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Biomedicine in museums

Short resumé of 'The Value of Objects, Materials and Practices' workshop, Lancaster University, 15 March

Marta de Menezes, Nuclear Family (2004)
(a rendition of gene array analysis, see more of Marta de Menesez’ work here)
And here’s a short resumé of ‘The Value of Objects, Materials and Practices’ workshop at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Lancaster University last Wednesday, a meeting which focused on gene arrays as scientific, museum and art objects:

The original aim of this workshop, held on 15 March 2006, was to focus on some of the material artefacts associated with the contemporary development of the life sciences, as well as the forms of work associated with them, especially as these artefacts move across institutional boundaries that might be said to separate the laboratory, the art gallery and the museum.

The Affymetrix GeneChip is but one example of such an artefact, at once a patented technology, a symbol for the more widespead benefits of recent advances in biomolecular science, and basic material for the artistic representation of changing notions of kinship. Oron Catts, an artist engaged in sustaining a conversation between scientist and cultural critic through the shared material practices of the scientific and artistic ‘laboratory’, opened the discussion by questioning the ways in which artistic work focussing on technologies such as the GeneChip courts the risk of endorsing genetic reductionism and determinism. He then introduced his own work on tissue culture, which advances a more ephemeral understanding of life insofar as the very act of touching the artefacts he produces results in their death. Reflecting on the ‘Steve Kurtz’ incident, he also reminded the audience on the role of regulatory bodies in policing the movement of bio-materials.

Brian Forde shifted the discussion to the practices of genetic engineering and how these have been appropriated by artists such as Eduardo Kac, focussing in particular on the use of green fluorescent protein marking to produce the ‘GFP Bunny’. In so doing, Forde raised questions about the ethics of genetic engineering for artistic, rather than scientific, purposes. Questions were also raised about the extent to which Kac’s ‘GFP Bunny’ can really be said to be an example of the intersection of art and recent developments in the life sciences, insofar as the fluoresecence of the ‘GFP Bunny’ is an effect of photographic, rather than genetic, techniques.

Starting his contribution by disputing Catts’ notion that the mobilisation of tissue culture necessarily entails a critique of genetic reductionism and determinism, insofar as practices of tissue culture are closely linked to developments in genetics, Thomas Söderqvist returned the discussion to the GeneChip. He focussed in particular on the difficulties involved in displaying the role of the GeneChip in reconfiguring the organisation of contemporary biomedicine, which raised important questions about ‘dematerialisation’ and ‘rematerialisation’, in both the arts and the natural sciences.

In their interventions as respondents, Richard Twine questioned the extent to which genetic engineering can be said to be any more ethical when mobilised for scientific rather than artistic purposes; Maureen McNeil called instead for greater attention to the ways in which the artefacts emerging from contemporary developments in the life sciences, especially the gene, acquire aesthetic value, at the expense of questions of political economy, focussing in particular on the role of the Wellcome Trust. Catts took up the latter issue by speaking about the role of the Wellcome Trust in policing the role of artists in the representation of contemporary developments in the life sciences.

(for links, see

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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