Corpus – Stephen Wilson  

 http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson/

 

Preliminary version "Corpus," to appear in the Abecedarius of  Caroline A. Jones, ed., _Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art_ Cambridge, MIT Press and MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2006. (Thought Experiment about Bioart Exhibits in the Museum of the Future.)


 

The last decades have been revolutionary in opening up new ways to represent the

body and its functions, with science and technology expanding our capacity to conceptualize, investigate, and present corporeal information. The arts have moved aggressively to work with these images critically and to question the frameworks for understanding this research.

 

            As exciting as this work has been, the art's involvement in this research to date must be seen as timid first steps. Not only has it been limited in the narrow range of scientific research it has appropriated thus far, but it fails to answer the need—which has never been greater—to provide cultural access to the often proprietary domains of technoscience. Art limits itself when it stays on the sidelines and works with the hand-me-downs of research. Culture workers have a responsibility to engage with these scientific and technical domains; ethical discourse traditionally lags far behind the already active application of research findings, and art remains one of the most active spheres of public debate. Scientific research is so broad in its reach and so profound in its practical and philosophical impact that it should not be left to technicians and scientists alone. This is especially true for biological and medical research focused on the body, which is so intimately tied to our human existence.

 

            Artists need to enter into the heart of the matter, into the corpus of research. They need to get their hands dirty (with all the positive and negative connotations that phrase suggests). Artists need to undertake their own lab research, extending out from their pastels to the likes of microscopes, centrifuges, and gels. The culture could benefit from an independent zone of art-based biological research not so tightly policed by the paradigms of academic, corporate, or military science. For example, artists could pursue research agendas that are ignored, discredited, not commercially viable, in bad taste, zany, or motivated by goals such as beauty, free-ranging curiosity, or critical opposition of mainstream agendas. The cultural debate about allowing research to move in challenging directions requires a delicate balance between fear and embrace of the unknown. The arts can scout out all parts of that continuum.

 

Polemically, I would even claim that if a society judges it acceptable and worthwhile for researchers to develop inquiries and technologies for purposes such as science or profit, then it is also of value for the arts to open similar investigations for more broadly cultural agendas. The tendency of the arts to position themselves automatically as critical and anti-research is unfortunate. The drive to explore, experiment, innovate, and understand has great survival and cultural value. History has shown that societyÕs skepticism about research developments is often unfounded and unwise. What is considered unnatural, abhorrent, and unethical in one era is often considered commonplace in another. The arts, then, can produce the space for public debate around just these questions, not by merely commenting from the sidelines but by conducting research itself from the relatively unfettered space we allocate to art.

 

            Perhaps most importantly, artists could pose alternative futures, either through undertaking research no one else would or by generating speculative paths that need not be taken (but could blossom in collective fantasy, find commodified outlets in fashion or body alterations, or just live in a realm of pure aesthetics). A thought experiment illustrates what research-based art might look like in the body/biology/medicine realm. Imagine a major ÒmodernÓ museum circa 2050, its halls filled with hypothetical future body art I will soon describe. From early-twenty-first century perspectives, some of these hypothetical artworks will seem troubling. Some are in bad taste, possibly unethical, or at least disruptive of important cultural values. Some are moving in dangerous research directions, threatening to unleash biological, bodily, and cultural change whose future implications we canÕt predict. I am not sure artists should really set out to undertake all this research. I am not sure science or medicine should either. The point of all science fiction is to exaggerate the present—in this case a present-day society desperately in need of deepening its discussion of future implications stemming from present-day research.  [Wilson, Stephen.  Information Arts:  Intersections of Art, Science and Technology. MIT Press. Cambridge, 2002.]

 

            For the 'Dancing Stem Cell' project (in our museum's 'Hall of the Near Living'), mid-twenty-first-century artists have developed sculptures derived from human stem cells, grown from their own cell lines, and coaxed to develop into muscle tissue forming freely gyrating limbs. These auto-kinetic entities have been specially cultivated to produce dancer-like hydra motions that alternately seduce and repel the viewer. In the 'Autonomous Neuron' installation nearby, visitors scrutinize a bank of standard flat-screen monitors, observing the differences in digital displays controlled by neurons grown from the brains of humans and various animals. These disembodied cells have been carefully cultured so that they retain some of their information-processing capabilities to take in stimuli and output pulses, which are then used to control the video. [cf Symbiotica. Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Guy Ben-Ary http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/]

 

            In the psychoanalytically inspired repressed memory project created by the Brain Art Center's artist-researchers, visitors can volunteer for a memory-mining experience. Artist-researchers have discovered particular areas in the brain that can be stimulated with small electrical currents to call forth repressed memories. In the debriefing room, new 'rememberers' have the choice of meeting with the on-call therapist, producing narrative or visual creations at the 'aesthetic therapy' outpost, or removing the recovered memory with the BAC's 'AmnesiaVac' synaptic inactivation apparatus.

 

            Recognizing their responsibility to support biological research as well as show its results, community art museums include advanced technology artist-access research labs. Visitors can drop in to view research in progress and talk to artists about ongoing projects. During a special community session, visitors are invited to debate what projects the new designer drug system should focus on. The labs are also used by a joint PhD/MFA program in body-biology arts and research and made available to community health activists as well.

 

            The Web has become a major outreach tool in contemporary museums, in their attempts to penetrate popular culture. A consortium of museums, owned by entertainment conglomerate Rove Media are inaugurating a "reality" show called the 'Right Stuff.' The program maintains a sperm and egg bank stocked with germ lines from famous artists. Contestants compete to get the right to use the material for their next reproductive episode. Web audiences vote on which contestants seem most likely to cultivate the creative capabilities of the person to be born and palliate the offspring's associated emotional disorders.

 

            Pfizer Pharmacology artist–drug researchers have introduced Version 4 of their aesthetic response tune-up (ART) drug, which enhances responsiveness to art experiences. Virtual reality–based documentation of subjects' experiences with the drug during the two-month trial is presented together with appropriate psychotropic art. In related exhibits, the 'Sexstim Telecommunications Project' allows visitors to hook themselves up to the body sensor/activator suit,,which in turn is linked to similar suits in art spaces in Beijing and Rio de Janiero. Based on artists' research on the physiology of touch, these suits allow visitors to give and receive erotic tactile stimulation.[ Cf  Stahl Stenslie and Kirk Woolford. CyberSM. "http://iaaa.nl/home.html" http://iaaa.nl/home.html] Another project, the 'Sex-change-for-a-month' intervention, allows visitors to sign up for short-term reversible pharmacological and physical modifications that allow them to experiment with switching gender for a month. Counseling and wardrobe consultations are included.

 

            In a joint venture with the athletic industry, the art group Bionics'' '3-S Fashion Show' offers the newest prostheses, created to optimize the speed, strength, and stamina of the wearer. The ongoing 'Human Variability' exhibit features documentation of extreme human capabilities achievable without bionics or drugs and a display on cultural differences in facial expressions and the limits of sounds the human voice can produce. [Cf Arthur Elsenaar, Remko Scha  Huge Harry. http://www.stenslie.net/stahl ]

 

            In the 'Nikon Microscopes Micro-organism Communication Project,' visitors suck on a candy-stick probe. The probe is inserted in the automated microscope imager and immediately all four walls are filled with live, wall-size digital images of micro-organisms living in the mouth of the user. Museum-goers are invited to 'play' with the creatures by aiming sound, light, and chemical messages at particular organisms.[ ]Cf  Adam Zaretsky.  E-coli experiments ["http://www.emutagen.com//" http://www.emutagen.com//  Also, Stephen Wilson, Protozoa Games and Introspection. http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson/]

 

            Artists working in Genentech's Bioengineering Studio and its 'Ethnic Diversity Preservation Project' have been systematically collecting DNA from endangered cultures around the world. The exhibit presents the DNA 'library' in its current state, displaying sample DNA in cryogenically protected vials with a projected virtual screen in the liquid showing video documentation of the people, art, music, and dance of the culture whose DNA has been sampled for the project.

 

            Tactical Media Workers present two intervention reports. Artist-researchers in the 'Human Power Recovery Project' have developed technologies for the Third World that allow people to use body temperature changes, methane from flatulence, and capacitance changes from walking to power digital devices. In the second report, artists imprisoned under Patriot Act 7 for unauthorized biological experimentation are interviewed and their projects documented on the Web.

 

            Like many hip museums in 2050, a newly refurbished Museum of Modern Art includes the Cafe Bio-Hot, which explores the interface between entertainment and body-based art research in a relaxed lounge atmosphere. This month features the 'Bio-signals Dance Generator.' Each attendee is asked to wear a wireless bio-signal sensor that reads brainwave, pulse, perspiration, blood chemistry, and portable petscan technology, all matched against standard databases of brain area activity during dancing of various types. The music/video generator bases its media composition on the averaged signals from all the people in the club. In the shop near the checkout, a number of gifts are available. The 'Pill Camera' allows you to broadcast from inside your gastro-intestinal tract and comes boxed with a DVD of broadcasts from inside various celebrities.[ Cf Stelarc.  Stomach Sculptures. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/]  Nikon's Coolscope 8 automated microscope for real-time inspection of your body's microorganisms and the educational 'Array-Pro Desktop Gene Analyzer and Recombinant Experiment Set' get your children started in bioengineering. [Cf Critical Art Ensemble,  HYPERLINK "http://www.critical-art.net/" http://www.critical-art.net/ and Natalie Jeremijenko. http://entity.eng.yale.edu/nat/]

 

            The scientific and technological research featured in the art world of 2050 required significant changes in artistic skills, willingness to engage non-validated media, institutional support, and risk-taking by members of the audience and critical establishment. The experimental traditions of the arts proved perfectly adapted for creating this alternative research zone, with ethics and aesthetics merging in the new corpus of bio-based art.