Article categories: ANAT ReportsIssue 59
January 26th, 2010

The ANAT conference and workshop funding enabled me to attend the Symbiotica Wet Biology workshop at University Of Western Australia in September 2004.

'Mouse Cells', Catherine Farger

I undertook the workshop as a participant, learning a range of ‘wet biology’ techniques including: DNA extraction and fingerprinting, genetic engineering, selective breeding, plant and animal tissue culture and basic tissue engineering techniques. Also discussed were current and historical practices dealing with the manipulation of living systems to be traced through art, culture and biotech. There was open discussion about the broader philosophical and ethical implications into the extent of human intervention with other living things.

This practical work and discussion was incredibly confronting and inspiring and allowed me to have first hand knowledge of the science that I am interrogating as part of my Chromosome Knitting project, a new media performance/installation work currently under development. The importance of engaging first hand with these technologies, using them for ‘presentation’ in work, rather than merely ‘representation, became apparent during the workshop. By engaging in empirical science and research techniques I am now able to ‘ground the theories’ which I have been incorporating in my work and the practice which I am developing. Interacting with the participants around these issues was illuminating and lead to a range of perspectives.

I also viewed a range of installation art works that were part of BEAP’s Bio-difference and Sonic Difference exhibitions, as well as the Experimenta House of Tomorrow exhibition. These gave me a range of ideas for my installation development for Chromosome Knitting including contemporary forms of interactivity using biology and sound. (Particularly Amy Younger’s work Intra-terrestrial soundings.) I have since made contact with this artist.

While at the workshop I made broadcast quality recordings of the processes in the Symbiotica lab, using both sound and video, using equipment from ABC radio in Sydney, which will be incorporated into my performance work Chromosome Knitting as well as a radio play The Woman Who Knitted Herself a Child, which has just been recorded by ABC Radio national Airplay (broadcast December 19th), as well as a possible radio documentary in 2005/6. I also took a range of images on high quality microscopic imaging equipment, with the assistance of Guy Ben-Ary, artist in residence at Symbiotica.

As a result I have also developed a small scale DNA extraction experiment with the School of Biological Sciences at Uni of Wollongong, which has now become a part of my Chromosome Knitting performance/installation and I am also working with the cell culturing section of that department, looking at culturing some live frog cells as part of the performance. All of these projects are being done in consultation with Oron Catts and Gary Cass, the facilitators of the Symbiotica workshop, and have been made much easier due to the fact that I have already had an introduction to the processes during the workshop.

This was my first attendance at an electronic arts festival and I think it was important for me as a new media artist, especially in the performance field, to explore new audiences for my work, including BEAP, Ars Electronica and ISEA. As most of the artists working in the biology/ art field at present are visual or installation artists, I believe I may be one of the first Australian performance artists to attempt to incorporate live biology into a performance work.

I also made good links with the Symbiotica organisation and a result am organizing a seminar and workshop at Uni of Wollongong in June next year (as well as a lecture by Marta De Menezes in Feb 2005). This workshop may accompany the showing of Chromosome Knitting, but in any case is about bringing more awareness of this sort of work, and the importance of the ‘hands on’ approach to science in art that Symbiotica encourages and facilitates. As I previously mentioned I am having ongoing contact with Oron and Gary from Symbiotica, liasing about experimental procedures. Partly as a result of my visit and contact, the School of Creative arts has received a $10,000 professorial grant to develop this workshop and seminar, and I am being employed to coordinate it.

I have been working with a number of academics in my faculty (including Amanda Lawson, Brogan Bunt and Marius Foley) arranging the workshop and seminar, as well as trying to develop some sort of information exchange around arts/sciences disciplines between the School of Biological Sciences at Uni of Wollongong and The Faculty for Creative Artsat University of Wollongong, developing a dialogue between the two faculties around these issues. I am keen to develop some understanding of how this hybridisation of science and arts faculties was undertaken at University of Western Australia. The Creative Arts faculty is increasing it’s focus on New Media Arts, (with research fellow Brogan Bunt recently getting grant funding to set up a new media exhibition space, the school is supportive of these initiatives I am undertaking) and is well placed as a science and technology University to create some sort of Hybrid work between faculties.

Finally, the workshop participants developed a contact list, and we are remaining in contact with artists from W.A., U.K., Portugal and U.S.

Catherine Fargher

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