Originally published in CIRCA, Art and Technology Supplement, Winter 1999, pp. S05-S07.


ARS ELECTRONICA 99

Ars Electronica became Ars Genetica. Paul O'Brien was there, negotiating the interface between biology, art, and society.

"Lifesciences" was the title of the festival Ars Electronica 99 (partly sponsored by Novartis) in the Austrian city of Linz. Ars Electronica, consisting of a symposium, installations and prize-winning exhibits, represents an ongoing attempt to overcome the split identified decades ago by C.P. Snow between the "two cultures" (science and arts/humanities). The symposium and installations were focussed on developments in cloning and genetic engineering.

On the optimistic or technophile side, represented in the discussions by scientists like Robert Lanza, Klaus Ammann and Zhangliang Chen, there were the usual arguments regarding the elimination of world hunger and disease (and perhaps even death itself) through genetic engineering. On the pessimistic or technophobe side, Jeremy Rifkin shamelessly played to the gallery (and the local media) in a wide-ranging denunciation of developments in genetic engineering. The GM food industry, he predicted, will collapse in a matter of years due to the pressure of lawsuits and the failure of insurance companies to maintain cover. Rifkin’s argument endorsed the notion of the intrinsic value of life and condemned the application of engineering principles and Baconian applied science to life itself. The result, he predicted, would be that----with the implementation of the "terminator gene"---no farmer would ever own a seed again and companies would end up owning the bluebrint of the human race. In a defence of the political structure of decision-making in the era of Green politics, the sociologist Bruno Latour argued for the right to resist the scientists’ definition of what the problem is, while R.V. Anuradha condemned developments in agricultural commercialisation, monoculturisation and homogeneity.

Speaking at the conference, Eduardo Kac described his art work "Genesis", which was presented at Ars Electronica and which involves the (interactive, Web-based) development of a real synthetic gene, using as the basis of the code a passage from the book of Genesis (Ch. 1, Vs. 26) asserting humanity’s God-given dominion over nature (a text which, ironically, is often used to indict an instrumental rationality which is basically atheistic in nature.). As well as Kac’s "Genesis", installations included “Multiple_Dwelling”, an impressive living exhibit based on the “‘storage room”’ for comatose bodies destined for organ transplants in the film “Coma”. Gene Genies gave an account of a shop which they had temporarily opened in California offering genetic modification, while Clones-R-Us did something similar for cloning on the Web. The tongue-in-cheek assumption, common to a number of exhibits/installations, is that we live in a “Gattaca”-type future where cloning and genetic engineering are consumerist services like any other. (If you want to order a Cindy Crawford or early Michael Jackson clone, visit http://www.d-b.net/dti.). I also succeeded getting my genetic fingerprint from a saliva swab recorded on an ID card, which will no doubt come in handy at border crossings in the future.

Again on the issue of the interface between life and art, the very accomplished Anomalocaris is an interactive work which attempts to resurrect an animal that supposedly lived during the Cambrian Age, using not just a visual display but also haptic sensation through a force-feedback device. According to the accompanying text, “If the participant pushes the head of the virtual [anomalocaris] it becomes angry and struggles.” (Well, maybe--—I hadn’t realised that was what it was doing.)

Most of the art work citing genetic developments does not employ them in any central way in the work itself, and thus remains involved in the two cultures “‘split”’. The significant exception is the work of Kac, which is conceptually and technically worked-out. Interactive installations commenting on biotech developments included “Hamster”, a study of the interface between animal and mechnical energy (since it escaped picketing by the Hamster Liberation Front, it was evidently deemed fairly harmless). There was also the truly horrific “Dispersion” by Eric Paulus, which, tongue-in -cheek (I hope) claims to be the first vending machine to automate the sale of biological pathogens--—anthrax, smallpox, typhus, plague, etc. As the information sheet cheerfully recounts, “A video display shows eye-catching scenes of biological agent production , spawning, use, and consequences. These images are interspersed with ‘fun disease’ facts such as amount required to kill 1.,000 people, expected time to live after first contact, testimonials, etc.” Also in macabre mode, an exhibition of “‘plasticated”’ bodies by Gunther von Hagens spanned the intersection between art and medicine.

* * * * *

The competition part of the festival (the Prix Ars Electronica, sponsored by Siemens and others) enjoyed a record number of 2,119 entries from 60 countries this year. For the first time it included a section, won by Raimund Schumacher and Juergen Oman, called “Cybergeneration”. This was open to young people under 19 in Austria, a hitherto enlightened society--—despite the incursions of the Orwellianly -entitled Freedom Party--—where a long-standing dedication to both wealth-making and wealth-distribution has ensured good educational access to new technology.

Another winner of the Golden Nica award (in the “.net” section) was Linus Torvalds of Finland for the open-source operating system “Linux”. (Controversy: can a source code be an art work?). Awards of distinction in the .net category included one to Jean-Marc Philippe of France for his modest “KEO” project, wherein anyone interested can send a message to be burned on a special CD-ROM and sent put into orbit in a satellite, which will return to earth in 50,000 years. (If you want to tell your mutant descendants what went wrong, now’s your chance at http://www.keo.org.).

In the field of interactive art, Lynn Hershman of the US won the award for her “Difference Engine [No.] 3” , an electronic meditation on questions of surveillance. Through a digital camera, you can install a picture of yourself in a kind of cybernetic “‘purgatory”’ (http://www.construct.net/de3). Luc Courchesne received a distinction in this category for his technically -impressive “Landscape One”, a spatial installation whereby the visitor stands in the middle of a virtual park. This is represented on a 360-degree projection surface, and the participant can interact with virtual visitors including a dog for which one can throw a virtual stick. (I did--—tirelessly.).

Other installations included “Easel”, Daniel Rozin’s intriguing interactive device for “‘painting”’ on a canvas; “Haze Express” by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, based on the idea of a virtual train window that responds to the visitor’s hand; and “Sound Systems”, a complex piece for robot musicians by Yamaguchi, Higashiizumi and Tagawa. Again in eschatological mode, the Golden Nica award for visual effects went for special effects depicting the after-life in the film What Dreams May Come, while the prize for computer animation went to Chris Wedge, Blue Skies Studios (USA) for the 7-minute animation “Bunny”, the story of an elderly rabbit. who dies and goes to heaven. (One of the distinctions in this category went to the Computer Film Company, UK, for the Guinness ad “Surfer” where white horses emerge from the sea).) The Digital Musics Golden Nica award went to Richard James (Aphex Twin) and Chris Cunningham, UK, for the music video “Come to Daddy”. Also present at the Festival were the very amusing activist group RTMark, responsible for the notorious switching of the sound-systems of Action-man and Barbie dolls in the US in the early 90s. Etoy were there as well, showing a video of the infiltration by one of their shaven-headed, orange-jacketted members of a lottery show on Swiss national TV. The Etoy-clone repeated desperately that he was in “the wrong medium” and was looking for the Internet. He was eventually “‘shown the way to the Internet”’ by a befuddled announcer. Attempts by police to sort out the situation came to little, since Etoy all looked the same and had in any case switched their passports. Outfits like RTtmark and Etoy mimic the corporate structure in an attempt--—with roots in Dada--—to subvert seriousness in the cybernetic age: a counteraction to the threatened control of life itself by the biotech industry.

* * * * *

If techno-anarchism flourished at one end of the scale, some of the issues raised under the rubric of the life-sciences seemed to raise the spectre of biological domination. The type of inter-species commingling to which genetic engineering seems to be tending---for example, human-animal in the realm of xeno-transplantation---breaks deep human taboos. (As was illustrated by the BSE debacle, ”‘instinctive”’ taboos on things like cannibalism, for example, sometimes turn out to have a sound basis.).

From a viewpoint---like mine---which is sceptical of genetic engineering, the spectre of commercialisation and even monopolisation haunts this area, based on a reductive and instrumental view of the role of science. Historically, this interventionist approach has had seriously adverse consequences for health and the environment (DDT, CFCs, thalidomide, Agent Orange, nuclear energy, PCBs, etc.) One of the results of the science/humanities split is that a historical perspective is not a strong point among many scientists. Past scientific paradigms have been at best incomplete and at worst false, and the scientific establishment has historically displayed an entrenched resistance to discoveries that we now take for granted (for example electric light, manned flight, space travel).

Many key technological advances have been made outside of the scientific establishment, and often incurred the derision of the latter. As Richard Milton writes in Forbidden Science:, “Anyone who switches on the electric light, turns on the television, makes a phone call, watches a film, plays a record, takes a photograph, uses a personal computer, drives a car or travels by aeroplane has the lone eccentric to thank, not institutional science.”1 Philosophers have generally failed to show what it is about science---apart from its sociological clout and the useful inventions which it has failed to suppress---that gives it a privileged access to truth or the real.

The inability or lack of desire of today’s scientific establishment to engage in a critique of its own (materialistic, mechanistic, reductive, instrumental) presuppositions recalls in some ways the blind adherence of the medieval Church to entrenched Aristotelian views of the universe. In some ways the scientific establishment has itself become a religion, with much of the obscurantism of religious fundamentalism and some more besides. There is the indignant rejection of socio-economic explanations for its activities. There are the unchallengeable dogmas, and the blind spots and no-go areas (for example the influence of Darwin on Nazi thought and practice). There is the classic ideological feat of being able to ignore obvious contradictions---for example the anti-materialistic tendencies in physics (viz. the writings of Paul Davies) versus the materialistic in biology (viz. Richard Dawkins).

The oft-cited ignorance on the part of "humanist" critics of the minutiae of genetic engineering is at least paralleled by an ignorance on the part of many scientists of some basic historical, sociological, economic and philosophical issues. ( On the way out of one of the sessions, I overheard a---very young---scientist complain that conferences should consist of people announcing their discoveries, not discussing all these irrelevant topics. That seemed to sum up quite a lot.) In the light of the foregoing, therefore, this year’s Ars Electronica was a refreshingly open attempt to deal head-on with some of the science/society issues which are often ignored through the mutual hostility of the “‘two cultures”’.

If this year’s event was an attempt (“where software is, there wetware shall be”) to piggy-back on the widespread acceptance of computer art in order to integrate controversial developments in biology into art---and therefore the wider culture---the attempt was only partially successful, judging by audience reaction at least. Going by the intense and wide-ranging debate in the conference part of the festival , the science/humanities split---at least in regard to the life-sciences---is as wide as ever--, if not wider. The conference was an unusually diverse and welcome forum for a discussion of the interface between biology, art, and society.

1 - Richard Milton, Forbidden Science: Exposing the Secrets of Suppressed Research (London: Fourth Estate, 1994), p. 92.


Paul O'Brien lectures at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.


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