Particular Times and Particular Interests
Particular Times and Particular Interests
“What is liquid cannot be crystal. What is crystal cannot be liquid. But there are liquid crystals, ones that exist in nature, and ones that can be made. A contradictory form, liquid crystal contradicted science's knowledge.” (Leslie 2016, p.19) Scholar Esther Leslie’s reference to the contradiction between these two physical forms is similar to today’s artistic experiments that follow scientific procedures and processes, and in doing so, often challenge the some of the outputs of science. The artistic works and experiments realized in parallel to science open up the possibility to perceive the processes and eventualities of science, technology and economic development from a different angle. When one looks at scientific experiments from another perspective, different questions emerge. One can say that science research forms clearly framed questions and goals, while artistic research speculates, ‘messes around’ and forms novel questions.
During the first decades of the 21st century, we have seen a growing interest in “artistic works and interests that are affiliated with science and technology and which use living matter – such as micro-organisms, bacteria, yeast cells, plants, mushrooms and animals – as an integral part of the art work. In some of the artistic experiments, the organisms are being technologically manipulated whereas in others the living organisms are cultured and mainly observed.” (Beloff 2017, p.782)
It is evident that the artistic interests towards science developments are not a new phenomenon, but artists have always been following and reflecting on the surrounding world, including its scientific and technological developments. For example, art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson has written about avant-garde artists’ interests in the early 20th century: "The fields of science and technology offered Duchamp a new vocabulary of words, images, and operations with which to comment on bodily processes (especially sex) and spiritual experience (religion and myth). As in the case of Roussel, in particular, Duchamp's awareness of science and technology multiplied, almost exponentially, the possibilities for inventive wordplay and visual punning both in the notes and the Glass (i.e. The Green Box notes for The Large Glass) in this fluid realm of Playful Physics, chemistry, and technology, Duchamp freely layered meaning over meaning, moving readily from fairground to science laboratory to mythic realms." (Dalrymple Henderson 1998, p. 89)
From somewhere reappeared a riveting vision, or a dream, about the arts and the sciences working, sharing and producing knowledge together as equal partners. Today, looking back at the last two decades of development in the art & science and biological arts field, one can see a few different phases.
1) The first phase focused on getting organized, the building up of new labs and locating ones that were open and accessible for the artists. This meant in practice establishing small communities and organizations that were constructing lab facilities with “Do it yourself” (DIY) methods and tools and collecting old discarded lab equipment for use. This was done in a manner comparable to the hackers’ labs, which had been already established, and frequently the new bio-labs were built in affiliation with them. The other option was to find an existing science lab and scientists interested in opening their doors for artists and supporting unusual experiments. During this first phase the active users (artists, designers, citizens) were learning laboratory procedures, construction and use of lab equipment, scientific methods and processes, as well as understanding recent scientific advancements and subject matter in biotechnology, synthetic biology and biochemistry. These actions were typically done with the support by trained scientists. Obviously, the lab itself could also be seen as an interesting instrument that is isolated from the surrounding world with its sterile environment.
2) The second phase is the active working period in the now available lab facilities and with a growing understanding by artists what this type of work enables, implies and can produce. This phase includes artistic experimentation with scientific methods and aims to understand and learn more. It is also a period in which artists and designers are testing and contesting scientific method, subect matter and the framing of theories and concepts. During this phase many artistic experiments and projects are being produced and exhibited; the visibility of science topics and advancements as well as biological arts is increasing; dialogues are being initiated between artists and scientists, and with the wider public. In this phase begins the production of visions (utopian and dystopian) as well as a deeper understanding of their possibilities and limitations.
3) The next phase – what will this become? The physical and functional basis for interesting work and development is established and there is growing interest towards the art & science field from art audiences and the public at large. One could claim that this is a period for artists and scientists to dream together, to work in collaboration and side by side in same spaces. Art allows a wide range of approaches and innovative perspectives, which don’t need to make sense or have a practical purpose, but which can open new directions for thinking and challenge the existing hegemonies and values. Art can bring forward ethical viewpoints as well – even moral questions and matters of care. Perhaps this is the time for scientists to learn from artists and to imagine what the arts can do with and within science.
In the end one can ask, following Esther Leslie’s book on liquid crystals, to what extent can the “forms of physical matter play into the technologies of a particular time – which would include the modes of thinking” (Leslie 2016, p.21)
Beloff, L. (2017). Uncanny Realm - The Extension of The Natural. In J. J. Arango, A. Bubarno, F. C. Londono, & G. M. Mejia (Eds.), ISEA - Proceedings of the 23rd International Symposium on Electronic Arts - BIO-CREATION AND PEACE (pp. 780–783). Manizales: Department of Visual Design, Universidad de Caldas, and ISEA International
Dalrymple Henderson, L. (1998). Duchamp in Context; Science and Technology in the Large Glass andRelated Works. Princeton University Press.
Leslie, E. (2016). Liquid Crystals - The Science and Art of A Fluid Form. Reaktion Books Ltd.
Laura Beloff (PhD) is an internationally acclaimed artist and researcher at the cross section of art, technology and science. In addition to research papers, articles and book chapters, the outcome the outcome of her research is in a form of experimental art projects, that deal with the merger of the technological and the biological at large. Her research engages with such areas as human enhancement, biosemiotics, biological matter, artificial life, artificial intelligence, robotics and information technology in connection to art, humans, environment and society. Previously, she has been a Full Professor at the Art Academy in Oslo 2002-06, a visiting Professor at The University of Applied Arts in Vienna 2009-11. She was the recipient of a prestigious 5-year artist grant from the Finnish state in 2007-11. She was Associate Professor (2012-2019), Head of Section (2012-2016) and Head of PhD School (2017-2019) at IT-University in Copenhagen. Currently, she is Associate Professor and Head of the ViCCA programme at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland.
Labs and Actors
`Labs and Actors` text by Laura Beloff as part of the Outre: Encounters with Non/Living Things Exhibition