Knowledge-intensive Based Art (K-i BA)

Joe Davis.
Photograph by Sam Ogden. Discover Magazine (2013)

There is a moment when art challenges not only matter and language but also science. Interestingly enough, an “artist-scientist” like Joe Davis seems to scramble our notions of what is art, technology, and science. In that sense, he is a pioneer of what I like to name cognitive arts.

The following is an interview made to him by the greek conceptual artist Yannis Melanitis.

Melanitis : The DNA decoding techniques seem to become a predominant factor for the definition of the body; is art entering this form as a mediator or an interpretor of genetic information?

Davis : For science, DNA decoding consists of one of two means (Gilber-Maxam and Sanger methods) for determining the sequence of individual chemical bases in single-stranded DNA molecules. Because these bases occur in pairs and are “complementary” to each other, the sequence of base-pairs occurring in any given double-stranded DNA can be surmised – but this is not what happens in the body.

In the natural processes of “decoding” DNA that are employed by cellular machinery, DNA is also interpreted one strand at a time but it is not resolved into individual bases rather, into triplets of bases, or “codons”. These direct protein-building biochemical processes within the cell and thus, within the body. Each triplet of DNA bases is translated by cellular machinery into one of only about twenty subunits of protein construction called “amino acids”.

Because these triplets or “codons” have no chemical or structural connection to the amino acids they represent, it is now clear that DNA operates like true language in the formal, linguistic sense. Each codon has as much to do with the amino acid it represents as say, the word “red” has to do with the perception or phenomenon of the color red. When scientisits first discovered this they themselves waxed a little bit poetic (see: Max Delbruck’s “Riddle of Life”).

Human beings have manipulated the DNA of living organisms for many thousands of years. Long before there was specific knowledge of nucleic acids, countless species have been genetically modified by the agencies of human intervention and most of these modifications have been undertaken for aesthetic reasons: to make the smoothest silk or the best tasting corn or the prettiest flower. Insofar as the DNA of any subject organism is concerned, it makes little difference whether it is modified manually with the tools of molecular biology or otherwise, through the sexual intercessions of horticulture and animal husbandry. Either way, the same enzymes and biochemical machinery are ultimately utilized. Few, if any of the ornamental plants and flowers, fruits and vegetables, or pets and livestock with which we are so familiar have ever previously existed in nature. They are all “monstrosities” by definition. We are now so familiar with them that it is difficult to think about them in terms of “monsters” – but it is an obvious conclusion. A common rose is in fact a monster much the same as the fictional one Shelly described in “Frankenstein” yet, the rose is non-fiction. We Homo sapiens have modified the genetic environment to such an extent that we have become the phages of, and are quite dependent upon the monstrosities we have produced. We have co-evolved with them. In fact, if it were necessary for us to survive solely on the natural progenitors of our now familiar genetic modifications, we might very well have to genetically modify ourselves to recapture phenotypes that are closer to those of earlier species of hominids such as Homo habilis or Australopithecus africanus in order to be more physiologically suited to consume such fare.

The decoded sequence of DNA that is called the “human genome” will almost certainly precipitate a more ‘perfect knowledge of the human body’ than we have ever known. It is at this point difficult to predict the implications of that knowledge. What nightmares and wonders may be delivered into human hands by way of it can be no more precisely predicted than perhaps the revolution in genetics and molecular biology may have been predicted in 1953 when Watson and Crick first resolved the double helix. The very least that can be said is that these developments will be undoubtedly profound. The entire so-called digital revolution will almost certainly shrink by comparison. Thus, to get an idea of how this new knowledge will effect the arts we may multiply the effects of computers, digital networks, and so on.

It would be an unprecedented negligence of human potential if art and artists were suddenly relegated merely to interpretation of genetics and molecular biology. Artists are among both the oldest and the newest mediators of the technology of the life sciences. There is certainly a place and purpose for art that seeks to interpret or illustrate technology and technological advancement. There has also been an historical role for art that seeks to incorporate technical and scientific advancements directly. Now, for instance, we can find many examples of illustrations and renderings produced by artists in order to interpret or describe polymerase chain reaction (PCR). We can also find a few artists who have used PCR directly for the production of artworks. This is the difference between interpretation and mediation that you refer to and I think, an answer to your question.

M: Subsequent to the cosideration of “organisms as monstosities”, is a dialectic of art with evolution. V. Flusser defined “habit” as the true aesthetic criterion: ” The world “new” here mean objectively any situation that emerges from the tendency toward ever-growing probability, and such an improbability may exactly quantified by probability calculus “. Thus, he seems to emphasise the contemporenaity of the artwork : “And the world “new” means subjectively any situation which makes us tremble, because it is unexpected. Thus a cow with a horse’s head (Russel’s example) is newer than an ordinary cow, because it makes us tremble more.” Is this concept proposing a new potentiality for the artist; one of producing new patterns for life by aestheticising evolution ?

D: I thought I was clear about “monstrosities” and human evolution. Ultimately, Homo sapiens/monstrosities are inextricable parts of nature. Both are ancient and coeval. I do not wish to further qualify secular debates over the separation of nature into so-called “natural” or “organic” entities as opposed to things that are not. These notions call for some pretense or disregard of history. Perhaps in other solar systems we may one day find varieties of nature that have been “pure” and inviolate and untouched by human hands. This has never been the case for the natural world inhabited by human beings. I would deny that there is any dualism at all between what we think about as “nature” and “monstrosity”.Ideas that preclude sustainable, ethical human manipulation of the natural world must also presume some unnatural “impurity” and environmental irreconcilability of humanity itself. It’s “Kevorkian” politics.

The hypocritical edict “don’t mess with the handiwork of God” has always been the source of much pain and darkness. We lament the fate of Bruno and Galileo and yet it remains currently illegal to teach the theory of evolution and natural selection in several states in the United States. I’m sure there were many qualified scientists and scholars on hand to present the facts and facts and figures fueled the fire. What lessons have learned?

The fact is that there is no such thing as an ordinary cow. Evolution has long since been irreversibly aestheticized. It will undoubtedly continue to be at least in part, a profoundly artistic undertaking.

I wonder what formulae we might apply in order to predict the future probabilities that will connect those double tendencies of blanket opposition to human intervention in the natural world and persecution of dissemination of the history of art and science.

M : Is the artist in a position, from a socio-political perspective, to direct this intervention ?

D: Artists would be if they were creators of public policy, law, or the officers of regulatory agencies. I suggest that at least in general, they are not. Even in cases where actors and playwrights have been elected to positions of authority, no government that I know of has ever been accomplished through the agency of their artworks. On the contrary, in relatively recent times we have witnessed large-scale destruction of important cultural legacies of art and literature in China, Eastern Europe, and Afganistan as a result of purges and iconoclasms driven by social, political, and/or religious ideals. Politicians, historians, theologians and others are frequent interpreters of art and artworks which have been either co-opted to assert various other-than-artistic agendas, or else prohibited, censored, or forcibly destroyed. In this way art has indeed propelled political discussion and political action but sometimes it is out of the artist’s hands and even, the artist’s intentions. Sometimes it’s out of control.

I would also suggest that the difference between science and the abuse of science is part of the reason that there are different words for science and technology. Knowledge of molecular genetics is not synonomous with genetic exploitation of the third world or the impliments of biological warfare. We are afraid of science because these technical innovations arise from misapplications of scientific knowledge. These are emotional issues because human lives and welfare are at stake. They are for this reason important issues that deserve public scrutiny and political action and artists will participate with a view to their own interests and values. Yet science, technology, and policy are disciplines beside art.

I will grant you that science, technology and politics are all invariably creative, but that fact alone is not enough evidence to claim that they are the same thing or that they should become the same thing. Having lived in both worlds I have come to understand that cognitive substructures supporting creativity in science are profoundly different from those supporting creativity in the arts. On one side there are for instance conditions such as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), cycothymia and the depressive illnesses and on the other, obsessive compulsive behavior and paranoia. It’s not that there are no scientists on lithium, for certainly there are. It’s just that certain psychopathologies are statistically more frequently diagnosed in practioners of the arts than in practitioners of science and vice-versa.

We do not automatically become engines of scientific or political intervention simply because we are artists. My art does not gain value simply because it is contrived to be an artistic treatment of an important political controversy. Great politics does not necessarily make great art and great art does not necessarily make great politics.

I am not interested in molecular biology and the life sciences simply because right now it happens to be a hot political issue and the subject of what many observers have termed “public hysteria”. I am interested in the molecular mechanisms of living organisms because artists have always sought after the secrets of life itself: knowledge of those qualities that distinguish life and death. The fact that I can now construct tiny bits of matter from an assortment of inanimate materials and then “bring them to life” is a sculptor’s dream. I hope I have not misinterpreted your question. I think artists have every reason to continue intervening in biological processes. I don’t think that we should “direct” intervention for others or that we should presume to occupy a pre-eminent position among other investigators of the natural world.

As far as socio-political perspectives are concerned, I don’t think artworks are vehicles for political expression like the newspapers are. It doesn’t always make for great art.

M: It would be nteresting to insisit on the the interelation of art and illness or madness.

D: I don’t mean to suggest that artists and scientists are all ill or insane. My implication was that the tendencies or precursors of assorted pschopathologies must already reside within the human mind/brain and that, based on my own limited observations, these seem to be different in people who choose to specialize in either art or science. Further, I was suggesting that these conditions might help to explain creativity in general and that they may point to a fundemental difference in the way that artists and scientists engage in creative activity. Currently, creativity in art and science has become so specialized that, contrary to classical notions about the universal creative “genius”, an individual with competency in one area cannot automatically be expected to demonstrate competency in another. Individuals with truely multiple creativity in art and science are distinguished not only by their historically infrequent appearance but also by their lack of correspondence with standard cognitive pychological models. Yet no models of the “genius” of creative individuals can ignore the extraordinary, even abnormal nature characterizing such cognitive processes. Many current psychological models of extraordinary cognition are in fact profiles in psychopathology. Howard Gardner’s “Seven Intelligences” is a good case in point. Populations of creative individuals have been shown to exhibit a much larger incidence of both cognitive and affective disorders than does the population at large [see: Jamison, K.. “Touched With Fire” (Simon and Schuster, Free Press Paperbacks, 1993) pp. 88-89].

Special relationships between mental illness and creativity has been recognized in all historical epochs and research into the nature of that relationship continues. Although there is a significant body of literature addressing the topic of psychopathology and the arts, there is a surprising lack of material admitting relationships between creativity and “madness” in the sciences – perhaps this is because the authors of many of these studies are scientists themselves. Perhaps science is reluctant to admit a role for creative thinking in the context of objective detachment that has come to characterize empirical scientific models.

Still, it would be difficult to compose a list at random of five or ten creative individuals – in either the arts or sciences – and not find among them several who have been diagnosed as suffering from some form of cognitive or affective disorder. Evidently, cognitive structures that facilitate creative processes can be activated by operations of the pathological mind. It may be that the existence of such structures in healthy individuals represents a susceptibility to illness. Certain cognitive structures may function as ‘scaffolding’ that – possibly according to externally-mediated circumstances – may be overlaid with either the condition of creativity or, of illness.

M: Going back to the issue of the human body, I would like to ask you to comment on the possibility of the genetic intervention -could such a process be tinted aesthetically, given its association on the social level with eugenics?

D: The real question is “Can such (inevitable) intervention be carried out without aesthetic components?”. So many of our previous physiological interventions have been just so: tatoos, piercings, circumcisions, wigs, haircuts, shaving, bathing, cosmetics, dental and orthopedic prosthetics, glass eyes….

I suppose even the prehistoric use of “fashionable” raiments of animal skins and later, of woven animal or vegetable fibers; rayon, polyester, etc.. all might be considered to have been aesthetically-propelled interventions of human physiology.

When successful, even more subtle medical intervention to correct injury or to avoid or eliminate genetic and acquired disease must obviously make for far more aesthetically pleasing human experience than any one less modified.

There are arguments about who may or may not be entitled to these interventions and these raise the spectre of eugenics, “supermen”, racism and “master races”, and the like. We want to know if we will be allowed to freely obtain or avoid them.
It should require no special gift or insight to suggest that Homo sapiens may be expected to continue to perpetrate exterminations, deprivations, persecutions, and exploitations of each other (and of other species) through the application or lack of application of whatever resourse or technology which may happen to become available. I don’t think anyone expects to be entering “paradise-on-Earth” anytime soon. Even if there were some point to it, could we somehow prevent life from becoming more technologically complex? Could some prospective artifice, edict, or “benevolent” repression possibly succeed? It seems to me that, however aestheticized, neither technological innovation nor any imaginable prohibition will ever manage to prevent human cruelty.

copyright : Joe Davis-Melanitis Yiannis/ September 2001

Shared from Melanitis website

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