Archive: Issue No. 123, November 2007

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Green Bunnies, Statistics and Art: Report on a conference on Art and Biomedicine
by Carol Brown

Genetically modified seeds, luminous green bunnies, mapping of genomes, foetuses in bottles - But is it Art? The answer is 'yes', but only if it is presented in an artspace, otherwise it's science. These were some of the issues and problems which came up in a workshop/seminar called 'Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context' which I recently attended at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen as a representative of the UKZN History Dept.

The workshop was attended by about 30 people mainly from Europe and the USA, working in the disciplines of art, science and medicine. A strong theme which emerged, during the discussions, was that boundaries between all these different areas are breaking down. It takes us right back to the origin of the Western museum which started with the Cabinets of Curiosities in the 17th century where travellers brought back objects which were considered rare and marvellous. Listed in some of these collections were mermaid tails, unicorn horns, insects in amber, monstrous births and other wondrous objects which were exhibited in a room usually in the palatial homes of the aristocracy which included rich merchants and scholars. Objects from the natural world were exhibited alongside art and these collections were only accessible to a privileged few. Later, museums split into separate disciplines and became part of the public sphere. Now, however, we see the emergence of a more multi-disciplinary form of collection which is being led to a large extent by medical collections.

This particular conference aimed to debate how the invisibles in current biomedicine (such as the virus, the genome, the molecule) can be conceptualised and explored mainly by museums of medicine.

One of the pioneering institutions in this new discipline is the Wellcome Collection in the heart of London which was the first to coin the expression 'Sci-Art' about ten years ago. This genre has now become an important one with one of its most famous proponents being Marc Quinn whose Portrait of Sir John Sulston is a controversial piece as it consists of a map of the subject's genome within a frame, subverting the usual expectations of representation. This type of image is more usually associated with Scientific publications and museums and its transposition into an art context gives it another layer of meaning. The representation of scientific date is a challenge to artists today in that it forms part of our visual vocabulary. We are so bombarded with statistics and data and are seeking new ways to represent this in a comprehensible and critical manner. Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes at the above institution, took us through the transformations within his spaces and presented a fascinating history starting with the story of the collector/explorer, Sir Henry Wellcome whose name is now inseparable from medical science.

Another contentious issue is the use of living organisms in contemporary art and this was addressed in a paper by Ingeborg Reichle form the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. She explored the new art forms like 'Transgenic Art' or 'Bioart' which use biological materials and living organisms ranging from tissue engineering to stem-cell technologies and even transgenic animals such as the famous bunny 'Alba' who was created as an artwork.

Many artists have taken up the critical cudgel with an agenda which suggests a return to more emphasis on human rights and the Critical Art Ensemble from New York presented their work describing how cultural activism can impact upon these new technologies.

Museum issues of display, presentation and audience were also an important part of the conference and these discussions were very fruitful and brought home the importance of museums adapting to the changing times whilst at the same time retaining their core functions of preservation and collection. Issues of embodiment, performance, aesthetics, ethics, classification and audience were hotly debated.

There were several exhibitions in and around Copenhagen and the conference organisers also commissioned sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard to create a work focusing on some of the issues discussed during the proceedings. The result was a sound piece called Labyrinthitis which consisted of sounds generated in the artist's own ears. He worked with a science lab to record this and the result was an interactive concert where the audience became participants as their own auditory organs responded to the tones produced in the auditorium.

It was a stimulating week which I ended with a visit to Documenta which, for me, brought together many of the issues debated at the conference. However it also makes one aware of the different context in which we in South Africa operate - Art and Biomedicine is far more complicated and layered in our society.