BIOTOPIA – Art in the Wet Zone
By Morten Søndergaard, Media Art Curator
What happens when digital and biological life forms challenge each other and enter into a closer relationship? This question is the focal point of the exhibition Biotopia – Art in the Wet Zone. The exhibition brings together seven highly respected international artists, all of whom set out to explore the wet zone that lies between bytes and atoms: Stelarc (AUS), Revital Cohen (UK), Jacob Kirkegaard (DK), Jim Gimzewski / Victoria Vesna (USA), Paul Vanouse (USA) and Mogens Jacobsen (DK).
The artists work in the area between art and science and are particularly fascinated by what happens when technology and human beings fuse together. The exhibition examines science, biotechnology and art with an open mind and makes no attempt to separate one area from another. This tendency to work across genres even characterises the artists involved. All of them work strongly against the traditional role of the artist. So has the artist become today's scientist? Or is it the other way round?
Stelarc: Internet Ear
With Internet Ear the Australian artist Stelarc ventures into a controversial area: the fusion of the human body with technology. By means of a lengthy surgical process the artist had an artificial human ear implanted in his forearm. A subsequent operation then installed microscopic electronic equipment in this third ear, with a view to both transmitting and receiving sound. Because of the danger of possible infection it was impossible to give the ear a technological "sense of hearing" and the equipment was removed. But the ear is still attached to Stelarc's arm. Ear on arm.
Internet Ear, which was comissioned by PORT 2010 for the Biotopia exhibition, launches the Ear on Arm project onto the internet. With this project Stelarc aims at the limitation of infection with almost poetic, or rather epic, implications. A series of his arm with ear have been cast in polyurethane. They do not see, but "ear" the world around them.
The other factor at work in Ear on Arm, the exploration of technological sensuality, now becomes a sensuality that is distributed and expanded; a sensual technology disconnected from its original "host" and, in principal, beyond its control. We hear with Stelarc's ear! The phrase "Lend me your ear", in the words of the Beatles (and before them, Shakespeare (Julius Ceasar), becomes real. Stelarc actually does lend us his ear. But what will you say?
Software and the Internet transform Internet Ear into a listening arm. You can listen along with it from (and to) Moscow or Paris, or whatever corner of the globe you happen to be in.
Stelarc's Internet Ear has its own blog (www.earonarm.net), where anyone can contribute to the ear's dialogue with itself. Internet Ear is an exploration of technological sensuality and the technology of the senses. Furthermore it is an open channel for listening to the world, a fusion of human being and machine, biology and bytes.
Stelarc (b.1946 Cyprus) lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
The Greek-Australian performance artist Stelarc is a pioneer in the exploration of the interplay between human beings and technology. His spectacular shows have involved performing with a mechanical third arm and letting outsiders from all over the world control his body remotely via an advanced Internet link-up. By means of an enormous range of technological resources, including biotechnology and robotics, he challenges and tests the relationship between body and machine.
Paul Vanouse: Ocular Revision
For his contribution to PORT 2010, Ocular Revision, Paul Vanouse has created an installation that can analyse and display alternative visual versions of DNA material. The work is a fine example of the artist's work with a number of different disciplines, because Ocular Revision moves in a zone that hovers between art, natural science and engineering.
In recent years Vanouse has been especially preoccupied with opening up the highly specialised, closed world of science for a broader public. This is the theme he works with in Ocular Revision. With the assistance of technology borrowed from the area of natural science Vanouse has created a new, living, visual version of the complex codes of DNA molecules. A camera with a lens fitted to microscope projects large, circular images of DNA material up onto a vertical surface. But the DNA material does not behave as it usually does in the world of natural science. Paul Vanouse experiments with turning this version of DNA material into an organic, living experience, in contrast to natural science, which tends to portray DNA material in static diagrams.
Paul Vanouse's complex installation focuses on an important and highly relevant issue: the danger of regarding human DNA material exclusively as a code to bend and break, instead of an integral, vital component of human biology.
Paul Vanouse (b.1967 USA) lives and works in Buffalo.
Paul Vanouse refers to himself as a passionate amateur, who wryly and critically explores the complex questions posed by the world of science. A strong visual consciousness is a frequent hallmark of his artistic expression. In his work he draws on the same technologies as the scientist, if nothing else than to investigate the significance and effect of such technologies. Vanouse's work has included genetic experiments that critically undermine scientific notions of race and identity.
Jim K. Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna: Bluemorph
The richly sensual and spectacular Bluemorph is the result of the collaborative work of Gimzewski and Vesna.
The title of the work refers directly to the world of nature, more specifically to the Blue Morpho butterfly, which is particularly fascinating to scientists because of its unique wing construction. Gimzewski came across this unique butterfly in the course of his scientific work with nano technology.
An advanced biological mechanism enables the butterfly to create a strong, blue colour on its wings without any use of coloured pigment. Instead the colour of the butterfly's wings results from a kind of optical illusion and it is this capability that so fascinates scientists.
The artistic collaboration between Gimsewski and Vesna found its inspiration from microscopic reproductions of the butterfly's wings, reproductions with a strong visual quality, which Gimzewski thought could be utilised in an artistic project. He invited the artist Victoria Vesna on board and the two embarked upon Bluemorph.
Using nano-technological visual and aural material Bluemorph presents a spectacular, interactive, total experience, depicting the caterpillar's transformation into a butterfly. In picture and sound the work presents a narrative of the butterfly's development, the metamorphosis of its cells. This narrative also serves to increase awareness of our own development.
Jim Gimzewski (b.1951 UK) lives and works in California
By profession Jim Gimzewski is a scientist, working mainly with gene technology and neuroscience. But over the last 10 years he has also been involved in a number of artistic projects. These include various large-scale installations, which express and visualise the wet zone between science and art.
Victoria Vesna (b.1959 USA) lives and works in California
Victoria Vesna is a professor of design and media art, but is also a practising artist. Her works are experimental and investigative and move freely from one discipline to another. Communication technology and digital media and how they affect human social behaviour particularly fascinate Vesna.
Jacob Kirkegaard: POLYTHERA
POLYTHERA is a water, sound and light installation inspired by Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel Solaris, which has been filmed by both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderberg. As well as being the title of Kirkegaard's contribution to Port 2010, POLYTHERA is also the name of a mysterious liquid, which in Stanislaw Lem's novel covers the planet Solaris. Kirkegaard's installation comprises a low basin filled with water. A sound with a frequency of 34 Hz causes the water to vibrate, producing small ripples in the surface of the water. A stroboscope illuminates the surface of the water concurrently with the sound, in the process creating an optical illusion. The water seems to move in slow motion.
The low frequencies used in Kirkegaard's installation were extracted from a drone that appears in the score of the first film adaptation of Solaris, once again emphasising the work's close relationship to Stanislaw Lem's novel.
In the novel astronauts have been dispatched to communicate with the slowly flowing liquid POLYTHERA, a living organism with a unique form and intelligence. POLYTHERA responds to their aggressive approaches and materialises with images of the astronauts' repressed sub-consciousness. The sound image in Kirkegaard's POLYTHERA is deep and smouldering, inducing viewers to sink into an almost meditative state, a state in which they can drift with POLYTHERA's slowly rippling surface. Could it be that they will discover something new about themselves?
Jacob Kirkegaard (b.1975 Denmark) lives and works in Berlin.
Jacob Kirkegaard investigates sound and its physical effect upon the environment. His perspective is both scientific and aesthetic. The artist's work captures and records sonic universes, which otherwise could not be heard with the ear alone. By means of unorthodox and homemade recording equipment Kirkegaard detects sounds we have never heard before, from empty rooms, dunes, geysers, even the innermost region of the human ear, sounds that reveal hitherto unknown worlds.
Revital Cohen: Electrocyte Appendix
Electrocyte Appendix, Revital Cohen's contribution to Biotopia – Art in the Wet Zone, is a new example of her power and desire to break down the barriers between the organic and the mechanical. In concrete terms the work has created an organ out of artificially produced nanocells. This organ can be implanted in the human body, allowing it to function as an electronic organism. For Biotopia the artwork has been documented with both video and sketches. In Electrocyte Appendix Cohen is inspired by the animal kingdom, more specifically from the complex biology of the electric eel. In fact the creation of Cohen's artificial organ is inspired by the biological processes, which enable the electric eel to produce small electrical currents. Electrocyte Appendix empowers the body to convert natural blood sugar into electricity.
The work reveals Cohen's often groundbreaking investigations of human anatomy, investigations which are not afraid to reshape human beings' basic biological material.
Revital Cohen has strong views about the position of humans in a digitalised world, where electricity is an absolute necessity. Electrocyte Appendix and Cohen's other artistic experiments represent a radical break with the electrophobic opinions of earlier times. Electrocyte Appendix opens a debate on the possibility of reinterpreting the human body and broadening our common understanding of what it means to be human.
Revital Cohen (b.1981 UK) lives and works in London
Revital Cohen was educated as a designer, but moves freely among an infinite number of other disciplines. She works together with scientists, doctors, animal breeders etc. with a view to creating sensational works, all of which operate in the intersection between the natural and the artificial. Cohen harbours a blatant fascination for the possibility of combining human biology, not only with machines, but with elements from the plant and animal kingdoms too.
Mogens Jacobsen: G(ruppen) U(den) D(ig) / "The Group (without you)"
Mogens Jacobsen's contribution to Biotopia is the installation G(ruppen) U(den) D(ig) / "The Group (without you)". Jacobsen's installation employs advanced surveillance technology, operated on several, identical laptop computers. The installation has been put together in such a way that each of the computers involved displays a single set of monitoring eyes. The viewer directs their gaze directly towards the computer's screen. They then turn away. But the moment the viewer looks away, the monitoring eyes return again.It is, however, possible to outwit the work. If you look at it on the sly (through your fingers, for example) the monitoring eyes react to the viewer's gaze by looking away.
In G(ruppen) U(den) D(ig) Jacobsen is working with so-called biometric surveillance technology, a technology used particularly by the surveillance industry. The hallmark of biometric surveillance is its capacity to register and recognise human identity, for example from a fingerprint or retina scanning.
While surveillance technology is the vital element in Jacobsen's installation, the work is not simply a critique of our "Big Brother" society. Instead of focusing on a state's surveillance of its citizens, in G(ruppen) U(den) D(ig) the artist concentrates on our surveillance of one another. Today we take surveillance for granted. It is a result of the spread of technology in the public space. It is something we are all forced to accept. This is clearly the case, for example, in the current growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Perhaps we want to be under survaillance...?
Mogens Jacobsen (b.1959 Italy) lives and works in Copenhagen
The media artist Mogens Jacobsen is one of Denmark's leading ambassadors in the field of digital and internet-based art. In recent years one of his main preoccupations has been the relationship between art and viewer. His audience-participatory installations are dynamic works, which actively relate and react to the viewer. Jacobsen possesses a fundamental fascination for the possible fusion of technology with life and art.
The exhibition can be seen from 16. October - 9. January 2011