[-empyre-] WELCOME TO SEPTEMBER ON EMPYRE: BioArt: Materials, Practices, Politics

Adam Nocek anocek at uw.edu
Mon Sep 2 02:25:59 EST 2013

September on –empyre soft-skinned space: BioArt: Materials, Practices,

Moderated by A.J. Nocek (US) with invited discussants Robert Mitchell (US),
Cary Wolfe (US), Adam Zaretsky (US), Maja Kuzmanovic (BE), Nik Gaffney
(BE), Richard Doyle (US), Luciana Parisi (UK), Oron Catts (AU), Phillip
Thurtle (US).

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Bioart: Materials, Practices, Politics

This month of –empyre- is concerned with opening up the conversation around
bioart to include a wider audience with a more robust set of concerns.
Bioart has gained considerable attention since the mid 1990s, and this is
due in large part to the proliferation of art exhibitions that have
featured biotechnological themes and media, and the critical debate that
has ensued over what exactly bioart “is,” and what its effects may
be—scientific, aesthetic, political, and otherwise.

Although the interplay of artistic expression and biological systems have a
long and complicated history, the term “BioArt” is relatively recent.
Bioart was first coined by Eduardo Kac in reference to his 1997 work, Time
Capsule (http://www.ekac.org/timec.html), in order to to define those works
that use biomaterials as a media for artistic expression. Since then, not
only have the possible uses for biomedia grown at an astonishing rate, with
projects such as The Tissue Culture and Art’s, Disembodied Cuisine (
http://tcaproject.org/projects/victimless/cuisine) and Victimless Leather (
http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/vl/vl.html) that challenge what biological media
can do, both biochemically and politically, but so have our philosophical
conceptions of the timescales of these media: The Finnish Bioart Society’s (
http://bioartsociety.fi/) recent “Field_Notes – Deep Time” is exemplary in
this regard for their work on non-human timescales.

But if bioart challenges us to think of biological materials as media for
artistic expression, would architects and designers such as David Benjamin,
Michael Hensel, and Rachel Armstrong, who use the “bio-parts” of synthetic
biology as media for design, also be considered bioartists? And at this
rate, wouldn’t the aesthetics of any biotinkering and/or biohacking not
also warrant the label, “bioart”?

Or might there be other criteria that give meaning to the “bio”+ “art”
conjunction, so that the manipulation of biomaterial is not sufficient for
bioart? Certainly, Alexis Rockman’s 2000 painting, The Farm (oil and
acrylic on on wood panel), makes the case for more conventional artistic
media to be used in the service of biotechnological critique. Or in a more
affirmative register, maybe what’s at stake in bioart is not
media-specificity, but its capacity for affirming a non-anthropocentric
politics of life. Bioart’s ability to refold political landscapes certainly
seems to underwrite Robert Mitchell’s compelling Bioart and the Vitality of
Media, and resonates well with what the Brussels-based laboratory, FoAM (
http://fo.am/), has been exploring for over a decade now: how plants are
media that can prepare the human for specifically non-anthropocentric
futures. Might posing the ethico-political stakes in these terms help
reframe the rhetoric of bioterrorism and biosecurity surrounding bioart and
its related practices so that there will never again be a Steve Kurtz (

This month at –empyre- we invite guests and subscribers to address the
political, ethical, and experimental stakes of bioart. But we also welcome
new frameworks and sets of concerns that are sure to enrich this vital
field experimentation and research.


This month of –empyre- , “Bioart: Materials, Practices, Politics,” is
moderated by Adam J Nocek (US). Nocek is a PhD candidate in the Comparative
Literature Department and instructor in the Comparative History of Ideas
Program at the University of Washington. His work focuses on the relation
of living systems to various forms of visual (cinema, animation,
architecture) and biotechnological mediation. In 2012 he was a fellow at
the Biological Futures in a Globalized World Consortium, a project jointly
sponsored by the Fred Hutcheson Cancer Research Center and the University
of Washington.  He has published essays on architecture, aesthetics,
biotechnology, and speculative philosophy.  Along with Phillip Thurtle,
Nocek is co-editing a special issue of the journal Inflexions, entitled
Animating Biophilosophy (Fall 2013), as well as co-editing, along with
Nicholas Gaskill, a collection of essays on the philosophy of Alfred North
Whitehead, entitled The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota 2014).

Week 1 -- “Vital Politics”: Robert Mitchell (US) and Cary Wolfe (US)

Robert Mitchell is Professor of English and Faculty in the Institute of
Genome Sciences and Policy, as well as affiliated faculty in Women's
Studies at Duke University. Mitchell's research focuses on relationships
between literature and the sciences in the Romantic era, as well as
contemporary intersections among information technologies, genetics, and
commerce, especially as these have been played out in the legal, literary,
and artistic spheres. His most recent work has focused on the theory and
practices of experimentation in both the arts and sciences, the history of
vitalism, and the relationship between aesthetics and biological concepts
of population. He has published two monographs--Sympathy and the State in
the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity
(Routledge, 2007) and Bioart and the Vitality of Media (University of
Washington Press, 2010)--and is co-author of the monograph Tissue
Economies: Blood, Organs and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism (Duke UP, 2006)
and the DVD-ROM Biofutures: Owning Body Parts and Information (U of
Pennsylvania P, 2008). He is also co-editor of several collections of
essays, including Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information (Routledge, 2003),
Romanticism and Modernity (Routledge, 2011), and Releasing the Image: From
Literature to New Media (Stanford UP, 2011), and co-editor of the book
series "In Vivo: The Cultural Mediations of Biomedical Science" (University
of Washington Press). His most recent monograph, Experimental Life:
Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature, is forthcoming in 2013.

Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English and is
Director of The Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University.
Wolfe’s books and edited collections include Animal Rites: American
Culture, The Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago, 2003),
the edited collections Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minnesota,
2003) and (with Branka Arsic) The Other Emerson (Minnesota, 2010), and,
most recently, What Is Posthumanism? (Minnesota, 2010) and Before the Law:
Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago, 2012). He has
also participated in two recent multi-authored collections: Philosophy and
Animal Life (Columbia, 2008), with philosophers Cora Diamond, Ian Hacking,
Stanley Cavell, and John McDowell, and The Death of the Animal : A Dialogue
(Columbia, 2009), with philosophers Paola Cavalierii, Peter Singer, Harlan
Miller, Matthew Calarco, and novelist J. M. Coetzee. He is founding editor
of the series Posthumanities at the University of Minnesota Press, which
publishes six books per year by noted authors such as Donna Haraway,
Roberto Esposito, Isabelle Stengers, Michel Serres, Vilem Flusser, and many
others. He continues to publish widely in areas such as animal studies and
posthumanism, systems theory and pragmatism, biopolitics and biophilosophy,
and American literature and culture, and he has written numerous pieces on
art, music, architecture, and other kinds of non-literary culture. He is
currently working on a book project to be called Wallace Stevens’ Birds:
The Poetics of Extinction, and, as of July 2012, will be founding director
of a new center at Rice devoted to theoretical study across the disciplines.

Week 2 – “Ethics of the Semi-Living”: Oron Catts (AU) and Richard Doyle (US)

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator whose pioneering work with
the Tissue Culture and Art Project, which he established in 1996, is
considered a leading biological art project. In 2000 he co-founded
SymbioticA, an artistic research center housed within the School of
Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia.
Under Catts’ leadership SymbioticA has gone on to win the Prix Ars
Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) the WA Premier Science Award
(2008) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008. In 2009 Catts was
recognized by Thames & Hudson’s “60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future”
book in the category “Beyond Design”, and by Icon Magazine (UK) as one of
the top 20 Designers, “making the future and transforming the way we work”.
Catts interests lie in shifting relations and perceptions of life in the
light of new knowledge and it applications. Often working in collaboration
with other artists (mainly Dr. Ionat Zurr) and scientists, Catts have
developed a body of work that speak volumes about the need for new cultural
articulation of evolving concepts of life. Catts was a Research Fellow in
Harvard Medical School, a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art
History, Stanford University, and a Visiting Professor of Design
Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London. Catts’ ideas and projects reach
beyond the confines of art; his work is often cited as inspiration to
diverse areas such as new materials, textiles, design, architecture,
ethics, fiction, and food.

Richard Doyle is Professor of English, Affiliate Faculty of Information
Science and Technology, Convenor of the Penn State Center for Nano Futures
at Penn State University, and was Visiting Associate Professor at UC
Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric in 2003. Doyle has published three
monographs, On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life
Sciences (Stanford, 1997), Wetwares: Experiments in PostVital Living
(Minnesota, 2003), and Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of
The Noösphere (University of Washington Press, 2011), that form a trilogy
about emerging transhuman knowledges. These knowledges and practices,
linked to molecular biology, artificial life, nanotechnology, psychedelic
and information technologies, render the experiential distinctions between
living systems and machines frequently dubious and often indiscernible.
This excited and confused rhetorical membrane between humans and an
informational universe nonetheless broadcasts a clear message: humans, in
co-evolution with the technical matrices transforming the planet, find
themselves in an evolutionary ecology that is as urgent as it is
experimental. Doyle’s is also at work on book, Admixtures: Dialogues After
Genomics, with Anthropologist, Mark Shriver.  With Shriver Doyle founded
the The Penn State Center for Altered Consciousness, which investigates the
genetics and phenomenology of legally altered consciousness with the help
of a flotation tank.

Week 3 – “Living Experiments”: Phillip Thurtle (US), Adam Zaretsky (US),
Maja Kuzmanovic (BE), and Nik Gaffney (BE)

Phillip Thurtle is director of the Comparative History of Ideas program and
associate professor in History at the University of Washington. Thurtle is
the author of The Emergence of Genetic Rationality: Space, Time, and
Information in American Biology 1870-1920 (University of Washington Press,
2008), the co-author with Robert Mitchell and Helen Burgess of the
interactive DVD-ROM BioFutures: Owning Information an Body
Parts (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), and the co-editor with
Robert Mitchell of the volumes Data Made Flesh: Embodying
Information (Routledge, 2003) and Semiotic Flesh: Information and the Human
Body (University of Washington Press, 2002). His research focuses on the
material culture of information processing, the affective-phenomenological
domains of media, the role of information processing technologies in
biomedical research, and theories of novelty in the life sciences. His most
recent work is on the cellular spaces of transformation in evolutionary and
developmental biology research and the cultural spaces of transformation in
superhero comics.

Adam Zaretsky is an artist, or "bioartist," who has worked as a research
affiliate in Arnold Demain's Laboratory for Industrial Microbiology and
Fermentation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of
Biology. He received a master of fine arts degree in 1999 from the School
of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied and researched with
"transgenic" artist Eduardo Kac. Since then, he has worked with such
pioneers of bio-art as Joe Davis, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.  He is
currently a PhD Candidate in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute. While humor remains a mainstay in Zaretsky's artwork and
scientific practice, his endeavors are grounded in a very serious and
complex understanding of biologic and genetic issues that are very much a
part of contemporary society.  Zaretsky's bio-artwork is motivated by his
own set of ethical quandaries prompted by past history. Biology has been
used for aesthetic purposes before, of course to horrifying consequence.
According to Zaretsky, "we slide into eugenics... We haven't always shown
the best of taste. Not that artists have always shown better taste, but
they have shown obscure taste. If we start engineering for enhanced humans,
then somebody has to engineer for 'punk' humans, for plaid humans. What I'm
realizing is that we are coming close to genetically altering human beings
according to popular fads."

Maja Kuzmanovic holds a Master of Arts in Interactive Multimedia and her
specialization is interactive film and storytelling. She is currently
director of the Brussels-based laboratory, FoAM, where she works with
various art and technology collectives and explores novel modes and
resources of cultural expression. She was involved in the development of
the Design Technology course at the Utrecht School of the Arts. She
previously worked as Artist in Residence at the Center for Mathematics and
Computer Science in Amsterdam, and the National Center for Information
Technology in Sankt Augustin, Germany. In 1999, Kuzmanovic was named by
MIT’s Technology Review Magazine as one of the top 100 young innovators of
the year. Her current interests span alternate reality storytelling,
patabotany, resilience, speculative culture and techno-social aspects of
food & food systems.
Nik Gaffney is a founding member of the Brussels-based laboratory, FoAM, as
well as a media-systems researcher. Gaffney has previously worked as a
graphic designer and programmer for Razorfish AG in Hamburg and Moniteurs
in Berlin. His studies covered the fields of computer science, cognitive
science and organic chemistry at Adelaide University. As one of the
founders of the artists' collective, mindfluX, he worked on installation
pieces, performances and the editing and distribution of the electronic
magazine mindvirus. Gaffney has been an active collaborator in the
performance group Heliograph, helping shape their vision for hybrid arts
performance. He is a member of and prominent contributor to farmersmanual,
a pan-european, net-based, multisensory disturbance conglomerate, whose
'ship of fools' filled the canals of Venice with sound during the 2001

Week 4 --“New Scales of Living”: Luciana Parisi and Adam J Nocek

Luciana Parisi is Senior Lecturer/Convenor of the PhD in Cultural Studies
at Goldsmiths, University of London. Parisi’s research looks at the
asymmetric relationship between science and philosophy, aesthetics and
culture, technology and politics to investigate potential conditions for
ontological and epistemological change.  Her work on cybernetics and
information theories, evolutionary theories, genetic coding and viral
transmission has informed her analysis of culture and politics, the
critique of capitalism, power and control. During the late 90s she worked
with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick and has since been
writing with Steve Goodman (aka kode 9). In 2004, she published Abstract
Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire (Continuum
Press), where she departed from the critical impasse between notions of the
body, sexuality, gender on the one hand, and studies of science and
technologies on the other. Her work engaged with ontological and
epistemological transformations entangled to the technocapitalist
development of biotechnologies, which un-intentionally re-articulated
models of evolutions, questioning dominant conceptions of sex, femininity
and desire.  Since the publication of Abstract Sex, she has also written on
the bionic transformation of the perceptive sensorium triggered by new
media, on the advancement of new techno-ecologies of control, and on the
nanoengineering of matter.  She has published articles about the relation
between cybernetic machines, memory and perception in the context of a
non-phenomenological critique of computational media and in relation to
emerging strategies of branding and marketing. Her interest in interactive
media has also led her research to engage more closely with computation,
cognition, and algorithmic aesthetics. Parisi’s latest monograph,
Contagious Architecture. Computation, Aesthetics and Space  (MIT
Press,2013), reflect these concerns.

Adam J Nocek is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Literature Department
and instructor in the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the
University of Washington. His work focuses on the relation of living
systems to various forms of visual (cinema, animation, architecture) and
biotechnological mediation. In 2012 he was a fellow at the Biological
Futures in a Globalized World Consortium, a project jointly sponsored by
the Fred Hutcheson Cancer Research Center and the University of
Washington.  He has published essays on architecture, aesthetics,
biotechnology, and speculative philosophy.  Along with Phillip Thurtle,
Nocek is co-editing a special issue of the journal Inflexions, entitled
Animating Biophilosophy (Fall 2013), as well as co-editing, along with
Nicholas Gaskill, a collection of essays on the philosophy of Alfred North
Whitehead, entitled The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota 2014).
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