The Science Gallery’s ongoing attempt to be at the forefront of hybrid, or crossover art / science activities was evidenced in Visceral, which (sometimes uneasily) combined aesthetic, conceptual and scientifically informative elements, with the presence of Symbiotica, a cutting-edge art-science lab at the University of Western Australia in Perth. A day-long symposium offered fascinating glimpses of work by bio-artists such as Marta De-Menezes and Oron Catts, as well as some less-interesting presentations.
Nigel Helyer’s Host is a humorous installation where live crickets are the captive audience of a scientific lecture on the sex lives of insects, presented as the insects would possibly perceive it. This work raises issues, perhaps, around the subject-object relationship between humans and other species, as well as the differences and similarities between human and non-human physiology. Questions around animal experimentation are foregrounded, but in a non-threatening way – rightly or wrongly, nobody gets too excited about the rights of insects. The extremely complex Silent Barrage by a group entitled Neurotica (Philip Gamblen, Guy Ben-Ary, Peter Gee, Nathan Scott, Brett Murray) is a walk-around interactive installation combining robotics and experimental biology. This installation is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Ken Rinaldo, though in the former case conceptual clarity loses out somewhat to scientific complexity. Such is also the situation with Boo Chapple’s punningly entitled Transjuicer, where the playful employment of everyday materials does not completely alleviate the difficulty of the science, which involved transducing electromagnetic waveforms into nano-sonic vibrations. Invocation of My Demon Screen by Tanya Visosevic and Guy Ben-Ary, building on the earlier work of French filmmaker Jean Painleve, projects a microscopic movie onto a living screen, while Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr present the long-running, tissue-engineered Semi-Living Worry Dolls, where the lines between inert, lifeless matter and life itself become less finely drawn, while science somewhat piquantly interfaces with Guatemalan folklore. Paul Vanouse’s Latent Figure Protocol explores issues around creativity and ownership.
Blood Wars by Kathy High employs a (human) martial metaphor for issues in biology and questions around inheritance, while the aesthetically impressive Midas, by Paul Thomas and Kevin Raxworthy, connects issues at the nano level with ancient mythology: the story of the legendary King Midas who turned everything into gold. Proto-animate by Andre Brodyk combines, somewhat puzzlingly, a complex exploration of DNA issues with reminiscences of the artist’s childhood (complete with school desks) – bio-art meets conceptual art, but in this case the encounter seems a bit forced.
As in the case of art / science / technology practice in general, these kinds of ‘crossover’, ‘hybrid’ exhibits work as ‘art’ when there is a clear, simple and memorable message or question – whether political, conceptual or aesthetic (or all of these). Examples of such issues include the ethics of the use of animals in scientific research, the appropriate limits – if any – of human intervention in nature, the predomination of (profitable) instrumentality in science, intellectual property rights, and so on.
On the other hand, when the central question gets buried in the complexity of the science and technology, these kinds of installations don’t work so well as art – though they may work as scientific experimentation and / or explication. (Nor does this kind of practice work very well when the art side is used simply to transmit a message, as distinct from opening up areas of enquiry and / or debate, or when there is an uneasy collaboration between artistic conceptualism and scientific exploration.) At its best, hybrid art employs a kind of Occam’s Razor: paring down material to the necessary minimum, aiming at simplicity rather than complexity.
The Science Gallery has helped to foreground these kinds of issues since it came on stream as part of the Dublin cultural experience a few years ago, under the energetic direction of Michael John Gorman. In the accompanying documentation, Gorman cites Marshall McLuhan’s notion of artists as canaries in the coalmine of scientific research, offering a glimpse of the future psychological and social effects of innovations in technology, thereby concretizing issues of potential contention that might otherwise remain abstract.