Day 3: The Immortal Body

Day three of the festival was a bit more relaxed but not less intense. The day was dedicated to a movie screening and a key note lecture by Alondra Nelson (with Heidi McKenzie and Jeff Thomas as respondents)

The topic for today was “the immortal body”

It was also an occasion  to facilitate a general discussion that assessed the past 2 days and brought up new perspectives.

Zulfikar Hirji, the curator of this double session, observed  that his hope was to expand the discussion beyond the technical details of science and technology, that didn’t stop at the aesthetics and the ethics of using art and science, but that  evoked reflections on how these practices resonate in a social cultural context.

How do we locate immortal media in a social cultural context?
How is art  situated in relation to issues of race, gender, and culture?

We can’t deny that artists engaged at the crossroad of science and technology have the ability and the privilege to ask questions that delve into the complex interspersing of cultural and political issues and into the assumptions that frame science and its dynamics, as well as society at large.

Some of the themes explored in these days demonstrate the significance of these questions and the need to explore them deeply: for instance the significance of the unseen, and the need to unravel the invisible can help us rethink art and science as very situated  activities. In a sense, the immortal body is a way to restate the labor that art and science do, as well as their situatedness.

With this in mind, director Robert Styblo presented his documentary Bioart. The movie, unique in its sort (as far as I know no movies have been produced about bioart), was a hard task. constrained by his own limitations as a novice in the field, and by the obligations to make a movie for television that attracted a general audience, Styblo chose to focus on those artists engaged with the use of biology to ask questions about the limitation of their body, the significance of life and the human condition, as well as on the relationships between human kind and technologies and the human and other animals.

Interviews with the first generation of bioartists, such as Stelarc, Orlan, Paul Vanouse and Joe Davis, with commentaries by Jens Hauser and other scholars (mostly German) could have had the movie renamed as “the new body artists” or “the new humanism in bioart”. In this sense the movie lacks depth as it leaves out a whole new generation of artists who have more recently started experimenting with questions regarding the semi-living, bacteria, plants, ecology, making a huge effort to think beyond humanism (and actually questioning anthropocentrism towards a more holistic and performative notion of matter).

However, given the complexity and the variety of these new explorations, such ambitious take wool have probably turned the movie into a huge messy conglomerate of names and theories. so, kudos to Styblo for finding a thread to follow throughout. of note is the soundtrack which, we discovered, was a bit reminiscent of Styblo’s previous project on Circus artists. Jack Butler defined it amost Fellinian,  providing a playful tone that never bored us. Finally, I was struck by the respectful approach to the practice of these artists, who were allowed to express their philosophy freely, without being dismissed or rushed through.  express

In general, it is clear that this is a movie for a general audience.As a matter of fact, science in this movie was a bit left at the margins or portrayed in its most Frankensteinian aspects. part of it is because of the lack of literacy existing about its practices. Part of it, is because there is always a fear that incorporating too much science might scare a certain audience. conversely, science as a spectacle is always more welcome. as Dolores Steinman suggested, the movie would have not had the same impact had it been about artists engaging with quantum physics or more “clean” or “brainy” sciences.