• SCI-ART: Post-Photography, Documenting Our Genetic Possibilities – M-1000

    Date posted: May 1, 2006 Author: jolanta

    SCI-ART: Post-Photography, Documenting Our Genetic Possibilities

    M-1000

    When Roy Ascott
    wrote about our post-photographic age, he suggested that nowadays nobody really
    cares about the debate over what is real or how much truth is unveiled in photography
    due to the explosive use and incorporation of the digital medium. Meaning, the
    perspective of viewing photography solely as a journalistic medium of documentation
    seems almost banal and archaic due to the infinite creative possibilities to
    re-frame pictorial content and re-contextualize subject matter provided by the
    processes of digitization, manipulation, and new output expressions. Today, all
    photographic processes from analog and digital, to interactive interface outputs
    are seemingly an integrated part of photography art-making and the discussion
    of ‘analog versus digital’ or ‘truth versus fictive’ doesn’t
    mean a whole lot in this intermixing. In a sense, the field of photography today
    creates a new understanding of the meaning and methods of documentation that
    succinctly work with our age of transformation. The term “New Media”
    has been broadly used to describe electronic and digital work as well as new
    ways and languages for understanding the world. With this in mind, it only makes
    sense that artists use the New Media of “post-photography” to document
    the world (in the most post-photographic sense) through the context of another
    conceptual innovation: that of post-genomics and the media and language of bio-technology.

    The last issue
    of SCI-ART briefly mentioned how, for the past couple of months, New York has
    been hosting the “DNAge Citywide Festival for the 50th Anniversary of the
    Discovery of the Double-Helix.” The arts exhibition mentioned in that issue,
    “How Human: Life in the Post-Genome Era,” seems most appropriate as
    a focus for this article because of it being held at the International Center
    of Photography (ICP). Organized and curated by Carol Squiers, the Curator of
    ICP, the exhibition (which just recently ended), showed over thirty artists from
    around the world who distinctively used photography’s capabilities to explore
    the issues raised by genetic research. (http://www.icp.org) This article looks
    at five of these artists to explore how they have used the photographic medium
    to present not only another way of understanding our post-photographic era but
    also the world of the post-genome era. Both of these ‘posts’ inflect
    our understanding of reproductive capabilities and both serve as expressions
    of today’s New Media.

    First, artist Larry
    Miller, who is known for his Genetic Code Copyright certification project (see
    the November issue of the SCI-ART article series (http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/70/sci.htm)),
    exhibited another thought provoking piece at the ICP called the Genomic License
    No. 8 (Arts Manifestus). This piece shows eleven portraits of currently living
    and active artists in a linear sequence, mounted on the wall. Each picture has
    another frame right below it that carries their individual DNA samples from blood
    or cheek cells on micro-slides. By documenting the outer features of these artists
    through photographic portraiture and documenting each one’s inner micro-biology,
    Miller questions whether “artistic traits” are in the genes. Artists
    such as Lynn Cazabon, William Pope L, as well as Miller himself have been selected
    as having real “artistic talent” and are thus grouped together in the
    framework Miller proposes. Next to the series of pictures is the Genomic License,
    which is the textual agreement for selling these genetic samples. The future
    purchaser of this piece can use the combination of these artists’ genetic
    information to create a human montage of an ‘ultimate artist’ or as
    Miller puts it, to create a “phenocollage – resulting in some kind
    of ‘Uber-Artist’ or human with artificially instilled talents.”
    Obviously, this is a highly conceptual piece that highlights the many different
    issues brought up by the thought of future cloning possibilities. One that hits
    the heart of genetic matters is the paradigm of seeing the world through the
    eyes of genetic determinism. Miller humorously demystifies the criteria for artistic
    excellence, criticizes the coded reality of our time, and makes us appreciate
    the beauty of being uniquely human, as he would say, “One and Only.”
    (http://genesthetics.com)

    Another artist,
    Justine Cooper, also worked by gathering people’s genetic information, but
    this time she presented them together in a video collage. At ICP, she installed
    a video installation entitled Transformers and projected her video animation
    onto a large screen. Out of all the places in the world, this Australian artist
    went to a largely homogenous city, Beijing, and got biological samples, fingerprints,
    IDs, and photos of eleven people who in some ways could be seen as “transformers”
    of society due to their various identities as either of mixed racial heritage,
    transgender, or multi-cultural. With the collaborative efforts of Dr. Jim Bonacum,
    an evolutionary biologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York, Cooper
    was able to use these people’s actual DNA codes in her piece. She had two
    gene sequences decoded for each candidate, one that showed little difference
    and the other that showed a great amount of genetic variation amongst people.
    The genetic information was layered with other scientific diagrams produced by
    such tools as scanned electron microscopy. Furthermore, these representations
    were then re-collaged with each person’s photo IDs, different forms of medical
    records, and juxtaposed with flying texts about their personal history that was
    collected from an interview by the artist. The power of this piece is in its
    interweaving of different modes of visuality that bluntly “document”
    these people’s existence. In turn, the documentation of physical to micro-biological
    identity becomes larger than life and overwhelming – a true portrait of
    our time. (http://justinecooper.com)

    Third, speaking
    of micro-biological identity, the medical and scientific world has made it possible
    to literally take the face out of the body. In other words, personal identity
    is erased in the world of scientific data and in sense, a new molecular face
    emerges. Ellen Sandor and her collaborators of “(art)n” (including
    Keith Miller, Jack Ludden, Fernando Orellana, and Janine Fron) showed Cryptobiology:
    Reconstructing Identity, which they call a “portrait” of an enzyme
    called lysozyme. Here, the peculiar irony is that (art)n ascribes a human face
    to microscopic biology. The collective group of artists is well known to work
    in collaboration with scientists and other professionals from other fields, including
    members of the Scripps Research Institute, Nasa, the U.S. Army, and others. For
    this project, they worked with Kathleen Helm-Bychoski from the Department of
    Chemistry of DePaul University to create a photographic image that works in two
    new ways as portrait photography: as an artistic documentation of DNA database
    and as the face that is brought back into the body picture. (www.artn.com)

    Next, Catherine
    Wagner is an artist who photographs cultural archetypes of built environments
    and has documented a series of images entitled -86 Degree Freezers (12 areas
    of concern and crisis) (1995). Another way of understanding today’s climate
    of scientific research is to look at the world of archived artifacts, records,
    and research specimens. In her work, Wagner exposes the gritty world of frozen
    objects, the things in storage waiting to be researched, that portrays something
    other than the media’s image of science’s fancy graphics and sterile
    labs. In other words, with choreographed lighting, text and large-scale imagery,
    Wagner recreates the aesthetic of research environments, including the documentation
    of ‘still-lifes’ used for the Human Genome Project. (http://www.ekcsm.org/bios_wagner.html)

    Last of all, Brandon
    Ballengée creates artwork with information generated from ecological field-trips
    and research labs. His work displayed at the ICP, Living Gems: The Evolution
    of Aesthetic Design and Genetic Engineering in Fish, was done in collaboration
    with scientists Hong Suk Michael Oh and Peter Warny. This body of work photographically
    documents transgenic fish (genetically engineered or modified fish) and is presented
    to mimic the ordering and labeling of scientific taxonomizing. These fish exemplify
    the history of hybridization for artificial farming and pet collection purposes.
    Moreover, the artificiality in color and the exaggeration of their shape amplifies
    the danger that engineered organisms have unknown environmental consequences
    if released into the wild.

    (http://greenmuseum.org/content/artist_index/artist_id-19.html)

    Two reference s
    to scientific articles that deals with this month’s SCI-ART article are:
    first, Science News: The Weekly Newsmagazine of Science : “2003 Moving On:
    Now the human genome is really done,” where an international consortium
    of scientists announced that the deciphering of the human genetic code is now
    truly complete

    (http://www.sciencenews.org/20030419/fob6.asp);
    and second, “Happy Anniversary”. Fifty years after Watson and Crick’s
    insight, scientists continue to take a close look at DNA’s double helix.
    (http://www.sciencenews.org/20030419/bob9.asp)

    M-1000 is the pen name of artist MINALIZA1000 (minaliza1000@aol.com). The SCI-ART
    article series is made possible with assistance from Art & Science Collaborations,
    Inc (ASCI). (www.asci.org) Since April 2003,
    a secondary publication of the SCI-ART article series has been translated into
    Korean and published in the Art Magazine Wolgan Misool, a monthly arts magazine
    of Seoul, Korea. (www.wolganmisool.com)

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