Follow on from the logic I proposed in Post 1, I further elaborate my views on how media artists examine life as we know of.
The bio-art project shocks me the most so far is CellF 2015-current by Guy Ben-Ary. It amazes me with what science can do and how far artists are willing to go in the sake of art. Ben-Ary basically created an external brain that fulfils his dream of being a musician. My responsible mother instinct immediately kicks in: is it just a bunch of nerve cells carrying out a tech-induced task? Or is it more than just an ‘it’? An external brain, as Ben-Ary calls it himself, is a thinking organ right? So is it more like a brain-child (literally) or a partial mini-me to Ben-Ary (if one considers it a cloned brain)? My second thought is that is this brain thinking or even feeling something, particularly about this circus- (not a misspelt ‘circuit’) setup? What about the ‘noisy performance’ it is responsible for? Is he (presumably same sex as Ben-Ary’s) well and happy, performing or not? Further thought goes to his funeral – if there is one at his eventual death by natural causes or otherwise (will he be killed off right after the show is over?!).
Ben-Ary’s tone is one of those caring parent’s (or pet-owner’s at least): ‘… Due to the negligence of the shipping company, 10 million of my precious cells, bits and pieces of me, were destroyed…’ for example (guybenary.com, accessed 26 October 2016).
The ownership of body parts, deceased persons, live or still-born babies, by natural/assisted pregnancy or surrogacy, with genetic materials from known or unknown donor(s), with birth rights of different sovereignties, foetus of different stages in the womb, embryonic stem cells, pluripotent stem cells, cord blood etc etc are highly problematic and controversial enough by their very own natures. The responsibility of keeping life forms alive, usage and disposal of biological matters will surely add more layers of ethicality, legality and religility over the already complicated issues. Even animal cruelty legislations might apply (to any live forms being harmed or killed for entertainment purposes). What drive scientists/artists to do these stunts?
The words of a biological artist George Gessert sums up our current position neatly:
“Do artists cross a line when they breed plants or animals, or use the tools of biotechnology? Scientists routinely cross the line. So do farmers, businesspeople, military men, and doctors. Only artists and certain religious people hesitate. Of course, one of the great human dilemmas is that we do not know the extent of our powers. We invent outrageously and as casually as we breathe, but we have no idea where our inventions will take us. Extinction? Slavery? 1000 years in Disneyland? Even if the Holocaust had never happened, we would have good reason to worry about where knowledge of genetics and DNA will take us. We will need all the awareness we can master to engage evolution. To the extent that art favours awareness, the more artists who cross the line the better.” (Gessert, 2003)
The leading biological research safeguard in Australia and New Zealand is SymboitcA, which actively engages in life-manipulating projects drive by ethical considerations, forcing the artists and viewers to take active role in the life-death cycle of biological matters, and thus acts as a life-matter research safeguard for non-utilitarian purposes via exploring contestable possibilities that technology is heading (Catts, 2002). It appears that Ben-Ary’s little brain son is being well looked after under the current establishment (see endorsements in his official website).
I would still like to hear about the funeral announcement if it happens…
Biology Reasons to Make Art
Contemporary bio-artists heavily involve biological materials/life, scientific tool and protocols, and even themselves in these transgressive practices (Zurr & Catts 2004). Stellac’s life works are well-known exemplary of this new phenomenon. Further down along this line is being investigated in MONA’s upcoming exhibition On the Origin of Art 2016-2017: how human evolution and art intertwine from a biology determinism point of view.
Ben-Ary is right in this regards: there are artist genes lying somewhere in our bodies awaiting to express their potentials. As MONA’s owner David Walsh- Charles Darwin fan and lifelong lover of chance and the random in life- believes “we [extending to our art making practices] are fundamentally shaped by primitive impulses rooted in the Pleistocene soup of our beginnings” (Verghis, 2016). Walsh will present this biological imperative argument for art in On the Origin of Art exhibition which will showcase four competing views on the evolution of art: art is a form of cognitive play (in particular with pattern) that translates to practical benefits and thus vital survival skills; art evolves through sexual selection as a signal of mate value or ‘fitness marker’; art is a by-product of other adaptations including obtaining status and as a ‘pleasure technology’ for our senses; and art harnesses nature – the process wherein aspects of our nature-mimicking culture develops new purpose using our ancient brain mechanisms (More details on: https://mona.net.au, accessed 28 October 2016).
The cognitivity theory (proposed by Professor of literature Brian Boyd) and ‘headspinning’ concept (instigated by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi) explain a lot the digitised taste of our recently developed and accepted audio and visual art forms (pop culture). Digital/media art is therefore a by-product of our adaptation to pure technology according to the nature-harnessing theory- make the best out of the otherwise cold and boring endeavour!
Linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s art as sensor pleasing device, signs of status/leisure, and also theory of biophilia, address our primal taste for enriched, elaborate visuals like flowers, fruits etc. on top of the common desires for fertility, control and resourcefulness. Combining the fact that art having an adaptive function (look at history of media art within digitalization for example), it is to expect that VR-gardening becomes part of our foreseeable future and as a matter of fact, a retired successful art project.
Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana envisioned this in their Robotic Telegarden installation 1995-2004. It was a fusion between old technology (agriculture) and new (the internet) based on the concept that “media technology generally facilities the suspension of disbelief” stressed Goldberg (Telegarden Description, YouTube accessed 28 October 2016). The 9,000+ online members 100,000 physical visitors created a self-governing social network in the virtual space, with interactive users became protective of plants even territorial at times during its 7 years of running online.
The issue of legitimacy, i.e. how do media users know for sure that the garden actually exists, and that any of their remote controls really matter, leads to many theoretical investigations into the concepts of telepresence and presence with hidden mediation (Steuer, 1992) (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Imagine if there were watering/fertilizing/add sunlight command buttons available for the Ever Blossoming‘s viewers to press at the beginning of each show cycle, wouldn’t it make the button pressor feel like he/she grew the beautiful plant? Does the button pressor know for sure if any of the commands dummy or not? Would the button pressor feel even better knowing that ill-fate is not written into the algorithm. There is of course no Ctrl z function built-in for this sort of VR farming artwork… or is there?
Psychology of Being a VR Farmer
“… TeleGarden offers a search for the [soul] of gardening… Though drained of sensory cues, planting that distant seed still stirs anticipation, protectiveness, and nurturing. The unmistakable vibration of the garden pulses and pulls, even through a modem.” – Warren Schultz, Garden Design, Dec/Jan 1996.
Gardening also manifests other human behavioural traces like control of the environment (therefore food supply) and dominance (best chance of survival), reward for hard work and the creating personal utopia (a small piece of personalized heaven on earth- literally). Besides creating beauty, scent, edible and usable produces, gardening is a form of ritual with physio and psychological benefits. Most importantly it allows for an accessible way of reconnecting with our life-giving impulses in a less resources/ time/ space/ emotions/ judgements sensitive options (Stuart-Smith, 2016).
There is also illusion at play: Paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott explains ‘when a baby wants something enough to conjure it up in the imagination, and when this coincides with what happens in reality, the illusion for the baby is of having made it happen.’ Psychologically claiming the causation in similar ways is nonetheless illusion that fosters a sense of self-belief (and related benefits that follow) even for adults. This kind of green-fingers illusion acts as a psychological success factor and helps counteracting any senses of impotence in other part of life (Stuart-Smith 2016) – good enough a reason to resort to VR (illusion) living at times!
Perhaps this is what video gamers are feeling when playing games involve growing or building something on screen with results that are directly proportionate to their inputs (time, efforts, talents, money etc). Worse comes to worse, there is always a ‘game over play again’ option.
Illusions in real life of course can work in detrimental ways as well. Perhaps simulations would be a safer option as a rehearsal of worst case scenarios. Examples of media practices that demonstrate possible reasons and effects of living a VR life will be addressed in Post 3.
Catts, O., Biofeel Curator Statement, BEAP 2000 Catalogue John Curtin Gallery, Western Australia, ISBN 1-740667-157-0 (August 2002)
Catts, O., Zurr, I., “The ethical claims of bio-art: Killing the other or self-cannibalism”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 2004 – Taylor & Francis
Gessert, G., “Notes on the Art of Plant Breeding,” L’art Biotech Catalogue, le lieu unique France ISBN 2-914381-52-2 (March 2003): 47.
Lombard, M., Ditton, T., “At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence”, Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications & Mass Media, Temple University, JCMC 3 (2) September 1997
Mapow, D., “Do People Have Ownership Over Their Body Parts and If so, Can the State Control Their Ultimate Disposition In The Interest Of Public Health and Safety?” http://lawandreligion.com/sites/lawandreligion.com/files/2014_Vol.16_Mapow.pdf
Steuer, J., “Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence”, Journal of Communication; Autumn 1992; 42, 4, Stanford University
Stuart-Smith, S., http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/10862087/Horticultural-therapy-Gardening-makes-us-feel-renewed-inside.html, accessed 28 October 2016
Verghis, S., http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/monas-on-the-origin-of-art-david-walshs-tale-of-four-visions/news-story/47103bc02f2a9771f10a0b56208e9593, accessed 24 October 2016
http://guybenary.com/work/cellf/, accessed 18 October 2016
http://goldberg.berkeley.edu/garden/Ars/, accessed 28 October 2016
http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-are-the-penalties-for-animal-cruelty-offences_271.html, accessed 27 October 2016
http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/, accessed 27 October 2016
https://mona.net.au, accessed 28 October 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbyy5vSg8w8, accessed 28 October 2016