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Extreme Terrains
Shelf Life by Suzanne Anker / Corpus Extremus / Exit Art

We regret not posting this sooner, as it sounds very interesting, but if you happen to be in New York in the next couple of days, we suggest you stop by Exit Art for Corpus Extremus (LIFE+), an exhibition presenting work by artists who are “uniting science and art to challenge conventional understanding of both fields.”

This exhibition and its programming covers diverse topics, among which are the “extended” and the “obsolete” body; prolongation of life; life outside of the body; patenting life; genetically programmed life; hardwired spirituality; cyborgian and hybrid life and intelligence; male pregnancy and gender roles and stereotypes that are changing with developments in reproductive technologies; scientific and artistic ethics in relation to “the Other” that challenge anthropocentric hierarchies; and last but not the least – the ethics of the biotech aesthetics, employing techniques for mere visual effect.

One of these “recombinant mix[es] of the poetic, political, fantastic, clinical, ironic and utopian” is InsideOut: Laboratory Ecologies (2008) by Jennifer Willet.

InsideOut: Laboratory Ecologies by Jennifer Willet / Corpus Extremus / Exit Art

Inside a portable tent, we are told, as we haven't seen the show in person, the artist “presents biotechnological materials and techniques that normally exist only within the laboratory environment. By taking actual laboratory specimens outside of their confined and secured environment, InsideOut challenges the closed relationship the laboratory has with external or 'natural' ecologies.”

This sculptural installation has an immediate resonance for us, because our most basic medium — the enclosed garden — is itself a laboratory, a space of experimentation that is physically and conceptually detached from the larger landscape. Its quasi-hermetic condition may not necessarily contribute to a highly charged atmosphere of innovation; nevertheless, gardens are fecund breeding grounds for new forms and new theories of landscapes: horticultural chimeras, fake hills, constructed views, nature as spectacle, paradise as a garden, playgrounds as antidote to urban living, landscapes as propaganda, etc. These inevitably spill over the walls, changing not merely the “outside” tectonically but also how we then interact with what is transformed. With new landscapes come new social and political systems. Just look at the experiments in mannered irregularity at Stowe and the “imagineered” hyper-reality of Disneyland and how they have influenced the practice of landscape architecture, architecture and urban design.

One has to wonder, then, what are the landscape implications of these investigations into post-nature, this blurring of the natural and the artificial, this ever increasing confusion between biology and machine, over what is life and what is non-life? What are the spatial consequences of Dr. Frankestein's monsters busting out of the confines of these science labs? What will the world look like when even our understanding of what is the body and by extension our concept of the self gets fundamentally reconfigured?

Our future selves and our future landscapes are in those petri dishes.

Shelf Life by Suzanne Anker / Corpus Extremus / Exit Art

Meanwhile, another piece in the show is Suzanne Anker's Shelf Life (2009) by Suzanne Anker.

“This sculptural installation,” as described by our tipster David Hays, “features LED lighting panels of differing wavelengths, such as 'red' or 'blue,' above a series of aluminum 'seed houses,'” and it “functions as a food-bearing micro-system. From glow-in-the-dark plants to grow-in-the-dark herbage, new botanical technologies are rapidly developing. Proliferating due to photosynthesis, these living food production machines — plants — turn light energy into food.”

And another one is NoArk II by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, of The Tissue Culture and Art Project.

NoArk II by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, The Tissue Culture and Art Project / Corpus Extremus / Exit Art

NoArk II is intended to raise questions about the taxonomic challenge posed by the creation of new bio-technological life forms. A cabinet of curiosity, NoArk II is constructed of an experimental vessel designed to sustain living cells and tissues, alongside museum specimens of preserved animals. In a sense, this is a unified collection of unclassifiable sub-organisms, or as the artists refer to them — extended bodies.”

A couple of things related or otherwise to this piece:

1) Seed Magazine published this week an article about our symbiotic relationship with bacteria. We read the astonishing fact that there are “100 trillion bacterial cells in our bodies, outnumbering our human cells 10 to one,” and that rather than eating us alive from the inside out and outside in, some of their biological functions complement our own.

Even more astonishing, they may even be us. They are extra-corporeal organs we have been continually implanted with since birth — or to use Catts and Zurr's term, they are our extended bodies. As the article explains, “[o]ur bodies are, after all, composites of human and bacterial cells, with microbes together contributing at least 1,000 times more genes to the whole. As we discover more and more roles that microbes play, it has become impossible to ignore the contribution of bacteria to the pool of genes we define as ourselves. Indeed, several scientists have begun to refer to the human body as a 'superorganism' whose complexity extends far beyond what is encoded in a single genome.”

2) To recycle some questions asked in previous posts: if and when geoengineering as a solution to many impending environmental crises proves to be financially unfeasible, can we go “ultra-local” and hack our own bodies, for instance, to augment our own skins with photosynthetic cells to “grow” our own food — local and organic to the extreme? What will happen to farms and to other sites of production? And what new epicurean culture will this bring about?

How about modifying our intestinal ecologies in such a way that our biological waste is greatly reduced or is somehow “transformed” that our billion-dollar sewer infrastructure becomes obsolete or at least cheaper?

How about piezoelectric skins to harness enough energy from anatomical deformations to power iPhones for a day's worth of tweeting?

Basically, what we want to know is: where is biotechnology taking us and do we want to go along for the ride?

  • Shevonne
  • April 17, 2009 at 9:21:00 AM CDT
  • These are amazing

  • Adam E. Anderson
  • April 20, 2009 at 12:59:00 PM CDT
  • I love the "post-nature" and "what is natural/artificial" discussion. It's determination could have serious implications of the future design of cities, or whatever the areas of population will be called in the future. I'm torn on the question if humans need nature? If we did, why did our brains decide that progress meant pavement and tall buildings. If we are misleading ourselves, is this a simple evolutionary trait that turns the human into a co-existing organism, and no longer a virus on the planet.

    Determining "what we are" has obvious layers of complications, but it is interesting to think of ourselves as bacteria, and the possibilities (either naturally or through biotech) of our bodies evolving into self-sustaining ecologies.

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