[Synapse elist] Post from Kathy High

Vicki vickisowry at internode.on.net
Sun Mar 23 19:54:39 CST 2008

Dear All,
Greetings. Apologies on my end for not posting sooner.  The postings thus
far have been very interesting.
I have been in the midst of a serious battle with my university over a
censorship case and issues of freedom of speech (not ³bioart² related). An
exhibition, ³Virutal Jihadi,² by an Iraqi/U.S. artist Wafaa Bilal was closed
because the university did not think the content was appropriate. Then this
same exhibition was moved to a non-profit art space in the city of Troy, and
the day after the exhibition opened the city closed that art space down
claiming their building had code violations. So needless to say it is all a
mess and has been taking up much of my time. The university is now proposing
to set up a committee to review all exhibition proposalsŠ For further
details please go to www.wafaabilal.com/ <http://www.wafaabilal.com/>
I mention all of these events not just as an excuse for my slow response,
but also to give you all a sense of my current framework/mindset and to
contextualize something that I have witnessed in the U.S. Over time, there
have been more restrictions put into place, an erosion of freedoms, and
citizens in this country take fewer risks ­particularly apt when thinking
about new art practices such as ³bioart². Akos just mentioned issues of fear
and doubt around exhibition of bioart and I think that this is real here,
because it is also being conflated with things such as ³bioterrorism² and
³biowarfare² ­ which of course Steve Kurtz and CAE speak to so well. I know
many exhibiting venues that have had a difficult time raising funding for
this area. So I think we are living in a particular moment of caution that
makes this kind of practice even more difficult to show.
I am currently working with some colleagues, Rich Pell and Daniela Kostova,
on a project we call the ³Bioart Initiative² at my university. The name came
about because of the collaboration between the Arts Dept and the Biotech
Center ­ so it was used as a simple identification of the collaborating
parties. (I would love to see other terms used as I, too, am frustrated with
this too broad nomenclature.) This is a multi-pronged project that has been
funded for 15 months to bring in speakers, have exhibitions and sponsor
residencies of artists working in the laboratory. The goals are to encourage
more exchange between artists and the scientists who work in the building,
the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS). See
www.arts.rpi.edu/bioart <http://www.arts.rpi.edu/bioart>
One of the recent projects was ³Sentimental Objects In Attempt to befriend a
Virus² by Caitlin Berrigan. Berrigan occupied the lobby area at CBIS with
her geodesic domes resembling the hepatitis C virus, and held a series of
³tea parties² offering dandelion tea and viral shaped chocolates to discuss
the basis for the work. Berrigan has Hep C and uses this work to explore her
relationship to the virus, build public awareness about transmission and
more. One sculptural object almost closed the show down: along with the
geodesic viral domes on exhibit were three potted dandelions. Berrigan
claimed that she had fed her own blood to the dandelions and had a poster to
this effect on the wall. This fact was picked up by the biosafety people on
campus, and they freaked. Exposed blood, particularly infected blood was not
allowed in the lobby of the building and was a grave bio-hazard. Besides the
fact that this artist did not in fact feed the plants her blood, this
potential risk was potentially enough to have the entire program shut down.
After we calmed them down, we did get to have some valuable discussions
about the transmission potential ­or not- for four day old blood, and the
actual realities about Hep C transmission.
And while I do not consider myself an expert in bioart exhibition, I am
concerned with curation and exhibition and issues such as the caretaking
needs of live things in the gallery or museum. When I exhibited ³Embracing
Animal², a 10 month exhibition with live transgenic rats, I was amazed with
the response of the museum staff. They not only gave public tours and
lecture about the work, but the night-watchman also adopted the rats and
would tend to them and play with them all night. They become the ³keepers²
and observers of these small lives, a role very different from their usual
curatorial duties. They had to not only feed, water, change litter, but also
watch and smell the rats to make sure they didn¹t get ill; oversee the
public and make sure they weren¹t harassing the rats; and also make time to
play with the rats. This was a complete reversal of their usual scheduleŠ
And while I am not advocating turning galleries/museums into zoos, this is a
shift in the approach to exhibition that involves a different kind of
different attention and care. I think we need some of these encounters in
these spaces to broaden how we see ourselves to science/research subjects
and what was once ³nature². www.embracinganimal.com
I will sign off now and add more later, thanks, K. 

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