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Re: <nettime> Fwd: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, sc
TONGOLELE on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 02:16:07 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Fwd: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science)

Dear Eugene
 I wish I could respond to all your points in detail, but time limits and 
workloads prevent it. However, I read your defense of biotech art not just as 
 response to Rivkin's text but as one skirmish in a larger, longer battle 
that is being played out in various cultural sectors, including the artworld 
and the terrain of "avant-garde" aesthetic and theoretical practice and I 
recognize in your defense some very familiar tropes. The "defense of 
science" position coming from sectors of the new media community I would 
argue, needs to be interrogated. The frequent accusations that those who 
critique are essentialists about nature, about identity, neo-Luddites and 
phobic about science really need to be put aside for a moment if any kind of 
serious discussion is going to happen. In short, I'd say you and others are 
stereotyping and fetishizing those who criticize your position and this 
creates a smokescreen that deters self-reflection on the aesthetics and 
politics of biotech art. Not all criticism of what biotech art is comes from 
people who are intellectually naïve or uninformed about science and art. Like 
any other self proclaimed avant garde of western art history, biotech artists 
have claimed that they are redefining art practice and therefore the old 
rules don't apply to them. But that heroic stance and imperviousness to 
criticism sounds a bit hollow and self-serving after a while, especially when 
the demand for inclusion in mainstream art institutions, art departments in 
universities, art curricula, artworld money and art press is so strong. If 
biotech artists want to be institutionalized as they clearly do, they are 
inevitably going to be subjected to processes of evaluation by the agents of 
those institutions. 

I don't think it makes sense for you to feel that your field is being singled 
out. Every art fad goes through boom and bust cycles and biotech art is 
susceptible to such vicissitudes. That said, biotech art is directly 
implicated in the entrenchment of new scientific discourses as the "total 
explanation of everything" in the present moment. I agree with Virilio, who 
argues in Crepuscular Dawn, that science is not just research or discovery -- 
it is our politics and it is imperial in its exercise of power. It is a 
technology of social and political control, managed and financed by the 
military and designed for global domination -- and art that engages with 
it is impossible to divorce from that nexus. Biotech art then, is not ever
disinterested, not is it ever just about art or beauty or about a scientific
practice that is pure or objective. Because of this, I find the attempts by
many biotech art endorsers to celebrate their endeavor as if it were just about
a scientific or aesthetic pursuit to be disingenuous. Its very rhetoric of
transcendence of the human is itself an violent act of erasure, a master
discourse that entails the creation of "slaves" as others that must be
dominated. Even those who claim to be deconstructing biotech in their art
practice depend on a rhetoric of transcendence that effectively marginalizes
any other form of artistic or political engagement.

A few years ago, when hype about the Human Genome Project was plastered 
across every newspapers on a regular basis , and art institutions began 
searching for new sources of funding through alliances with science, biotech 
art was all the rage. I realize that many people who took it up were inspired 
by Baudrillard's claim that cloning was paradigmatic of the age of simulation 
and thus to make art about this phenomenon was to be in tune with the 
zeitgeist. It is also evident that the last wave of art about science has 
been dominated by a drive to draw parallels between digitalization and 
molecularization, to find in the mathematical structures of the machinic and 
the organic a the "beauty" of some kind of transcendent truth. But that 
utopian vision of this venture ennobles and masks the economic and 
underpinnings of the artworld's investment in a social issue that appeared at 
least at one time to be very fundable and politically neutral 
("post-identitarian") because it came wrapped in the language of science, and 
"accessible" to new audiences that art institutions are always looking to 
develop. Furthermore, none of the promoters of the recent love affair between 
art and science seem very open to an interrogation of how university art 
programs are finding ways to link up with science as a fundraising strategy. 
Many universities have lost large portions of their endowments in the 
downturn of the stock market and as a result are compelled to seek more 
income from scientific research grants. In short, there is nothing 
disinterested or pure about what is happening with art and science, and in 
the end, money and power are determinant. So biotech art may be presented as 
innovative because it is fundable, not because the art is that radical or 
beautiful or interesting.

The Genome project is not as newsworthy anymore, and in a post 9/11 world, 
the fad in new media has shifted to questions of globalization, which to my 
mind are often posed in very problematic terms. In any case, now that the 
spotlight has dimmed, it is par for the course that some arbiters would ask, 
well is the biotech art out there any good? Is it interesting? Is it art? 
Does it communicate anything that straightforward scientific information does 
not? Is the art being used to endorse an ideology? It seems to me that these 
are logical questions to ask when faced with a lot of art that present 
science as a spectacle that we are to be in awe. It also seems like logical 
questions to ask the artists themselves, many of whom are very defensive 
about their motives, about their "love" of science (as if this would make 
them immune to political and economic investment in championing it), and 
about questions of quality, which, as old fashioned as they may seem, are 
asked about any kind of cultural expression, and not always for horrifically 
conservative reasons. Audiences and critics usually do get their say in these 
matters, whether artists and their promoters want to hear it or not.

The last wave of biotech art does not represent the first time in the history 
of art that visual artists have engaged with hard science, nor is the first 
time that artists have engaged with social issues and political issues. Yet 
no discourse on biotech art and no biotech artwork I've seen acknowledges 
that this history exists nor is any dialogue with that history attempted in a 
rigorous manner. The assumption is invariably that biotech art is something 
new, a claim that quickly turns into a defense against any critical 
evaluation. Furthermore, in every discussion I have had with the cultural 
bureaucrats and artists who are touting the current intertwining of art and 
science as new and radical, no one has wanted to review the history of how 
and why hard science has been allowed to influence art production and 
criticism in the past, how myths about the neutrality of science and the 
superiority of western science have remained intact and have been enforced by 
the imposition of scientistic vocabulary in art criticism, as was the case in 
the 1950s, for example. Yet, to my mind, there is a crucial relationship 
between the retrograde universalism evoked by the "return to beauty" as a 
organizing principle of visual art in the late 1990s, as represented by 
powerful critics such as Dave Hickey, and the celebration of the discovery of 
"master codes" that function as universal truths in the discourse of biotech 
art. Even the heroic radicalism in much of CAE's writing and their premise 
that the molecular is everything and no other battles are meaningful sounds 
alarmingly dismissive and positions science as the only discourse of truth. 
For all their claims to want to share knowledge about contestational biology 
I find it quite telling that there is no sustained effort in the work to 
build alliances with grassroots indigenous groups who elaborate their own 
tactics against being run over by corporate science, or with activists in 
poor communities who are developing methods for tackling environmental 
racism, developing better quality food supplies, or fighting against being 
turned in lab rats for pharmaceutical research. In other words, there are 
very important embodied politics of contestation of corporate science that, 
while buttressed by various modes of identity politics and sometimes couched 
in language that deifies nature, deserve acknowledgement, respect, and 
attention, as they are more compelling to the large sectors of the 
disenfranchised than the posthuman lingo of biotech artists.

My own skepticism about biotech has to do with political and ethical 
questions more than aesthetic ones. I am profoundly disturbed by the 
systematic suppression of the roots of genetics in eugenics and about the 
ways that fascination with biotech forecloses analysis of its connection with 
deeply racist ideas that glorify the engineering of a supra-human order that 
is leading to the justification of the absolute dehumanization of the 
majority of the world population. I cannot just sit back as you do and write 
one sentence to the effect that well yeah biotech and science is doing some 
pretty creepy things but hey it's exciting and it's the future. It isn't 
enough for me that for example Fakeshop would just invoke the poor masses of 
people in the third world who sell their organs and then go on to create 
ghoulish sci fi spectacles about the "post-human" that make the process 
appear so dramatic and exciting -- too many details about the global forces of 
racialized and class oppression get downplayed in that mix. 

I would also point out that I do think critics who have noted that the visual 
quality of much biotech art is either predicated on fetishizing scientific 
process as spectacle (ie, look at the glow in the dark rat or watch your 
designer baby grown before your eyes); or on the suppression of the optic 
through the construction of work with texts, graphs and data (biotech 
conceptualism); or on the staged parody of scientific method as institutional 
critique. None of the methods are new, radical in themselves or absolute 
recipes for success. The " biotech as entertainment" approach collapses the 
distance between art and propaganda and often results in work that looks very 
much like "feel-good" documentaries about science on public television, 
albeit with a weird, hipster twist. Crucial questions about the ethics and 
politics of biotechnology are completely occluded by the fetishizing of new 
technologies' visualization of heretofore invisible processes. The act of 
illustrating and foregrounding scientific method becomes a substitute for 
critical reflection on the politics of science. This kind of approach 
functions as an implicit endorsement of biotech, regardless of what artists 
may claim their own personal positions to be. The more conceptual approach, 
while politically well intentioned as a mapping of the commodification of the 
organic via science, is very difficult to pull off as compelling visual art. 
In terms of expediency, I am left wondering in the face of this work why the 
information is being presented in an art context, since it seems as though I 
would grasp it better as a book. Unlike early conceptual art, which was quite 
minimal its use of text and quite humble in its materials, biotech 
conceptualism is often overloaded and overcoded. It's so busy, so hard to 
decipher, so hard to read through and so hard to process that the mapping 
tends to muddle rather than elucidate. There is a long history of system 
analysis in sculpture and installation, which began in the 60s with the 
mapping of natural ecosystems and organic cycles and moved through the 
plotting of social systems onto institutional critique of social and cultural 
institutions, but none of that rich history appears to be drawn on by biotech 
artists. Finally, the parody of scientific method are usually limited in 
their physical situation to art contexts, which deflates the political force 
of the parody. Sure, many of those artists attend meetings with "real" 
scientists, but in that contexts they become advisors on how to popularize 
science, which is hardly what I would call a critical intervention in 
scientific institutions. Unlike parodies of corporate entities, which "rub 
shoulders" with real corporations and generate productive tension in doing 
so, or parodies of ethnographic discourses that are located in natural 
history museums and dislodge the status of anthropology as science, or 
parodies of museological language that were strategically located in art 
museums, and thus forced a certain critical reflection on the politics of 
each place, the many biotech parodies located in the artworld encourage 
somewhat problematically self-serving views of artists as "better scientists" 
or of scientific process as a better way of making art than any other. 

I don't think that most critics of biotech hoopla are essentializing nature. 
I think they are more worried about a political culture in which man-made 
forces are destroying nature, natural resources, and human beings and about 
people who see that is just fine and dandy. Yes I know I'm already eating 
transgenic foods and that my life may be saved by biotechnology -- but it may 
also be terminated by it. Having respect for organic life is not necessarily 
wacko or naïve. Many of us see the price of living in a world of endless 
simulation and posthuman engineering as too dear -- too many are shut out, too 
much is imperiled, and the loss of concern for ethics is more terrifying than 
liberating for most people in the world . The ability to maintain world peace 
as a goal is lost when technological innovation is predicated on making war -- 
that was what Walter Benjamin once said would happen if technology served 
capitalism. Losing respect for human life is certainly the underbelly of any 
militaristic adventure, and lies at the root of the racist and classist ideas 
that have justified the violent use of science for centuries. I don't think 
there is any reason to believe that suddenly, that kind of science will 
disappear because some artists find beauty in biotech.

Coco Fusco

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