Biological Agents - Artistic Engagements in Our Growing BioCulture
(Gallry 400, Chicago, 2008)
An exhibition and events series half at the University of Illinois Chicago's Gallery 400, October 14th - November 22nd, 2008, co-curated with Christa Donner, with support from Project Biocultures
Download the catalog brochure, and visit the official website for the exhibition HERE
The notion of a biological agent is an equivocal one. On hearing the term these days our minds may jump to the thought of infective microbes produced for the express purpose of making others sick. Of course, the weaponizing of life in this way is not the volition of the infectious “agent” itself; the microbes are causes without choices, simply the means to more nefarious ends for which another kind of biological agent—a human one— has intentionally manufactured them. But even these two conceptions of “agents” and what willfulness they may possess becomes more indeterminate when considered in a wider social context that includes organizational agencies of the state and federal sort as well, be that the FDA or FBI. Two cases this past summer—that of Defense lab scientist Bruce Ivins, his suicide, and the murky connections to the anthrax poisonings of 2001 on the one hand, and the long-awaited dismissal of charges against Critical Art Ensemble artist Steve Kurtz on alleged “bioterrorist” connections to his work on the other—can be seen as bookends to the range of fears, complexities, and relations of power tied up in biotechnology.
Viewed in an ecological context, however, it is increasingly apparent that biotechnology is just one of many elements within a much broader system. As our understanding of ecological dynamics grows we see that any factor that significantly alters the function of ecosystems by way of pollution, disease, or the balance of species is a matter of real biological concern. Rather than simply assuming we are “perpetrators” on Nature or “victims” of it, we have begun to understand more accurately the role we play as potent links in an environmental network of causes and effects. In this light, our perceptions of and daily engagements with non-human organisms confront us with ethical and agential questions as pressing and nuanced as those posed by biotechnological innovation.
These biological matters preoccupy both artists and the public-at-large, although they are typically expressed and addressed on very different terms. For example, the gallery focus of much “BioArt” and the mutations of scientific language that characterize its discourse may do little toward bridging the gap between the public and the concerns that contemporary biology confronts them with. At times distinguishing between what is commentary, critique, or simply fetishization of the biological becomes increasingly difficult, only reinforcing the divide between certain forms of BioArt and the public audiences it is intended to engage.
The three artists featured in Biological Agents—Brandon Ballengée, Caitlin Berrigan, and Natalie Jeremijenko—present intriguing and proactive models of practice that engage the biological in ways that require the intimate participation of both organisms and the public in equal measure. Through direct collaborations in the field and in the gallery, they connect our multiple roles as biological hosts and biological agents alike. Their work succeeds in carefully, critically, and humorously exploring what it means to be human, to be animal, and to have personal and social agency in the complex ecologies we are all a part of.