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Is It Working

Superhuman: Revolution of the Species

Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT)
RMIT Galleries, Melbourne, Australia
November 5 – December 5, 2009

Reviewed by Hannah Star Rogers
Science & Technology Studies
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York, USA.


“The Superhuman: Revolution of the Species” exhibit represented a number of important Australian artists working with science and technology. Nearly all the works credit scientists in their acknowledgements, and many works were the products of prolonged engagement by artists in scientific contexts. The exhibit treated a fraught theme: how we should think about technology in terms of the future of human beings and human bodies. The naturalization of this idea, even through the idea of revolution rather than evolution, still leaves considerable problems. In fact, however, most of the selected artists did not address this theme; instead the show was successful in displaying a variety of conceptions of how artists should engage with scientific materials. Works represented potential roles for artists ranging from playing with new technical possibilities to becoming knowledge producers.

Superhuman's installation and the curatorial decision to provide limited text and interpretative materials caused some confusion about which works were interactive. In less than ten minutes of observation, two different viewers stepped in front of Jill Scott's The Electric Retina (2008) and—experiencing the work in a manner I suspect Scott never thought of—looked at the projector light. While this may have accidentally resulted in some knowledge of the malfunction of the eye, what the oversized projector-eye had to offer was not interactive (and in another context would not have seemed to be). But mixed with interactive pieces and no text or technical cues to suggest how to distinguish the interactive works, the installation situation turned The Electric Retina into a puzzle rather than a point of reflection on function and malfunction of the body, particularly the eye.

Jonathan Duckworth's Elements (2008) was shown only as video documentation depicting the use of his system in physical therapy: users play with color and form to improve coordination. The video concluded with a short celebratory media clip about the successes of the piece in therapy. This seems an increasingly common rhetorical strategy for some artists working in new media: news media coverage is sufficiently important to include in the exhibit so that the work is praised within its own presentation and simultaneously this points to impact outside the gallery.

Duckworth's pieces demonstrate a potential role for artists that differ markedly from Scott or Main's implicit suggestion that artists working with science and technology might help viewers explore and reflect on the role of science and technology in our society. Duckworth offers instead a model of the relationship between art and science in which artists work in the service of science to deliver more palatable devices and treatments to the public.

More critical, and with a welcome hook of humor, was Justine Cooper's Havidol (2007), a fictional drug campaign, displayed as ad campaign videos, posters, and a computer-based self-diagnosis tool, along with a logo hoodie and pillbox. This might best be thought of as an initial exploration to Cooper's much more interesting follow-up piece working with medical simulation technologies, Terminal (2008) and Living in Sim (2009). However, as one viewer remarked, this parody has already penetrated the commercial market, as similarly marked jars are available in novelty shops. This produced a lack of tension in the piece that softened the critique of pharmaceutical companies' social construction of disease and treatment.

Other pieces, like Angela Main's Metazoa (2008) and Leah Heiss's Drift (2009) were easier to interpret as interactive. For Metazoa viewers donned fuzzy hats that enabled the interactivity of the work and encouraged new identifications with other life forms, from single-celled organisms to birds, as viewers controlled these organisms’ movements through their own. Heiss' hand-held devices, albeit very much like blue IMac computer mice apart from their texture, did as promised in the catalog: beckoning us to pick them up and in return offered their glow and sounds, which seemed varied from user to user. Viewers seemed to understand the inconsistent responses in two ways: for some different results for different users was intriguing, while others simply took them as inconstant interactivity. With such different use-result patterns, we might speculate that if we could have seen the objects in Heiss' hands they might have become something else entirely. The phenomena of the differences in workability of technologies fit in easily with Lucy Suchman's analysis of Kismet: the technological object's agency is relational.[1] Suchman’s work makes one wonder how an emotional technology like Drift functions when Heiss herself is handling these glowing pods.

Two pieces in the show featured living material: Donna Franklin's Fibre Reactive (2004), a fashion piece grown from fungi, and Tissue Culture & Art Project’s (TC&A) NoArk II (2008). NoArk II delves into questions about the construction of classification systems and the unclassifiable “semi-living,” which is the focus of these artists’ practice. Oron Catts of TC&A has complained about the difficulties artists working with biological materials face because of their being categorized as new media and presented with digital works. According to Catts, most venues and curators “have little understanding of the radically different technical and expertise requirements for the presentation of living biological materials.”

Despite ANAT's role as the leading Australian organization working with art and technology, serious issues arose around keeping the cells for NoArk II alive. Initially, the living component of the work was not installed because of gallery logistics. This resulted in press photographs being created with a completely empty cabinet where the cells and related support system should be. To their credit, in conjunction with this exhibit, ANAT is trying to address some of these issues with a curatorial master class, though one has to wonder what the chances are for improvement when, by the time of the Artist's Reception, the cells displayed in NoArk II were dead.

Is the piece only what we can see? Issue of non-installation and, therefore potential interpretation difficulties aside, in the case of a fully installed NoArk II, viewers can never see the living cells. All that viewers have access to are the supporting technological apparatuses: the undulating bag of liquid and its related digital CO2 and heat regulation monitors. It seems worth considering whether biological art that contains a living component means something different to us when we know whether it is living or not. Choosing not to check the cell and simply to maintain a list of mediums which includes living materials puts us in a precarious position, one that may convert an interest in encountering the living materials into a guessing game not dissimilar from the Schrodinger's cat proposition. Schrödinger's suggestion is that, although we may not know that the cat is dead without checking, we in essence know that it is dead because of the conditions under which we have placed it. If viewers become aware that, like the case of NoArk II, lists of mediums that include “living” cells are not to be trusted; the frame the viewers have for encountering the piece may be rendered mute.

The problem comes down to whether it matters if art practitioners working with science and technology should place value on whether a piece does what they are suggesting it does: in essence whether “working” matters. Working may, of course, mean different thing in different contexts.  Considering the category of inscription device can offer us another way to read works like Paul Vanouse's Latent Figure Protocol (2007, not present in this show), which offered a new way of seeing what is represented in a stable inscription technology, gel electrophoresis.[2] Similarly, George Poonkhin Khut Distillery: Alembic & Retort (2008) offers us an exploration of biofeedback and how we should understand our heartbeat as interacting with our emotive states and sound environments. Khut’s device inscribes the results from our monitors on a nearby screen. Unlike Vanouse’s object, which is using gel electrophoresis in a new way, Khut’s device is subverting how we usually think about heart monitors, as measuring stable information. It transforms our notions about what we are seeing and hearing when we encounter representations of our heartbeats.

New uses for old inscription devices open opportunities to ask what would constitute “working” and both subverts other uses and suggest the possibilities that may be eliminated by dominant uses of the technology. If we accept that each object makes an argument for a particular view of the world, then these artworks offer engagement with interventionist objects that are not aimed arguing for particular alternate worldviews, but at evoking conversations. At Superhuman, those conversations might be about how science is categorizing liminal life or how we think about what we are hearing in a heartbeat.

Drawing together so many people from the digital media, biological arts, and new media scholarship communities, the installation issues point to the need to consider whether documentation is enough, or if to really experience these artworks, they need to be “working.” Just as other formerly new media have tested the boundaries of the art system, these works offer new technical challenges. If we value these novel forms of engagement and the content and questions these artworks can offer us, we have to be prepared for the technical demands that are specific to them.

References and Notes

[1] Suchman, Lucy. 2004. ‘Figuring Personhood in Sciences of the Artificial’, published by the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YL, UK at http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/papers/suchman-figuring-personhood.pdf.

[2] Art historian Pernille Leth-Espensen has suggested that Sabrina Raaf's Translator II: Grower (2004, not present in this show), a device that paints green stripes in proportion to carbon dioxide levels, can be thought of as an inscription device.

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