Collision courses

Esta Milne negotiates maps and other metaphors in Viruses and Mutations

Michele Barker & Anna Munster, The Love Machine

Michele Barker & Anna Munster, The Love Machine

Honest to God, if I hear the ‘m’ word one more time, I’m going to have a cartographic seizure. Since the early 80s when Fredric Jameson conflated pomo angst with an inability to represent the reconfiguration of spatiality, cultural production has remained in the thrall of the map. The ‘will to cartography’ describes the dominant critical stance informing a broad range of cultural practices, aesthetic commentaries and emergent social sites. One thinks immediately, of course, of all those energetic efforts to map, navigate and chart the spaces of post-corporeal digital existence. Yet it has to be admitted that there are some environments where a spot of mapping comes in handy: bioethics, new reproductive technologies and the Human Genome Project. A preoccupation with the logic of maps reflects our current fascination with borders and boundaries, interface and intersection. What constitutes the inside and outside of the body has become increasingly problematic for cultural commentators, scientists, media theorists and artists. And what might be the consequences of transgressing or mutating these limits was the subject of a recent Experimenta Media Arts event held in Melbourne, Viruses and Mutations.

Curated by Keely Macarow, the event brought together a diverse group of academics, genetic scientists, bioethicists and artists. Produced with the assistance of Cinemedia, Viruses and Mutations was part of the Melbourne Festival Visual Arts Program and consisted of three interrelated projects: a one-day cultural symposium, an exhibition—with works from digital artists and medical industry professionals—and a website. These three elements offered a way to critique and represent the issues that are generated when aesthetics, science and technology clash.

Indeed, a number of the contributors to the exhibition seemed quite keen on collision narratives. One of the most intriguing, albeit disquieting, installations imagined biotechnology as an aircraft crash. Called Cotis Movie (‘Cult of the Inserter Seat’ and ‘Mechanism of Viral Infection Entry’) this digital sound installation, by the international artist collective KIT, used medical scanning apparatus as a metaphor to trace all kinds of worrying links between bodies, technology and virology. Activated by one’s own body—you had to get up on a little stage and sit in a simulated aircraft seat to start the show—Cotis Movie constructed an environment of uncomfortable immersion and somatic pain. I mean this quite literally. The sound sculpture created by the three speakers surrounding the aircraft seat, reverberated in a way almost too painful to bear. A frantic voice screeches “we’re going down”. Seated in front of a screen you read that the Cotis Movie scanner has, apparently, located your vulnerable point in order to implant a virus. A tad apocalyptic? Well, yes. And this is what makes Cotis Movie a troubling encounter. If mapping has captured the cultural imagination, then the millennial discourse of the virus is no slouch either. While tropes of infection and viral transmission are made to stand for a plethora of cultural phenomena or transformations (malfunctions in computer software, popularity of theory in literature departments and so on) those with actual, material bodies infected by viruses continue to suffer. We ought to be a little cautious when the representation of illness appears to articulate a kind of techno-sublime: “the intended outcome of the Cotis Movie is an aircraft crash—which in this case suggests a mutated body—a body fused between technology.”

Theorising the body as a site for technological intervention—as collision, fusion, transgression or intersection—concerns a number of the other works in the exhibition. Justine Cooper’s digital video, Rapt, for example, imaged the artist’s own body to explore the effects of biomedical technology on corporeal understandings of time and space. The Tissue Culture & Art Project (reviewed in the Oct/Nov issue of RealTime) by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr used living tissue to ‘grow’ a conceit about the relation between process and product—life and artificiality, art and science. The Love Machine, an installation by Michele Barker and Anna Munster, aimed to “represent the hybridity which computer imaging makes possible between technology and flesh.” This exhibit mimed the logic of a photo booth; that is, it simulated a particular kind of photo booth that the artists discovered in Japan and Hong Kong which takes a photograph of a couple and then digitally predicts and delivers a picture of the offspring. For Barker and Munster the structure provided a way to speculate about notions of definitive biological origin, ambiguous identity, authenticity and digital modes of reproduction.

In this regard The Love Machine dealt with what a number of commentators identify as a deeply significant paradigmatical alliance of the second half of this century: genetics and cybernetics. From the 1950s, information theory and cybernetics began to inform the knowledge production and scientific practices of molecular biology. Heredity was to be understood in terms of information, data, sequence and code. So organisms became informational patterns, data transmitting devices, nodes of input and output, modes of retrieval and archival. Fahhhbulously sexy and no wet patch. The disappearing material body, notions of genetic determinism, post-human subjectivity and a realignment of the mind/body dichotomy, can be seen as a function of the relations between genetic research, information theory and cybernetics. These developments have, of course, been well theorised by a range of quite different thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Arthur Kroker (natch) and Jean Baudrillard. What’s interesting about The Love Machine is the way it reinvests the argument with a lesbian polemic, questioning the technological essentialism of the body-as-information trope.

I read a comment that encapsulates a key theme of the one-day symposium. When asked about the ethical implications of genetic engineering, Francis Crick (who, with James Watson, discovered the double helical structure of DNA) is supposed to have remarked something along the lines of ‘social concerns are quite nice but let’s worry about them after we’ve made the scientific discoveries.’ (Or, to borrow that god-awful Kevin Costner line, “if you build it he will come.”) While the conference provided a forum for interdisciplinary rapport between scientists, cultural commentators and artists, there was little movement around or departure from some fairly traditional theoretical positions: those of the ‘Crick school’ and those opposed. One of the most interesting exchanges occurred during question time between feminist lawyer and publisher, Dr Jocelynne Scutt, and Professor Grant Sutherland head of the Department of Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics at Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Sutherland felt it was ‘up to the community’ to decide about the applications of new genetic engineering technology while Scutt urged scientists to locate themselves more self-consciously within these techno-scientific discourses.

Along with issues of technological determinism, key areas of debate concerned the ethical, social and political implications of gene patents and the Human Diversity Project, gene therapy, genetically engineered foodstuffs, detection of the so-called gay gene, in-vitro fertilisation, and genetic screening. This last point was discussed by a number of the speakers. Both Bob Phelps (director of the GeneEthics Network) and Dr Udo Schuklenk (Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics) spoke passionately and eloquently about the degree to which the ability to predict or detect genetic based disease could witness institutional discrimination across the fields of education, employment, insurance and health care. Universal health care was seen as a crucial issue because those who are identified as ‘at risk’ for certain genetic conditions might be unable to secure private health insurance.

It’s become almost commonplace to characterise our cultural moment as one preoccupied with the signifier over the signified, with the medium over the message, the map over the terrain. Viruses and Mutation sought to be situated somewhere within this pattern of signification. Both the conference and exhibition were very much concerned with exploring the tropes and iconography of biotechnological research, while emphasising the interdependence of the material and the semiotic, metaphor and literal. The exhibition was, after all, held in a conference centre called The Aikenhead.

Experimenta Media Arts, Viruses and Mutations, curator Keely Macarow; exhibition, Aikenhead Conference Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, October 19–31; symposium, State Film Theatre, East Melbourne, October 24; website: www.experimenta.org

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 24

© Esta Milne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1998