On 22 November, students, researchers and people interested in biotechnology came together for a workshop and a symposium in DesignLab to address highly current questions and developments in biotechnology, and explore how artistic practice and scientific developments can interact.
In the workshop "Investigative Observatory" the artists Špela Petrič and Miha Turšič artists created an interactive space where the participants experienced how biotechnology connects persons and objects. They staged the space of encounter with mysterious human and non-human objects of biotechnology.
The symposium speakers and curators Isabel Burr Raty, Lucas Evers, Frank Kresin, Rob Zwijnenberg and Agnieszka Anna Wolodzko took part as subjectiles which means they were neither objects nor subjects. The participants had to create a story about what these human and non-human objects are and mostly what do they do.
The workshop started with an initiation ritual in which breathing and moving exercises prepared the participants for the transformations to happen. The symbol and agent of the investigation was agar - the material of non-human growth and visibility of what is inaccessible to the human naked eye. Delicate powder of agar was given first to human subjectiles and then to each participant, who spread it on the floor to mark the temporary boundary of each body. Once the circles of agar were made, they could be broken revealing the permeability of each border.
This performative investigation concluded with four speculative stories of an encounter that each group experienced. Each story speculated on a different object revealing the multiple ways of thinking and practising with the objects of biotechnology.
The symposium questioned the implications of gene modification, the developments in biomedicine but also the ethical boundaries of reproducing human stem cells. Dave Blank, Chief Scientific Ambassador of the University of Twente, opened the evening by comparing pictures of nanoparticles and fractals to beautiful landscapes and referred to the art of M.C. Escher and its close relation to mathematics.
“Art must be extreme and consequential”, stated Rob Zwijnenberg’s, Professor of Art and Science Interaction at Leiden University. “We need the visualization by artists to make science more credible and understandable”, said Christine Mummery, Professor of Developmental Biology at Leiden University Medical Centre. Špela Petrič, Miha Turšič, and Isabel Burr Raty added an artistic view to the discussion. As an example, Špela Petrič, a Slovenian media artist and former scientific researcher, presented her performance on growing plants that contain her DNA. Isabel Burr Raty, filmmaker and performance artist, demonstrated her participatory performance lecture about beauty bio-products that she manufactured with erogenous female fluids, based on the scientific evidence that those enhance beauty.
The artists, scholars, and professors lively debated with the audience about the controversial role of art in the developments of biotechnologies and the role of society and politics. The speakers expressed their viewpoints on the close connection of art and science in biotechnology and raised questions as:
- What is the status of an embryo that is a hybrid between a human and a pig?
- What are the ethical implications if you create babies from skin cells?
- Should it be allowed to keep embryos alive outside the womb?
Agnieszka Wołodźko, a curator of the symposium, sums up the evening: “We are here to allow ourselves to address themes on biotechnologies, not to find a consensus. There are so many questions that need to be answered, and asked.” Science-Frictions is a joint production by AKI Academy for Art and Design and DesignLab, University of Twente curated by Agnieszka Anna Wołodźko and Frank Kresin, Manager of DesignLab.
Photo credits: Emma Priester