indistinguishability. interface between art and natural science science
INDISTINGUISHABILITY AS EXHIBITION PRACTICE
The relationship between art at the edge of biomedical research and experimental exhibition practices was explored in the long term collaboration between biomedical professionals of the Charite, Berlin, post-graduate students of the University of the Arts, Berlin, and of Pratt Institute, New York, as well as independently working artists affiliated with various institutions, such as the Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar. A multiplicity of different forms of collaborations, exhibitions, discussions, publications and sometimes - unexpected forms of artistic and scientific research continue to emerge from these collaborations. The project titled MISSING LINK began as an interdisciplinary artistic research project initiated by Prof. Dr. Cornelius Frömmel from the Charite and Wolfgang Knapp from the UdK in 2005, and developed into an interdisciplinary and collaborative study group with an exhibition practice, such as at the Berlin Museum of Medical History, (which houses a permanent exhibition of human specimen, originally collected and presented to the public by Rudolf Virchow for educational purposes). I developed the contact that lead to the exhibition at the Shafler Gallery, Pratt Institute, New York, where it included work by Pratt Institute students, and later we, Nicole Degenhardt, Käthe Wenzel, and myself, Lisa Glauer, initiated and produced a conference funded by the Goethe Institute, in Budapest, with an interdisciplinary exhibition running parallel at the 2B Gallery, Budapest.
 Missing Link – public understanding of science and art. A Publication in English and German (pdf. attached) was produced in connection with the exhibition that took place in the Museum of Medical History in Berlin and at the Shafler Gallery at Pratt Institute, New York.
From top right, selected artists participating in Oszillogrammes at 2B Gallery Budapest and Goethe Institute, Budapest: Suzanne Anker, Ingo Bechmann, Rajkamal Kahlon, Frank Schäpel, Käthe Wenzel, Navena Widulin
From Indistinguishability as Exhibition Strategy to Atmospheres of Engineering and Art
The terms “abject” (Kristeva) or “atmosphere” (Böhme) as located between object and subject, as well as materiality and concept on the one hand and the relative purity of the art context on the other, together provided a conceptual framework for reflections on the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity in relation to several interdisciplinary projects.
In the original MISSING LINK project, the UdK students were paired up with biomedical scientists. In some cases, artists worked in the labs not usually accessible to the public for developing work and a first exhibition. The first exhibition featured work and images produced by the scientists and the artists side by side, without specifically distinguishing whether the person(s) who produced a piece were considered to be scientists or artists. It elicited strong public reactions. These were taken as a starting point for a collection of analytical essays and interviews on the benefits and complexity of (re)connecting the sciences and art, which, in Europe, developed into clearly distinct disciplines from a common presentation background. The history of the pure “white cube” (O’ Doherty) as it emerged from the Wunderkammer, and recent (public) art practices that aim at (re)dissolving, (re)contaminating and questioning the limits of this type of space were discussed in relation to other interdisciplinary long-term art based teaching projects2. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva describes how subjects are constituted through processes of abjection in her seminal text “Powers of Horror”. For the German philosopher Gernot Boehme, by contrast, “atmospheres”, as he says, “seem to in a certain sense be something that is undefined, diffuse but precisely not undefined in relation to how it is, its character.”3 Atmosphere, for Böhme, is located between object and subject. He speaks of nimbus, a ghostlike substance, which can be experienced as emanating from and enveloping the art, specifically having an effect on other objects and the space surrounding it. Though he does consider performances and non-object art processes, this part of his aesthetic philosophy deals primarily with objects, which seem to exude some sort of ghostlike cloud as they influence the space in which they are placed. For the art historian and theorist Arthur Danto on the other hand, the atmosphere of the art context is a necessary precondition for the recognition of artistic phenomena as such. He discusses the process by which it has become commonplace in contemporary to explore the boundaries of art by experimentally declaring as art that which had thus far not been considered part of it in “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” (1988).
The exhibition MISSING LINK and its newly conceived following exhibition OSZILLOGRAMME first took place 2005/6 in the Museum of Medical History in Berlin. Visitors to the first exhibition in the Museum of Medical History reacted, as can be seen from the comments left in the visitors’ book, with angry indignation to what they saw there. This unexpected reaction – what was on view in the exhibition curated and organized by artists and biomedical professionals can only be described as playful, considering the extent to which contemporary artists are known to go in order to elicit reactions via provocation – led to a process of in depth research into the specificity of exhibitions spaces as “places for showing” intended to showcase results and objects from scientific research. It resulted in the publication, “Ein entscheidender Teil fehlt – Gratwanderungen zwischen Kunst und Naturwissenschaften” (“an important part remains elusive – Dimensions of Wandering between Art and Science”) which includes interviews with protagonists from this field.
A particularly striking contrast of representations produced for a scientific and artistic context respectively took place in the presentation for the exhibition OSZILLOGRAMME in Budapest.
Wax moulages by the specialist Navena Widulin from the Charite, who produces these in order to illustrate diseases for the Museum of Medical History, and the wax reliefs the artist Rajkamal Kahlon made of her own open mouth were placed within the same exhibition. The relief pieces by the artist Kahlon seemed to eerily emerge from the wall, they were much less precise, realistic and detailed than Widulins pieces, which can be described as beautiful in their detailed craftsmanship – but Kahlon’s pieces elicited a different, more immediate and strong emotional response, especially when seen in relation to the title: “Did you Kiss the Dead Body?” The work appeals to an individual sense of ethics, of injustice that has not been dealt with adequately. (Since then, Kahlon has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union in order to bring to the public, abuses committed in the War on Terror by commemorating detainees who died under questionable circumstances in Abu Ghraib. She has exhibited widely, in a solo show at the Hack Musuem in Ludwigshafen and most recently at the Taipei Biennnial. For more information see: http://www.rajkamalkahlon.com/ )
A hypothesis is that objects produced by people who do not consider themselves to be artists, in this case scientists, can more seamlessly be incorporated into more traditional art exhibitions without threatening the “artistic value” of the work, but artefacts produced as artistic objects can irritate considerably whatever it is that the public expects scientific objects to transmit, particularly when presented next to objects or scientific interest understood to be transmitting “objective knowledge”. This may be due to the scientific unmanageability of what was described as the “atmosphere” enveloping artistic objects, or the affective response often experience in the presence of these art works.
Under what circumstances does a proximity to artistic practice threaten scientific credibility – and when does it enhance it by expanding too narrowly specialized perspectives, by providing cultural context?4
Through today, a typical reaction to objects in these spaces for the exhibition of medical specimen can be observed: I recently described my relatively unemotional dealing with specimen typically on view in medical museums throughout Europe5 and specifically at the Museum of Medical History in Berlin, But the pieces of preserved tattooed skin were disturbing to me – I tried to discuss why I did not feel the same Unbehagen in light of the typical “babies in bottles” perhaps knowing full well I was going to see them. The tattoo specimen, by contrast, bothered me. The reaction of the US American artist I was describing this to in Weimar is perhaps predictable: she quickly concluded that it must have been specimen of skin derived from concentration camp prisoners. It was not easy to dispel this fixed idea, to get to the point where there was a readiness to even consider it may be necessary to try to distinguish what is commonly considered to constitute a historical fact from projected presuppositions. The story about lampshades made of human skin in the Buchenwald concentration camp are extremely well known, keep resurfacing6 and have been sensationalized, drawing attention away from a more differentiated, personal and often difficult intimate interaction with the memory of individuals for example at the Buchenwald memorial. It draws away from the memory of the suffering millions of individual people were subjected to by mostly Germans unwilling to question the authority and unbearable cruelty of German Nazi regime7 or even to simply not participate in maintaining it.8 Scepticism is always warranted and facts must be checked and rechecked. And it continues to be close to impossible look at tattooed specimen of human skin generally and particularly in Germany without thinking of this context. But I think one additional reason these particular skin specimens elicit strong affective reactions is that they show body art, the result of personalizing the body part with a form of art specifically designed to decompose, to disappear along with the body to which it belonged. An uneasy relationship between the individual unique body of the deceased and the objectivity from a more abstract and generalizing gaze commonly associated as a necessary requirement for scientific anatomical study becomes hard to overlook: as if a preserved finger in a medical museum was still wearing a wedding ring, the cultural context informing the personhood or identity of the individual whose remains are being studied becomes impossible to ignore, and so the social meaning of the cultural context, the place, continues to be factually, visibly present. In our conversation, I attempted to describe my analysis of the essence of this Unbehagen. The specimen of skin were, if all the information I have been able to access in relation to this is correct, unlikely to be specimen of concentration camp inmates. Given the history, medical professionals in Germany, including those working in institutes of anatomy and museums such as the Museum of Medical Museum in Berlin, have credibly and repeatedly reviewed the origin of the specimen on view because bodies of inmates had been delivered to anatomical institutes apparently in increasing numbers, through the mid 1940s9. Much remains to be discovered in these institutions, much has been destroyed. Historical and geographical proximity to locations in which unimaginable acts of cruelty had actually been perpetrated by German Nazis against Jewish people, Rroma, Homosexuals and political prisoners are sufficient to make it difficult to distinguish more unreliable stories that re- emerge and become present in moments like these in a confusing way. What is truth? This leads to a need for viewing the exhibition with a heightened sensibility to one’s own individual reactions and to constantly critically re-evaluate these under aspects of something like an “ethics of showing and seeing” – which may play out particularly in places for exhibiting “Science”. This in spite and perhaps particularly in light of recently highly acclaimed and disturbing works of art, such as the more complex work of Santiago Sierra, who, for example, convinced four heroin addicted prostitutes to have a line tattooed on their backs for the price of a shot of heroin and Arthur Zjimiewski, curator of the controversial Berlin Biennale of 2012, who perversely persuaded a holocaust survivor to have his original concentration camp number re-tattooed on his arm in an act of cheap provocation in 2004. At least since the development of abject art in the 90s of the past century in the United States it is well known that the specificity of the space in which the exhibitions take place as a rule affect the objects placed therein by (de)sublimating them, depending on the type of space it is and where it figures in a hierarchy of “art value granting or art value legitimizing” institutions. The theme of the exhibition abject art that took place in 1992 in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was taken up again in the exhibition “Into Me Out of Me” ( 2007) by the curator Klaus Biesenbach in and earlier found its counterpart in the less well known so-called Autoperforationskunst (“ autoperforation art”) of the 80s through the early nineties in the former GDR. Both “abject art” and “Autoperforationskunst” served to describe art practices dealing with the borders and edges of the physical human body, often transgressing, perforating, boundaries and skin, around the time that the Berlin wall fell, and borders were being redrawn all over South Eastern Europe. It appears that the art of the biomedical researchers and artists mentioned before should be located within this context. The exhibition and the reactions to them could be considered within a discursive geography referencing a long European tradition of a Cartesian mind-body dualism, as well as a tradition of self mutilation, traceable back to the self castigating practices of mystics in the middle ages (see Carol Bynum, 1988) on the one hand, and on the other to the abject art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993, where the explicit purpose was to “dirty”10 the purity of the white cube, to de-sublimate the “cold, white peaks of art” (Clive Bell, 1913) of modernist abstraction, and the practice of “Autoperforationskunst”. This is the rough background for my presentation in San Diego on the occasion of a workshop held for the newly opened building housing both the Department of Structural Engineering and the Department of Visual Art. Crossovers between the disciplines and transdisciplinary projects resulting from collaborations were on view in the first exhibition that took place in the newly opened gallery of the building constructed to house both the Department of Structural Engineering and the Department of Visual Art. Entirely new crossover projects seem to be emerging from this strategic pairing, such as the “Center for the Human Imagination”, experimental drawing classes (for Engineering students) led by Amy Adler and the Nanoskin Project 2: A Remedy for the 2nd Amendment Remedies by Benjamin Bratton.
2 Ein entscheidender Teil fehlt: Gratwanderungen zwischen Kunst und Naturwissenschaften (in English and German) eds. Glauer, Wenzel, Fell, Berlin 2007. Includes interviews with Prof. Anker, SVA, Prof. Schnalke, Director of the Musuem of Medical History, Berlin and many more. 3 Atmosphäre als Grundbegriff einer neuen Ästhetik. Boehme, 1995, p. 24. Quote translated by Lisa Glauer. 4 It is a hope often heard from scientists that working with artists may provide context and thereby counteract a possibly dangerous over-specialisation, particularly when ethical questions arise from the scientific study undertaken. See Cornelius Frömmel, former director of the Charite, Berlin: http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/humboldt-vl/froemmel-cornelius-1994-04- 14/PDF/Froemmel.pdf, and in the catalog to „MISSING LINK“. 5 Museums such as these exist throughout Europe. London Budapest – etc. Ethics of showing have been and continue to be discussed by Medical Historians, sich as Schnalke, director of the Museum of Medical History, in Berlin. The institutions in question have often been built on the ruins of institutions with a problematic history. 6 Daniel Gaede, paedagogue and tour guide at the Buchenwald memorial, criticizes in relation to the this that people often come to Buchenwald to have their preformed ideologically determined narrative confirmed, ignoring the complexity of the place and its eternal incomprehensibility in terms of suffering, cruelty, and human capacity for survival. He describes how the lampshades exhibited during the GDR were in fact made of pig skin. Recently a lamp shade made of human skin turned up in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina. There appears to be no clear evidence where the lampshade came from, but it has made the human skin lampshade story be more present and likely again. 7 For more information on this matter, please consult the website of the Buchenwald memorial. 8 The Buchenwald guide Daniel Gaede made a point of stating that not one German citizen was ever incarcerated for non-participation in Nazi activity. People were punished for active resistance, but not for non-participation, passive resistance, which makes it tragically clear how few people had the courage to resist. 9 The reports are chilling: http://www.anatomie1.uniklinikum-jena.de/anatomie1_media/Inhalte/Anatomie.pdf