Monthly Archives: April 2010

"That’s crap," "I don’t get it," and Other Things People Say When Looking at Art

Begin rant–

Having perused many art galleries in my day, I have had the opportunity to not only view some great works of art, but also inadvertently witness the reactions to art that many individuals have.  In fact, there have been occasions when I’ve spent far more time observing unwary museum-goers instead of focusing on the art that I came to see. 

Many people seem to have found their way into the museum out of an obligatory sense to participate in a cultural experience but, unfortunately, do not necessarily have the tools to help them fully participate in that experience.  I’ve often wondered why this is.  Every adult there, presumably, has obtained an education, probably public, and were compulsorily exposed to some form of an art program.  It would be reasonable to assume that they were given the tools to understand not only mimetic forms of art but the more abstract and even non-objective forms as well.  However, the truth of the matter is that most art programs don’t cover how to observe and interpret the visual arts in as much of an in-depth a manner as, say, the schools cover mathematics or reading.  Viewing art, particularly modern and post-modern art, is as much an exegetical experience as reading works of literature; however, the average 27.2 seconds most people spend on viewing a piece of art doesn’t lend itself to establishing a meaningful relationship with what the artist has created.

I think that many people don’t spend much time viewing modern and post-modern art for numerous reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that they simply may not know how to.  People identify with what they can recognize–in art, this often means that naturalistic and representational works often win favor because the content is readily identifiable.  Ask people what their favorite artists are and they’ll comeback with Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir etc.  Colors that excite and objects or people that are well rendered are never out of favor *cough*Kincaide*cough* There is certainly nothing wrong with such work but it closes off a means of experiencing the world that can only be communicated via the means, methods, and materials that many post-modern artists utilize.  It is akin to not reading any novel produced after, say, 1890.  Yes, there was some fantastic literature produced prior to 1890, but a tremendous amount of significant work has been crafted afterwards as well.


“Pssst. Maybe if we stand here long enough people will think we understand this.”


Art speaks about our community, our society, and our world in a way that words cannot.  I think that somehow along the way this has been forgotten or deliberately dismissed–although I can’t say why, well I guess I could try but it would take more space than I have here.  It is certainly not uncommon for art to be viewed as expendable within the confines of budgetary considerations.  Art is simply not viewed to be as practical as infrastructure or defense and when viewed in an either/or manner then, yes, it does make sense that art is lower on the hierarchy of needs. 
What I advocate is an integral and symbiotic view of art.  Many indigenous cultures do not have a separate word for “art” as what they create is a necessary extension of their social identity not something that is “separate” from them.  I highly doubt that we in American culture will ever view art as an integral expression of our identity since our tendency to compartmentalize is well established, but certainly steps can be taken to integrate art into our cultural milieu.
So, how can this be accomplished?  Through education.  It will be a slow process but many art education programs are currently promoting the arts more aggressively than before and, more importantly, stressing the critical analysis skills necessary to transcend the traditional barriers that existed between academic subjects.  I think this facilitates–or will come to facilitate–a perspective of the arts that is more flattering than we have had in the past.  Many art rooms have been viewed as a place where students can come to play–which, don’t get me wrong, play certainly has its place because learning should be fun, but not frivolous–or, sadly, a dumping ground for students who haven’t successfully integrated in the other “core” classes.
The arts can promote skill sets that will help students succeed in whatever field they find themselves and as much as I hate to justify the value of art in terms of its ability to help children get a job sometime in the future, it’s important to “sell” art education to those who will be making the budgets.  Further, the arts allow students (aka future leaders of society) to exercise cognitive skills that they seldom use in other academic settings.  Students who have been exposed to the arts have been shown to demonstrate greater achievement in other areas.
Again, I iterate that I think the arts have intrinsic value outside of how creative thinking can facilitate making mo money.  Everything within a community is crafted in a manner that reflects what those people value.  Every artifice reflects who we are as a people–our dreams, hopes, fears, greatness, darkness, and what we may become.  No more effective barometer of a culture can be found outside of its creative expressions.
End rant.


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I’m OK, You’re OK…but We Could be a Lot Better: Transhumanism and Posthumanism in Art and Society

After researching the previous post about BioArt and seeing all the weird and wonderful things artists are doing with transgenic manipulation of organic tissue, I thought to myself, “Hey, if we can make a fluorescent bunny, what’s stopping us from making a glow-in-the-dark human?”  Although it is tempting to look at these biomodified creatures in a darker light, I couldn’t help buy wonder how the burgeoning technology in the biotech field could help the collective human race advance–hopefully to a good end and not to an apocalyptic Terminator-style throwdown.  And, like most of my ideas, somebody else had thought of it first.

The transhumanism/posthumanism movement is in full swing in some circles.  Commonly called H+ by those in the know, these thinkers and scientists are working in myriad fashion to enhance, upgrade, and, in short, make people better not only in terms of genetics but also in terms of access to quality health care, improved social well-being, and the creation of technology that will enhance the overall human experience.

Bad genetics bringing you down? No problem, pretty soon someone (for a nominal fee) can engineer a concoction to ensure you and your progeny achieve that coveted ubermensch–which may or may not usher in a bleak and world-wide dystopia.

Miss your dearly beloved, Fluffy?    BioArts International can help by cloning you a Fluffy II.  Well, at least they could before they had some unresolved issues.

Can’t lift your inconsiderate neighbor’s car who blocked you in yet again?  No problem. Japanese scientists gotcha covered:

Have trouble hearing? No worries.  This guy can help:
Artist Stelios Arcadiou has had the ear created in a lab from cells and implanted into his skin Read more:
So, what is Transhumanism exactly?  Well, there isn’t a standard definition but according to h+ magazine there are a few ways to look at it:
Critical Posthumans: This is what we all are. Critical posthumanism is simply the idea that our concept of “human” as a natural, non-technological thing was wrong from the beginning. Humans are most human when using technology, modifying ourselves and our surroundings.
Transcendent Posthumans: This is what we (most of us) wish we were. Flawless, immortal, godlike. Abilities so above and beyond humans that they are almost unimaginable.
Transhumans: This is what we are becoming […] Nanotech, organ transplants, genetic engineering, prosthetics, cognitive- and mood-enhancing drugs, cloning, morphological freedom, and anti-aging medicine are a small sampling of the tech helping us overcome our biological limits.
There you go.  Nothing to worry about, right?  Before long, we will engineer our way to that longed-for utopia artists and thinkers have dreamed about for centuries–nay, it shall be an uberutopia of unparalleled magnitude.  Yes. I am being snarky.  Despite my initial concerns, I feel that there is great potential here for creating technology that will benefit humanity.  However, the intent is good but, as in many cases, the unintended consequences of endeavors begun with good intent can have complicated and unforeseeable negative outcomes.
There are certainly critics of the Transhumanist movement and since there are too many counterpoints to list and explain adequately, you can check them out here.
Stelarc, Amplified Body, Lazer Eyes, and Third Hand
We are on the verge of a breakthrough within humanity that will allow us access to power beyond belief. Within this generation or the next, there will be technology available that will allow us to forever alter the course of not only individual humans, but force us to redefine what it means to be human. Too many people are excluded from the conversation necessary to work through what will inevitably come to pass. It is easy to dismiss developments within genomics and the biotech fields as something that will not touch the average person; however, willful ignorance will not work. To turn a blind eye to this dialogue is dangerous.

AoTW: Bio-Art: Boldly Going Where no Bunny Has Gone Before

This week’s artist of the week (AoTW-I know it’s wrong to capitalize the “T” but it looks cooler) doesn’t focus on one artist per se, but instead highlights the rapidly growing movement in art that can be loosely classified as “BioArt.” 

Alba: a genetically engineered rabbit with green fluorescent protein by Eduardo Kac

So, what is BioArt?  The self-experimentation of a guy who is half-crocked on Busch light, has a homemade tattoo gun and a dream?  Well, possibly.  But, according to wikipedia (so it must be true), bio art is:

… an art practice in which the medium is living matter and the works of art are produced in laboratories and/or artists’ studios. The tool is biotechnology, which includes such technologies as genetic engineering, tissue culture and cloning. BioArt is considered by most artists to be strictly limited to “living forms,” although there is some debate as to the stages at which matter can be considered to be alive or living. The materials used by Bioartists are cells, DNA, proteins and living tissue. Creating living beings and practicing in the life sciences brings about ethical, social and aesthetic inquiry.


So, why BioArt?  It is difficult to ascribe one particular source as the impetus which fuels bioartists’ creativity or their choices with regards to methods and materials.  The innate human drive to create is strong and, by nature, always searching for new and creative ways in which to express ideas.  In that sense, BioArt was an inevitable offshoot of the same creative drive that compelled the first humans to draw upon cave walls.  Early man created with charcoal and natural pigments, modern man creates with genetically manipulated tissue. 

A replica of an ear created by the group, SymbioticA

Furthermore, it can be said–not without argument of course–that art is inseperably entwined with society and will inevitably come to represent the strata of thoughts that a particular society values or is coming to terms with.  Art is a good barometer with which to measure the good, the bad, and the ugly of any society.  

As our scientific community is currently exploring the new found ability to manipulate the genetic underpinnings of human life, the populi have had little or zero access to the discussion table simply due to the fact that the research is largely inaccessible because of the barriers that are in place.  These barriers are: not having the necessary understanding of the materials utilized in the research; not having an understanding of the processes involved; often taking for truth the intentionally manipulated information provided by organizations with an agenda; deliberate barriers set in place by corporate entities for “trade secret” or copyright reasons; and for a host of other reasons that somebody smarter than me could come up with. 


Viral Confections: A model of the virus was printed as a rapid prototype from a 3D algorithmic illustration of the virus from the Protein Data Bank. The chocolates were then cast into the molecular form. Part of the Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus series, the truffles do not carry hepatitis C. Desire to eat them is mixed with a repulsion for the virus, a dialectic which has proved to be an exciting and approachable way to ignite discussion and create awareness about an extremely prevalent and underrepresented disease.  


BioArtists provide a venue for the general public to access the otherwise quasimystical and mysterious world of genetic manipulation and bioengineering.  Getting the public involved in the discussion–not just repeating the talking points–is critical for a society.  To become involved and aware of the issues that the BioArts raise is often the the goal of the bioartist as many people have very little knowledge of the serious bioethical issues that are met and resolved largely behind closed doors in which private interests perhaps win out over public interests. 

This video with bioartists Jennifer Willet and Oron Catts discusses some of the issues mentioned above and gives an example of their work: 

Concerning answering the question “Why BioArt?” Jennifer Willet’s article from her website offers further (and a much more erudite) explanation: 

In general, the public holds very little currency in the decision-making processes that dictate research trajectories, evaluation criteria, and the direct application of advancements made in biotechnological sectors. In general, I see the non-specialist public as having a receptive relationship to evolving biotechnologies. In other words, individuals are on the receiving end of a long chain of events contributing to the proliferation of these knowledges and practices in the world – trusting the specialists to manage this aspect of technological proliferation on our behalf. Generally, the public (as well as the specialist class) seems to be content with this arraignment… 

…One strategy for combating a programmed public malaise in the face of biotechnology is to effectively trump the authority of the specialist class with the insertion of non-authoritarian individuals into ‘specialist’ rolls in the public sphere. The insertion of visible and intellectual difference into traditional roles of scientific authority can empower the general public to participate more fully in biotechnological debates. I am interested in a participatory interdisciplinary incursion into the practice, and public representation, of biotechnology. If artists, and accountants, and housewives are seen contributing to the production of biotechnology, the authority of the specialist – the doctor, lab technician, and scientist – will be reduced. Alternative voices – subjectivities – and interpretations of biotechnology will be heard and perpetuated in public debate. 

Well said.  

From The Race installation by Michael Burton. Antibiotics underpin all of modern medicine. Alarmingly, we are nearing the end of the antibiotic era. Bacteria and viruses are evolving faster than scientific innovation. Trivial infections we hardly think about now will once again become fatal…Medics now recognise that maggots have advantages over more recent forms of treatment, as they kill the bacteria that cause infection, including the so-called antibiotic-resistant superbugs.  The Race proposes that we must now join the race to evolve with them. It also presents a mirror to ourselves to question personal and societal lifestyle practices and our self-perceived superiority over other organisms.  

 Although there is certainly a strong desire among many BioArtists to bring the often inaccessible world of the scientific community to the general discussion table, I think that there is another component to the reason that BioArtists work in the media they do.  It is simply rewarding to work in the media.  Further, it is the first “new” media available in hundreds of years.  I can only imagine that some of the Northern Renaissance painters felt similarly when they first got their hands on the new-fangled oil paints.  Everything going forward will be uncharted waters–the artist’s dream.

To see the works of some BioArtists you can check out the following links: 

Jennifer Willet
George Gessert
Joe Davis
Eduardo Kac
Hunter Cole
Oron Catts
Olga Kisseleva

MADE (sterile) IN CHINA

MADE (sterile) IN CHINA

Doctors in southern China are working around the clock to fulfil a government goal to sterilise — by force if necessary — almost 10,000 men and women who have violated birth control policies. Family planning authorities are so determined to stop couples from producing more children than the regulations allow that they are detaining the relatives of those who resist.
About 1,300 people are being held in cramped conditions in towns across Puning county, in Guangdong Province, as officials try to put pressure on couples who have illegal children to come forward for sterilisation.
The 20-day campaign, which was launched on April 7, aims to complete 9,559 sterilisations in Puning, which, with a population of 2.24 million, is the most populous county in the province.
A doctor in Daba village said that his team was working flat out, beginning sterilisations every day at 8am and working straight through until 4am the following day.
Zhang Lizhao, 38, the father of two sons, aged 6 and 4, said that he rushed home late last night from buying loquats for his wholesale fruit business to undergo sterilisation after his elder brother was detained. His wife had already returned so that the brother would be freed.
Mr Zhang said: “This morning my wife called me and said they were forcing her to be sterilised today. She pleaded with the clinic to wait because she has her period. But they would not wait a single day. I called and begged them but they said no. So I have rushed back. I am satisfied because I have two sons.”
Thousands of others have refused to submit and officials are continuing to detain relatives, including elderly parents, to force them to submit to surgery. Those in detention are required to listen to lectures on the rules limiting the size of families.
On April 10 The Southern Countryside Daily reported on about 100 people, mostly elderly, packed into a damp 200sq m (2,150sq ft) room at a township family planning centre. The newspaper said: “There were some mats on the floor but the room was too small for all people to lie down and sleep, so the young ones had to stand or squat. Owing to the lack of quilts, many cuddled up to fight the cold.”

Among those being held was the 68-year-old father of Huang Ruifeng, who has three daughters. Mr Huang said: “Several days ago a village official called me and asked me or my wife to return for the surgery. Otherwise they would take away my father.” He said that he was too busy to go and did not have confidence in village medical techniques. In any case, he wanted his wife to give birth to a son first.

An official at the Puning Population and Family Planning Bureau, who declined to be identified, told The Global Times: “It’s not uncommon for family planning authorities to adopt some tough tactics.”

In Puning county couples with illegal children and their relatives who apply for permits to build a house are rejected. Illegal children are refused residency registration, a penalty that denies them access to healthcare and education.

Authorities have discovered, however, that those methods have less success than rounding up relatives.

One official said that an investigation would be launched to establish whether authorities in Puning had exceeded their remit.

A state-level regulation stipulates that couples who violate the family planning policy must not be punished without proper authorisation and family members may not be penalised to put pressure on couples.

In the years after China launched its strict “one couple, one child” family planning policy in the late 1970s abuses such as forced late-term abortions, sterilisations and even the killing of newborn babies were widely reported. Such practices have diminished in recent years, as the policy has become more widely accepted and exceptions have been introduced.

Officials in Puning are under particular pressure, however: they risk failing in their bid for promotion to a second-tier county if they cannot meet all quotas. That includes keeping the number of births within government limits.

The county is under criticism from Guangdong authorities, who want to slow a population growth that is reflecting badly on the entire province. One reason for Puning’s large population is that families in the mainly rural region often have up to three or four children.

Many of those with extra children have left to find factory jobs along the more developed coast, taking advantage of being away from local government surveillance to give birth outside the quotas.

Rules in Puning, as throughout rural China, allow farmers to have a second child if the first is a daughter. After that couples must stop. By the morning of April 12 Puning officials said that they had achieved, in a mere five days, about half of their sterilisation goal after their “education” persuaded people to comply.

Family planning

• China is the world’s most populous country with about 1.3 billion people. By 2025 the population is expected to exceed 1.4 billion

• The birthrate is low at 14 births per 1,000 people every year but the infant mortality rate is also low, at 20.25 deaths per 1,000 live births

• The single-child policy, referred to by the Chinese Government as the family planning policy, was introduced in 1978 to ensure that China could feed all of its people

• The policy stipulates that couples living in cities can have one child, unless one or both are from an ethnic minority or they are both only children. In most rural areas a couple may have a second child after a break of several years

• Despite the policy, it is common to find couples in the countryside, where 80 per cent of the population live, with a large number of children

• Many couples get round the law by sending pregnant women to stay with relatives, then claiming that the baby was adopted or belongs to a friend or relative

• Critics say that the policy has led to the killing of female infants because of the traditional preference for boys

Sources: BBC; CIA World Factbook


Artist of the Week : Gilberto Esparza

 This great article, Nomadic Plants,  by Regine about Gilberto Esparza can be found on the “we make money not art” site. 

Nomadic Plants 

 Photo Gilberto Esparza 

Gilberto Esparza first appeared in the radar of bloggers a couple of years ago when he started colonizing Mexico City with Urban Parasites. Made of recycled consumer goods, the small robotic creatures explore the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. Under its quirky, amusing side, the project also had the objective of providing a basis for a critical exploration of the role that technology plays in cities. 

The dblt feeds on the energy that runs through electric wires. The species collects sounds in the environment and reproduces them sporadically. Photo Gilberto Esparza 

Gilberto Esparza is currently showing one of his latest projects, Nomadic Plants, at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón. Just like Urban Parasites, this new work is part of a series of experiments that aim to stimulate a critical discussion about the ambiguous forces wielded by technology. 

Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and ‘drink’ water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle. As Eduardo wrote in our email conversation, “The nomadic plant is a portray of our own species. It also deals with the alienated transformation of this new hybrid species that fights for its survival in a deteriorated environment.” 

Photo Gilberto Esparza 

Image courtesy Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre 

I’ll quote the artist again, this time from a text included in the press material for the exhibition: 

The fact that a new species, the by-product of those alienating processes, appears -merely by coexisting- in those areas of ecological disaster represents a manifestation pointing to the serious social and environmental impacts on communities that once depended on rivers, now the source of their ailments. At this point, it is important to highlight the ambiguous potential of the transforming power of the human species, due to its ability to destroy but also to restore. For that reason, what is required is a new way of thinking, which would position us as antibodies on the planet, and a proper understanding of the importance of living in symbiosis with our planet and with all species.


When i first read about Plantas Nomadas, i immediately thought about Archigram’s Walking City because of the nomadic and self-sufficient qualities of Plantas Nomadas. But what was your actual inspiration? Sci-fi novels and movies? Ongoing research in laboratories exploring the possibilities of microbial fuel cells in robotics? 

I have been researching and building autonomous robots that can survive in urban space, stealing the energy that the city itself generates. Later on, i found online some publications about research projects using microbial fuel cell. I was immediately inspired to develop a project that would engage with the issue of pollution in rivers. I visited El Salto Jalísco, a community very affected by this problem. I was therefore interested in making it the location of the intervention. 

Drawing by Gilberto Esparza 

Can you tell us which kind of plants and micro-organisms cohabit inside the body of your machine? 

The microorganisms that live inside the robots are identical to the ones you can find in the river. I prefer to use the plants that used to be native to the river before it became so polluted. 

How has the public reacted to your work so far? Both in Mexico and in Spain? 

People liked it a lot because the project opens many doors on issues such as our relationship with nature, the thin line that separates the inert and the living and also the directions taken by scientific research which, very often, respond to the interests of the current economic system. 

Thanks Gilberto! 

Image courtesy Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre

The installation at Laboral features the robot but also a video of the process of its creation, a documentary showing the robot in action in the river Santiago, El Salto, Jalisco (Mexico), a series of photos taken by the artist and computers showing the project’s webpage. 

Plantas Nomadas is on view at Laboral, Gijón (Spain) until June, 7, 2010.

Art Education: Ten Lessons the Arts Teach

Ten Lessons the Arts Teach
1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships.  Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.
2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.
3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.
4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.
5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.
6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.
7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.
8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.
9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.
10. The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.
SOURCE: Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind, In Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows. (pp. 70-92). Yale University Press. Available from NAEA Publications. NAEA grants reprint permission for this excerpt from Ten Lessons with proper acknowledgment of its source and NAEA.

Musings: The Guild : Do You Wanna Date My Avatar

This song has been stuck in my head for weeks now–I now pass this curse onto you.

Really though, this is a great show about a group of WoW nerds who can only interact via the interface of the world wide webz.  What else brings socially awkward and mildy dysfunctional people together with such great success?  I don’t know.  Hey, it works for me.

The Guild website has all of the episodes.  They are only about 8 or 9 minutes long.

Artist of the Week

Instead of highlighting random artists at random times, I’ve decided to feature an artist each week.  This creates (or creates the illusion of) more order in my life.

This week’s artist is Sally Mann.

Her work is hard to pinpoint.  The above video is a nice introduction to her work and a scouring of the web will reveal a wealth of information.  Her photography is ethereal, mysterious, and, at times, confrontational. 

Best known for her series of photographic portraits of her children, particularly the series Immediate Family, Mann’s work simultaneously disturbs and enchants.  The imagery offers a  raw and tender look into her personal life via her family and yet speak volumes about the undercurrents of social life within America that are frequently and deliberately overlooked.

On PBS’ Art 21 site you can find a bio, some images, and some links.  If you are into contemporary art and don’t watch Art 21 you are wrong.  I’m sorry to be so harsh, but it’s the truth.

Artist of the Week: Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio aka Titian

Titian is one of those artists that I forget about and then through happenstance come across one of his works and think to myself, “Oh yeah. I like that guy!”  He is one of the few Italian Renaissance artists whose use of color isn’t so garrishly typical of the period that one can look at his work and not necessarily say to themselves, “Yeah, that’s an Italian Renaissance painter.”  And I like that about his work.

Many of his pieces have a naturalistic feel that presents a refreshing contrast to the more refined classical pieces of the period.  Although much of his work contains subject matter congruent with what one would expect to find during the Renaissance, his paintings contain a warmth and a soul that I think is absent in many of the other commissioned pieces of his day.

Below are some of his works:

Self Portrait
Giorgione and Titian. Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman. c.1510
Portrait of a Man. 1514
St. Mark Enthroned with Saints. c.1510
Portrait of a Man. c.1512
Assumption of the Virgin (Assunta). 1516-1518
Portrait of Pope Paul III without a Cap. 1543
Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence. c.1565
St. Sebastian. 1575