Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thesis Speculations--On a Posthuman Critical Dystopia/Utopia

I have been wracking my brains to figure out what framework I want to use for my exploration of BioArt (and BioArt as a problematic term). I have read several texts from both artists themselves and crtics/theorists who have explored BioArt from the perspective of posthumanism and other angles including Donna Haraway, Eugene Thacker, Eduardo Kac, Patricia Piccinini, Steve Baker, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Stelarc, and others. Haraway thinks she finds something powerful in thinking ethics as an 'sf-worlding', which she defines as an "invitation to speculate, imagine, feel, and build something better" in order to nurture a "more just and peaceful other globalization" (92, 3). Eugene Thacker has explored how Net.Art can fulfill a 'critical function' of science fiction in an age where our technoscience has become science fiction. Thacker explicitly mentions groups such as the Critical Art Ensemble. These artistic movements do much to de-mystify science through parody and theoretical texts.

Eugene Thacker extends Frederic Jameson and other critics' thoughts on SF literature to net.Art and "new media" art. My question is whether we can apply this--or at least use Thacker's ideas--to look at Bioart. Thacker argues that the point of and new media art is to take the critical function of SF and "re-insert it back into the discourse of contemporary technoscience."But since we live in an age where the fictions of SF literature have been incorporated into technoscience, the classical literary SF is insufficient to critique technoscience. Technoscience creates imaginative futures, but creates them in the mode of what Thacker calls "actualization." That is, the point of technoscience's narratives are to actualize them uncritically--leaving the criticism to culture, popular opinion, and, most likely, the courts. New Media/net.Art, in contrast, is in the mode of potentialization: "Regarded as potentiality, as the work of imagining critical futures, science fiction is not locked into the narrow path of simply realizing the future or actualizing it" (Thacker 158). Thacker concludes with the main contrast between SF literary art and the New Media art of which he speaks:
Whereas literary science fiction was limited to describing technologies in exrapolative, near future scenarios, new media and contain the capacity to actually embody and utilize these future technologies in radically new ways [and ask] important questions concerning the future of the human-machine relationship. (158)
 A couple things about this. For people like Jameson and Suvin, the actual technologies that are "extrapolated" are not really considered in their concrete possibility. Rather, reading Jameson, we see him trying to see the big picture of an other world that would be alternative to the current system of global capitalism. He looks at the larger structure of the SF work using interpretive frameworks such as the Greimasian square. Thus, what differs is not only the embodiment of these technologies (more on that later), but also that for Thacker, the specific imaginings and extrapolations ask posthuman questions that tie the political to the biological--the biopolitical. As Donna Haraway puts it, the ethics (and perhaps this is another difference between Jameson and Haraway et. al.--complicated material ethics comes up in addition to macro-political orders and alternative worlds and utopias) "is in the whole ontological apparatus, its thick complexity, int he naturecultures of being in technoculture that join cells and people in a dance of becoming" (138, When Species Meet). Perhaps (and I only mention this as something to be explored later) we can explore Jameson's sense of the power of totalization and closure in order to open up new possibilities and that introduced by Nikalas Luhmann, as explored by Cary Wolfe in What is Posthumanism--are they similar? For Jameson, there is a logic of total revolution; for Haraway, the micropolitical contributes to the macro--the metaphor shifts from revolution to terms from biology--ecology, environment, etc.

Aside from these differences (which I believe give more credence to the actual figures in the text rather than as dismissing them as extrapolations or allegories for larger political structures), because bioartists (even more so, I might argue, than net.Artists) participate in the techniques of technoscience and also uses new media in radical ways, they are able to, in the words of Clair Pentecost, change "the nature of art itself and the apparatus of its distribution" which will help to redefine the public's relationship to science (Pentecost 116), helping to erode boundaries "between research conducted within scientific laboratories and experiments taking place outside" (de Costa 376).

In other words,  we might say that whereas literary fiction, according to Jameson, estranges the present by masking it's particular content, new media art (and by extension BioArt) changes it by transforming its form--although this may be too radical of a claim, and a claim I would have to back up with a lot more evidence, particularly due to the importance Jameson ascribes to form in all his work (and the fiction and cultural objects he works with).

Maybe I should stick here with Pentecost's language--these artists attempt to change art's apparatus of distribution. Rather than estranging us from science, or using science as a  trope for a deeper political structure, BioArt at its core seeks to de-mystify science by encouraging participation in the artwork (even though, I suppose, SF invites the same type of criticism). By looking at science fiction as a genre in which the particular technologies "extrapolated" do not really matter--we do an injustice to SF's engagement

I am arguing myself out of my initial claims, but I"ll try and press on, knowing that I may be making unfair distinctions to serve my own ends. Perhaps we can look at another theorist/artist's conceptual distinction, Eduardo Kac. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of the dialogical, Kac reconfigures and radicalizes it. Whereas for Bakhtin, literature is inherently dialogical, Kac literalizes this concept and argues that most literature and even most net.Art (referring back to Thacker) is still monologic--even if it remains interactive:
Naturally, dialogic art is interactive, but dialogism in electronic art must not be confused with interactivity. many interactive electronic artworks are monologic, for example, a CD-ROM, or a self-contained website. (104)
 So perhaps we can say, agreeing with Thacker that there is a distinction to be made, that rhetorical artistic projects that use new media, but are merely websites rather than incorporating performance, "wet" elements, or some sort of 'live' interaction with the audience, are not "dialogic."

Kac's work strives to be "dialogic," which he relates to another key concept, telepresence:
Crucial in the context of dialogic experimentation in the arts is the understanding that radical works of art cannot be limited by visuality; instead they are lived experiences based on contextual reciprocity (the context of the experience as reciprocal; i.e. it enables one to take the intiative to interfere and alter the experience. (Kac 111)
 Thus, artists are the "creators of contexts," rather than a creator of "works." Dialogic art allows the audience to participate and to change the artwork, whereas "interactive" would mean that they follow a set of patterns that cannot be changed. In this sense, then, Sonya Rappaport's quest to "redeem" Kac's artwork Genesis remains, perhaps, "interactive," but not truly dialogic. Her website for the Golem gene shows her plans for the work and allows the reader a kind of freedom to navigate the website and interpret what she is trying to do, but the view of the site is not welcome to change the code of it--that is, "change" the artwork (her work can be found here: In contrast, Kac's initial exhibit, allowed users online to click a button in order to change the artwork. He writes in his essay "Genesis,"
Employing the smallest gesture of the on-line world--the click--participants can modify the genetic makeup of an organism located in a remote gallery. This unique circumstance makes evident, on the one hand, the impending ease with which genetic engineering trickles down into the most ordinary level of experience. On the other, it highlights the paradoxical conditions of the nonexpert in the age of biotechnology. To click or not to click is not only an ethical decision, but a symbolic one [. . .] In either case, the participant faces an ethical dilemma and is implicated in the process. (252)
--But it needs to be said: I can no longer "participate" in this artwork--I am an outside viewer, trying to understand and interpret the artwork purely from its documentation. A question: once the artwork is "over" --once the performance is done--does the artwork remain "dialogic"? Or does the artwork become just as "monologic" as the website or piece of literature---maybe even more so (the website is still 'interactive'). In other words, do the distinctions Thacker made between literary creation and net.Art/new media art still hold and do Kac's work maintain a "dialogic" dimension in his sense? What is the significance of Kac's engagement of the "nonexpert" in terms of the demystification and democratization of science?

To begin to address these questions I plan to look at some of the arguments in Jens Hauser's brilliant essay in Tactical Biopolitics, "Observations on Art of on an Growing Interest: Toward a Phenomenological Approach to Art Involving Biotechnology."  More on that in another blog post.

I'd like to explore these very issues in terms of Kac's work, but also that of the Critical Art Ensemble, and especially the Tissue Culture and Art Project, led by Oron Catts and Ionatt Zurr.

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