Nell Tenhaaf is an electronic media artist and writer. In her work, she has questioned the main biological and biotechnology discourse of DNA, as well as aimed at representing the complex dynamics of life. She has been jury Chair for the VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards since their inception. Tenhaaf is a Professor in the Visual Arts department of York University in Toronto, Canada.
You have a long experience as a member of the jury of the VIDA Awards. From your perspective, how has VIDA evolved over the last fifteen years?
It is true, of the fifteen editions of VIDA I have only missed one year! I would say that it was quite stable for a long period of time, in the sense that there were no radical changes or new ways in which we had to rethink the competition. What did happen was that gradually our perspective became more open to biology (to use that term in a broad sense) by looking at hybrid projects, that is, projects that combined a certain kind of “hardware” with a “wet” component. That started to happen around eight years ago. Artists have been working with plants and living creatures for a long time in this domain, but it was thanks to the incorporation of Mónica Bello that we started to become interested in the work that is being done in Europe and areas of research such as synthetic biology (a term that is actually quite hard to define properly). In VIDA 10.0 the Second Prize was awarded to Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, whose work (not about synthetic biology but tissue culture) is a good example of the way in which the contest opened to new areas.
In this sense, the jury members of VIDA have always had to face the complex and challenging issues of this intersection between scientific and artistic research. New areas of knowledge and new terms appear and evolve, such as “executable biology”, which refers to writing algorithms that will generate biological forms, in a sense. So we must keep an open mind. But of course VIDA is not the only front, this is a very active field. We’ve had to admit overlaps with other festivals, but at the same time we retain something that is very specific to this contest.
While addressing the concept of “life”, which is related to biology, VIDA also deals with technology, and therefore with new media art…
Yes, in fact, one of the reasons we keep attached to new media art is that it already has some kind of recognition in the wider art world. This is important, because I think that we should not simply generate our own separate domain, and obviously every artist wants to be part of the art world, to show his or her work in a big museum. New media art, although having a very problematic relationship with the art world, at least it has a relationship. It would be too problematic to try to build a whole new domain for these works, but at the same time I would say that we always moved on the fringes of this new media art world. I think that Fundación Telefónica would have expected the jury to select artworks that are more related to technology, and it that sense we may be shocking them when we award synthetic biology works. New media art, being associated with the technology we use every day, seems to be easier to understand than this sophisticated projects that combine lab technology and wet components. So it is challenging to explore the role that these kind of projects will play, and everybody seems to be in the same state of confusion about it. In that sense, it is an interesting moment.
Would you say, then, that art and biology projects are harder to understand than new media art?
Well, in a way these projects are usually read from a socio-cultural perspective, or as renegades doing their own science. They also operate on an uncanny level: you’re told what you’re looking at but, many times, you really don’t know what it is. This “muteness” of the artwork drives the fact that a lot of meaning is generated around it. Usually one might not read much that goes beyond the social role interpretation of artists as scientists although, at the same time, that builds a very direct bridge between art and the science domain. In VIDA, this bridge is built anew in every edition: according to the group of jurors and the projects submitted, the profile of the competition takes a slightly different shape. So we are never in a defined position, definite, we move in a search space, like a blind probe head, trying to see the field as it opens up in front of us. In that sense, VIDA is an emergent system of its own.
If we consider the following three factors in a submitted project: its contribution to scientific research, its aesthetic qualities as an artwork and finally the correspondence between the idea and the output, how do they influence the jury’s decisions?
I would say that the scientific aspect is maybe the least of them. Although sometimes it comes to the fore, as in Marguerite Humeau’s Back, here, below, formidable [the rebith of prehistoric creatures] (Special mention in VIDA 13.2). Sometimes, they same area of research is found in several artistic projects: for instance, cellular automata is a recurring subject, I remember around a dozen projects about it. In those cases, if someone for instance refers to Rule 30, there is no need to check the research background for it. But at the same time, there is always something new to learn about it. It must be said that not everyone in the jury is a scientist, so there are different expertises, enough to understand the fundamentals of the A-Life territory, which can be very specialized and complex.
As for the aesthetic aspect, quite simply I would say that the work has to be appear “right”, you must be able to say “yes, it works”. There are some moments of contention in terms of aesthetics. Sometimes there can be a jury member who is very much part of the art world, and usually professionals of the art world want the work to be evident, in the sense that it can be easily explained, clear. I think that there is a lot of pressure on museum professionals concerning the need to explain things quickly. But in VIDA we are not thinking in that way, although it is true that the work is going to be exhibited. The context is important here, because we can show work that is complex or has an emergent behavior, but their particular nature can be explained in the overall context.
Finally, I would link the correspondence between the idea and the output with the aesthetic question. We understand the works and write the texts that are used to explain them in the communications of the VIDA awards. It is in our interest that the works are well explained, and in the end it is also fascinating to be able to work around this “muteness” of the artwork that I mentioned before.
The first edition of the contest was titled VIDA 2.0, addressing the idea that artificial life could be an “updated” version of life. Do you think that this idea still resonates today?
The A-life idea of “life as it could be” still works for synthetic biology, that concept is very much alive. Still, I would say that it is rather a deployment: not so much the creation of those life pieces, but the exploration of the relations that we have with whatever it might be, a BioBrick or a robotic entity. In that sense, I personally think that the core strength of our domain is to work on those relations, getting rid of the “sci-fi questions”, such as whether we are going to build a robot that is indistinguishable from a human being, and so on. That does not really matter because we already have so many things with which we have to negotiate, things that are right now in our world. The artworks that are submitted to VIDA constitute a way of learning about these negotiations and enjoying them.
Do these works contribute to a better understanding of scientific research, then?
I think that it is fairly soft in that respect. I don’t think that an art project will really provide a deep understanding of the scientific research it refers to, but in the end there is a trickle down effect from research to art and everyday life. Artists in general are pretty much on the edge, they can see where the scientific research is going to lead. Of course I am not talking about a sci-fi kind of prediction, but about the interests of people who follow science.
Conversely, it must be said that scientists are also interested in art and culture, they do not like to be seen as narrow sighted and they look for bridges, connections. I remember that, 30 years ago, as an artist in a scientific lab I felt like a little bug… but now A-Life has helped bringing the idea that there is a different kind of science, and a different way to relate to other fields of knowledge. So science is not only there with its huge authoritative voice, there is something more of a conversation.
You once stated that “there is a line that can’t be crossed between the scientific method of studying the real, material world […] and an artist’s contrivance of a metaphorical material world through techniques of representation and interpretation.” Haven’t some artistic projects crossed this line? Can an art project be also relevant as scientific research?
I did not mean to sound authoritative with that statement, in fact I am a supporter of DIY science, but I also think that it does not participate in big science, the kind of scientific research that is published in peer-reviewed publications and contributes to its complex field of knowledge. So, even though there is a “conversation” as I just said, there is still a big distinction. The conversation can get very close, but then each person (scientist or artist) goes back to their own field. I do think that from both sides the framing of the question can be a novel contribution, so both sides can be framing a question or technical challenge and then each of them can use their own method to solve the question.
Talking about re-framing the question: can A-Life art and research contribute to a less human-centered view of the world?
I do, I think that the sense of the other besets us because we understand too much about how different we are from any other entity that isn’t like us. We tend to project too much. That’s our history, but I think that it’s a history that we have to get over. We tend to anthropomorphize without thinking about it, so it is important to dig into it and ask ourselves what is exactly the dynamic of this process? Is it the same when you apply it to a dog, a robot or a virus? It is very difficult for us to acknowledge that there is an other, something that is not us, it is not going to be us and it doesn’t have to be like us. To me it is much more interesting to learn to understand and respect the relationship that we have with everything that is not our own kind.
A-Life art deals with complex ideas but also sophisticated technology that can only be found in a scientific lab. New media art has quickly evolved as technology has become more affordable and easier to use, do you think that the same can happen to the resources needed to develop an artificial life artwork?
In my experience, it is really good to have the possibility of working on a project that does not require the resources of a large research lab. For artists working in the context of universities, there is always the pressure to get involved in big, ambitious projects with a large team of collaborators. But many of these artists prefer to develop their own projects with less resources and the complications that stem from them. In this sense, the open source ethic is very good for artists because it provides the possibility of working without the need for a big infrastructure. BioBricks are an example of this, although you always need an expert to work with them, But they are less complex, and many scientists are also interested in getting involved in artistic projects because it adds to their work. In that sense, I think that the artist has to make the decision of how far she wants to go into the lab, how far does her research go.
The work of Tuur van Balen (First Prize in VIDA 14.0) is a good example, as it is more about the deployment of the idea of the BioBrick than about actually building one. I am not sure if the BioBrick will be further developed in other projects, but at least it is more available than other extremely lab-based research such as artificial cell walls. Then there is tissue culture, transgenic experiments, for instance in the work of Eduardo Kac (Special Mention in VIDA 3.0), and other approaches such as Art Orienté Objet’s May The Horse Live in Me (Third Prize in VIDA 14.0), which in my opinion is more related to a medical perspective. Finally, robotics could probably develop in the next years, although we have not seen much lately. So there are different resources and approaches, but it is too soon to tell how they will evolve in the future.