Interview with Margherita Pevere
What are the potentials and difficulties of art and science collaborations, and working across and beyond disciplines?
Margherita: Both are a matter of knowledge production, I think. Whereas specific knowledge is important to gain detail, disciplinary borders may be problematic because they reproduce power hierarchies embedded in the way people think the world.
Posthumanities and feminist scholars made it very clear: dichotomies such as nature vs culture, body vs mind, human vs animal... and art (or humanities) vs science characterize the Western understanding of the world, which is based on the ideal of a white, abled, self-determined man. This ideal fails to represent the world’s complexity: it’s time to move beyond that. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge differences: for instance, my training is different from the one of a scientist, and so are the environment we work in and its customs and paradigms. Acknowledging such differences and learning to navigate them allows us to communicate and provoke each other’s thinking – which is the bliss of working together.
I may be biased, because my practice has always been across disciplines: I am an artist also active in academia, which for many remains an enigma. I work across biological arts and performance. I studied political sciences with a focus on environmental politics, followed by audiovisual composition and new media in a conservatory (without being a musician). As an artist and a researcher, I am interested in knowledge production and art. I do not see the potential of art and science collaborations in possible commodification or commercial application, although I acknowledge that others may see it that way. Transgressing disciplinary borders is political. It becomes an act of questioning power. It is a radical choice, an attitude perhaps, and a method.
Have you ever experienced any conflict with the scientific laboratory protocols and/or health and safety policies of the institutions you have collaborated with? Has it required any change in the direction of the research or at the initial plan? How do you usually negotiate with the possible restraints or limitations which might apply in such circumstances?
Margherita: Most of my experience is positive, but of course there have been divergences that required care and negotiation. As a researcher, I welcome them: they are a healthy reminder that one always works in a context. How you do things matters. The thought that one can do just whatever retains the neoliberal individualistic attitude that we should shrug off. Because I work across disciplines, I learned that almost every friction is generative.
Diverging approaches to how safety and “life” are regulated tell a lot about the political and ethical fabric that surrounds “life” in its broadest meaning. Interestingly, this aspect was recently at the centre of a recent conversation with my thesis adviser Prof Helena Sederholm, Dr Marietta Radomska and artist Kira O’Reilly.
The way I negotiate always depends on the context. As I mentioned earlier, knowing the context you are working in is important: how much experience in transdisciplinary work is there on both sides? Since how long do you know each other? And regarding the project: what is its core? What can be done differently, while staying true to such core?
Based on your own experience, what kind of long-term transformations might be needed at the infrastructural level to support and encourage trans-, post-, para-disciplinarity in art&science or biological art practices in a more sustainable way?
Margherita: A lot is already happening. Places like Biofilia – Base for biological arts, associations like The Finnish Bioart Society, or funding bodies like the Kone Foundation are extremely valuable to support and disseminate such art practice. Also, a lot is happening in non-institutionalized places like those organized by the DIY-bio movement, which I am vastly indebted to.
I think one of the most important aspects to understand is that this kind of practice requires time – for research, agreements with collaborators, gaining permissions or approvals , for the negotiation with matter. Therefore, at least IMHO, it does not really fit in the classical “residency-production-show-tour” format. Of course residencies do help, I am very happy with all the residencies I did. And touring a piece is great! But there is something that exceeds such dynamics.
So, my suggestion is three-fold. Firstly, practical support is important to help artists and researchers to work together. Secondly, allowing abundant time is important to let research bloom: I know this may sound like blasphemy in our hyper capitalistic hyper productive society, but we need to be brave and patient. Thirdly, sometimes there may be no immediate outcomes: it is important to learn that “missing results” are not failures, but rather openings.
What kind of challenges and limitations could migrating to the digital realm in these pandemic bring to the field of art & science, the bioart works which are heavily dependent on materiality and the biological matter, living organisms...etc?
Margherita: Clearly, migrating to the digital realm is a big challenge for works that are based on materiality. Perhaps, the impossibility of physical exhibitions may allow more space to discursive practices. A good example for this was the shift done by Biofriction (https://biofriction.org), which was carefully curated.
Following the previous question, what could have been lost and/or gained during this migration?
Margherita: I think it is still too early for an answer. What I hope for is a renewed trust in the inventiveness of art.
What kind of changes or challenges (conceptual, ethical, and practical) could be expected in the field of biological arts and art & science in relation to the paradigm shift coronavirus pandemic have brought to (life) sciences?
Margherita: The community around biological arts and performance art has been notably negotiating with boundaries and contamination. When the pandemic began, I felt that this community had a lot to say in this regard. To be precise, I did not think that “we” had answers (although I was able to warn the elderly members of my family in Northern Italy and instruct them about sanitation before that reached the headlines because of the experience of working with biological matter). I immediately reached out to colleagues because I felt the lines of research on more-than-human entanglements, the body’s boundaries, ecology, science and technology, and biopolitics were converging at the core of the current crisis before it even emerged.
The pandemic will bring deeper changes than those we can see today. There is a radicalisation happening. Vulnerabilities are more exposed. As I said earlier, it is early for certain answers.
What alliances can be found within the context of life, death, care, non/living actants, pandemic crisis and justice?
Margherita: Alliances can be found where someone builds them, or let them happen. Marietta Radomnska’s concept of the non/living as an entity that transgresses what is commonly understood either as life or death was developed to describe living biological artworks, but applies also to entities such as viruses. Today’s crisis is enacted by a non/living entity – the COVID-19 virus - but the virus does not act in solitude. It operates across naturecultures. It “jumped” across species because of ecological processes that emerge from exploitation, which is at the root of the capitalistic system. Because of extended exploitation and inequality, some (ecosystems, animals, plants, humans) are more exposed than others to the effects of the crisis. Death, which is still a taboo for many, became all of a sudden a main presence in the life of many, with endemic inequalities. One of the most shocking aspects of all this is, for me, that the rush for a vaccine – much needed for many – comes at the cost of Limulus polyphemus, the “horseshoe crab”. The blood of this ancient animal is the basis for a standard (and expensive) bioreagent for testing biomedical devices such as vaccines free from biological contaminants. A sheer amount of these animals is literally bled regularly for its blood. How to weave alliances in such context?
I am critical and sometimes despair creeps in, but I also have resolute hope. I have hope in radical practices that transform unrest into ways of thinking and practising differently.
Have there been any particular influences of Covid-19 restrictions & reactions to your artistic research and your collaboration with other practitioners/institutions?
Margherita: A lot! Apart from the avalanche of cancellations that affected almost everyone in the arts, a series of converging limitations slowed down my research and partially disrupted it. I could not work in Biofilia, nor I was able to find an alternative yet because most labs I addressed in Berlin (where I live) are understandably cautious to open their doors for not-urgent work in times of pandemic. Any international travel plans are unreliable as of today, and will remain so for the next months, so other possibly interested labs are out of reach. This had a domino effect on my artistic work and PhD research, which I am still juggling with, and hopefully will retrieve next year. I will not hide that all this came with extra work and frustration. Yet, my research helped a lot to reframe such difficulties through the concept of shared vulnerabilities, which is one of the main ideas emerged from my PhD.
How has the Covid-19 changed the form and format of art&science collaborations and research networking activities?
Margherita: Things are still in progress. Some of the online activities were good, as those I mentioned earlier, but I also felt overwhelmed. However, some beautiful and unexpected dialogues emerged.
What would creativity mean to you, could you please describe in three words?
Margherita: Ha! As an unquiet young adult, I sometimes tried to describe my friends and my identity in three words. Obviously, I always failed, and thus learned identity is complex and not fixed.
I am afraid I am not able to give you three words, but for me it is a drive, an obsession.