The visual depiction of natural forms have been utilised in an educative and explanatory manner for centuries, particularly through medical drawings and photograms. In recent years, this ‘supporting role’ of art in science has come to involve a number of things. Indeed, it seems to me that in the context of rapid technological advancements, there is a growing necessity for a renewed and strengthened relationship between science and art.
Beyond the democratisation and demystification of complex scientific concepts, art has come to deal with the technologised world in an increasingly inquisitive manner. Art has become a method for the exploration of future potentialities by highlighting areas of science that suffers from an impasse in social and academic debate, while providing explorations into the implications of technological advance. Artistic endeavours can confront these issues in an embodied manner and draw upon the ethical ambiguities that may arise from scientific discovery and application.
Perhaps surprising to some, many current technological breakthroughs have gone unchecked or relatively unquestioned in terms of policy. Projects such as non-invasive prenatal diagnosis (NIPD), which, based on gene selection and modification procedures, can essentially detect Down’s syndrome, evoke questions regarding the use of science and what it may mean for human progress. The ramifications of such a procedure becoming available are clear: the eradication of genetic diseases, from blindness to Down’s and perhaps even autism. Yet, in pondering these technological advances and the ethical outcomes, we begin to question where might we draw the line between what is ethical and what is not. Should we encourage or even allow the ‘eradication’ of genetic mutations? What would the outcome be, socially and evolutionary? Who and what would have precedence in deciding such intricate problematics?
In the vacuum created by the lack of international cooperation in working towards policies on matters such as these, artists are entering the field of public discussion by presenting, visual and otherwise, the consequences of tech and raising ethical concerns.
Startlingly, there is little focus and awareness in both the public and governmental arena regarding policy drafting in these areas. Scientific discovery is progressing at a break-neck speed, yet policy-makers are lagging behind. As posited by the non-profit organisation The Council for Responsible Genetics, “There appears to be no end to the possible uses or clinical applications of NIPD. In fact, the only plateau foreseeable for prenatal genetic diagnosis, now, will be policy based.” (Haymon, 2011). In the vacuum created by the lack of international cooperation in working towards policies on matters such as these, artists are entering the field of public discussion by presenting, visual and otherwise, the consequences of tech and raising ethical concerns. These works poke and prod the limits of our ethical understanding of human augmentation in manners that science have yet to consider. As such, art in its abstraction has come to provide tangible outcomes and relevant questions in response to scientific discovery.
Often considered to be two opposing disciplines – science rooted in method, fact and objectivity; art being subjective, speculative and more concerned with representing knowledge rather than finding knowledge, Art Historian and curator Dr. Marius Kwint argues that the visual aspects may help structure scientist’ way of thinking, and particularly that of the general public. Artists, particularly those working with living material, or ‘moist media’, have come to play with the essence of the scientific approach and its potential pitfalls. Artworks by bioartists offer an alternative investigation into the consequences and potential outcomes, socially and politically, of a discipline that is inevitably intertwined with ethics. The sculptural works by artist Patricia Piccinini for example (see Fig. 1), tug at the possibly jarring realities of genetic modification and the ethical considerations that must be made.
Bioartists make use of these disjunctures and their works can be powerful tools in the exploration of the larger philosophical and epistemological questions that are attached to science and technology. Values that were once moral and ethical code are changing, many proven to be unacceptable today. Identities are ever-changing in the technological scape of contemporary society, and it is imperative to consider the impact many of our advances may have. By creating narratives through art in various conceptualisations, artists explore these potential implications and identities as we attempt to create a network of understanding. I believe an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and a growing relationship between the fields of science/tech and art will grow exponentially as we come closer to the realisation of Artificial Intelligence. Understanding the bigger picture and identifying potential ‘blind spots’ in our rush towards total technologisation will be increasingly important.
Inspired by several lectures/talks given by Professors Marius Kwint & Robert Zwijnenberg.
Haymon, L. (2011). Non-invasive prenatal genetic diagnosis (NIPD). Council for Responsible Genetics.
Kwint, M. (2012). Exhibiting the brain. Kwint, M. and Wingate R.(eds.), 8-21.
Piccinini, Patricia. “PATRICIA PICCININI”. Patriciapiccinini.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 May 2016.
Zwijnenberg, R. (2011). Brains, Art and the Humanities. Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal, Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe, 293-310.