Your BioArt Is Dum
Sorry I disappeared for a couple weeks. I participated in a Art show. Did a talk for SXSW and am on my way to New York for a corporate talk. My life is busy and when it's not I'm lazy. I would way rather drink a glass of bourbon and watch Survivor than write most evenings. I love writing but sometimes I have difficulty finding time to just be a human. Still I wanted to write about the Art show and my feelings around Art in general.
I still go back an forth on whether I consider myself an Artist but I guess I feel alot more like an Artist than I do a scientist. The "science" experiments I do more as a form of self-expression than anything else. I have a thing against defining myself and the work I do which might be more negative than positive. I think sometimes my iconoclasm and need to feel and be different is more of a curse. But, like, calling me an Artist isn't wrong. My "Art" has been in the SF MoMA, Philadelphia MoMA, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian among others. I did a performance with the Chromochord at NY MoMA PS1. I had multiple pieces on display at ZKM in Germany and collaborated with famed Artist Lynn Hershman Lesson. Everything on paper would seem to say that I'm an Artist. I still question it though.
A couple weeks ago I helped participate in and organize an Art show, titled Anomalous in Nature curated by Kessler. It was probably the first non-museum Art show my work has ever been featured in. (That sentence was so pretentious I had to write it). But I think this event made me feel more like an Artist than anything has. See, I didn't goto Art school. I never had to grind it out in Art shows and galleries and try to convince people to purchase or display my Art. I feel like I cheated a little bit. All the work other Artists have had to put in I didn't. I haven't had to commodify my Art to make a living. Maybe I have no right to call myself an Artist or challenge what people are doing but
BioArt is mostly shit
Including my own work
I say that because the genre of Art is so stuck in gluing petri dishes of growing organisms to the wall that the craft doesn't develop. It's very speculative which to me makes it lack that oomph that I want from Art. I want it to make me feel something or challenge my beliefs. Most of it just makes me yawn. Yet another Art piece of growing cells to represent climate change or racism or choose your socio-economic oppression adventure.
Maybe the problem is my viewpoint is deluded. I'm not an Artist. I didn't really get into making Art on purpose. I just wanted create something beautiful.
The first real Art piece I created in my adult career was the Chromochord. It's a musical instrument that plays notes based on the quantum mechanical state of a light activated plant protein. I built it from scratch, soldered all the wires, programmed it myself, engineered the proteins and “wrote” music for it. At the time I didn't think of it as an Art piece. I was just trying to bring to life an idea I had. The process of creating working prototypes of my crazy futuristic ideas is intoxicating. It is one of the main motivations of my life, to create things I thought were impossible at one point. To me that is beautiful. But I remember walking around New York with famed Bioartist Oron Catts where he told me that Art needs to have a message or meaning, "If you don't give it one other people will."(that's not a direct quote because it was 6 years ago or something). I've thought about that conversation alot since then. I go back and forth on it but I have come to the conclusion that it's not true. Art can just be beauty for beauty's sake.
Before this show every intricate detail of my Art was well thought out and handcrafted. I finally broke that pattern because this Art piece was so very provocative. Every time I talked to someone about it the conversation went long and philosophical and deep. The piece was titled i love you. It was my fibroblast cells growing in a dildo and a male masturbatory device(a fleshlight). Sounds dum I know.
The idea for this piece started a few months ago when I accidentally cut off my fingertip at work trying to cut cheese and just started culturing the cells from my fingertip. I'm normally not that clumsy but something just comes over me when there is an aged Gouda around. I began thinking about my connection to these cells and how they were "me" but they weren't "me". They contain my DNA and came from my body. They respond to the environment and are autonomous but they aren't conscious by any conventional definition. I feel guilty when I let them die or don't take care of them. I fed them my own blood serum. I have a relationship with this living thing that could be me. That's where it started to get weird. Why do I care more about these cells? How do I express this strange relationship with my not-self self?
For some reason the idea of permission really stuck with me and with physical reality sexual permission is one of the most visceral. What if I put my cells in a dildo and someone used it? What if someone made a cellularized vagina or orifice and had sex with my cellularized dildo? Is someone using these objects infidelity on either side? The feelings it brought up in me were pretty interesting and profound.
The dildo, the fleshlight, they weren't handcrafted. They were inexpensive sex toys I purchased and slightly modified for my use. This is a huge change from the Art I usually create where I try and pour my heart into the creation of the piece. I spend time learning new skills and months crafting the object. The challenge on i love you was me understanding myself and my own feelings. Don't get me wrong, culturing your own cells isn't exactly the easiest but my attachment to the piece wasn't in the crafts(wo)manship. It was how it made me feel. It's the first piece I have created that was meant to make people think and not just experience.
At the Art show it was weird having the piece on display. It did make me feel a bit naked. Some people asked me if they could touch it and I didn't know how to respond. I just kind of shrugged in an "I don't know. Sure?" kind of confusion. It was hard not to feel creeped on when people stared at it. I don't know how people took the piece. I didn't really try and talk to many people about it.
For me though the piece was defining. I consider myself more of an Artist now. My practice and understanding of Art, my own Art, is evolving. I don't want BioArt to be a thing. I want it to just be Art. I think we are still a ways away from that though because the practice is so diluted by people who either aren't skilled in Biology or aren't skilled in Art. Sometimes maybe even both.
You can walk into an Art gallery and look at a painting or sculpture and enjoy it for it's beauty. It doesn't need to be trying to communicate some moral truth about the world. I look forward to the day that BioArt can be the same way. Where a BioArt piece is beauty just for beauty's sake.