Saturday, 24 January 2015

Dresden Conference: Chimeric Blobs, biological art, or where I go off script

The penultimate talk which I want to cover here marks the descent into something much darker than death and memory; the creation of life. Paradoxically, what should be the most joyous occasion is in an artistic/scientific context, the most troublesome. I can understand that the 16th century natural philosophers attempted to recreate the natural spark of life, and much has been said about this. With ingredients ranging from blood, semen and horse manure, I wasn't sure that the creation and display of modern artificial life would be as distasteful as some of the early modern alchemical recipes.

Helen Gregory's 'Curious instances and chimeric blobs: Disrupting definitions of natural history specimens through contemporary art practice' opened with a discussion about what constitutes a natural history specimen. From the historical wet and dry specimens, which served their purpose adequately, to new technology meaning that objects can be cryogenically frozen. Scientific and laboratory collections have inevitably moved away from their 19th century ancestors and, like some of the samples, evolved beyond all recognition.

Her next question concerned this evolution of samples; when you have an item which can be classified in accordance with the Linnean system, then that's all well and good. But what happens when it falls between the classification gaps because it has been artificially engineered? Given that there is nothing new under the sun, this question was touched upon by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). I'm scared of writing much about his gentleman because the question of his achievements has been addressed by The Renaissance Mathmaticus. Therefore I shall merely say that he recognised the need for a system by which natural history could be ordered because there seemed to be 'monsters' and aberration of nature which defied order. For instance, mosses and fish seemed to be composed of two species.

Bacon suggested that 'everyday language is not isomorphic with nature, and while "men believe that their reason governs words," the converse is the more accurate; for our understanding is not free to think or to express itself however it likes but is governed by the words that give it form.' And as this writer continues, 'in a passage from The Advancement of Learning that leads up to his discussion of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Bacon proposes that our understanding does not necessarily have to be expressed by spoken language or an alphabetic script: "For whatsoever is capable of sufficient differences, and those perceptible by the sense, is in nature competent to express cogitations."'

Although modern biologists have scientific processes when classifying the natural world, unlike the early moderns, we can recognise Bacon's need for a hieroglyphic/non alphabetic script which limits our traditional classification systems. Items in modern cryogenic storage are identified by barcodes which link to sophisticated computer records - certainly a barcode is a non linguistic symbol imbued with information, as long as you have the appropriate readers.

So far so good, so far so ethical and scientifically acceptable - even Jane Wildgoose might accept that this classifying and storage of curiosity and wonder is regulated and within laboratory rules. This is where the artist-biologists arrive and start muddying the waters. Most importantly, I appreciate that the artists are not doing anything that biologists haven't been doing for some time.

There was a tissue culture and art project called NoArk which was set up as a research project to explore the taxonomical crisis induced by life forms created through biotechnology. There is no way I can describe what they do, here they explain;

NoArk takes the form of an experimental vessel designed to to maintain and grow a mass of living cells and tissues that originated from different organisms. This vessel serves as a surrogate body for a collection of living fragments; it can be seen as a tangible and symbolic ‘craft’ for observing and understanding a biology that combines the familiar with the other. As opposed to classical methodologies of collection, categorization and display that are seen in Natural History museums, contemporary biological research is focused upon manipulation and hybridisation, and rarely takes a public form. NoArk uses cellular stock taken from tissue banks, laboratories, museums and other collections. It contains a chimerical ‘blob’ made out of modified living fragments of different organisms, which are living together in a techno-scientific body. Like the cabinets of curiosity that preceded the Natural History museum’s refined taxonomy NoArk’s unified collection of unclassifiable sub-organisms acts as a symbolic precursor to a new way of approaching a made nature.

From hereon, this is me writing; nothing to do with Helen Gregory as I feel too passionate to simply passively relate.

This is probably one of the most disturbing paragraphs I've ever read. Experimental vessels; different organisms; modified living fragments; symbolic precursor? I'm not even going to think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or even Hollywood's fascination with artificial life, because those literary and screen explorations are more-or-less theoretical, that is to say fictional excursions into fantasy science. It's not that I am scared of scientific advances, quite the reverse. I would say I have a liberal attitude to stem cell research, gene therapy, growing ears on mice, three parent children etc.

However to be blunt about NoArk, their assertions that their work resembles 16th century 'cabinets of curiosity' is absolute nonsense. Their creations are nothing like the fanciful unicorn horn, mermaids, and other unexplained curiosities of these early collections. A two headed chick was included in one of their recent exhibitions - genetic malfunctions causing stillbirth, or some other form of 'other', are not something that should be marvelled or wondered at. They are tragic manifestations, whether animal or human, and should be accorded respect and dignity.

The experiments carried out by the early moderns were certainly on the edge of what I would class as tasteful, although some might say, they were more tasteful than the modern abominations carried out by so-called civilised people in the late 19th-early 20th-centuries. For science to be right, there has to be respect, curiosity, ethics and reason. To be successful, art has to be beautiful, to move, to vex, to provoke thought, to have a message, to have an inherent purpose, an idea or concept, and yet...? This is an abhorrent use of technology to create something which will have to die, as there is no way that chimeric blob would survive outside its artificial vessel.

Their exploration of the natural and the manmade is valid; there is human intervention in all preservation, storage, and language used to classify and catalogue specimens. But their entire venture and rationale for it makes me very uncomfortable, and I question some of their methods. I curb myself simply because I haven't seen any of their shows

To return to the talk for her final point regarding the observations of Bacon, she stated that the DNA barcode is a fulfilment of his isomorphic wish to label objects. As a representatio of the life form, where language isn't specialised enough, a new form is required. Given that we all - including the chimeric blobs, have our own DNA barcode, it looks like the biologists have the ultimate classification system.

But I still question whether those blobs should have been created in the first place.

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