Friday, February 20, 2009

Caw! Caw!

The fact that artists use animals to metaphorically image their ideas isn't much of a revelation. That is why I found myself nodding off in boredom or frustrated at various points during this weeks reading, A Bird Tapestry by David S. Rubin. Rubin spends nearly all of the 54 pages in the piece uncritically detailing works from Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists' Aviary, a 2004 exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art. The catalog does exactly what a catalog should do, it informs an exhibition. Since I have never seen the exhibition, I was frustrated because I couldn't find several of the works discussed on the internet and bored because most of what Rubin says isn't particularly engaging without a visual reference.

The most interesting part of the article was at the end. Rubin says we see birds "as microcosms of ourselves who seemingly have greater access than we do to some of the nooks and crannies of our universe." This statement can be broadened to cover not just birds, but much of the flora and fauna that surrounds us. We see nature as a way to access and explain our desires (like the desire to fly) and to define our role as earthly creatures.

Here are some of the works I could find that prompted me to think deeper about the metaphoric potential of animals:
*note that these artists were all a part of the exhibition Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists' Aviary but the specific works below aren't the ones that were shown.

Thomas Woodruff

Root Hare, Thomas Woodruff

In the paintings from Thomas Woodruff's series Freak Parade terrestrial animal and plant forms are mutated into mythic still lives. Giraffe necked bunnies - half macabre, half romantic - use their new found extension to reach food that no longer grows out of the earth but instead swings from a tree's highest branches. These highly evolved rabbits have replaced their less fit root species by reaching higher and further for their carrots, undoubtedly a metaphor for capitalism.

Thomas Woodruff, A Vulgar Display

Woodruff's paintings mimic a bell jar shape, reinforcing their metaphoric charm as scientific curiosities and microcosms of life contained and miniaturized. Similar to Root Hare, A Vulgar Display seems like a miniature universe unto itself. Bug like creatures zip around a strange sprouting growth on their carrot cars (maybe they have hood ornaments? The jpeg is too small to tell.) This portable island of capitalist accumulation is propped up on ice skates and celebrating its mobility with fireworks and carrots on top.

Carlee Fernandez

Carlee Fernandez, Lola Isern

Carlee Fernandez creates her sculptural works by integrating common household items (like a laundry basket) into taxidermied animals (like the goat above). Goats are among the oldest domesticated animals and many people still rely on them for food and labor. Fernandez's piece plays on the forgotten value of animals in our modern lifestyles. While the need for a goat may not be apparent to the average American, imagine if that goat carried your laundry up the stairs. (please, please, please God send me one!) As tasks once preformed by domesticated work animals cease to exist and wilderness is scaled back further and further, will animals need to develop evolutionary traits that serve humans in order to aviod becoming extinct? I think Fernadez's goat is a humorously absurd look at that possibility.

Carlee Fernadez, Rat with Grapes

In later works, Fernadez begins to integrate fake natural objects into the sculptures, like plastic grapes. In this piece, a scavenger becomes a fruit bearer. Could this cross breed change the way Chicagoans see their alley neighbors? Will all animals some day have to appeal to humans or face extinction? Perhaps we will learn to graft fruit onto the back end of a rat just like we graft branches on fruit trees. What would a world filled with the animals of human desire and genetic imagination look like?

Julia Montilla

Julia Montilla, What Ails Us- The 100 Most-Prescribed Pharmaceuticals in the Nation

I am not exactly sure which diseases or pharmaceuticals Julia Montilla is representing with these guinea pigs, but I am grossed out. Remember that friend you had with the mom who kept fifty guinea pigs in one foot square cages in her basement and never cleaned them? This is the aftermath of that and it is spreading to humans. Horrifying and yet I knew it was bound to happen.

Actually, Montilla is probably referencing our tendency to use a "guinea pig" in place of a human for pharmaceutical testing. When we test the effects of medications, medical instruments and diseases on animals, we simultaneously confirm how close our biological makeup is to other animals while firmly establishing humans at the top of a hierarchical value system that determines which types of life are the most important. While guinea pigs are expendable, many American's feel that embryonic stem cells are morally sacred and can not be used in scientific testing.

A Bird Tapestry reminded me of a great article in the New York Times by Jonathan Rosen about Richard Barnes' photographs of starling bird flocks over Rome. (link)
Starlings are admired for their beauty and often kept as song birds and muses. They were released into the wild in the US because of these charms but have come to dominate huge parts of the sky and roost in unwanted places. In the piece Rosen says:
When humans contemplate animals, the question is always who is imitating whom. The starlings that so plague us in America (where we kill more than a million of the birds a year) grew out of our desire for nature to be poetic, rather than truly wild; they reflect the consequences of such self-serving fantasies. It isn’t their fault that they treated an open continent much as we ourselves did.

Who is imitating whom? Perhaps manifest destiny isn't only in our nature. As much as we would like it to, the wild does not yet arrange itself around our needs and fantasies.

Richard Barnes from the series Murmur

Below is a visual map of ways starlings may seem charming as individuals but foreboding as a flock.

As genetics and wild systems become more and more manipulated through science and technology, could we see new animals that seem desirable, much like the starling did, but end up having not just inconvenient but devastating effects on our survival? What consequences might emerge as animals move from continent to continent on shipping boats and in suitcases? Are humans equipped to decide which animals, plants and ecosystems should be preserved and which should be eradicated? I'm guessing the answer is no but I doubt much can stop us from finding out.

On a side note, Italian Greyhounds have been molded into tiny bundles of adorable. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Confessions of a Biophiliac

When I googled the word Biophiliac (a term that I made up and may be misusing in this post) I came across a blog that suggested people look at a video of puppies in a pet store to relieve stress. Here is a link to that video but I can't get it to embed in blogger so I am posting this one instead.

Between the puppy and the REM song, my heart is aching. Am I experiencing emotions connected to what Edward O. Wilson describes as biophilia in the first two chapters of his book The Biophilia Hypothesis? (link to text) According to Wilson, biophilia is the tendency for humans to relate to other living organisms emotionally. Through the history of evolution, humans have been "totally and intimately involved with other organisms" and we have developed genetic and hereditary psychological affinities and emotions towards particular species and ecosystems. These feelings come from what Wilson and colleague Charles Lumsden have termed biocultural evolution - a particular type of gene/culture coevolution where a certain genotype makes a particular behavior more likely because that behavior has produced enhanced survival and reproductive fitness in the past. These behaviors are overwritten with learned cultural narratives, behaviors and responses.

In the case of my response to this video, my emotional desire to see this lonely (my presumption) puppy cared for and freed could be biologically rooted in the interdependence of humans and dogs for survival in the past. Many humans still rely on dogs for all kinds of needs like protection, transportation and companionship. My survival does does not depend on a dog but perhaps I am biologically predisposed to soft feelings for dogs because my ancestors used dogs for survival. The feelings I have about dogs are very real and present in many people who also do not depend on dogs for survival. As evidenced in the video, we overwrite our biologically rooted emotions with cultural behaviors like the REM song, the puppy store and youtube. Modern existence has relieved humans of many of the interconnected relationships we once needed for survival yet we still derive self-esteem and spiritual fulfillment from certain interactions with natural life forms.

Given the nature of my work, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the most interesting part of this reading for me was the aesthetic and symbolic sections of the second chapter. These sections raised many questions that I often think about when making pictures. If Wilson is right in thinking that our emotional responses to nature are at least partially, possibly wholly biologically and genetically rooted, can't representations (artistic or otherwise) elicit at least some response linked to the natural world? How much of the aesthetic power of nature can be translated through imagery and fabrication? What positive and negative effects can symbolism have on environmental initiatives?

The symbolic expression of nature is one way humans communicate emotional as well as scientific and biological information about the natural world. Wilson looks at symbolism through language, visual communication and technology and suggests the metaphoric potential of these platforms allows us to develop and transfer ideas about other living organisms that are crucial to our identity and capacity for abstract thought. Wilson gives priority to traditional "natural" forms of symbolism (as in language or gesture?) by questioning the effectiveness of technologically fabricated forms of communication. According to Wilson, symbolic attempts to imitate nature such as plastic trees or stuffed animals (and their fabricated kin?) cannot substitute for traditional natural symbols.

A cellphone tower in Raleigh, NC that looks like a tree (kind of). Have you seen these things JRay? They are all over the place down there.

First of all, plastic trees and stuffed animals are some of the least sophisticated technological imitations of nature. What about virtual reality, photography or youtube? The motive power of the video at the top of this post is, in my opinion, undeniable. The symbolic power of technology builds on language, aesthetics and emotion and often rivals a direct experience with natural organisms.

Some fake plastic trees that I made and photographed. Is the motive power of this photograph consistent with nature's motive powers?

Though aesthetics aren't always symbolic, anything that is symbolized carries an aesthetic. Wilson states on page 49 that "the human need for an aesthetic experience has been suggested by the apparent inequity of artificial or human-made substitutes when people are exposed to them." In other words, we tend to prefer natural design and pattern over built or urban views because natural views have an aesthetic motive power that can not be duplicated through human design. It is unclear what exactly Wilson considers to be natural and what he considers to be built or urban but that distinction seems to be crucial. Is a park, lawn or garden natural? Is the view from a car along the side of a highway or the birds eye view from a helicopter or plane natural? Can a photographic view be natural? If it is not directly natural, can it capture the motive character of a view?

Another photograph by me.

I believe that the motive power of imagery is so compelling that it often stunts our ability to relate to the natural world (to reframe Wilson's words on page 52). We symbolize nature as an aesthetic ideal, as paradise, as a locus amoenus, that is only half linked to reality. The ideal, utopic vision of nature is unreachable outside of representation, particularly in the post-industrial, post-biological age we find ourselves in. Our desires for a richly visual and distant interaction with nature are expressed daily through the symbols we embrace, the ways we eat food, travel, visit nature preserves, create and dispose of waste and consume energy. To a great degree, we are living in the age of the biophiliac. We embrace the emotions of nature but distance ourselves from long term interaction with it or wide-spread preservation of it.

The Great Munich Bug Hunt, Mark Dion (1993)

One artist who uses a direct approach to communicating the richness of life in tropic ecosystems rather than an idealized view is Mark Dion. In the piece The Great Munich Bug Hunt, Dion worked in public view and in collaboration with entomologists to reveal the diversity of invertebrates found in a tree removed from the Black Forest. This is the very sort of practice J. Malcolm Shick calls for in his article Toward and Aesthetic Marine Biology in the Winer 2008 volume of Art Journal. One question this reading seems to be asking is can an integrated understanding of multiple disciplines, in this case biology and art, lead to more informative, compelling, influential or meaningful artwork? In the case of Dion, I would argue yes. But as Shick points out, Philip Henry Gosse's illustrations lead to the poaching and destruction of the very environments he was illustrating.

Philip Henry Gosse

other artists to think about:

Pieter Hugo

Gregory Crewdson

Anselm Keifer

Adam Fuss

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Get your biological gaze off my Tetons!

In the opening paragraphs of the article The Biological Gaze (link to source), Evelyn Fox Keller has characterizes Rosalind Franklin (a biophysicist who significantly contributed to the discovery of DNA) as a scientist who looked at her microscopic x-rays innocently, wanting to gain knowledge about biological structures without any intention of intervening in biological functions. Keller associates Franklin's studies with feminist theories of the gaze. In the same way that one peers at something or someone other than herself to affirm her own social power relations within a society, Franklin is peering at the biological world on a molecular level to indulge her curiosities about the workings of the natural world and to affirm biology's link to humanity and her own bodily existence. And just as we look at others with a prescribed and socially constructed view of their identity, Franklin and the rest of humanity looks at the biological world with deep rooted cultural beliefs about its constitution and function.

1952 x-ray photograph by Rosalind Franklin that eventually led to the conclusion that DNA has a double helix shape.

But the biological gaze does not end with looking. To discover or reveal the origins of life we must reach into the pristine unknown and untouched as Franklin, Watson and Crick did. Few untouched realms remain and those that do are locked beyond our scientific capacity (distant space, string theory). To reach new discoveries and further our scientific understandings of the universe we must move, collide and destroy. The gaze, from a biological standpoint, has "become increasingly and seemingly inevitably enmeshed in actual touching."

The Tevatron Particle Accelerator at Fermi Lab near Chicago can collide sub-atomic particles to create substances that were abundant in the early universe. (and it is totally outdated)

Though Franklin was hardly naive to the transgressions of her work, there are compelling questions raised in this reading about the ways technology and photography separate vision from interaction and facilitate constructed understandings of the origins of life. Many technological devices aid us in investigating places where our senses cannot go unaided, like a microscope. Are those places our experiments shouldn't go? How well can we understand molecules, places, cultures and our own nature through the creation and transmission of information via electronic media? Are there technological networks with functions that mirror biology - as in the world wide web and the web of life? To begin to answer these questions, I will turn to our second reading, Art Is Nature: An Artist's Perspective on a new Paradigm by George Gessert from the March/April issue of Art Papers. (link to source)

Gessert begins by outlining two approaches to nature: a Darwinian view and an ecological view. Here is a chart of the overlaps and distinctions between these two viewpoints.

click to enlarge

I don't think of these two viewpoints as poles, I think of them as perspectives. From a Darwinian perspective, technology, photography and both "webs" are a part of our nature. They help us understand ourselves better because they are a part of the output of our existence. There are no ethical or ecological boundaries to our exploration, but this perspective is non-dualistic so it allows for the continuation of nature without us. In other words, the Darwinian perspective is not interested in retaining a certain amount of biodiversity or in the continued existence of a particular species. Nature is simply an ever shifting set of physical systems that favor the lifeforms they can support.

The ecological perspective, the human centric of the two, is more interesting in the context of the questions outlined above. Biodiversity and the protection of ecological relationships are cornerstones of this viewpoint. It also leaves open the possibility of humans discontinuing some or all of their interactions with natural systems in favor of technology. As human behaviors and desires are translated into technology, could they eclipse ecology? I do not mean that ecology could cease to exist. As we translate more and more of our being into imagery, machinery and virtual space, we could come to understand the world technologically first. Technology could some day mask biology In some ways it already does. When I was fed intravenously at the hospital, technology was altering my biological behavior and masking any need I had to eat.

There are two ways to think of technology, an apparatus (as in a computer) and a system (as in a computer network). For the last few days I have been trying to figure out a way that either of these things could create ecological relationships on their own. I have concluded that they can't. Of course they effect ecological relationships under our direction, but they have no will or biological existence. They are no more biological than the mail, a system comprised of apparatuses (pen, paper, envelopes) and a network that transmits ideas/goods (USPS). But the mail system is firmly planted in our physical, dimensional realm. Maybe technology is of another realm, the virtual realm.

This other realm is not the physical hardware and devices of technology, but rather the network which is in every appliance and computer and is also expanded to connect our mobile phones and the internet. EVERYTHING that travels through this network is mediated. Objects, ideas, images and texts pass out of the biological realm when they enter the virtual realm. As the world is mediated, it is also refracted and made oblique.

This is also true of the photograph. Franklin's process of imaging DNA was, at the time, the only way she could reach any conclusions about the genetic instructions that shape our physicality. The biological gaze may only inform us obliquely, but it does offer some understanding. Of course humans do, and I argue must, try to make sense of something so fundamentally curious. The drive to understand the world around us is in our nature. Communication, questioning, analysis and skepticism are biological characteristics that have helped humanity survive and flourish.

Art is one of the most important venues for this discussion. It often asks a question that I posed a few paragraphs back. If we have the tools to investigate, should we?

Many of the artists Gessert brought up in his article pose this question. Gary Schneider asks what exactly a body looks like. With Genesis, Eduardo Kac seems to question the possibility of ever demythologizing our true origin. Most interesting to me was the piece trophoblast by David Kremers.

trophoblast by David Kremers (1992) is made from genetically altered E. Coli bacteria trapped in synthetic resin. The E. Coli is alive inside of the piece, but its growth has been halted through the resin sealing process.

Gessert sees this work as a representation of an ambiguous embryonic life form. Because it could be animal or human, we are connected to other species through its appearance. It is also alive, demanding custodianship and redefining the boundaries of what an art object can be made of. Those are compelling observations, but Gessert's assessment misses ignores the piece's central point - biological fear. Embracing all ecological relationships threatens our existence. We must touch, halt and look at some parts of nature from a safe distance for our own preservation.

This is not the only piece Gessert assesses with an awkwardly slanted interpretation. Over and over, he argues that certain works move beyond "narrow human concerns" by ignoring any potential content that does not serve his point. Maybe Gessert's definition of narrow is narrower than mine, but I see each piece questioning the ethical and scientific boundaries of human intervention and control with a hearty dose of multiple human concerns. And why not? Isn't ecology a human concern after all?

Other Artists:

Frtiz Haeg

Paul Thek

Phoebe Washburn