Southeastern College Art Conference

I presented a paper titled “An Autoimmune Aesthetic” in the panel “Visualizing Disability” chaired by Ann Millett-Gallant from UNC – Greensboro at the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) a couple weeks ago. Ann wrote a book called The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art that I’m really looking forward to checking out. I’m hoping to continue my work on that paper, so I’m not going to post it just yet…

However, I am going to post some links to other projects I found interesting. I went to a panel called “Stoking Hephaestus’ Fire: Linking Art and Science” and saw some interesting art projects presented.

The artist Matt Kenyon’s talk “Techno-Activism and Inverse Biotelemetry” showed projects from his collaborative work with Douglas Easterly “SWAMP“: Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production. One work that I particularly liked was the improvised empathetic device (i.e.d.). This device worn around the arm, tracks the deaths of US soldiers in the Middle East, oftentimes because of improvised explosive devices, I.E.Ds. The device delivers a prick to the wearer when data is updated. (This project reminded me of Wafaa Bilal’s performance piece titled … and Counting where he had the dead tattooed on his back from the war in Afghanistan. However, in Bilal’s piece, he draws awareness to our lack of attention to the deaths of Afghani civilians; he tracks their losses as well as the US’s.)

The next talk in the panel, “Ut Pictura Scientia: The Studio Lab” given by Shona Macdonald, had many projects! I’m just going to list them here:

Katy Schimert, A Woman’s Brain (1995): investigates differences in the brain based on the separate sexes

Marilene Oliver, I know you inside out (2001): a reconstruction of the convicted murderer who was convinced to donate his body to science, becoming the basis of the Visible Human Project.

Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef: “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The project interestingly also involves an appropriation of mathematics in making the crocheted forms.

The next talk was “Leveraging Public Experience in a  Scientistic Approach to the Arts” by Wayne Madsen. He presented his own works, and the one I was most interested in was wiki_panopticon which engages with deleted data that is stored from entries in wikipedia: Art, Artificial Intelligence, Ideology, Justice, Anarchism, Truth, Consciousness, and Tradition.

The last talk was “Printmaking on a Micro Scale: An Art and Science Collaboration” by Al Denyer and Erik Brunvand. This project involved a new technique of printmaking on silicon chips. These are super tiny! Only 300-500 microns large! We’re talking millimeters big. They use integrated circuit manufacturing to make the prints, and it is basically a process of layering metals to create the image.

I thought it was interesting that the approaches to science and technology were so different between the projects. Many of the projects were much more political in their themes whether it be about war and the loss of life, communication and the way data is saved and surveilled, disciplined bodies and biomedicine’s interventions, or environmental disasters. I’m not so sure about the politics of the printmaking on silicon wafers still though; it seems like a more straightforward aesthetic and material enterprise. However I can see a critique of its being problematic in terms of classism (?) – who would be able to own these? What are the conditions of production that make that project possible?

These projects all seem to point to ways that science and technology can both be used and examined in artistic practices. Can we use technology and science in a way that is self-reflexive of its conditions while also talking about something else? Must the artist always need to be aware of the conditions of the material, the technology?

Testing out the Flesh Machine

Current reading: Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon.

Pardon my absence from posting in the past couple weeks – classes have been crazy and I’m currently working on a conference paper for the “Visualizing Disability” Panel at the Southeastern College Art Conference at SCAD in November (more posts to follow soon about the conference) that has been taking up major time. So, this post may be a bit all over the place.

Reardon’s book discusses the history of one particular project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, as a way to illuminate the debates that occurred, and still are occurring, about the use of genetics research in studying humans, human populations, and races. She lays out the issues of how race has been studied scientifically and how it relates, or doesn’t, to social discourses and constructions of race. She asks us to consider how race is defined in society and in genetics, and which differences become the ones with meaning in each discourse.

We also watched a video featuring James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix, called “Pandora’s Box” in the series on DNA by PBS. In the video Watson describes his interests in studying genetics and a “new eugenics.” He claims that “If we don’t play God, who will?” The stakes for Watson are high. Statements of his about the intelligence of African Americans caused major controversy; not to mention the oft-forgotten fact that his son has a mental illness. An article in The Independent from 2007, “Fury at DNA Pioneer’s Theory: Africans Are Less Intelligent Than Westerners” describes Watson’s theory and the ensuing response to it. It quotes from Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science:

There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.

This is where Reardon’s book becomes necessary in order to contextualize Watson’s work in the history of genetic research. It is easy to dismiss Watson here; his comments are brash, but we need to know where they come from. However, are we supposed to entirely dismiss genetics as well? How can we position Watson in the landscape of genetics and scientific research; in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices”? Reardon also claims that we can’t necessarily sanctify or condemn science; so what are we to think of this research? (Reardon 7) Many geneticists, on the other hand, who proposed and worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project were considered anti-racist, though they too were criticized for propagating further racism. The use of race in science and genetics has been fraught and tricky for us to get “past.” Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading scientist in the Project, was an anti-racist, and so therefore argued that studying human “populations” instead of human “races” would work to undermine racism in society. He, however, believed that race still did exist on the genetic level and there were certain differences between groups – this he was criticized for. How is our genetic make-up, our material, responsible for our social position, our race, and all other factors that make us who we are? Does our internal code really determine all aspects of how we will be?

Genetic testing is a contentious issue for disability proponents. Questions about who has the right to live become apparent here: if a fetus is found to have genetic disorders, should it be terminated? What are the qualifications for human-ness? What do we consider a “good” human? Though Reardon’s book mainly addresses the issue of race in genetics research, these other questions are there all the same. Questions about expertise and who has the authority/right to constitute the human emerge. Reardon brings Michel Foucault’s writing on “power-knowledge” to the issue, which can be important for thinking about new eugenics and reproductive technologies. Reardon asks: What kind of human diversities matter? And to this I ask, who decides what matters and how? What is the particular criteria to arrive at a judgment?

Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve, image found at http://www.artnet.com

Art collective Critical Art Ensemble explores many of these questions in projects of theirs including Flesh Machine (1997-8), Intelligent Sperm Online (1999), The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (1999-2000), and Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000). These projects all point to the utopian attitude conferred on new biotechnologies, and ask how to respond to this attitude and technologies at our disposal. The language of these projects mimics the language used by geneticists, eugenics and new eugenics practitioners, and arguably public health scholars as well. In the statement for Cult of the New Eve, CAE writes:

We are entering an age in which the secrets of creation are not in the hands of God, nor are they at the blind mercy of Nature. We control our own destinies… Once and for all, we shall know that humankind is not spiritual – it is material.

What separates this language from Watson’s claims that we need to take responsibility into our own hands for human progress, is that CAE is using the configuration of a cult to expose the underlying utopian project of eugenics and new eugenics. CAE is calling for us to be critically aware of these projects. In their position paper for the project, they talk about science’s position as new religion and that “its power lies only in the particulars of knowledge production.” However, as we have learned through Foucault, this knowledge production can’t be divorced from the production of power. How is the relationship between science and religion similar to the way the relationship between genetics and anthropology played out in the Human Genome Diversity Project – with genetics as hierarchically higher than anthropology? Who is really working for the “public good” and what does that really mean? What are the differences between us that actually matter?

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine – image found at http://greenmuseum.org

The Sound of Cosmopolitics

I’m still trying to unpack everything that is Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics I, Part I: The Science Wars, so this post is going to be brief with a few links.

A friend posted a TED Talk with artist Honor Harger titled “A History of the Universe in Sound.” She describes a bit of history about radio waves from outer space and how they have been picked up by scientists and others here on Earth. During the talk, she plays sounds recorded from the Sun, Jupiter, and the leftover cosmic rays from the big bang. An interesting history to think about in light of Stengers’ arguments about the existence of phenomenon and our relationship to their “discovery”; do we have “the power to talk about the world independently of the relationships of knowledge that humans create”? (Stengers 8)

Honor Harger’s collaborative project with Adam Hyde r a d i o q u a l i a, is an exploration of sound, radio, and other media in artistic practices. Their ongoing project Radio Astronomy allows listeners to hear outer space by using

radio technology to convert data collected by radio telescopes into sound. It then broadcasts this astronomical audio over the internet and on FM radio. Created in collaboration with astronomers, engineers, and radio stations worldwide, the project enables listeners to tune into different celestial frequencies, hearing planets, stars, and the constant hiss of cosmic noise. It aims to reveal the sonic character of objects in our Universe, and in the process make these phenomena more tangible and comprehensible” (radioqualia.net).

Even though Stengers isn’t necessarily talking about outer space in Cosmopolitics, I like the idea of listening to the bodies in space while reading her.

Ecology of Practices: Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra’s work is controversial, obviously so I would say. His projects include paying prostitutes to  tattoo a red line across their backs for money for heroine (160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, 2000), paying unemployed works to sit in cardboard boxes for four hours a day for six days (Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000), and hiring workers to act as buttresses to hold up a wall for five days (The Wall of a Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined Sixty Degrees From the Ground and Sustained by Five People, 2000). Claire Bishop, whom I wrote about last week, counters her criticisms of relational art with Sierra’s confrontational work.

Bishop claims that the relationships set up by Sierra don’t collapse into the work and are not meant for a sense of belonging like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Liam Gillick’s whom she criticizes: “The relations produced by their [Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra] performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a ‘microutopia’ and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context” (Bishop 70).

Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed On Four People, 2000 (image found at http://bombsite.com)

While reading Isabelle Stengers “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” I thought of Sierra’s work. She begins by describing the stakes for physics: either it defends itself as keepers of the knowledge of reality or it must suffer as just another social practice. To deal with this issue of science’s truth claims, Stenger develops the notion of an ecology of practices which is defined as a non-neutral tool for “thinking through what is happening” (Stengers 185).

Stengers talks about our attachments, our obligations, and our responsibilities; attachments to her are “what cause people… to feel and to think, to be able or to become able” (191). It is our mistake when we take these attachments as “universal obligations” and feel “free to go anywhere, to enter any practical territory, to judge, deconstruct or disqualify” (191). What can this mean for Sierra’s work? Work that judges without judging, disqualifies without actually disqualifying? Sierra brings the prostitutes and unemployed workers into the gallery where they become both performers but also objects of art. Their previous societal disqualification makes them fodder for Sierra and they are transformed into highly expensive works of art, though after their time of occupation, what has changed about their original disqualification? How do we see these people now? What is our (the audience’s) responsibility to the people who for a period of time became art? Bishop says that “Sierra knows there is no such thing as a  free meal: everything and everyone has a price” (70). Is Sierra simply a “nomad” pointing out the problems and exploitations of the world while still participating in them?

Santiago Sierra, Eight People Paid To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 1999 (image found at http://www.medienkunstnetz.de)

What does it mean that Bishop claims Tiravanija is working in a “major key” and Sierra is in a “minor”? (71) Is this at all akin to Stengers’ insistence on working in a minor key that “avoid[s] the center stage”? Like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on minor literature, a literature that works from the inside through  the dominant language? Sierra in these works is using the dominant language of gallery, gallery patron, artist, art object, but the question of his complicity within this dominant language has been raised. According to Stengers, “there is no practice independent of its environment” (187). To this, Sierra responds that he doesn’t “believe in the possibility of change” (Sierra 2002, 15 quoted in Bishop, 71). But what kind of change is he talking about here? A change in the politics of labor exploitation, or a change in the mechanics of art? Or are the possibilities for change wrapped in both?

How are Sierra’s practices, art practices, implicated in Stengers’ notion of the ecology of practices that does not “describe practices ‘as they are'” but rather “aims at the construction of new ‘practical identities’ for practices, that is, new possibilities for them to be present, or in other words to connect;” “as they may become”? (186) How can Sierra’s work be in a process of becoming? To view Sierra’s work as just another instance of exploitation is to, I think, dismiss another side of the work – some sort of nuanced truth claim, but not Truth. Stengers mentions philosopher Leibniz’s take on Truth: to “not appeal to the strong drug of Truth, or the power to denounce or judge, to deconstruct and criticize” (187). The very notion of the critique while participating in the practice being critiqued seems to throw a wrench into the smooth machine of criticism. Do these works empower in Stengers’ sense of the word or mobilize? What about the witch’s ritual she describes and its effect that is “not becoming aware of something which others already knew, of understanding some truth beyond illusions – her effect is enacting the relation between belonging and and becoming, producing belonging as experimentation while it is always in danger of being some kind of psychological habit”? (195)

The Quantum Physics of Mark Lombardi

Reading for this week in Feminist Science and Technology Studies: Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning by Karen Barad – Intro thru Chapter 3.

In thinking about a connection between art and quantum physics, it was at first difficult to get beyond art that uses quantum physics as material in making digital images and such. Though this kind of work is interesting in its own right, I wanted to try to think about work that may not at first glance appear to be about quantum physics at all. This led me to Mark Lombardi’s conspiracy-web works.

Mark Lombardi, Bill Clinton, The Lippo Group, and Jackson Stephens of Little Rock, Arkansas (5th Version), 1999 (found at artcritical.com)

Lombardi’s drawings show us webs of players involved in controversial political events and groups – Iran-Contra, World Finance Corporation, United Press International, and others. Each node in these webs connects to other nodes by simple pencil lines or dotted lines, creating a visualization of the networks of power and money that undergird today’s politics. Lombardi calls his drawing’s “narrative structures” because each network he is presenting is meant to “convey a story”  (http://theworkersdreadnought.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/mark-lombardi-artistic-narrative-structures/).

Lombardi’s drawings point towards actor-network theory (or material-semiotic) and also notions of intentionality. Barad writes in Meeting the Universe Halfway that “the very nature of intentionality needs to be rethought” (22) because “intentions are not preexisting determinate mental states of individual human beings” (22-3). Rather, we need to see that “intentionality might better be understood as attributable to a complex network of human and nonhuman agents” (23). This reconfiguration presents us with a quandary in our traditional conceptions of free will and determinism, and thus our notions of agency and ethics. In light of this, how do we/can we look at Lombardi’s drawings?

Conspiracy theories hold fast to traditional notions of agency; someone has power and is exerting it upon others who do not have power. However, it doesn’t necessarily seem this simplistic in Lombardi’s drawings; there is not one particular agent of power that is determining the course; it isn’t always the case that there is one actor from which all the activity stems from. It is clear, though, that each of the nodes/players is a discrete entity that affects others – where would Barad’s notion of “intra-action” be found here? Intra-action being “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies,” separate from interaction that “assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction”; “intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (33). How can each of these nodes (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, various energy companies and banks, and etc.) contain within themselves “intra-action” and not just interaction amongst them?

This also brings up questions about the artist’s position in the drawings; where is Mark Lombardi in all of this? What are the particular conditions of production and his own web that led to the creation and showing of the drawing? Barad’s notion of “diffraction” and her statement that “practices of knowing are specific material engagements that participate in (re)configuring the world” (91) come into play here. Lombardi’s drawings are the culmination of mountains of research and studies on notecards; he draws from newspaper articles and compiles the “facts” to create the individual nodes and the connections between them. What does it mean for Lombardi the artist to be partaking in this knowledge-making practice? Drawing? Deven Golden writes in an article on Lombardi in artcritical about Lombardi’s choices of materials and what that means for the artworld. What does it mean to draw today and with only pencil on paper? Are the drawings purely representational or do they engage in a new performativity that Barad suggests? For Barad, “performativity” entails a “direct material engagement with the world” instead of representationalism’s belief that our experience with the world is mediated through representations that have an inherent gap built into them (49). Is Lombardi’s drawing practice engaging in Copenhagen physicist Niels Bohr’s indeterminacy, where “the boundary between the ‘object of observation’ and the ‘agencies of observation’ is indeterminate in the absence of a specific physical arrangement of the apparatus,” (114) in this case newspapers, paper, and pencil? It seems that now we can’t take for granted the entities called “George W. Bush,” “Bill Clinton,” “Mark Lombardi,” “pencil,” “paper,” and a whole host of others. How does each intra-act with others and themselves?

Evolution may have pushed humans toward greater risk for type 1 diabetes

Evolution may have pushed humans toward greater risk for type 1 diabetes.

This article makes the case that humans may actually be evolving towards some autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Supposedly there is a connection between RA and tuberculosis. It’s interesting to think that some of these autoimmune diseases that cause so much pain and are potentially fatal, may in fact be (somewhat) necessary violence. Is the body reconfiguring itself to prevent firm distinctions between self and other? What can this mean for the rhetoric of the autoimmune condition? Is the ability to recognize self not always needed?

Contemporary Medical Science and Technology as a Challenge to Museums conference

To see full and original post on Morbid Anatomy, click here.

Here is the schedule for the conference of the European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences that takes place in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Medical Museion:

THURSDAY, 16 SEPTEMBER

  • Thomas Söderqvist: Why this conference now?
  • Kim Sawchuk: Biotourism and biomediation
  • Kerstin Hulter Åsberg: Uppsala Biomedical Center: A mirror of modern medical history – how can it be displayed?
  • Wendy Atkinson and René Mornex: A major health museum in Lyon
  • Robert Martensen: Integrating the physical and the virtual in exhibitions, archives, and historical research at the National Institutes of Health
  • Ramunas Kondratas: The use of new media in medical history museums
  • Danny Birchall: ‘Medical London’, Flickr, and the photography of everyday medicine
  • Joanna Ebenstein: The private, curious, and niche collection: what they can teach us about exhibiting new medicine

FRIDAY, 17 SEPTEMBER

  • Judy M. Chelnick: The challenges of collecting contemporary medical science and technology at the Smithsonian Institution
  • James Edmonson: Collection plan for endoscopy, documenting the period 1996-2011
  • John Durant: Preserving the material culture of contemporary life science and technology
  • Stella Mason: Medical museums, contemporary medicine and the casual visitor
  • Alex Tyrell: New voices: what can co-curation bring to a contemporary medical gallery?
  • Jan Eric Olsén: The portable clinic: healthcare gadgets for home use
  • Yin Chung Au: Seeing is communicating: possible roles of Med-Art in communicating contemporary scientific process with the general public in digital age
  • Nina Czegledy: At the intersection of art and medicine
  • Lucy Lyons: What am I looking at?
  • Henrik Treimo: Invisible World
  • Victoria Höög: The optic invasion of the body. Epistemic approaches to current biomedical images
  • Ken Arnold and Thomas Söderqvist: A manifesto for making science, technology and medicine museums

SATURDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER

  • Morten Skydsgaard: The exhibition ‘The Incomplete Child’: boundaries of the body and the guest
  • Sniff Andersen Nexø: Showing fetal realities: visibility, display, performance
  • Suzanne Anker: Inside/Out: fetal specimens through a 21st Century lens
  • Yves Thomas and Catherine Cuenca: Multimedia contributions to contemporary medical museology
  • Nurin Veis: How do we tell the story of the cochlear implant?
  • Jim Garretts: Bringing William Astbury into the 21st Century: the Thackray Museum and the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology in partnership
  • Adam Bencard: Being molecular
  • Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein: Visual things and universal meanings: aids posters, the politics of globalization, and history
  • Karen Ingham: Medicine, materiality and museology: collaborations between art, medicine and the museum space
  • Silvia Casini: Curating the biomedical archive-fever
  • Thomas Schnalke: Dissolving matters. The end of all medical museums’ games?

Click here for link to Conference website.

Morbid Anatomy also gives a couple links for other blogs posting about the conference: Dittrick Museum and The Sterile Eye.

Wish I could go…