below is one of the several images alternating as a sort of animation/slide show on a lcd display. they portray plasticine clay models of different stages of genital development. this, to state that all bodies start in a state of sexual indifference and go through a series of often unacknowledged transformative hybrid stages before (if they ever do) reaching the complete development into the normally perceived and crystallized states of "male" and "female."
here is a picture of the installation, "Fatemap," which condenses almost all the body of the artist research and combines his scholarly and scientific findings on genital differentiation and a reconstruction of a science lecture turned performance he staged before an audience of artists and academics.
Given the complexity and the critical importance of this artwork and the lack of space , I asked the artist to explain to me the genesis of his project and how the final installation took shape.
29/05: May 26- Exhibition at I/A
A very short break gives me just enough time to hop on my bike and reach Interaccess, Toronto Electronic Arts Centre, to attend the opening of the exhibition "Whose Body Is It, Anyway?" curated by artist/curator Camille Turner (below)
Should the illegal traffic of organs regularized? if you were in an extreme condition of health emergency and you were offered to buy a new organ, what would you do?
these were two questions I was asked by Monir Moniruzzaman, the author of one of the two installations opening tonight at Interaccess . there is no easy answer to the above questions, as moral and ethical issues regarding the commodification of body parts and the supposed sacrality of the body arise.
Inspired by his doctoral research at the department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, this installation examined the extremely lucrative--and illegal--industry of organ traffic in Bangladesh. in a country where 78% of the population lives with less than 3 $ day and with a government that pays no attention to this illegal activity, organ brokers and intermediaries, recipients and sellers alike openly and freely publish their requests on newspapers
pressed by debts, people are forced to offer their kidneys or part of their livers to prospective recipients, while requests of organs are advertised as if by selling your organ were a "noble" gesture. the traffic becomes a normalized activity as the donors are provided with fake documents to travel to India and undergo the transplant. This is an alienating experience because the donor cannot speak to anybody of their experience. they are left often traumatized, with a small compensation, poor post-surgery assistance and a visible scar.
I don't know how many of you have ever watched ReGenesis, a recent Canadian-based tv series that dramatizes some of the accomplishments, discoveries and challenges of today's science by making a group of scientists working for a science lab the main protagonists. the new version of CSI? ER?
apparently, the series, now at its third season, has received several awards for its portrayal of scientific facts and its realistic depiction of the profession of the scientist.
still, the tv series is fiction. But it is advertised as a tool that can be used for "educational purposes." what is even more problematic is that it is an initiative supported by the Ontario Genomics Institute, whose annual report front page read: "the future is in opur genes" and whose mandate is "research, business development, outreach". no wonder someone raised some issues when the panel of 5, including the chair of the Social Impact Programs at the Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI) presented the series to the audience of subtle technologies. after having discussed thoroughly the risks of commercialization of science and the responsibility of the private and corporate sector in distorting, manipulating and "selling" certain ideas to the public, the presentation of ReGenesis seemed just like a cool science ad, rather than a critically balanced, honest presentation.
not having a tv (or pay tv, as this series airs on cable), I cannot judge its accuracy or its quality. I have my doubts though. one of the panelists told me that I can bittorrent some episodes. I will probably follow his advice.
In the meantime, you can check their pretty website as well as the Ontario Genomics Institute. note, the series can be found under the link labelled "education"
In addition to Oron Catts and Stuart Bunt, a number of artists who had spent some time at the lab were present among the presenters as well as among the audience. their artworks often succeed in stirring debates, in raising awareness and in revealing often-unpleasant details that lie behind scientifically advanced products .
Montreal based Shawn Bailey and Jennifer Willet, who intervened during the panel on thursday and were SymbioticA fellows in 2004, have now founded their own project in Montreal: Bioteknica.
their work, consisting in public autopsies of lab manufactured "entities" or display of teratomata (a particularly ugly-looking tumor) is presented as the corporate product of a biotech firm. The goal: to stir debate. here is their website
Australian Independent artist Boo Chapple , who also worked at SymbioticA illustrated her ongoing project which focuses on how the industry and the media omit the derivation of --often ugly, or smelly-- raw materials used to build cosmetics.
Interested how popular culture constructs the body, her work reveals how, for example, advertisements and the cosmetics industry hides and purifies the materials used to make them. for instance, her investigation on collagen has revealed that the material used to make it derives from rats tails, while e.coli, one of the most common bacteria living in our colon can be used to make lipstick.
the result is a series of works that thoroughly analyze the history of a commodity and that contaminate and destroy the aura of purity and femininity created by the industry.
see for instance these two works:
29/05: May 26- SymbioticA continued
He described the relation between artists and scientists working at SymbioticA as a "productive friction" and, nonetheless, as a relation between equals.
however, the dynamics that make an environment like SymbioticA, affiliated with a scientific institution and with the university, are far more complex. The already, and sometimes difficult dialogue between different linguistic codes, research methods and the divergence in intentions of the scientist and the artist, are only a few of the layers the characterize the ongoing collaborations. In fact, one should also consider the ethics involved in the artists' use of biological material as well as the continuous negotiation between SymbioticA, the scientific units within the university and the university at large.
On top of the above issues, there is the connection between scientific research and the needs for technological advancement (Bunt sees the former partially subjected to the latter), the pressures of commercial and industrial interests as well as the consequences deriving from producing artifacts which can be potentially coopted or instrumentalized by other parties (as spectacle, to disseminate false or incorrect ideas etc..).
Thus, for Bunt, as biology is becoming a creative science --also thanks to the role of technology entering this area-- it is crucial that both the scientist and the artist don't loose their critical edge.
Moreover, there are the issues connected with the very treatment of biological material itself. In fact, the treatment of the biological is still associated with a feeling of uneasiness, which is non-existent when one deals with mechanical material.
the phrase "God has left astrophysics but has yet to leave biophysics" is particularly true in this context.
Finally, once the art produced in this environment exits the lab, other risks incur. As this form of art is often considered a niche and cannot be exhibited in a regular gallery, it is very likely to be viewed first hand by a very restricted audience. the rest of the audience experiences it through documentation and press releases.
I asked Oron Catts to explain in his own words the complexity that characterizes the relation between technoscience and art. In fact, the general public often assumes that such relation is either binary or is perceived in overly simplified terms. how can the artist navigate this complexity?
his answer, which I recorded below, is worth pages of lengthy explanations, as it renders such complexity in quite a comprehensive way.
Important to notice is the particular mandate of this institution. in fact, as both artistic director Oron Catts and scientific director Stuart Bunt pointed out in several occasions, the lab strives to engage with, while maintaining a critical eye, on the scientific procedures and the activities with which the participants are engaging.
Communicating the above scientific practices is also part of the mandate of Symbiotica. For Subtle Technologies they organized a hands on workshop where local artists from Toronto were given the opportunity to test some of the practices conducted at the lab.
Artist, researcher, curator and founder of the Tissue Culture and Art Project
(2000), Oron Catts introduced the work he has been doing since 1996 at the School of Anatomy (at UWA) by explaining how biology has changed, both conceptually and in terms of its public perception, in the course of the years. Broadly speaking, the practice of biology does no longer consists in mere observation and collection of material and specimens but has veered towards the manipulation and the engineering of living material.
Tissue culture, developed in the 50ies and dealing with Semi-Living material (see definition here http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/atGlance/galnceMainFrames.html) fits this notion of engineering. In addition, it generates a number of reflections about the meaning of life itself, and the relation between human beings and other surrounding organisms.
However, Given the sensational news regarding human cloning, the dangerous misunderstandings regarding disciplinary scientific differences and the infamous popularity of the notion of eugenics, the meaning of "engineering" and "manipulatiion" of the living are always colored with controversy and suspicion. The meaning of tissue culture itself, then, has produced a number of misconceptions, such as the perception that its advancements have been able to produce, for example, victimless steaks.
Thus, attempts to address the meaning of life without necessarily addressing the above misconceptions and without focusing on "human life" might be a hard task, as the above issues come back on a regular basis.
finally, questions are raised around the role and the pressure that corporations and commercial industries impart on scientific activity.