Review of Institutional Critique to Hospitality and Open Science: Singularity and Emergence
Grigoris Books, Athens, Greece, 2017
190 pp. Paper, $12 Euros
Adrede Editora, Santiago, Chile, 2016
Artists, critics, and historians affiliated with the field of bioart embrace the fact that its identity is in flux, always in process. The becoming-nature of bioart is testament to its fundamental connection to cutting edge science and technology, the performativity of its contents (think here living matter), and its avant-garde position as critic, midwife, and transformer on the edge of the precipice of the new, even when recycling the histories of art, science, or technology. Two recent books, editor Assimina Kaniari’s Institutional Critique to Hospitality: Bio Art Practice Now and Ignacio Nieto and Marcelo Velasco’s Open Science: Singularity and Emergence on the Boundary of Artistic Practice, grapple with the field’s general sense of self. At base, the two texts are strong evidence of the international character of bioart’s identity, with Kaniari’s published by the Greek house, Publications Grigori, and Nieto and Velasco’s by the Chilean, Adrede Editora.
If the essays in Kaniari’s anthology query bioart’s placement within art history, looking in particular to its connection to institutional critique, then Nieto and Velasco’s monograph give the field ballast by at once historicizing it within the deep temporal trajectory of scientific discovery and analyzing it according to a scientistic pragmatics of artists in comparison. While one book seeks to hew bioart closer to art history and the other to the history of science, both end up revealing bioart to be a hybrid species that is something always and altogether new: a field with guy ropes in conceptual art and the history of science that brings fresh problem-solving design tactics and big science criticism to the field of contemporary art. Rooted in what I have identified as “morphogenic modernism,” the formal-cum-logical engine of bioart generates that which is largely unpredictable, namely the ongoing process of time-based emergence itself. Form gives way not so much to formlessness but a profundity of protean shapes, tools, design strategies, and site-specific performances. In Kaniari’s anthology, New York bioartist Suzanne Anker says this in plain, unruffled terms, shifting the focus of art from static subject-object relations to an actively unfolding protoplasmic holism: “What we are talking about here are not lenses but biochemical reactions, synthetic sequencing, and they [sic] ways in which parts and wholes can be dissected to create new entities.” (45)
The thirteen essays of Kaniari’s Institutional Critique to Hospitality interrogate bioart’s relationship to the strain of conceptual art that is known as “institutional critique.” The Derridean-cum-Levinasian theme of “hospitality” is stitched to this but never fully fleshed out, leaving open provocative possibilities for a textual sequel from Kaniari. Rosalind Krauss’s pithy A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (Thames & Hudson, 2000) codified institutional critique by focusing on Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers’ “Museum of Eagles” (1968-1972), a project that spoofed the institution of the museum by calling it out as culturally and intellectually bankrupt. Institutional critique’s roots go back further, to Yves Klein’s empty vitrines in the 1958 exhibition, Le Vide, at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris and arguably to the spoken-word actions and odd-body installations of dada at the Zürich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, in 1916. A productive tension concerning origins––those of bioart and institutional critique––emerges in Kaniari’s Introduction, where she evaluates bioart’s relationship to the objects held within the late-sixteenth-century Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer. In making this connection, Kaniari does not simply expand institutional critique, but breathe new life into the old tactic of shredding hoary institutions for the sake of making new art. She shows how bioart’s deployment of science, both its artifacts and current tools, is generative of a strain of institutional critique that encompasses far more than simply Art with a capital “A.” It can also cast doubts about and produce nuanced knowledge systems concerning the greater field of Science with a capital “S,” a tactic that can be both scintillating and misguided in its educational capacities.
Section one of the book is devoted to artists’ practice-based statements. There, Kaniari’s interview with Suzanne Anker about “Water Babies,” a series of photographs of old medical specimens from the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam Anker made in 2004, lays bare this creative tension. The artist makes explicit that this body of work is rooted in science and its potential for awe, and not the contemporary art practice of institutional critique. “These pieces are not intended to be an institutional critique,” Anker states, “but rather one in which the public is invited to gaze upon the unknown, even the marvelous.” (38) In addition to the dialogue between Kaniari and Anker, there are seven other contributions from artists in this section. Kathy High writes of her work with living matter, linking the swarming of bees in and around her densely packed hives to the overpopulation of microbiota in her gut. Marta de Menezes develops an idea of “presentation,” as opposed to “representation,” that befits bioart in its ability to connect the otherwise disparate binary of stasis and change. Pascale Pollier and Aggelos Antonopoulos report on Fabrica Vitae, a traveling bioart exhibition of 2014 about the “fabric of life” inspired by sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Ellen K. Levy elaborates an “aesthetics of emergence” based on generative art forms and specific rules capitulating “moment-by-moment choices that unfold.” (74) Adam Zaretsky develops a Sadeian “philosophy of the biological bedroom,” which brings together Inherited Genetic Modification Orgiastics and transgenic humans. And an interview between artists Ioannis Melanitis and Eduardo Kac yields this robust nugget from the latter.
“The idea of the artist laboring in isolation in his studio crafting an individual ornate object for detached contemplation is as anachronistic as the idea of the scientist sitting under a tree and being hit by an apple. The artist is not a decorator. The artist is a philosopher (not with a hammer, but with a wireless computer and a cloning toolkit). I feel that art must overcome the anesthetic condition and the state of inertia we live in, and awake our cognition and sensoriality. Why? While other fields have similar goals (literary philosophy, for example), art can reach out to a larger audience and accomplish this goal. Art is philosophy in the wild.” (Terranova’s emphasis, 110)
Kac’s words adumbrate the fact that bioart is, while built in part on the world-changing critical tactics of conceptual art and institutional critique, something altogether different – a space, an opening, a point-of-view, a hybrid knowledge base that makes polymathy not an unusual singularity of the lucky few but an aspiration and practice of the tough, hard-worn many.
The second half of Kaniari’s collection is devoted to bioart within the history of art. There, Robert Zwijnenberg writes brilliantly about “xenotransfusion and art,” connecting the exchange of blood within the equine performance art of the French artists of Art Orienté Objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin) and famous painted depictions of medical procedures, including Jules Adler’s “Transfusion of Goat’s Blood” (1892), and Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632) and “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman” (1656). Martin Kemp evaluates the pros and cons of the laboratory work of Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Stelarc, and Eduardo Kac. Kaniari contributes a long and lyrical analysis of biology in the form of roiling natural waters in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Guna Nadarajan brings a Derridean reading of the “hauntology” and “carnophallogocentrism” at work in Eduardo Kac’s transgenic animals. And, the question of “hospitality” is beautifully (if not finally) addressed by Irina Aristarkhova in the concluding chapter with an essay coming full circle in that it takes a deep interpretative dive into Kathy High’s projects with transgenic lab rats.
Published in both Spanish and English, Nieto and Velasco’s Open Science is a bit more discursive than Kaniari’s anthology. Its overarching thesis is determinable by the title. It is the idea that art and science practiced together “open science” to an otherness of fathomless possibilities. This otherness bestows on art new opportunities of critique, form, and contents, while within science, art reinforces the role of aesthetic deliberation. After a rambling introductory essay and interview between the authors and Diego Gómez, Professor at the School of Design, University of Chile, the most poignant parts of this book coalesce around descriptions, analyses, and lengthy quotes from a group of excellent international artists working with biology in some capacity. This group includes the Russians Dmitry Bulatov and Alexy Chebykin, Mexican Gilberto Esparza, American Rachel Mayeri, Australian Perdita Phillips, and Portuguese Susan Soares. It is a collection of talent that once again reinforces the international nature of bioart. Several very useful tables at the center of the book list, enumerate, and compare projects by the artists. The concluding portion of the book focuses on the voice of the artists, registering candid responses from each figure on topics such as “Science Criticism,” “Using a Scientific Method,” “Use of Results,” and “Scientific Cooperation in the Production of Art.”
Generally, both books do solid, important work bracing and constituting the field, in particular in how they serve as ledgers of the names of current artists practicing within bioart and historians and critics specializing in the medical humanities and the history of biology within art. On a less halcyon note, both books could use a thorough editing to clean up typos and untangle general problems with syntax. The latter is especially problematic in the English translation of the text of Open Science. But this, the decline of the editing staff at publishing houses as a result of e-readers, online publishing, and the internet write large, would be the subject of another, different article. The books go to great good lengths to work through what makes bioart unique, namely its condition as exploratory, driven by discovery, and pioneering creator of a new field of studies and action. Kaniari’s anthology is an especially important contribution to the dialogue, insomuch as it broaches question of bioart’s place within conceptual art. While bioart originates out of the history, tools and laboratory protocols of science, it would not exist without conceptual art as a form-, life-, and space-giving precedent. And this statement of fact deserves much more probing.