Two cultures divided

Ned Rossiter queries the Tissue Culture & Art Project, Stage One

Ionat Zurr, Spiral, digiprint

Ionat Zurr, Spiral, digiprint

With the advent of new biomedical technologies and collateral reconfigurations of human and non-human forms and practices, interdisciplinary endeavours by cultural producers have consistently questioned the often mutually antagonistic spheres of ‘art’ and ‘science.’ Stage one of Oran Catts and Ionat Zurr’s Tissue Culture and Art Project contributes to such endeavours by lending ‘artistic expression’ to tissue engineering experiments in cell and molecular biology.

Catts and Zurr have taken care to avoid the viewer tedium that often comes with pictures hanging on a wall, choosing instead a variety of display techniques for their microscopic enlargements of lurid skin tissues and cellular forms. Light boxes protruding from walls, digiprints on canvas, images behind perspex situated alongside miniature glass figurines suspended in candy coloured solutions, and an image fastened to the surface of a makeshift table are some of the novel arrangements in this display.

One of Catts and Zurr’s strategies to make accessible this abstract science, to render its strangeness familiar, occurs in the ‘Monster’ series of images. Akin to a high-tech rendition of Rorschach inkblots, we can recognise such things as digitally enhanced eyes, accentuated teeth, a hint of lipstick, flared nostrils, a mouth gorging its own distended webfeet.

Elsewhere, a slide-show installation accompanied by a trip-hop, techno-pop soundtrack ensures a certain appeal for ‘youth’ audiences. The soundtrack includes a lame refrain—”What about the future?”—as the exhibition’s single ambivalent gesture toward the ocularcentrism of biomaterial digitisation. A pile of laboratory paraphernalia is placed inanely as debris at the base of projected images. A similar indication of concept formation on the run can be seen in one of the perspex boxes: behind a tissue culture image and resting atop more lab plastic is a taxidermied rabbit—the sort you can hire for a couple of bucks from the WA Museum—and crammed inside its mangy ears are 2 pipettes. This works, I guess, as a crude juxtaposition of the late 19th century scientific art of taxidermy and a late 20th century obsession with gene cloning (remember ‘Dolly’?). In different ways, both refer to a cultural refusal of the expiry date of life. In the corners of this same exhibition space are arrangements of basketball-sized sponge spheres, also spiked full of pipettes.

Exception to this kind of haste can be found in what I consider the most developed component of the exhibition—the non-interactive website. Along with clicking through an image gallery, we read excerpts from the catalogue, an interesting dialogue between Catts and a typically candid Stelarc, an interview with tissue engineer Fiona Wood, and, most engagingly, Catts and Zurr’s Honours theses.

In addition to attracting an exceptionally large contingent of sponsors from public and corporate sectors, Catts and Zurr have gone to some effort in acquiring the necessary laboratory skills in cultivating skin tissue and cells onto non-organic materials (glass and plastic figurines) in preparation for microscopic enlargement and digital manipulation. Coupled with their previous studies in eco-design, digital imaging and photomedia, these artists have a disciplinary versatility that in future might result in artworks that more astutely negotiate the signs and conventions distinguishing art from science, as well as the traversability between and beyond these 2 zones of inquiry and expression.

Indeed, Catts and Zurr would seem to concur, writing in their rather confused catalogue introduction on the cultural and social urgency for art to engage critically with its arbitrary other—science—and advocating an “art that can be seen as the optimal medium to generate a discussion and a debate dealing with the contradictions between what we know about the world, and society’s values which are still based on old and traditional perceptions of the world.” Implicit in this statement is the suggestion that worldly and progressive ‘knowledge’ is synonymous with science, which is fettered by reactionary social values manifest in established modes of perception vis-à-vis art. The technotopian logic here is that with new technologies of perception comes a potential equivalence between knowledge and society.

The thing is, art and science in this exhibition are overwhelmingly fixed in their respective modern traditions: art deals in and dares not transgress aesthetics, while science concerns itself with the identification and analysis of veritable data for utilitarian and commercial purposes. Strangely, then, the exhibition operates as an exemplar of artistically and critically overdetermined paradigms whereby the “artistic documentation” of tissue engineering is somehow justification in itself of the “artistic merits” of the artworks. The very notion of “artistic merit” is never problematised, its particulars never identified; in catalogue statements by 2 university-based scientists researching the field of tissue engineering it is taken as a given, and legitimated as that which pertains only to aesthetics. Ironically, the culture of science—its habits of expression, its techniques of action, its situations beyond disciplinary boundaries—is largely absent, represented only in the transfiguration of the optic of medical technologies, and disclosed in the authorising views of the 2 scientists’ catalogue statements.

In an exhibition of wildly abstract and racy coloured images, these scientists in effect see the Tissue Culture and Art Project partly as a public relations exercise, “providing a realistic image of scientists” and “creating a positive image” so as to presumably counter such myths as the ethically corrupt or socially myopic scientist. Arguably, however, myths of science peculiar to 19th century Gothic literature, Cold War era paranoia, and B-grade sci-fi and horror movies, no longer prevail if R&D funding levels for science are any guide. Indeed, one need only tune in to the many medico-dramas and human body specials on TV, or catch Hollywood megablitzes like Jurassic Park, to recognise that the cultural-economy of ‘science’ fares pretty well in popular consciousness. Yet, as historian of science Donna Haraway, and cultural critic Catherine Waldby have argued, there are valid reasons for ethical and political concern about ethnocentric and commercially motivated ideologies underpinning scientific research that incorporates biomaterial imaging technologies, such as the Human Genome Project and the Visible Human Project.

As an interdisciplinary project, this exhibition’s nowness—its ‘currency’ as both fashionable vocation and high exchange value within the techno-cultural marketplace of arts funding—is contradicted in its fatigued representation of art as primarily a spectacular rather than critical aesthetic enterprise. (This exhibition’s aesthetic is without crisis: the social and political import of tissue engineering is left waiting; its ontology is elsewhere, its territory belongs not to this situation, and it needs to.) Such traditional views on art from large sections of the scientific community (to say nothing of those in the humanities) can be taken without too much surprise; the worry is more the seeming acceptance of such precepts by these artists, as is made apparent in the exhibition’s display techniques.

My frustration with this project’s otherwise exciting interdisciplinary encounter turns on its lack of self-reflexivity. Disciplinary limits and presuppositions are neither made apparent nor critiqued, thus restricting any proliferation of alternative narratives. Rather, the exhibition paradoxically celebrates an unsurmounted divide between art and science, shoring up the disciplinary boundaries which separate the two cultures. Comfort zones remain intact. To be fair, my reservations have left aside the genuine goodwill of the exchange between these spheres of inquiry, and it’s this kind of basis from which critically innovative artworks may hopefully begin to emerge in later stages of the Tissue Culture and Art Project.

Tissue Culture & Art Project, Stage One, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), August 5 – September 6

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 24

© Ned Rossiter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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