ART UNDER THE CONDITIONS OF AN ARTIFICIALLY FASHIONED LIFESPAN:
Recent developments in hi-tech fields such as robotics, bio and genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, suggest that contemporary culture is not only on the verge of a new scientific and technological revolution, but is already entering a qualitatively different period of historical development. A distinguishing feature of this period is exploration of the fundamentals of living and non-living matter, and the application of discoveries to the physical nature of man. This is a radical departure from the past, when application of technologies was directed mostly at the outer world, not toward man himself.
The word «sapiens», which means intellectual faculties, marks humankind’s inherent aspiration to reach beyond the limits of the individual. The clearest reflection of these aspirations can be found in the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev: «Man is a creature surmounting himself». However, the «homo» part of our humanity, that is, our genomes, physiologies, neurosystems, and our corporality in general, has not been subject to radical transformation. This is only becoming possible in the present era. Modern man is growing increasingly vexed by his dependency on factors beyond his control, such as time and space, or his own psychophysical abilities. Limitations, pathologies, impairments – all of those begin to seem like problems admitting of, and even demanding, technological solutions.
The nature of man begins to be perceived as a testing ground for manipulations and modifications aimed not only at cures, but at improvements. Techniques to accomplish this are in the process of being developed through a host of scientific disciplines ranging from genetics and synthetic biology to a spectrum of neuro- and biomedical sciences. Nanotechnology may be an especially promising direction, carrying out manipulations at the scale of nanometers, on individual molecules. The next step will be a radical modification of man and the living beings around him.
Art works emerging under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan
cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme.
Such scientific researches are unprecedented, fascinating and frightening at the same time, and urge profound contemplation and analysis. To what extent are particular experiments ethical? What are the prospects for widespread application of new technologies? What kinds of worlds will they create? These are just a few of the questions that arise.
Artists have not kept aloof from public discussion of what is unfolding, interpreting in their works both formal and conceptual features of new technologies. It might seem that artists’ involvement in this field should be entirely limited to the sphere of imagination, which is what has always been expected of the visual arts. This is what prevails in cinema and the artistic mainstream, which readily use the new media to create novel imaginative visual effects. However, over the last decade some artists have directly engaged the methods and techniques of emerging technologies. Living or lifelike matter serves as a medium for some of the resulting works. Biomedical and information technologies provide a method. Art works emerging under these technobiological conditions – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. The most interesting of such works are those whose artistic strategies transition from preoccupation with interpretational practices to direct operational activity, where technology becomes immediately associated with the state of an organism.
Living or lifelike matter serves as a medium for the technobiological artworks.
Biomedical and information technologies provide a method.
Works by techno-bio-artists involve sophisticated conceptualizations of life. Having originated, as a rule, from laboratories, and often in cooperation with scientific research centres, these artworks present us with a new type of artificially organised time – a kind of time that incorporates features of the time associated with living organism and of time that is associated with technologically reproduced artefacts. However, time, duration, and thus life itself too cannot be shown to spectator directly but only documented. The main genre of technobiological art is therefore, technical documentation, which includes plans, drafts, commentaries and videos. It is precisely the point at which the documentation becomes indispensable, producing the life of the living thing as such: the documentation inscribes the existence of a particular creature in history, gives a lifespan to this existence, and gives the creature life as such – independently of whether this creature was ‘originally’ living or artificial.
Technobiological art today is a proving ground for various artistic innovations. For it not to remain an obscure exotic curiosity to the public, the National Centre of Contemporary Arts (Kaliningrad Branch, Russia) presents within the framework of the international anthology, Evolution Haute Couture, a collection of documentaries about the most prominent art projects recently created using the latest 21st Century technologies: ALife, robotics, bio and genetic engineering. Assembled in 2008, this videoarchive is today the largest one in the field of modern technobiological art in Russia and abroad. We hope that this project will give a substantial insight into the present stage of contemporary art and contribute to creative dialogue among artists from different countries, as well as to waken the public to understanding of a specific language of new technologies.
Project curator, The National Centre for Contemporary Arts
(Kaliningrad branch, Russia)