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A Critical Reflection on Four a minima:: Texts for the Exhibition NOW 2006, by Eduardo Navas

Image source: a minima PDF, feature on Marta Menezes’s DNA altered Butterflies. Available at newmediaFIX

This text was written to be part of a curatorial participation by a minima:: magazine in the exhibition NOW 2006, which took place at the CCCB.

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For a minima’s participation in Now, I have chosen four texts invested in the crossover of art, science and technology. The texts are “Nature?” by Marta de Menezes, “Observation, Interference and Evolutionary Relationships. (An overview of the Phumox project) – Phumox? What’s that?” by Andy Gracie, “Convergent Realities: art, technology consciousness from the planetary perspective” by Roy Ascott, “Artport” and “Not Just Art—from Media Art to Artware” by Christiane Paul. The first two texts, written by artists/researchers, could be read as honest attempts to cross over art, science and technology; the last two texts, written by theorists, can be read as reflections on such practices. The four texts are sensitive to contextualization and critical commentary, which are expected of art practice today, as well as the urge to do research for the sake of understanding the world and develop technology to do it, which is expected of science and technology.

To be more specific, Marta Menezes performs genetic alterations on butterflies. Her art consists of disruption of symmetry in nature. Butterflies are deliberately altered to have differing patterns on their wings. Menezes’s butterflies are different from other butterflies, but this difference does not come about through a “natural” process, but an artificial process based on our definitions of nature. Menezes’s research questions nature as a social construct, a favored proposition in the artworld.

Andy Gracie has a similar strategy. He questions the term “organic” which he states is defined currently in relation to data and information systems. Preoccupation with epistemology is pivotal to his research, opening a window for us to reflect on aesthetics, in a similar way to Menezes’s work. Like her, Gracie performs scientific research which consists of deliberate interventions in how nature is defined by science. An example of his research is questioning the established definitions of Parasitism and Symbiosis. Gracie explains that the former has a negative connotation while the latter has a positive connotation in culture. With the project Phumox he proposes to develop an intelligent device that can regulate organic environments to fluctuate between parasitism and symbiosis; therefore demanding reflection on how we define positive and negative as cultural codes. Gracie considers this type of intervention as “some form of artistic activity.”

Menezes and Gracie’s interest in merging art, science and technology is actually Roy Ascott’s subject of contemplation. He takes a Macro-view of the world; an ambitious reflection on how science and technology is understood in different cultures. His essay may appear a bit romantic and somewhat reminiscent of the escapism that intellectuals fell victims to at the end of the nineteenth century; when, artists like Gauguin looked to people in exotic places for inspiration. Likewise, Ascott spent sometime in Brazil experiencing the ways of the Shaman and claims that the next major shift in culture will come from there, just like the last one came from the U.S.; and due, in part, to his exposure to Brazilian culture in the rain forest, Ascott adds spirituality as a fourth element to the current state of inter-disciplinarity. He successfully covers the ambivalences of these fields and tries to bring them together for the reader to reflect upon. Ascott explains effectively people’s interest to crossover between art, science and technology, he states:

Consciousness is the great mysterium that entices artists and scientists alike to enter its domain. It is the ultimate frontier of research in many fileds, and probably only a truly trans-disciplinary approach will allow us to close the explanatory gap.

These three texts demonstrate the necessity for a contextual paradigm, that is essential for the work to attain cultural value. Menezes and Gracie are clearly using science to make art; and because of the specialized nature of science, they find the need to constantly explain science to the art audience in order for their works to attain cultural value as art, while Ascott’s explains the interest in this crossover.

The necessity to have a context in which to foment meaning is crucial for art institutions supporting new art forms. These institutions currently depend on new media curators, like Christiane Paul, to define a critical and historical methodology that is sensitive to the inter-disciplinary practice of art, science and technology. Paul, who has organized several exhibitions for Artport, the Whitney Museum of art’s online portal to Internet art, in her first text summarizes the premise behind Artport, which is to function as a portal to websites of practicing Internet artists, and to commission works for the Whitney collection. The key role for Artport is to introduce the general art audience to emerging forms of art often labeled as new media art. In her second text Paul introduces the reader to the new term “artware,” which is “ ‘not just art’ but a proposal for the restructuring or critique of existing media systems,” and explains how artware is part of a new stage of art practice bringing together art and technology. She also takes the time to explain the emerging context in which this kind of work functions.

The crossover of art, science and technology explored in these texts actually depend on two cultural layers that allow for the notion of progress to take effect. These two layers are the foundation of Remix, which I define as the act of taking samples from pre-existing materials to combine them in new forms according to personal decisions. Remix functions on two major cultural layers. The first occurs when something is introduced in culture; the second takes place when a remixed version of something is later introduced based on the preexisting authority gained by the original object. These layers rely on a type of appropriation that is highly allegorical and dependent on metalanguages.

The texts cited above expose how the first layer, that is when something is introduced to eventually take cultural agency, is key to research in science, while having a pre-existing context, the second layer, is essential for the visual arts to develop a critical practice: this is the moment of Remix—when material with cultural value is recombined within itself or with other material, and is reintroduced in culture.

The texts I chose for Now expose the development of cultural value that is dependent on Remix. Menezes and Gracie develop work that has no apparent value as art, but they quickly connect it to pre-established art language to make it part of conventional art practice; thus, both are remixing science as art; while Ascott presents the overall process as a global endeavor that crosses over unexpected fields of research: his most peculiar example, which may be unexpected during a time of high-tech is the Brazilian shaman; and Paul shows how the friction between research and its acceptance in the art institution demands a sensitive process of assimilation in which new terms need to be created to do justice to emerging forms of cultural production.

The four texts by Menezes, Gracie, Ascott and Paul demonstrate that a minima is a unique magazine offering a critical platform useful to understand the variables defining contemporary culture in the context of recent theories such as Remix.

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