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Art, Politics, and the Life Sciences

Date: 10 May 2006 Time: 2:00-5.00 pm


Art, Politics, and the Life Sciences

On 10 May 2004, art, the life sciences and politics were brought into a strange conjunction. Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, was arrested by American authorities on suspicion of bioterrorism. Although this involved a misunderstanding of the uses to which the biological materials and laboratory equipment found in Kurtz's home were put, it can also be understood as a symptom of a new relationship between art, science and politics. At a time when the life sciences are enjoying extraordinary public visibility, artists are using biological materials in the most unexpected and unorthodox ways, but the very notion of artistic, critical engagement is changing. Some would even maintain that art can no longer be a critical enterprise.

Between 15 March and 10 May 2006, Lancaster University held a series of interdisciplinary workshops on the changing relationship between art, politics and the life sciences. These workshops focussed on The Value of Objects, Materials and Practices ; Bio-Remediation between Art and Science ; Art, Science and Institutions.

The Value of Objects, Materials and Practices

The original aim of this workshop, held on 15 March 2006, was to focus on some of the material artefacts associated with the contemporary development of the life sciences, as well as the forms of work associated with them, especially as these artefacts move across institutional boundaries that might be said to separate the laboratory, the art gallery and the museum.The Affymetrix GeneChip is but one example of such an artefact, at once a patented technology, a symbol for the more widespead benefits of recent advances in biomolecular science, and basic material for the artistic representation of changing notions of kinship. Oron Catts, an artist engaged in sustaining a conversation between scientist and cultural critic through the shared material practices of the scientific and artistic 'laboratory', opened the discussion by questioning the ways in which artistic work focussing on technologies such as the GeneChip, especially when handled in a purely formalist fashion, courts the risk of endorsing genetic reductionism and determinism. He then introduced his own work on tissue culture, which advances a more ephemeral understanding of life insofar as the very act of touching the artefacts he produces results in their death. Reflecting on the 'Steve Kurtz' incident, Catts also reminded the audience on the role of regulatory bodies in policing the movement of bio-materials, so that it was not just Kurtz who breached the boundaries between art and science, but also the scientists who enabled his work.

Brian Forde shifted the discussion to the practices of genetic engineering and how these have been appropriated by artists such as Eduardo Kac, focussing in particular on the use of green fluorescent protein marking to produce the 'GFP Bunny'. In so doing, Forde raised questions about the ethics of genetic engineering for artistic, rather than scientific, purposes. Questions were also raised about the extent to which Kac's 'GFP Bunny' can really be said to be an example of the intersection of art and recent developments in the life sciences, insofar as the fluorescence of the 'GFP Bunny' is an effect of photographic, rather than genetic, techniques.

Starting his contribution by disputing Catts' notion that the mobilisation of tissue culture necessarily entails a critique of genetic reductionism and determinism, insofar as practices of tissue culture are closely linked to developments in genetics, Thomas Söderqvist returned the discussion to the GeneChip. He focussed in particular on the difficulties involved in displaying the role of the GeneChip in reconfiguring the organisation of contemporary biomedicine, which prompted Lucy Suchman and others to raise important questions about 'dematerialisation' and 'rematerialisation', in both the arts and the natural sciences.In their interventions as respondents, Richard Twine questioned the extent to which genetic engineering can be said to be any more ethical when mobilised for scientific rather than artistic purposes; Maureen McNeil called instead for greater attention to the ways in which the artefacts emerging from contemporary developments in the life sciences, especially the gene, acquire aesthetic value, at the expense of questions of political economy. McNeil focussed in particular on the role of the Wellcome Trust, a role which, as Catts noted, includes the policing of artists' representations of contemporary developments in the life sciences to draw boundaries between legitimate from illegitimate images.

Bio-Remediation between Art and Science

The aim of this workshop, held on 29 March 2006, was to shift the focus both from the production of life in the laboratory, scientific and artistic, to the life of ecosystems, and from life as material object to life as temporal and spatial process. The enterprise of bio-remediation was to offer a point of reflection on these two shifts.

Charles Zerner, as chair, opened the proceedings by introducing parallel endeavours at Sarah Lawrence College to explore the intersection of the environmental sciences, contemporary culture and the politics of security.

Richard Bardgett began the discussion proper by first introducing the figure of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as someone who cuts across the division between art and ecological science, and then referring to both his current research on the structure of ecological communities, and earlier work on the transformation of glacial moraines, to call into question the notion of a stable endpoint to the development of such communities: decline and death is part of ecological communities' history. Bardgett also emphasised the role of invasive, parasitic plants in transforming the structure of ecological communities.Mel Chin introduced his 'Revival Fields' project to explain how his collaborative interventions, or 'insertions', aim to enable scientific 'creativity', specifically the advancement of notions that the jimsonweed might act as a bio-accumulator of toxic metals. The 'art' of his interventions lies in the disruption of present cultural ecologies, much like the parasitic plants to which Bardgett attends enhance the biodiversity of grasslands.

Georg Dietzler spoke instead about his 'Self-Decomposing Laboratory' project wherein oyster mushrooms play much the same role as Chin's jimsonweed, this time to decontaminate sites containing high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls and yield a crop of edible fungi. The most provocative aspect of 'Self-Decomposing Laboratory' is that the facilities where the fungal inocula are prepared are themselves inoculated with the fungal spores so that these facilities will eventually disappear and it will thus be perfectly legitimate to claim that there will have been no human intervention: the fungi themselves will have re-established ecological function.

Yoke-Sum Wong, reflecting on possible parallels between the contemporary intersection of environmental thought and the creative arts, on the one hand, and the collaboration between László Moholy-Nagy and Julian Huxley, called into question the possibility of a common language between art and science, as well as the notion of ecological unity and the possibility of 'return' implicit in bio-remediation. If Bardgett and Chin challenged this understanding of ecological science and art, Derek Sayer and Tim Collins, from very different perspectives, called for greater reflection on the politics of 'nature'.

Art, the Life Sciences and Institutions

This third and final workshop, held on 10 May 2006 and chaired by Kirk Woolford, who is currently involved in a collaborative project with Richard Bardgett, drew together the proceedings of the first two, aiming to focus attention on the institutions involved inbringing art and the life sciences closer together. The participants were asked to consider why institutions are needed to bring art and the life sciences closer, what problems arise when 'bioart' engages with institutions such as galleries, museums, funding bodies and corporate sponsors.

Joseph Nechvatal returned to Oron Catts' claim that artists were obliged to be politically engaged, questioning the notion of 'opposition' and reccommending instead a politics of simultaneous 'affirmation' and 'negation', drawing parallels with surrealist art. To this end, and echoing Mel Chin, he called for a 'viral consciousness' that undoes the manifold expressions of an essential opposition between art and science.

Jens Hauser pursued the theme further by insisting that, if there is something to be learned from the arrest of Steve Kurtz, it is that the art itself be understood as political, rather than focussing on the artist himself or herself and their avowed political position. The task of 'bioart' is to set the agenda for the bio-political discourse, of which bioart is an integral part, by providing a more expansive language in which to discuss the ways in which the life sciences are currently transforming social and cultural forms. As he and Eduardo Kac have put it: 'Bioart [is the] art of transformation in vivo that manipulates biological materials at discrete levels and creates displays that allow audiences to partake of them emotionally and cognitively'. Hauser then drew particular attention to the move toward performace, which forces the viewer to switch 'back and forth between the symbolic realm of art, and the 'real life' of the processes that are being put on display and that is being suggested by organic presence ... bioart brings about a situation in which artists are again using bodies as a battlefield for the confrontation with issues that arising in connection with the life sciences'.

Kate O'Riordan, in reflections on her work on the visual culture of genomics across different media, emphasised the differences between British and American institutional contexts, the former being more supportive of the integration of art and the life sciences, but also noted the similar ways in which institutional patrons such as the Wellcome Trust first separate and differentiate art from science and then seek to police their reintegration. The enterprise has proved so effective that the Wellcome Trust now acknowledges that the Tate Modern art gallery is where people now learn about recent developments in the life sciences and its new task is to 'bring the Tate Modern into the Wellcome'.

Charlie Gere closed the presentations by returning to the observation during the first workshop that, originally, the word 'laboratory' designated the workplace of both art and science, and then linking this to Max Weber on science as 'vocation' and Richard Rorty on 'experimental praxis' to further question any essential distinction between art and science. He then called for a more sustained analysis of institutions because they are very much involved in establishing an essential difference between art and science, which even the avowedly most critical exhibitions such as Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel's Making Things Public fail to break down. Though institutions are necessary, they are still poorly understood. In the subsequent discussion, Hauser returned to Making Things Public to emphasise how it ultimately fetishises technological artefacts, and to call instead for a phenomenological understanding of our relationship to these artefacts, especially as they relate to the life sciences. Kerry Morrison's intervention, from the perspective of environmental art working in collaboration with a plant ecologist, however, once again emphasised the importance of attending to institutions, for otherwise it is difficult to understand both the concern to draw boundaries between the work of the scientist and the artist, as well as the limited contact bioart and environmental art.

The series was enabled by the support received from the Institute of Advanced Studies, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics, and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Contemporary Performance Practice.

Organisers: Adrian Mackenzie and Paolo Palladino.


Who can attend: Anyone


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
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