[-empyre-] the ethics of the semi-living

Oron Catts oron.catts at uwa.edu.au
Sat Sep 14 05:41:01 EST 2013

Hi Johannes
Thanks for the questions, I'll try to answer at least some of them...
First let me start and say that I do not see my practice as scientific in any way or form. I will even go farther and claim that I'm not particularly interested in science per se. What I am interested in, through my own practice as an artists and as a director of an artistic research centre (that happen to be based in a science department),  is life and the changes it (life as a concept/object) is going through. It so happens that the most radical shifts in what life means are happening in the science labs, and more and more at the engineering lairs. In other words the scientists and the engineers  are digging us into ontological holes - and we need to find ways to climb out of them (I've been hiking a lot in the last couple of weeks so maybe my metaphors are a bit off...).

In the first four years of our practice with tissue culture as art  (1996-2000) we kept the cultures in the lab an experimented with different representational techniques to tell the stories of the semi-living. At the time we didn't conceived that we will be able to take the semi-living out of the lab (their new context after removed from the original context of the biological body), and put them into the cultural context. So we used manipulated digital  images, videos and "dead" objects - relics of our lab work,  fixed and preserved tissue etc. (while our funding bodies were sure that we are helping scientists to find the cure for cancer...). our last show before we went to Boston to do a research fellowship in Harvard Medical School was sold out as "decoration" for a new surgery training facility in Perth. Obviously, the seductive powers of our aesthetic strategy of that time hit a target, but not one that we were happy with...

Through the residency in Harvard and an invitation to show our work at Ars Electronica we were able to take our semi-living out of the lab and into a cultural context. Well, not entirely, as we brought the fully functioning lab with us.  This, heavy and dominant technological frame, become an imposing aesthetic burden, that we had to carry with us ever since. The caring performances that we devised (the feeding, the killing) were one way of dealing with the technological frame.  

I have a bally full of design issues to deal with, after all, for the last four years, I was a visiting Professor of Design Interaction at the Royal College of Arts, London.  
Maybe tomorrow...

-----Original Message-----
From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au [mailto:empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Johannes Birringer
Sent: Thursday, 12 September 2013 4:04 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] the ethics of the semi-living

----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------

could you please say a bit more about these years of testing the notion of 'semi-living',  and placing it (cultures, cells, that which you thought of as semi or between, needing a link to technological care) into art context/installation context and thus linking it to aesthetics? (also the discourse of so-called bio art which is an art discourse and not a scientific one, would you say?).

Perhaps this is also where the political and ethical question arise, or the question I tried to raise last time, about the banalization/trivialization of science - that was a question addressed to Adam Z and his comment on fascism, I find particularly interesting  your statement that the semi-living project requires a removal of it [what is the it?  the cell?] from a body or context, the latter now being assumed dead or excised, yes? 
And the caring now is addressing a biotechnological system and an interface that needs nurture (in exhibition, it also needs explanation, justification, and new contextualization as the cellular project may not be apparent - as art, as object, as science, as process -- and visible and intuitable to an audience. It may not be apparent nor justifiable? 

The design, then, to follow my comment on the "fashion reference" in "Evolution Haute Couture", becomes the runway for the thing to live and display itself and justify itself.
What are your thoughts on semi-living design, and the linkage you have made between lab and art gallery/museum, and between lab and the wider, philosophical or political thinking on systems/systems theory?
Has the discourse, in your opinion, delved sufficiently into this important question of care, and what analogies to performance/body art, if you think of the work of Sarah Jane Pell, do you see?

Johannes Birringer

[Oron schreibt]
So yes, if bioart would exist, as in if artists working with life and attempting to impose some kind of wants onto living systems - the ethics of care is undoubtedly, implicitly or explicitly embedded in the practice. At least temporarily until care is no longer needed - you can call it death...

[Oron schreibt]
... for all intents and purposes we started with something which was dead meat (the half rabbit's heads) but the cells were alive, growing, proliferating and doing what cells do (in culture- outside the context of the original body of the rabbit).  Are these cells living in the same way that the dead rabbit was 24 hours earlier? We realized the even though tissue culture was going on for more than a hundred years, we had no cultural language to deal with this experience. And if we do not have that, can we have any ethical reference point to deal with these fragments of life?  If we name them semi-living would that change anything?
We spend the last seventeen years trying to figure that out.
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