Forward/Backward - Living/Still

Let's step back a moment and try a transhistorical thought experiment: What if we considered nowadays art that deals with biological systems as a contemporary vanitas version of yesteryears tradition of Still Life? At first sight, this approach may seem awkward. Of course, Still Life – the depreciative French term for it is nature morte, dead nature – consists in depicting inanimate natural or man-made subject matter, and in recomposing the isolated fragments of life in a different manner. However, while by the 15th century Still Life objects were often meant to enhance religious paintings of spiritual gravitas, later, its highly detailed optical realism became independent and focussed on material vanitas, while being increasingly considered at the lowest order of artistic recognition by the dominant academia who established hierarchies of genres based on their subjects. Why weren't they appreciated, those skulls, pocket watches, hourglasses or candles burning down that contrasted with the sumptuous arrangements of fruit, flowers and banquet tables laid with fine crystal? They were symbolic reminders of life's impermanence and human's transitory nature.

Art that concretely deals with carbon-based biological systems is ephemeral by its very nature. The artists featured in Still, Living act less by pure technophile affirmation of anthropocentric biotechnological prowess or cognitive dominance over the non-human than by reflected scepticism towards our current notions of progress. Despite the accelerating rate of technological innovation and the growing impact of techno-scientific discourses on economy, worldviews and belief systems, this field of art indeed slows down, scales down, by its re-materialization. No plug-and-play here. Growing needs stillness, even in a field of growing interest. Our thought experiment has to deal with an apparent paradox. As biology's ascent to the status of the hottest physical science has been accompanied by the massive use of biological metaphors in the Humanities, this has also generated a wide range of biotech procedures that are providing artists simultaneously with the topics and new expressive media: transgenics, cell and tissue culture, plant and animal selection and breeding, homografts, synthesis of artificial DNA sequences, neurophysiology or synthetic biology. Artists are in the labs. But at the same time, the phenomenological engagement with wetwork that artists can now experience has not led to an overall "Promethean" impetus to absolutely wish to inform living matter, based on the concept of our own physical architecture as information. Despite the growing prominence of the engineering approach in contemporary life sciences, artists tend to remember that biology not only is about manipulation but also about observation of the logics of life. Bio-media and bio-topics in art today indicate a still unclear post-digital paradigm of what W.J.T. Mitchell describes as "the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction", in which the cybernetic refers to the control and communication, and the bios as being the subject to control but which "may resist that control, insisting on a life of their own". Biological art touches on the visceral at the same time that it produces meaning. It does not only picture or represent but gives a feeling of being linked to the presence of a holistic bios.

BEAP, the Biennale of Electronic Arts, has been the first experimental art festival worldwide to regularly include wet biological art practices since its beginning. Still, Living now explores the relation between biological systems at the micro and the macro scale, questions the primacy of logo- and phonocentrism, stages the silent running of invisibility and physiological experiences, looks into trans-species relationships and soft architecture, and considers our bodies as a battlefield for biopolitical thinking as well as tactical biomedia use. What is new? New media transforms artistic expression, and today new media is not necessarily only about digital media anymore. But the newness factor itself is very old, as much as technological flux is intrinsically dynamic. Still, Living, with the quality of the ephemeral which is inherent to the works, remembers Still Life, in that every minor detail can gain great symbolic importance. It is striking that in the early 20th century Still Life of European Modernism responded to mechanized industrialisation by Cubist-derived abstraction which amplified the isolation of objects in the world. Today though, after a certain disenchantment from Modernism, artists who are in contact with the ever increasing fragmentation resulting from the life sciences often seem to deliberately wish to contrast the molecular micro level with a systemic macro level that is expressed through ecological concerns, interest in cognitive ethology and the corresponding epistemological challenges.

Another change appears in art that deals with biological systems. It has been commonplace for Still Life to integrate animals as equivalent to other inanimate objects, thus stressing the large gap separating them from the human form, be they dead or alive. A good example is Jean Siméon Chardin's The Silver Tureen (1728) in which a curious cat looks at a dead hare and a soup bowl. Now, a biotechnological art display such as NoArk by the Tissue Culture & Art Project, in which cells from various organisms are fused, questions the scientific relevance of anthropocentric classification in the light of contemporary chemotaxonomy, and criticises the biblical roots of displays seen in our Natural History museums. NoArk is also a good example of what the German philosopher Nicole C. Karafyllis calls a biofact – a neologism which melts the artefact and the bios, a hybrid between an epistemic thing and a living being or system and in which the central characteristic of growth is induced through technical treatment. Skin Culture by the French duo Art Orienté objet, as well as ORLAN's prototype of a transracial, composite Harlequin Coat, are further examples of a strategy to enlarge the metaphorical potential of biological artwork by metonymy.Whereas metaphors function by similarity between two fields, metonymy works by contiguity and association. Materially speaking, the signifier and the signified overlap. The medium of expression – the cells – is identical to the signified, which has an influence on how we may perceive those biofacts through co-corporal projection. What this gives rise to is a realm of emotional tension and interplay between two possible modes of perceiving the action: the viewer switches back and forth between the symbolic realm of art, and the "real life" of materials and performative processes that are being put on display and that is being suggested by organic presence. In this light, the Bleeding Angel – a staged event that survives through its sculptural remains – by S. Chandrasekaran & Gary Cass also underlines the performative component in such art. Knowledge is not a still value, interpretations of scientific data are in motion and ephemeral, such as the vanishing images that Paul Vanouse creates in his live experiment Latent Figure Protocol by running DNA samples on a reactive gel.

Art Orienté objet, with their cultured, hybridized and tattooed skin composed of the artist's own epidermis and pig derma, and destined to be grafted by collectors onto themselves, revisit the question of animal experimentation and enquire about "the damages of Humanism that is understood as prime motor of technological development, (…) by disagregation of a positive relationship with nature, and above all, without the ethicalsense of existence which relies on the respect of the other." Reverse strategies of this kind are frequent. Brandon Ballengée asks whether progressive techniques can be used to breed backwards. His long-term experimental project Species Reclamation Via a Non-linear Genetic Timeline cynically turns over Noah's ark spirit, by recreating an extinct frog from close extant species, thus harbouring the illusion that new technology might be able to undo damage to the environment caused by past human technologies. Can artists re-enrich biodiversity? Verena Kaminiarz' double-headed flatworm in Ich Vergleiche Mich Zu Dir is struggling for the right direction. Natalie Jeremijenko's OOZ: For the Birds is ZOO backwards, a zoo where animals remain by choice and engage in interspecies communication with humans. Likewise, Beatriz da Costa's PigeonBlog engages homing pigeons in collecting pollution data to collaborate in the quest for a cleaner environment that benefits all species. Even Zbigniew Oksiuta's gelatine architectural objects from his Breeding Spaces series, conceived as a possible future organic habitats in space, have an ecological undertone as they are fully biodegradable.

Naturally, art that deals with biological systems is difficult to display and to maintain in a gallery situation. And although its a/live character can be seen as intrinsic, the preservation, presentation and mediation of frequently ephemeral projects is often assured either in the form of material remnants that refer back to the process in the manner of a synecdoche, or by film, photo or video documents. This is the case, as an example, for Immolation by the Critical Art Ensemble. The video installation treats the subject of the use of incendiary weapons on civilians after the Geneva Convention, and shows their devastating effects to the body on the cellular level. Like a film still refers to the moving images, the video here acts as a placeholder for the live experiment. As art theorist Boris Groys states, "art documentation as an art form could only develop under the conditions of today's biopolitical age, in which life itself has become the object of technical and artistic intervention. In this way, one is again confronted with the question of the relationship between art and life – and indeed in a completely new context, defined by the aspiration of today's art to become life itself, not merely to depict life or to offer it art products."

Thinking about biological art in the light of Still Life of course does not exclude other thought experiments. There are many perspectives to look at Still, Living and the artists oscillate between unstable utopia and fruitful dystopia.

Jens Hauser