The huge invisibles

Here’s the manuscript for my article to the Medical Museion Yearbook 2007 which is coming out in July. It s an outline of ideas which will be explored in the workshop ‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’ and the ‘Art and Biomedicne: Beyond the Body’ conference in late August and early September, organised by Jan Eric Olsén, Stine […]

Here’s the manuscript for my article to the Medical Museion Yearbook 2007 which is coming out in July. It s an outline of ideas which will be explored in the workshop ‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’ and the ‘Art and Biomedicne: Beyond the Body’ conference in late August and early September, organised by Jan Eric Olsén, Stine Hebert, Thomas Söderqvist and myself.
Opening the morning paper it is not unusual to see biomedicine displayed. An image of the SARS virus. A world map showing migratory patterns of wild birds purported to be propagating avian flu. An article about the licensing of pharmaceutical patents to drug manufacturers in India who will produce anti-retrovirals cheaply for an Africa overwhelmed by HIV. A graphic template showing the genome of the fruitfly.
But the virus image is not an enlargement of a microscopic entity: it is an elaborate visualisation constructed painstakingly from data some of which is obtained crystallographically and some of which is theoretical. Before even reaching the newspaper’s picture editor it will have gone through the mill of a specially written enhancement software package before being tipped into Photoshop for false colouring. The world map does not show the trade and trucking routes for the food industry which is just as lethal a vector of avian flu as any wild bird or… high-flying businessman. The article about pharmaceutical licences does not say how many have died unnecessarily during the fifteen year battle of activists to obtain inexpensive treatment for HIV. The fruitfly genome gives the impression of showing the ‘building blocks’ of life, but does not explain that gene expression is different from genetic structure, nor does it explain why the lowly fruitfly was worth the time and effort to be gene sequenced.
There are a lot of invisibles in current biomedicine. As we have seen, some are very big, others very small. How can these invisibles be conceptualised, visualised and explored by museums of medicine? Medical Museion has taken on this challenge, an engagement which will no doubt benefit many museums much larger than itself. It has taken it on by starting in the right place, which is to think before acting, to create a research culture around these issues, and to develop solid interdisciplinary communities among those who know this to be a burning issue. It is a burning social as well as intellectual issue – how can a larger public be empowered by knowledge of these complex fields to act responsibly and effectively, and how can health policy be informed by more than the science itself?
One of Medical Museion’s ‘nodes’ of research around these display questions involves visual art, design and aesthetics. Over a five day period at the end of August and the first days of September 2007, it is hosting a three-pronged research project which will include the closed workshop “Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context”, the public conference “Beyond The Body: Biomedicine and Art”, and the public performances of a newly commissioned work by sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard.
There is of course a long history of collaboration between medicine and the visual arts from the Renaissance on – the project of anatomy, pathology illustration, engraving, plastic surgery, teaching models. More recently there has been the extension of these practices into the field of sci-art (its biomedical arm supported most actively by the Wellcome Trust in the UK) which at its best has seen artists and scientists practising in their highly evolved disciplines seeking each other out to address practical and philosophical issues, extending contemporary practice in both arenas. Then there is history-of-science and contemporary art, where the key relationship between philosophical problems raised by historiography on the one hand and representation on the other is explored in a variety of means and media. This is where much of my own work as an artist has happened. Then there are artists, and I am also one of them, who are working in non-art museums to ‘displace’ the social or narrative content of subject-specific museums rhetorically – my ‘subject-specific museum’ of choice was the Science Museum, London, where I produced a museum-wide series of installations entitled Atomism & Animism in 1999.
Though a number of science museums are now involving artists in their education programmes and as bolt-ons to exhibition programming or web projects, few are involving this highly skilled group in the fundamental discussions about the form and function of the museum today, with its complex nexus of philosophical, practical, ethical, and aesthetic issues around the materiality – and the immateriality – of scientific culture. Fewer still of this group are medical museums, and even fewer those tackling biomedicine today: in fact, the only other such instance to my knowledge is the project co-produced by the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité and the Universitat der Kunste Berlin, respectively by Thomas Schnalke and Wolfgang Knapp. “Missing Link: Art Meets Biomedicine” took place in Berlin and New York, opening in September 2005 at around the same time that Thomas Soderqvist asked me to become involved in setting up the research project that will come to fruition this upcoming fall.
Wolfgang Knapp is among those participating in the closed workshop “Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context”, and he will also be speaking publicly on the rostrum at “Beyond the Body.” With both events, we have been lucky enough to gain the participation of a wide variety of practitioners whose work touches equally on biomedicine and aesthetics. The closed workshop will bring together some 30 key practitioners from a range of methodological approaches, including artists with a firm understanding of biomedical practice, museologists and material culture scholars, exhibition and information designers, historians of science and medicine, art historians and aesthetics specialists, biomedical practitioners with a knowledge of contemporary bio-art, and visualisation experts.
A closed workshop brings these highly skilled people into a new and exploratory arena beyond their own knowledge fields. They have been invited because of what they know, and not excluded because of what they don’t know – there is overlap here, but there are also lacunae. The process of informing each other of highly specialised aspects of their work will be an essential part of the steep learning curve all will have to climb in order for the workshop to be as productive as it can be. What will be created is a truly meta-interdisciplinary climate, where practices, conventions and knowledge bases from the arts, the humanities and the sciences will meet. Doubtless there are likely to be outcomes having a wider impact than the subject of study – possibly whole transferable methodologies. But the main aim is nothing less than to help forge new strategies of making sense of and presenting recent biomedicine in museums, especially taking into account the unique difficulties of rendering visible material biomedical practices in their social, cultural, political, aesthetic, and scientific complexity.
So what are some of the issues and what do we mean by aesthetics? Perhaps the last should be first: Aesthetics are active in both the production of things and in their reception. To me, aesthetics is a constructive philosophical tool, rather like logic, with practical applications. By aesthetics, I mean the structural underpinning of the forms things take, including knowledge and communication. This of course intersects with all the other logical structures present in any object or phenomena including those which are material, economic, political, social. In the arts and humanities, however aesthetics may be variously defined, it is always understood to have recognisable structure and rigour.
But I have discovered in my work with scientists who have not benefited from extended humanities training that when they hear the word ‘aesthetic’ they think it is an adjective – one synonymous with ‘pleasing’ or ‘beautiful.’ Aesthetics is actually not just a question of individual tastes varying from domain to domain, but rather it concerns the experiential framework for judgement – both in making and in interpreting images and so forth – and thus implies informed judgement about structure itself. It involves the use of the senses, experience and cognition as a calibration technique for structuring investigations and for evaluating and organising new information.
And we certainly need all the help – sensorial, cognitive, and experiential – we can get in grasping the big pictures and the complex detail of contemporary biomedicine. Looking through the issues that have come up in our pre-circulated papers, there are epistemological and even ontological questions to begin with: Eugene Thacker has made the point in his outline for the workshop that the question “what is life?” has been overshadowed by “what is life made of?” and “how is life ordered?” Can we use aesthetics to work back from the historically taxonomic viewpoint of museums (and of many scientific projects) to the existential issues? One of the signposts will surely be what Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has called the “figure of the specimen,” often a highly crafted preparation intended for the showcasing of biomedical research in a public arena. How is mimesis at work in these ‘authentic’ specimens, and what kinds of affects to they effect?
Not all objects convey their complexity through their very quintessence. A specimen of penicillin ‘stands’ for a microbiological revolution, but how can one show the conceptual revolution taking place with virtual surgery? Jan-Eric Olsen muses on the “webs of objects and processes” – from diagnostic tools such as scanners to 3D graphic softwares – that it might be necessary to engage in order to make any sense of current clinical practice. Anke te Heesen considers a fundamental reworking of the taxonomies of a 530 year old ‘scientific collection’ at the University of Tubingen in order to realign objects towards a contemporary audience. Thomas Soderqvist proposes that into the mediation vaccuum which exists between non-descript gray instruments no interpretive materials should be thrown: inspired by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s recent critique of the hegemony of interpretation in the humanities, he suggests that instead of the ‘production of meaning’ we should cultivate a ‘production of presence’ that provokes attention.
That’s not far from the issues of “embodiment and performativity” that preoccupy Miriam van Rijsingen, wherein the confrontation with the material world subtly engages what the body already knows in a resonant feedbackloop – especially when the material world in question refers in itself to the body itself. This is representation, but not as we know it – rather, as we feel it.
It is my opinion that if we are to trigger a phenomenological experience of biomedicine we will need to muster all the techniques that representation has to offer, including abstraction and self-referentiality. These activities could explode the reliance on simulacras of realism that pass for truth as much in science as in the celebrity press that is the visual training ground for many museum goers. In that vein, questions of scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic are brought to the fore by Jenny Boulboullé’s study of one of the world’s few tissue engineering laboratories run by artists (SymbioticA in Australia). If the microscopic level, invisible to the eye, is also a priori the conceptual level, how do artists in labs develop aesthetic strategies that are different from those of biomedical practitioners?
And indeed how might these strategies be a bridge to the world? Sharon Macdonald points out that “there has been in some museums a shift from representation to ‘staging’… in which the idea that there might be multiple ways of relating to what is staged is central.” This approach sees “visitors not as a homogeneous mass public, nor as an audience that can be conceptualised in terms of different socio-demographic segments, but as individuals whose will want to find ways to incorporate whatever they encounter into their own self-oriented accounts.” Calum Storrie’s training as an architect underpins his extensive work in exhibition design, and means that he understands the permeability of the museum to the city via not only the street but also everyday objects and ultimately by the trajectories of the visitors themselves. In turn, this practical architecturo-museological experience meets up with what Thacker has called the “topology of disease”, expanding upon the Foucauldian “spatialisation of disease” expressed in Birth of the Clinic. It is a notion that takes spatialisation beyond disease/disease-in-patient/disease-in-environment, thus enabling it to encompass germ theory metaphors and even architectural manifestations like quarantine blocks and the modern hospital.
So, far beyond its object collections, the museum may itself be a laboratory – doubly so when the museum is focused on biomedicine. Can it meaningfully house and even display active and ongoing biomedical research? How can we show ‘practice’ without the ‘actors?’ How can we bring them in? Richard Wingate, a neurobiologist who has collaborated with both artists and cultural historians on a range of projects, sees the museum as a site less culturally loaded than the lab or the art gallery, a forum “in which science can specifically examine itself through cross-cultural experimentation.” It is the “catalytic” elements of bringing artists and biomedical practitioners together that are of most interest to David Edwards, biomedical engineer and founder of le laboratoire, which opens in central Paris in october. These changes in process and practice in both fields when brought together usefully have deep structural implications for creativity and innovation: the museum is a possible site for this meeting.
What these implications are, and how these overlapping practices might be productively brought into constructive contact is explored in some case studies of working methods. Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes for the Wellcome Trust and architect of their sci-art granting programme, Miriam van Rijsingen as Director of the Amsterdam Arts and Genomics Centre, Wolfgang Knapp as one of the instigators of the Missing Link research project and exhibition, will share pragmatic and theoretical experiences in actualising interdisciplinarity. Cell biologist Paulo Pereira and artist Herwig Turk will outline their collaboration on projects relating to vision and perception, something all museum visitors know about.
And who are we doing all this for if not the audiences? Who are they, what do they want? Steve Wilson, Director of the Conceptual/Information Arts Program at San Francisco State University, notes that often both artists and biomedical scientists are working at the edge of ethics to explore future thoughts. He is interested in exploring museums as “political inquiry centres” as a way to “alert the public to emerging issues” in science and technology. Along similar lines, artist Claire Pentecost proposes the museum as an arena for critique of biomedical “institutions, aims, practice and products” if we are to explore the true meaning of biological citizenship and the wider contexts for biomedicine. Drawing attention to transferable practice across biotechnologies, she notes a worrying similarity between the notion of ‘nutrient’ in globalised food production and the notion of ‘drug’ in biopharmacology. Giovanni Frazzetto. a molecular biologist practising in the social sciences, is more concerned with the drugs visitors take – and ultimately with a neuroculturally informed notion of subjectivity in which “consciousness and emotions are largely perceived as brain phenomena and hence susceptible to intervention and manipulation, namely by means of psychopharmacology.”
Often the ‘biological imaginary’ of the recent past is psychedelic enough on its own – the 1971 mass student dance “Protein Synthesis: An Epic on the Cellular Level,” choreographed by Paul Berg at Stanford on the football field and available to view on the Museion blog corporeality.net is a case in point. Trained dancer and anthropologist of science Natasha Myers has been looking at how the “mutidimensional digital forms” of protein models come into being through the “performative body-work” of model building, including the “gestures, affects and discourses researchers use to reason through and relate the intricate forms, movements and textures of these otherwise invisible entities.” Arthur Olson is a molecular biologist whose pioneering visualisation work at Scripps College now sees him working with rapid prototyping computers to create 3D models with which a full physical engagement can be had. Discussing his “tangible interfaces” for Augmented Reality environments with Myers, no doubt the full spectrum from biomedical experiment to museum experience will trace a phenomenology with resonance far beyond the objects which provoke it.
But few ‘objects’ in biomedicine are as immaterial and as instransigent as numerical data, from bioinformatics to genomic representations, as well as how it is treated, both conceptually and visually. Susanne Bauer’s work traces “epidemiological reasoning back to its collection procedures, classifications, and chains of inscriptions over different media and networks of data and things.” As we are on the verge of a ‘semantic web’, currently being developed so that huge and varied data sets will be supported by internet protocols, obvious policy issues, data protection issues, copyright issues and so forth rear their heads. How do museums teach or engender ‘biocitizenship’ without teaching people to programme computers? Or improving not just literacy, and visual literacy, but also numeracy? Visionary designer Ben Fry is developing hybrid languages between mathematics, computer science, graphic and information design, and interactive visualisation for exploring data-rich fields such as biomedicine. He’s also developing accessible processing tools for non-specialists to use in order to interrogate and interact with data on everything from genomic structure to Crohn’s disease.
This amazing group of people and more will assemble on 30 August 2007 at Medical Museion, spending three days discussing these issues. After a day of rest on Sunday, a number of them will also be speaking in the conference “Beyond the Body” on 3 September 2007 at the Royal Danish Art Academy, which is hosting the public arm of Medical Museion’s art and aesthetics long weekend. In keeping with the workshop’s focus on practice in an interdisciplinary context, Medical Museion wishes to transfer the findings and debates of the closed workshop into a larger arena of interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Capitalising on the presence in Copenhagen of the workshop participants, we hope to create a fertile arena for future partnerships and collaborations between scientific institutions and artists in the area.
Ingeborg Reichle, for example, will be giving visual and theoretical highlights from the recent explosion of art activity around biotechnological practices in Europe and beyond. She and other fellow workshop participants will be joined on that day by artist Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble, who will be talking about and showing his recent film Marching Plague, which explores the diversion of funds from basic biomedical research into questionable bioweaponry projects. The early evening keynote address will be given by the eminent art historian James Elkins, who has been looking at and writing about scientific imagery and visualisations for over 15 years.
You are invited to attend the public conference, and tune in to the Museion’s “Biomedicine on Display” blog. It’s going to be an amazing few days, and what comes out of this meeting will probably change the way biomedicine, indeed much of today’s science, is represented and explored in museums around the world.