Visceral Reaction?

Went to the Visceral living art exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin the other day. It was well worth the trip. We got to see some of the output from some ten years of collaborations and residencies from artists working in SymbioticA, the art-science lab in Perth at the University of Western Australia. I like the idea suggested by Marshall McLuhan that artists might be regarded as canaries in the cultural coal mine of scientific research alerting the public to the consequences of new technologies. This fits in with my feeling of  scientists working alone in the semi darkness in the bottom of a  diamond mine; when we find a whopping big diamond we jump up and down for a while and then put it in our pocket and start digging for the next one. Guess we should tell someone about this big diamond but it sometimes takes too much time and effort and we are more excited about finding the next one. Well there are an increasing number of canaries out there nowadays twittering away (why do artists twitter so much more than scientists?  NO one I work with tweets) and doing art as well. Not sure if they are aware of all the noxious fumes emanating from our mines but they sure are producing some exciting art work.

‘Living art’ is how the exhibition is described and that is what excited me; seeing a group of living art exhibits together like this left me like the veritable kid in a sweet shop (aka candy store). I didn’t know where to start; whether to join the resident cricket audience listening to a lecture on their sex lives or whisper my fears to the semi-living worry dolls. I work with bacteria, insects and cell culture and felt very much at home in the exhibition,  this sort of exhibition is primarily about producing great art, but there is also the opportunity to build a bridge across from the science lab and translate some of the  new technologies being developed and ethical dilemmas facing us.

Overheard someone in the exhibition saying “I don’t like it when its so scientific, I prefer it when its just art” (ergh?) and I think it is quite hard to pitch this sort of show at the right level; some of the exhibits were quite complex.  Silent Barrage is presented as a room full of robotic poles connected to a dish of cultured nerve cells in a lab in the USA (Dr Steve Potter lab Georgia, Atlanta). It took a bit of working out, but there were guides there to enthusiastically explain it all and it turns out that your movements around the poles were being transmitted as a signal to the nerve cells that in turn responded by sending impulses to the robots whirring up and down the poles.  The lab researches epilepsy and neural dysfunction and this installation is a fascinating attempt to put an artistic face to such a complex subject.


I liked the way that Andre Brodyk brought his interpretation of Altzheimer’s disease to life in a pre 1960’s children’s classroom complete with ancient graffitied desks with ink wells and surrounded by chalk board walls.  Genetically transformed bacteria were growing on culture plates in the shape of a human face, the bacteria contained a piece of junk DNA sequence from a gene associated with Altzheimer’s; as the bacteria grew the image became blurred; a reference to the clouded memory of the person suffering from this terrible condition.

The canary was tweeting loud and clear in the Tagny Duff’s cryobook archive installation; book covers made from human skin taken during cosmetic surgery operations. What are the ethics around donation of human tissue people surviving operations?  Another colourful canary is Gina Czarnecki currently working with Prof Sarah Rankin in Imperial College London, they are currently addressing some of these questions in a art project called ‘Wasted’.  Wasted is a series of inter-related artworks exploring the life-giving potential of  ‘discarded’ body parts and their relationship to myths, history and stem cell research; and the idea of what constitutes informed consent.  The art works in this case will be sculptural, incorporating milk teeth (donated by children) and bones and fat from living, consenting donors; I can’t wait!

Visceral exhibition has now closed but you can download the brochure from the exhibition site.

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