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Visceral: The Living Art Experiment

Visceral: The Living Art Experiment

by1Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Curators
Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
28 January 2011-25 February 2011
Gallery website: http://www.sciencegallery.com/.

Think Art - Act Science (Pensar art – Actuar ciència): Swiss artists-in-labs

by Irène Hediger, Curator
Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona, Spain [1]
18  December 2010- 15 May 2011
Museum website: http://www.artssantamonica.cat/default.aspx.

Reviewed by Harriet Hawkins, Deborah Dixon and Elizabeth Straughan
IGES, University of Aberystwyth, Wales


Recent months have witnessed a series of exhibitions staged by organizations that have played a crucial role in shaping what is now a highly diverse, international landscape of art-science collaborations. Viewing these shows as retrospectives is useful, casting them as it does as ‘barometers’, as much for the organizations, as for broader trends across this landscape.  In this brief commentary we focus on two recent examples -- ‘Visceral: The Living Art Experiment’, and ‘Think Art-Act Science.’ These emerge from two very different entities: SymbioticA, the bio-art lab based in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, at the University of Western Australia, and Swiss artists-in-labs (ail), based at the Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts, at Zurich University of the Arts. Looking at their shows, we gain a sense of their differing modus operandi, insofar as SymbioticA revolves around the development and deployment of their own lab facilities, foregrounding a ‘learning-by-doing,’ whilst ail has nurtured a series of ‘labs as host’ relationships. We gain an appreciation for what has been achieved, but we are also able to project forward, to ponder the questions that these shows pose for: the artists and scientists who develop these forms of work; the cultural producers and exhibition spaces that catalyse these collaborations, and develop both exhibitions and the audiences; as well as those of us who engage in the critique of these forms of practice.

A retrospective trend?
Retrospectives are perennially haunted by questions of justification, choice of content and why now? The answers, in this case, lie in the continued proliferation of art-science practices, but also the ‘coming of age’ of a series of renowned, well documented, art-science organizations. SymbioticA are celebrating their 10th birthday, whilst Swiss ail are similarly drawing together the fruits of nearly ten years of activity. That both these organizations are housed within University departments is telling of the financial regimes that allow for such endeavors, but also of the significant commitment both display to research agendas and artistic CPD.  In addition, both organizations have undergone a series of funding cycles, sourcing soft money from a number of artistically and scientifically orientated public-funding entities. With ongoing shifts in the international funding terrain for the arts and sciences, from STEM to STEAM and so on, it is interesting to note that in the UK and US at least there is increasing funding of ‘pure’ research into such entities, as well as their instrumental impacts; research that enables us to map empirical studies of art-science onto broader appreciations of interdisciplinarity and the changed academic landscape that is emerging in the wake of the science wars. [2]Such intellectual maturity is manifest within the exhibitions themselves. In ‘Visceral,’ the exhibition showcases a range of work by SymbioticA’s residents, each exposed to the techniques, protocols and viscerally affective materialities involved in bioart. Eschewing long standing ethical concerns that often produce the interpretive ‘hook’ for the production and analysis of bioart, these works exhibit engagements with the malleability of materialities (such as tissues) and technologies, such that there are no longer any easy answers to the questions of what is of the human and what is of the monstrous? [3] Further, we find the dominance of digital media art supplemented by critiques of materials, practices and modes of viewing and experiencing that are as much a part of fine art theory and history. It is noteworthy that SymbioticA accompanied their retrospective show with a symposium that invited past residents, both artists and academics (the two often blurred), to engage with the organization and the practices of its artists, as well as bioart more broadly.

Swiss ail’s nine-month residency model pairs artists with labs in organizations such as Chuv, a research hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, and CERN. Their end works have the status of experiments, or ‘prototypes,’ a sensibility that carries over into ail’s curatorial work. Thus we find each prototype accompanied by videos, with artists and scientists alike offering commentary on the often discombobulating progress of the residency. These accounts offer up a series of illuminating reflections on what is at times an intense and emotional meditation on translation and mis-translation, and on the mutual struggles of hospitality towards the ‘other’. Contra many written pieces on art/sci per se, this is not the simple, idealized and sometimes saccharine tale of ‘boundary crossing.’

Emerging spaces of display
In essays now infamous within the art-sci world, CP Snow remarks that, “there seems then to be no place where the cultures meet.” [4] Turning from metaphor to geography, it is worth noting the integral ‘place’ of the venues themselves within the art/sci world. Both these exhibitions find homes in relatively young institutions, The Science Gallery in Dublin, and Arts Santa Monica in Barcelona. Each is part of a long trajectory of spaces where art and science have found a home together, from the herbariums of the Renaissance to the world fairs and expos of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the specialist galleries of the 20th century. What the Science Gallery and Arts Santa Monica have in common is an interest in how space performs not as a simple backdrop to exhibits, but as a meeting place. And so Science Gallery employs both arts and science students to narrate such works, whilst in Barcelona the critical commentary provided by ail has itself been supplemented by a program of workshops by visiting scientists.

A critical space for art/sci
For us, what is interesting about these moments of self-storying is their reflective nature, belying any glib rhetoric on the ‘bridging’ of two cultures. We see an effort to open out the critical dimensions of such practices, as well as their end product and display. What does it mean to open up the lab to artistic engagement – philosophically, but also financially and politically? How do ostensibly scientific mediums and techniques become enrolled in art and with what effect? Who are the intended audience, what are their expectations and where will they be engaged? Such retrospectives tackle all of these questions and more. And yet, what remains unresolved – indeed largely unremarked upon – is that whilst these art-science works jostle for critical space within the pages of new media journals, and even the pages of science journals, far less often do they enter the spaces of art history and theory debates. What such observations give us, as critics and researchers, is pause to question, how it is that we should go about fashioning spaces and modes of critique that are adequate too, and cognizant of, the richness of the debates engaged by this continuing set of artistic-scientific practices, and the organizations which support them?


[1] This show is currently at the Kunsthalle Luzern, and is touring to the US later in the year, see; http://artistsinlabs.ch/.

[2] See for example:  http://artscience.arizona.edu/.

[3] See for example: Dixon, D.  Hawkins, H and Straughan, L.  Artists Enter the Laboratory’ Science, 331, pp 860; Dixon D (2008) ‘The Blade and the Claw: Science, Art and the creation of the lab-borne monster.’ Social and Cultural Geography, 9(6): 671-92. C.P. Snow (1953) The Two Cultures.

[4] http://www.sciencegallery.com/ http://www.artssantamonica.cat/default.aspx.

Last Updated 3 July 2011

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