By Annie Jacobson
PhD Candidate, Ohio State History of Art Department
As we move steadily farther into the 21st century, it seems that almost everyday we are introduced to some new technology or technique that clearly states ‘we are living in the future’. From smart phones to self-driving cars, technology changes the way we live—and the art world is no different. Just like the invention of the metal paint tube in the 1840s allowed the Impressionists out into the world to create their unusual representations of nature, new inventions are constantly being embraced by artists to create radical reflections on life. So it should come as no surprise that we have reached an era of virtual exhibitions. Displayed online with a combination of descriptions, images, videos, and other media, these exhibitions can bring art to people that would otherwise be unable to experience it. But more than that, the virtual exhibition raises questions about how we understand our relationships with visual art.
There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to the virtual exhibition. As noted, they can bring art and art education to those who would otherwise be without it. The internet reaches people in nearly every corner of the globe, making it an ideal space in which to upend the widespread belief that art is only for the elite. Sites like the Google Art Project allow users to interact more closely with paintings and other objects than they would ever be able to in a museum. On the other hand, there is most assuredly a level of loss in the virtual interface. Every art historian I know, including myself, has implored students or friends to go see artworks in person, and in many cases a painting or performance really can’t be captured in a single photograph. Case in point: no matter how many wild gestures I use or emphatic exhortations I make in the classroom, no digital image or historical account will ever capture the visceral power of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, which I discovered on my first trip to New York. Personal anecdotes aside, these debates will certainly become more pressing as move deeper into the digital era. On balance, however, this reviewer believes that virtual exhibitions and wide access to contemporary art on the internet are essential to opening up art to its true inheritors: that is, everyone.
A recent example of the virtual show is called “Gut Instinct: Art, Design, and the Microbiome”—curated by Charissa N. Terranova and David R. Wessner as part of a science-art residency program called The Bridge, through the SciArt Center of New York. The philosophy of the SciArt Center focuses on commonalities between artists and scientists as they “seek answers to the same fundamental questions,” noting rightly that both art and science are essential to “extend the boundaries of human capacity.” “Gut Instinct” in particular contains everything you might want in an exhibition: an intriguing and new theme, thought provoking and sometimes viscerally shocking artworks, and the general intention to impart on the visitor new knowledge about the world around her. Part exhibition and part educational experience, the show “gathers artists, architects, and scientists to give real and metaphorical shape to the human microbiome.” In short, the microbiome is made up of the bacteria that live in our digestive systems. Recent scientific research suggests that there is a direct link between the balance of bacteria in our guts and our metal health. Although I had a vague understanding of the microbiome before visiting the virtual space of the show, the great array of participants and artworks seemed to address the unassuming bacterial communities living inside us from every possible angle.
Many of the works in the exhibition are interactive, and so feature documentation of participants experiencing various aspects of the microbiome through the artistic interpretations. There are eight artists represented, each of them working in an interdisciplinary fashion and exploring and breaking the boundaries between science and art. From ‘microbiome selfies’ to faecal microbiota transplants (more on that later), an interesting variety of artworks are produced. The site for the exhibition is easily navigable, alternating between descriptions and images of the art works and interludes of scientific discussion on the microbiome itself. The result is an amalgamation of educational videos and charts that help the uninitiated viewer navigate the strange world of the microbiome and artworks that take that scientific knowledge a step further through artistic exploration. And as we have come to expect from the wide horizon of the contemporary art world, the works do not disappoint, running a gamut from personal and thought provoking to frankly gross.
One distinct disadvantage to the virtual exhibition is the sense of absence the viewer feels for highly participatory artworks. Ken Rinaldo’s Enteric Consciousness, for example, explores the consciousness of the microbiome by placing the bacteria in a robotic artificial stomach that then activates a tongue-shaped massage chair. The video of the viewers receiving the ‘bacterial massage’ (for lack of a better term) and interacting with the other parts of the installation produced in me, the virtual viewer, a strong desire to experience the work for myself. On the other hand, there were some works that I was definitely grateful for the barrier of my computer screen.
Kathy High’s The Bank of Abject Objects present an “at-home, DIY stool banks,” that stores feces in an antimicrobial solution—honey. The clear glass containers with filled with golden liquid perhaps seem lovely from far away as they capture and bend the light, but discovering it was filled with stool would certainly change one’s impression of the object. As unpalatable as this might be to viewers, High predicts that stool will be a commodity in the future, used to “heat our houses” or “cure a wide array of diseases.” Although I can make no speculation on the veracity of this claim, High is correct that fecal transplants have been shown to have curative properties. When a friend asked the artist who she would like to receive a transplant from, High aimed for the stars and said Davie Bowie. And while I do like the series of photos of the artist as Bowie, in this writer’s opinion is it a bit beyond the pale to write a letter to a perfect stranger (especially someone as brilliant and epic as Bowie) and ask for a pile of their shit to transplant into your own intestine. Then again, perhaps I am just unevolved.
The work in the exhibition that stands out as the most visually appealing is François-Joseph Lapointe’s ‘microbiome selfies’. By taking samples from various parts of his body (often the mouth or gut) and mapping out the DNA sequences of the various bacteria found there, creating colorful spheres of interconnected lines that visualize the incredible linked network of bacteria that live on bodies. The related video shows Lapointe’s process of making these images, with each colored node representing a different strain of bacteria. The small circles float around each other, coalescing into a beautifully diverse orb that is quite unmatched in the long history of portraiture.
“Gut Instinct” is the kind of project those in the art world should be invested in: showing how contemporary art can be both cutting edge and educational, while having the potential to reach a wide audience. Because, in the real world or the virtual one, the only way to get people to understand why art is so essential for the human understanding and experience is to first get them to consume and confront it themselves. Bon Appétit!
All photos courtesy of SciArt Center and the artists.
Visit the show online HERE.