For my introductory statement, I will identify methods for creating space for cross disciplinary dialogue and exchange, and make a case for why it is important to critical strategies in art and media. I’m going to talk a little bit about art and what you might call activism, and more specifically, I’ll present a number of projects that I have been involved in developing or supporting with in the context of my practice as an organiser, producer, curator: a person who makes “situations.” I am very interested in creating spaces for cross disciplinary dialogue because I think that it is by generating new knowledge between those spaces that art can effect, or at least influence, social change.
One of the projects that I want to talk about is “conVerge: where art and science meet,” an exhibition and symposium that I worked on as part of the Adelaide Festival in 2002. It was a fairly controversial festival directed by Peter Sellars, an American theatre and opera maker. We took art to odd places, with a majority of projects realized in settings that were unconventional in a contemporary, traditional art festival context. What we were trying to do was to put art back into a place where we talked about culture and worked with an incredibly diverse range of people. For the Adelaide Festival 2002 our proposal was to make a festival which was “an opportunity to return to a primary experience of the function of art and culture. Putting the art back into culture, when culture functions as the imaginative space of society that actively engages in the issues and concerns of the day, celebrating the intangible, spiritual, epic nature of life. Fundamental to this function is process — in which artists and audiences contribute and participate — so that a point of performance or exhibition is experienced as one of many interfaces along a cultural journey.
Debate is an essential component of this process because the discussion of ideas, the exchange of information and expertise, creates imaginative space for art, culture and society to combine meaningfully, and makes work that is in constant dialogue with its audiences.”3 For the exhibition and symposium,4 our intention was to create a space where debate could happen across disciplines, within the festival context, and specifically have resonance in the Art Gallery of South Australia — an art museum context. What was important for us in the context of the festival was to investigate different ways of thinking about science and knowledge, including a concept of indigenous knowledge.
We had, for instance, one work which was collaboratively painted by a group of people from the far North of Western Australia. “Ngurrara Canvas”5 is a collaborative piece measuring eight metres by ten metres which maps the lands that form part of the Great Sandy Desert. The canvas was presented to the Native Title Tribunal as evidence during a land claim in 1997. The work is a collaborative effort with each of the claimants painting his or her own piece of country, the area for which they have special responsibility. This particular canvas was used in a land claims case for them to demonstrate their knowledge of their country: in terms of its scientific approach, the work employed alternative forms of cartography, it was about mapping systems and it was about highlighting the relevance of indigenous knowledge in this context. It was also about these artists' ownership of their country specifically in the context of their attempt to reclaim it.
Another project we presented at this festival was by artist Justine Cooper, who negotiated herself a residency at the Museum of Natural History here in New York City. “Transformers,” the work exhibited in ConVerge, was developed during her residency. Justine was working alongside geneticists and museum staff. In particular she was investigating notions of identity because as many of you may or may not know, there are many ways to do a DNA fingerprint. She was interested in critiquing the idea that this is currently the ultimate, or penultimate, means of identifying a person. In her installation, she also included narratives, stories, fingerprints, passport photos, as well as DNA to demonstrate that the identity of an individual is far more complex than something as simple as a DNA extraction.
The last piece I will talk about is by a group called “The Tissue Culture and Art Project.” Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary developed this work during a residency at the University of Western Australia, in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology. There, they developed semi-living three dimensional tissue sculptures and worked with biological imaging techniques; for this installation they were growing speculative “Pig Wings.” For this installation, developed inside a science institution, they were interested to bring the sterile hood and other scientific equipment used in the production of the work, equipment perfectly recognisable in a scientific environment, into an art gallery. In a sense it was an attempt to address concepts of knowledge in unexpected places, which is one of the strategies artists can employ: to bring knowledge out of the science lab.
A number of the projects in the “conVerge” exhibition had been developed as a result of residencies that were developed by the Australian Network for Art and Technology between 1999 and 2001.6 The Tissue Culture and Art Project, for example was one of these. This project initially started as a small residency inside the University of Western Australia and so inspired the scientists there that a Center of Excellence in Biological Arts has since been set up within that institution, by the artists with ongoing support from the scientists and the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology. SymbioticA7 is, as far as I know, the only art research institute that sits inside a science institute. This kind of research takes time, and sometimes these projects are more interesting when artists are allowed to spend a lot of time on them, and when the initial kernel of an idea can come through an institutional affiliation or residency that the artists will then run for months or even years.
In this context, I would also like to talk about Eyebeam, where I currently work, as another model of a space for collaborative practice. At Eyebeam our goal is to bring together a whole range of different practices under one roof: we support established artists as well as emerging artists, engineers, hackers and creative technologists to research and develop new works; we run an education program where we have after school programs for youth as well as professional development for emerging and established practitioners; we also offer student residencies, for “artists in the making.” Eyebeam provides space for research and development, as well as artistic creation and production; and we mount exhibitions and public programs, in order to bring these projects and this research into the public realm. Often work developed at Eyebeam is not art works per se as you might conventionally recognise them at the Whitney Biennial. We also want to make the processes behind art production transparent — there is a street front which allows you to look straight into the labs, and we try to invite the public in to participate in these processes.
What’s most important is that it is a collaborative working environment which has no “artists’ studio” per se, but it is a space where artists, engineers, hackers, students, curators can have a dialogue and exchange ideas and skills with one another as well as with other people who we invite in. One way that we do this, is through Research Groups, which you can see from the Eyebeam web site.8 These groups operate thematically and provide all of us at Eyebeam with a context in which to discuss our work in a more formalized structure. We meet regularly to share resources and knowledge and to conduct further inquiry into these subjects through field trips, lectures by visiting experts, and other activities. And we try to document this research and the projects that come out of it on our web site. Current foci include Open Cultures, which explores issues around Open Source and collaborative design practice; and Sustainability. One of our recent major exhibitions, “Feedback,”9 was developed by this research group.
In the interest of time, I’ll just mention one recent project to give a sense of one approach to project development at Eyebeam. The project is called “Window Farms.” It was developed by Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray during a residency.10 The intention of the project is to raise interest in urban farming by employing an R&DIY approach, which stands for “research and develop it yourself.” Britta and Rebecca recognise that there is plenty of innovation happening in large corporations. Most of that innovation, however, is of such a huge scale that it will take years to develop and is very cost- and know how intensive. In their video, Riley and Bray state that “Window Farms,” on the other hand, “does not attempt to create a one size fits all product, but to create a support network [...] and to create opportunities for individuals to find and share new, cheap, quick and really personal ways to solve environmental issues.”
What I like about this project is that it is uses crowd- sourcing techniques; the artists recognise and deploy the internet as a significant research and networking tool. These artists are using these tools and acting upon their research, and it is that space that artists can provide for experimentation and research that is most exciting to me.