[-empyre-] to Paul and to Soyo and Yiyn

Renate Terese Ferro rferro at cornell.edu
Sun Feb 26 05:15:06 AEDT 2017

Dear Paul, Kathy, and all, 

We are incredibly happy to welcome both Soyo and Yiyun who I have never met. Of course Paul lives only about three hours from Ithaca so we see him often.  In fact both Tim Murray and I attended the opening of Coalesce the new Biology Lab and Art Studio that opened a couple of semesters ago.  Thanks Paul for giving us an insight into Coalesce and I have some specific questions for you below about ethics.   But at this point I was curious__Soyo and Yiyyun do you have public labs that you create work in and conduct research or do you have personal lab/studio spaces?  Cornell is situated in the middle of a huge university that is highly funded in the sciences.  Last year I proposed that my students and I  do some research with ecology and evolutionary biology hoping to collaborate with one the world renowned scientists who found the eggs of micro-organisms that were thousands of years old layered beneath layers of rock at the bottom of Cayuga Lake. He and his lab nurtured them to hatch.  Needless to say the project that I proposed never got funded by the university. The thing that I noticed about Coalesce was that this lab/art studio inventively appropriatee and reused older vintage lab equipment that was still usable within a space that was between the art studio and the science lab.  There is a brilliant deja vous feeling or Sci Fi feeling to the environment.  It is a sacred space or one that can allow for a creative and scientific mix of potential. 

Paul I know that this issue of ethics also came up in our panel at CAA New Media Caucus and I wanted to push you on it at least from my limited understanding of the issues.  From your point of view there needs to be more stringent ethical parameters or ethical tools and I think you mean logistic standards for all researchers (not just solely artists, researchers within the artistic/biological disciplines, and students within these realms) that will have direct effects on humanity, culture and society.  Artists have used a variety of  theoretical and critical tools to deconstruct these issues and I think we talked about irony, humor and laughter being perhaps within those categories. Going beyond that though  I am thinking of some of the work by Ricardo Domingues (The Trans-Border Immigrant Tool that conceptually allowed immigrants between Mexico and the US a way to “look for safety and water” and enjoy poetry.  I am also thinking about Beatriz’ last work “Dying for the Other.”)  Both of these projects dealt conceptually and logistically with life and death.  I think what you might be proposing is the possibility of artists affecting  national and international criteria and standards for the development of ethical tools relating to life’s matter:  bacteria, cells, DNA, etc?

My apology for the simplicity of my questions and I am hoping that they are clear.  It’s a fascinating proposition the potential for artistic intervention to affect real life policy. The blend between the real and the simulated/fake, amateur questions.  

Thinking out loud this Saturday Morning and saying hello to Soyo and Yiyn who are probably out on Saturday night. 
Best to all of you.  Renate

From Paul

So, I suppose this would be a good place to mention/discuss my main recent project this year, the Coalesce Center for Biological Art.  The Center was initiated as a component of the Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome at the University at Buffalo. Our mandate is to help address the grand challenge to our social and ethical tools by recent advances in the biotechnology; complementing UB’s expertise in the life sciences by addressing questions and issues vital to public understanding and participation, but beyond the analytical constraints of most disciplines.

Coalesce has been in the works for a few years, but this is the first year fully operational in all aspects.  We now teach interdisciplinary courses and workshops with biological media, offer graduate assistantships and undergraduate internships, support faculty research, and offer visiting artist residencies.  This year’s residents were selected after a call for proposals in the summer 2016, and have been the center’s guiding spark: Nicole Clouston (CA), Heather Dewey-Hagborg (US), Kathy High (US), Timo Menke (Se), Zbigniew Oksiuta (US), Byron Rich and Mary Tsang (US), and Lucie Strecker and Klaus Spiess (At).  

After working in with biomedia for the last twenty years, the Coalesce center and our residents have forced me to think in greater breadth about many issues our field interrogates.  Needless to say, I wouldn’t have attempted such an enterprise if not for the residency I completed at Symbiotica, with Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, 2005 in Perth, as well as at Biofilia, 2014 in Helsinki.  The questions that now sit upon my desk, staring back at me, are particularly these “ethical tools”, which I mention in our mission statement.  I’ve always considered theoretical frameworks to be “critical tools” and find updating our ethical tools crucial at this stage.  It would seem that many of the funds and incentives for the development of ethical tools have been diminished and compromised since the beginning of the Human Genome Project in the 1980s with its 15% funds devoted to Ethical, Legal, Social Implications (ELSI) program.  Indeed, many of the seeming bedrocks of ethics and precaution have been eroded, like those of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975.  For instance, the recent proclamations from the National Academy entrepreneurs that the highly accurate Crisper protocol means that we can now reconsider the ban on human germ-line modification?!  As if the ban were simply because of technical problems!

So, can bio-art be an even more explicit participant in ELSI debates in the coming years.  How do we presently conceive of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics?  

Renate Ferro
Visiting Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Art
Tjaden Hall 306
rferro at cornell.edu

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