Creative Lab Monsters: Looking at BioArt Through the Lens of Ecofeminism


Cynthia Verspaget

 

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Jennifer Willet, An Incubator in Sheep’s Clothing, 2011, sheep sculpture, incubator, live yeast cultures

 

Lab Monsters are the fringe, multiple zone dwellers of the lab.  They include the entities that are called to use under the sterile hood, entities that are created within (and of) the lab and those who enact within the lab (bioartists).  These monsters are marginal bodies—not as the othered victims of marginalisation—but as powerful entities able to inhabit and infiltrate zones where knowledge is constructed and contested. Lab monsters are powerfully positioned and are able to disrupt power structures because of their abilities to cross through and inhabit these multiple zones (lab-non-scientist/humanities-science/woman-science-art etc.). Multiple zone dwellers are marginal, troublesome, threatening—monstrous. Some entities, because of their specific applied ordering and activistic legacies, make for particularly powerful enactors in the lab art space—women are such entities, artists are such enactors.

This commentary however is not about women in the lab or feminist art practice per say, rather it is intended to draw conversational correlations that identify important and powerful statements that are made consciously or not enacted by subjugated, marginal or intentionally contestable entities within locations of knowledge construction. Women’s discourse is automatically implicated in this respect and cannot be avoided when bodies of marginality or infiltration work in the lab.  Ecofeminism is one of these discourses which describes the interweaving of feminism and ecological/environmental concerns.  Ecofeminism utilises the definitions of ecology which is ‘a science that deals with the relationships between groups of living things and their environments’[i] coupled with feminism which concerns generally gender equity by commenting, acting upon or questioning male dominated structures/positions of power.  Situated in the subject of biology, ecofeminism manifests as a discourse that deals with the power structures situated around, and applied upon, the relationships between living things and their environments. This is particularly relevant when considering alternatives to the knowledge and power constructs of Biology through the establishment of new ‘models of cooperation’ rather than ‘domination’ over nature, humans and the nonhuman world.[ii]

Biology itself has needed this kind of discursive framework because the historical construction of its knowledge that has presented a persistent masculinist perspective of the ordering of things. This is exemplified in the acts of reductionism and abstraction and encouraging the study of the parts of organisms which excludes any holistic perspective of an entities connection to anything beyond its biology.[iii]  Lisa Weasel, interdisciplinary scholar and biologist, explains the problem of this kind of abstraction:

Just as cell and molecular biology breaks life down into smaller and smaller pieces so that the vision and existence of a living organism is often lost, so too do its theories reflect a shattering of connections, calling upon metaphors of domination and control to explain life.[iv]

Ecofeminism parallels with BioArt as it actualises ‘new models of cooperation’ between things and their environments and offers the potential of new metaphors in biological discourse. Don’t let the word ‘feminism’ throw you though, no one is really excluded from this powerful ‘infiltrating position’ of monstrous enactors in BioArt because marginality (and monstrousness) is unavoidable for all who practice on the cusp of multiple simultaneous zones. Bioartistic practice unsettles—disrupts—the power structures of science which is also an element of ecofeminist action.  Theoretical incursions are consequently important because BioArt is a prominent area of creative practice that is enacted from a location of power that historically constructs knowledges.  So, this conversational primer is about the potential for new theoretical and foundational discourse of BioArt that considers and utilises the legacy of women’s work through the lens of ecofeminism via the theories and approaches it has tabled for discursive frameworks on the subject of biology.

New frameworks if introduced to the practice of BioArt may be of use in assisting discourse about BioArt, why it is important to engage with and why it is even practiced.  Applied to BioArt, ecofeminism may also hold the potential to unpack the complexities of Biology that considers the contribution of creative practice to the intuitive dream of power and taxonomical shifts.

 

Jennifer Willet, An Incubator in Sheep’s Clothing, 2011, sheep sculpture, incubator, live yeast cultures

Jennifer Willet and Kira O’Reilly, Untitled (Hamster Ovaries Protocol) series, 2008, photographic print, dimensions variable, Photographer: Rune Petersen, Image: courtesy of the artists.

 

Many examples of BioArt can be observed that introduce new metaphors of connections or challenge the power and knowledge structures of Biology. Kira O’Reilly has utilised lacework, bio-matter and her body in the lab to explore ‘speculative reconfigurations surrounding The Body’.[v]  The work O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet undertook Lab Shoot Series, skilfully reconnects, contests and reconstructs the body in the context of Biology.[vi] Jennifer Willet’s creations are equally compelling when considered in the context of ecofeminism as she explores ‘notions of representation, the body, ecologies, and interspecies interrelations in the biotechnological field’ akin to ecofeminist discourses and actions. In my own work I started exploring co-habitation of the dish in a social hybridisation of cells between Henrietta Lacks and myself in The Anarchy Cell Line, exposing and reconfiguring the gendered and racial language underpinning scientific ordering.[vii]

 

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Cynthia Verspaget, The Anarchy Cell Line, 2004, installation: cryo-vessel, vials, anarchy cells, video, cryo-cannister, surgical trolley, dimensions variable.

 

Ecofeminism then could reveal such works as: Connective/communicative/discursive devices that seek to explore the disparity between bodies and the abstractive reductive work done on it under the hood in Science and Biology.  Furthermore, such works have the ability to acknowledge and even contest the gendered and racial positioning, denial and subjugation of entities under the microscope.

It is imaginable that through a more theoretically directed discussion of these kinds of monstrous/hybrid/marginal oeuvres and practices using frameworks such as ecofeminism (as it relates to the matter of disconnections and abstractions in biology) that we can start to really understand this relatively new creative addition to the visual arts and how it reconnects, re-complicates and creates monstrous disruptions.  Furthermore, through new theories of BioArt, the constructed biological knowledges—that are responsible for a great deal of exclusion in society—may be better understood at the least and, at its greatest potential, it could potentially underpin a shift in the way in which we construct and apply knowledge about living things.  Ecofeminism may be a new lens with which to undertake a more conscious and productive look at the important work undertaken by BioArt’s creative lab monsters.


 

 

[i] (Merr Merriam-Webster. (Ed.) (2015) Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ecology

[ii] Merchant, C. (2013). Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York: Routledge

[iii] Verspaget, C. (2015). Unruly Bodies: Monstrous Readings of Biotechnology. (Doctor of Philosophy Research Dissertation), Curtin University, Perth. Retrieved from http://espace.library.curtin.edu.au/R?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=240083

[iv] Weasel, L. (1997). The Cell in Relation: An Ecofeminist Revision of Cell and Molecular Biology. Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.20 (No.1), pp. 49-59.

[v] O’Reilly, K. (n.d). Statement. Retrieved 15/09/2016, 2016, from http://www.kiraoreilly.com/statement/

[vi] O’Reilly, K., & Willet, J. (n.d). Lab Shoot Series. http://www.kiraoreilly.com/lab-shoot-series/k7xo9ojlb9q652chwefra1ar4kgk1g

[vii] Verspaget, C. (2004). The Anarchy Cell Line.

 

 

Cynthia Verspaget is a diverse Australian artist and researcher whose creative practice spans over several decades. Her works encompass disciplines such as new media and...


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