I’m mentioning a bioart panel discussion that I attended at the 2009 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) as a precursor to part 4 of my series on Science Communication in Canada.
The panel discussion, Is the (Art) World Ready for Bioart?, held on Saturday, August 29, 2009 was moderated by Andy Miah and featured Tagny Duff with Kathy Rae Huffman, Laura Sillars, Kerstin Mey, and Anna Dumitriu. The panel arose as a consequence of a controversy that erupted after Duff’s art work was accepted for exhibition. Duff had proposed a showing of her work with a modified (dead) HIV/AIDS virus injected into pig tissue and also into human breast tissue with resultant ‘bruising’ marks in the tissue.
First off, the only comment I’m going to make about the art aspect to this project is that it’s highly conceptual and not my kind of thing. There are many people who find these kinds of works (bioart) important and worthwhile.
Duff is a Canadian and an assistant professor in communication studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and has an extensive background in media and studio arts. About her latest work (from the faculty page at Concordia),
The research-creation project “The Cryobook Archives“ investigates the strangeness of wet and cryo-suspended bodies in an era when art and science is increasingly turning to computer generated and digitized bodies to extend human knowledge (and life). In particular, the project considers how book form is evolving from the skin of trees (paper) and animals (leather), digital pages via the internet and computation screens, to biotechnological applications and cryogenic tissue banks. The creation of limited edition book/ sculptures series made from human and animal tissue, biological viruses and immunohistochemical staining is the means for thinking through the changing status of bodies in the postbiological era. This project is funded by The Canada Council for The Arts.
I wish Duff had mentioned this description when she spoke at the panel as this helps me to understand her work much better. At the panel, she was focused on the process that occurred after her work was accepted for exhibition. Because the exhibition was being held in Northern Ireland the laws of the United Kingdom came into effect when Duff applied to send her artwork to Belfast for the exhibition.
There is a law/regulation which is unique to the UK. I’m not sure if it had something to do with the dead virus or the tissues that form Duff’s art pieces but a government bureaucrat misapplied a set of rules which pertain to this law/regulation and refused Duff’s art work entry in the UK.
Duff did some detective work and determined that the law/regulation did not apply to her art work and the government official reversed the decision. However, the institution that was hosting the exhibition had some concerns and wanted to exhibit the work in a room that was removed from the other exhibits and (if I remember rightly) would require that a visitor open the door to the exhibit with a key. The artist agreed and then somehow the institution (or perhaps it was the ISEA 2009 organizers?) decided that this particular art work could not be exhibited.
All of this led to the panel discussion where Duff discussed the entire process and the chief ISEA 2009 organizer (Kerstin May) talked about some of the difficulties from her perspective. ISEA 2009 is organized by various committees and it’s those committees which make the decisions about who will and won’t present and/or exhibit. There are many, many potential exhibitors and conference presenters from around the world making submissions so it’s already quite demanding. The symposium was further complicated by the fact that it took place in Belfast, Londonderry/Derry, Coleraine, Dundalk, and Dublin. I also had the impression that much of this transpired in the last few months (if not weeks) before the conference and anybody who’s organized anything will tell you, you can’t deal with this kind of a problem at what is effectively the last minute.
I found the whole discussion quite illuminating. First, Duff displayed a mindset that I associate with scientists. She presented a logical, well-reasoned case. She’d gotten permission from the patient who donated her breast tissue for the project and the virus she used is a dead virus commonly used by researchers around the world, including the UK. She mentioned that she’s a professor and she noted a couple of papers (along with a list of her co-authors) that will be published soon. All of it identical to behaviour I’d expect from the science mindset I mentioned earlier right down to the fact that Duff did not seem to grasp the nature of the concerns (panic) she had set off.
We (not just scientists) sometimes forget that other people are not us. They have different experiences, reference points, and opinions. I can’t be certain of my insights but I do think the ‘mad cow’ disease in the UK has had a profound effect on how the population there views any number of issues associated with science. As well, the GM food (aka frankenfood) controversies affected European populations in a way that I don’t think Canadians understand very well.
More on this tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Michael Berger of Nanowerk has written Nano-Society – Pushing the boundaries of technology. You can read more about it by clicking the link (Nano-Society). I imagine that the book is an expansion of the articles he’s written on the Nanowerk site. I’ve always found Berger’s writing to be very clear and informative, presumably the book will be the same.