‘what does it mean to be human?’ Biotechnologies, Ethics and Art

Catherine Richards, "l'intrus" New Media Gallery Anvil Centre New Westminster March 2018
Catherine Richards, “l’intrus” New Media Gallery Anvil Centre New Westminster March 2018

Art travelling – I saw “Corpus” at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster, a small city adjacent to Vancouver, British Columbia

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This week I visited Corpus at the beautiful New Media Gallery. Corpus is one of a series of exhibitions the gallery is mounting which explores ontological states of being. The exhibition provokes the viewer to reflect upon a very urgent question: are we becoming more or less human in a world increasingly transformed by new technologies?

Using very different processes and collaborations that bring together (or juxtapose) art and science, the artists presenting at Corpus explore this and other questions – questions that are timely, open-ended and ultimately, poignant.

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Canadian artist Catherine Richards presents l’intrus, which is my favourite piece in the show, for its sculptural qualities of the piece itself and its true beauty (yes I am a traditionalist, as you all know!) and its ability to use sensuality to provoke deep intellectual engagement.

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You enter a pitch-dark room lit only by an installation, a sculptural glass heart in a glass bell jar. As you approach the sculpture, you are bathed in a deep and dramatic chiaroscuro that reminisces the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby’s great, disturbing paintings of popular science, The Orrery and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.* You pick up the glass bell jar and the whole room goes dark – alarming – then the heart begins to beat, to light up, exuding a pink-red, fleshy glow. If you hold it long enough it emits heat, like a living thing. Is it a living thing? We claim a distinction between living flesh and “electronics” but in reality, heart-beats are electromagnetic.

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Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican-born artist based in Canada, has created Ultima Suspiro (‘last breath’) This is a “biometric portrait” holding the breath of Cuban singer, Omara Portuondo in machine. Her single human breath, with all its bacteria and DNA particles, is captured and held forever. The machine breathes 10,000 times a day and sighs 158 times, and will do so as long as it can be powered by electricity… long after Portuondo passes away. The breath is held in a paper bag, and all we hear of the singer’s voice is the crackle of the paper as the bag inflates and deflates, a re-embodiment in a banal container. Very, very creepy.

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Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s Electrocyte Appendix is very entertaining but at the same time very thought-provoking, short film loop that proposes a future in which we resolve the question of how to generate “clean” energy: by turning our bodies into electricity-generating organisms. The character uses implants in his torso to power ordinary home devices, topping up his energy levels by constantly eating enormous meringues. Cohen and van Balen’s scenario reminds us that perhaps it is our desire to consume that we need to examine, not how to facilitate that desire.5

Verena Friedrich, based in Cologne, creates a chamber orchestra of DNA in the magical installation Transducers. Collecting a single hair from a number of different donors, then using an electronic transducer and a simple record stylus, Friedrich causes each hair to react, generating a unique sound based on the donor’s hair sample. Even a single hair is repository of our biological blueprint, a unique pattern expressed as sound. Each sound is different, but together they generate a calm and inviting hum in the room. Amazing.

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Eduardo Kac is best known for the controversial 2000 project Alba, where he worked with a French lab to biodesign a rabbit with a jellyfish gene. The result – allegedly – was a rabbit which would glow green. I say ‘allegedly’ because there was great outcry at the ethical issues this raised and the rabbit was withheld by the lab. However as we know, all kinds of hybridised creatures have since then been created – some we know about andsome we don’t.  Kac’s work draws attention to this murky word of bio-engineering, which is going on all the time, yet we are largely in the dark about what is happening.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the (often hypocritical) outcry about the bunny, Kac is still at it: in The Natural History of the Enigma, he infuses a petunia seed with his own DNA (with the help of scientist Neil Olszewski) thus creating a new life form, a ‘plantimal’ called Edunia; a genetically engineered hybrid of the artist and a petunia. The petunia flower has very distinctive red veins that resemble the veins we see in visual renderings and photographs of vein structures. The plant thus expresses the artist’s DNA through its patterning. The result is both banal – the same pink flowers I have on my own balcony – and unsettling – the beautiful, elemental pattern of vein systems.

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stills from the video The Natural History of the Enigma Eduardo Kac

 

You are confronted by British artist Agi Haines’s work as you enter and leave the gallery. It (she? He?) hangs around the door, loitering and watching you. Drones with Desires begins with an  MRI of the artist’s brain, taken by neuroscientists, then coded into an algorithm and imprinted on a large balloon.  The balloon, which is printed with a pink and fleshy pattern taken from the brain-image, learns about its own anatomy and environment as it moves through the space via a drone.

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When I was there it did not show a great deal of interest in me, but depending on different factors – which range from the number of people in the space, to the colour of the visitor’s garments – it can apparently become very animated and can move quite quickly. It is certainly quite active. How does it feel to be watched by something that both is, and is not, a brain? What is a brain, anyway?

I am firmly of the belief that art should engage and entertain even as it seeks to inform or educate. Corpus fully achieves this. I spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon with these clever, creative works, and came away full of thoughts, immediately striking up conversations with friends and family about the issues the show raised. This is what art is supposed to do!

We are facing huge, difficult issues with how we manage physical and mental health, energy supplies and allocation of resources, bio-engineered futures and mortality. There is little public debate about what kind of bio-future we want; what, for instance, is the proper role of commerce? What and where is the centre of our understanding of bioethics? The unease that is at the heart of all of these works is necessary, for there is, at present, a huge, largely unexpressed unease at the centre of our human-technology relationship.

The New Media Gallery can be found at http://newmediagallery.ca/ and the show is on until April 8. If you are on the West Coast, go and see it, you will not regret it. I was fortunate to have a tour of the show by the curator, Sarah Joyce. All photos and views are my own.

 


*Or the less well-known and less brilliant but still interesting The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers … yes, the art-nerd in me just has to come out sometimes

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