Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Culture as Medium, curated by Margaret MacDonald(pictured above), during the opening reception at Motor House on April 1st, 2016. Culture as Medium is a show utilizing a double-entendre for culture, the show operates at the intersect between the study of microbes, and artistic application. I found the show to be a successful attempt at identifying, and ultimately dissolving a cultural boundary between canonically scientific content, and artistic practice. The show is being hosted at both Motor House, a show-space, and Baltimore Under Ground Science Space (BUGGS), serving to further dissolve the societal construct between art and science. Each of the works showcased at Motor House had varying levels of community engagement, and were produced by artists who utilize biology as inspiration.
Tal Danino, a scientist-turned-artist offered an installation playing with microbes as a visual medium. Working with various bacteria, the installation consisted of 3 monitors running visuals derived from manipulated bacteria, operating in conjunction with a rotating slide projection of curated bacterial samples from varying species, as well as a grouping of more slides, giving viewers the opportunity to engage with the slides and serving to further highlight the variety in scale between the projections, the actual slides, and the monitors. It also allowed for viewers to see the actual specimens and the beautiful diversity of color in the work. This work is particularly successful at removing the constraints between what is art and what is science, the practice required to develop this imagery is canonically rooted in science, but the results are visible, and palatable; this is taste that allows for a familiarity between a casual viewer and bacteria that extends beyond the stasis of a textbook, and the sterility of microscopy.
Ryan Hammond, unlike Tal Danino is an artist-turned scientist. Hammond’s work consisted of a wooden box, housing a setup including a monitor, a joystick and living paramecium. Offering an opportunity for viewer participation, the work functioned utilizing a natural quality of the paramecium. Paramecium naturally move in response to electric stimuli, and within the paramecium housing unit the artist had set quadrants that correspond with the access of the joystick; as viewers moved the joystick the paramecium moved in response, allowing for the viewer to control the paramecium. Of particular interest to me were the conversations that surrounded the work. I had the pleasure of witnessing a debate between a viewer who was also a physicist, and Ryan Hammond, the debate beginning with the ethical question, do we have a right to essentially play games with a life form. The debate then opened up to a larger discussion first questioning anthropocentrism, and later discussing the concept of free-will, ultimately coalesqueing into the question on how to define sentience, and the value of life itself. As a side note, this work also helped facilitate a conversation with Nick, a child at the show, who claimed that “Germs are bad, they make people sick.” Because Nick had played with these “Germs” and felt a familiarity with them he and I were able to have a discussion with him about bacteria and his ethical point of view in a way that hopefully wasn’t too boring for him. The ability of this work to be available and palatable to someone not professionally engaged with artistic or scientific spheres of influence is particularly impressive to me.
Francois Lapointe was also featured in the Motor House exhibit. His work operating as both performance, and scientific experimentation, Lapointe presented viewers at the opening with two works. The first work visible in the show being several boards with documentation of an ongoing performance he has been doing in which he measures the changes in his micro-biome after engaging in 1000 Handshakes. He has performed this several times, including a performance walking around Baltimore, which he performed April 2nd, the day after the opening at Motor House. The other work Lapointe presented was a live performance/experiment. Donning a lab-coat, and with the help of his lovely and competent assistant, Lapointe performed a Kimchi Eating Performance, in which he ate only Kimchi for an extended period of time, periodically swabbing samples of his tongue in order to track the effect the kimchi has on his micro-biome. The performance was particularly entertaining considering his visible distaste for kimchi, allowing him to fully activate the idea of sacrifice in the name of art and science. While Lapointe has a performative practice rooted in scientific ritual, there is something to enjoy about how approachable he was, viewers were encouraged to speak with him during the act, offering a friendly face, and casual banter. This was my favorite part of his work considering it allowed me to connect the concept of the micro-biome and the potential effects of environment in real time on the micro-biome, as well as offering an experiment packaged as a person with which I can sympathize, ultimately fostering a period of self-reflection upon my own micro-biome and habits.
All of the works in the Motor House opening of Culture as Medium were, in my humble opinion, very compelling, and well curated given the theme of the show. Unfortunately I have yet to see Anna Dimitriu’s work at BUGGS, however if it is anything like the work on her website (http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com), then I expect to be similarly wowed. While I have focused mainly on my motor house experience, there is much more history and influence that was requisite for the show to be as successful as it was. If you are so inclined feel free to watch Margaret Macdonald’s talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk6NpBmpK90) on how she thinks and her process of producing an exhibition as an experiment.