Civilization is often regarded as a process of transforming raw material – what is found in nature – into culture and its accoutrements, from cities and musical scores, to cuisine and the rule of law. But of course, each of these is itself a dynamic system; all we can observe is a moment or phase in a series of never-ending tweaks or updates to their form and meaning. There is no long-term stability or validity in a claim to have created something that is truly fixed. Even a solid sculpture like Camille Claudel’s The Mature Age, travels on a slow march towards its destination as dust. This is true for artistic endeavors as well as design, which can be understood as interrelated components of a fluctuating system of production, distribution, use, interpretation, and sometimes disposal and rot. And so the designer, like the artist, does not merely make forms, they continually initiate, shape and reshape systems with far-reaching consequences.
The biological world is naturally entwined with all of these creative efforts and is itself an evolving set of systems at its core. Varied forces and actors within it, including humans, steer it in several directions, sometimes deliberately and simultaneously, but often inadvertently or randomly, as in a chance mutation. What can become obscured over time is just how little or just how much systems themselves and our understanding of them have evolved. The relative obscurity of a masterly sculptor like Claudel, an artist overshadowed and even actively sabotaged by Auguste Rodin, is an invitation to reflect on how dysfunctional power dynamics have endured even while perspectives may have significantly advanced. Claudel was described in her time by the art critic Octave Mirbeau as "A revolt against nature: a woman genius."
What follows are observations about and analyses of works of art and design, gathered together in the exhibition ReShape, that shine light on how profoundly or infinitesimally the systems around us have been reshaped, and where they might go from here. These works address diverse phenomena, including how humans remain in the food chain, the changing carbon cycle of the planet, the extremes of industrialized agriculture, our ambivalence towards blood, whether we can create a digital life, and how our bodies can acclimatize to a horizontal existence.
1. The Body in Progress
There is a rich history of art and graphic design that reflects our changing notions of the body and self, from medieval medical guides describing bodily humours to experimental artistic representations that try to capture the complexities of DNA or the human microbiome. These recent efforts in particular, pursued by artists such as Sonja Bäumel and Julia Lohmann, for example, point to conflicts and monumental changes underway as regards our understanding of the body. Such changes are less obvious and tend not to attract the same attention as topics such as sexual orientation or the ongoing battles to secure reproductive rights, but they are nonetheless extremely important and provide the impetus for new creative output.
Ani Liu is such an artist who is represented in the ReShape exhibition and has a portfolio of work attuned to bodily transformation, representation, and the related power dynamics. In the project Data Veins and Flesh Voxels with which Liu won one of the three Bio Art and Design (BAD) Awards by collaborating with Professor Mario Maas from the Department of Radiology & Nuclear Medicine (AMC) affiliated with the University of Amsterdam, the artist explores how representation of the human in visual form as well as verbal description oscillates with the dominant technological regime of the time. As she puts it, “human is an unstable construct” that undergoes unending reshaping and which is now at another crossroads as the possibilities of synthetic sentience, edited human genomes, and augmented senses and organs present themselves. Among the components of the presentation are three modes of representation: via advanced medical scans of the body including the brain, captured at a moment the artist was pondering her own consciousness, in tanks of computer components and (non-human) brain tissue, and as a collection of data, perhaps the final frontier of human abstraction. Together these objects convey the contemporary “pulsating subjectivity,” as the artist describes, of the human self.
The works Suicide Soda by Uli Westphal and Horizontal Living by Yiyun Chen also concern the human body and its reshaping by contemporary systems in a literal sense. The former is a collection of soda products, consisting mainly of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Its variety of sizes, colors and shapes serving as testament to the vast industrialization of agriculture into monocultures, translated into products with mere superficial differences like color dyes. These products misshape the bodies of billions of people, and are of a particular menace in developing countries where soda is an attractive, thirst-quenching alternative when drinking water is unsafe or more expensive. The bottles are also a foil to the images from recent works within the Cultivar Series (2010 – ongoing) by the same artist, that present the spectacular cultivars of Zea mays, corn, documenting just a few of the millions of steps in cultivation it has undergone, a process that has transformed it from Teosinte, a grass with just a tiny ear, to a dramatically larger and more nutritious, if bland, contemporary varietal.
The work Horizontal Living by Yiyun Chen, one of the BAD Awards winners who developed her project together with Professor Patrick Schrauwen in the Department of Nutrition and Movement Sciences at Maastricht University, takes as its starting point that trying to live well while confined to a bed is a struggle for a vast and growing number of people worldwide. However, we lack the systems or understanding and norms to make such living sustainable: those who have no choice but to be in bed, such as the recovering or the disabled often see their physical and mental health deteriorate. The artist therefore has set out to discover how to change this, subjecting herself to horizontal living and inventing routines and design solutions that can make being bed-ridden more bearable. The work highlights the invisible reality that many people must endure, confined by societal expectations and norms out of touch with real lives.
The work of Studio Arvid & Marie looks to the future, particularly the possibility and accompanying implications of forging a synthetic being. In Artificial Life Form in the Digitial World, they press the question of what responsibilities would we have for something that resembles life in every way apart from being organic. Their digital being checks most of the boxes of what qualifies as life and will, at the close of the ReShape exhibition, essentially die, while its potential offspring reside as lines of code embedded in an app. This same notion of designing a life, but in a carbon-based form, is the foundation of the work of Pleun van Dijk. In Staging a Human Production-Line we are confronted with a metaphor for the march of biotechnology and its seeming inevitable destination in customizing people before their birth. The “body lab” as the artist calls it, produces a series of slightly altered models of babies, each based on a mold formed itself from the series’ last iteration. The installation’s aesthetics of a factory provide a jarring reminder of how we are moving toward an engineering approach to life: standardizing, modularizing, and abstracting it.
The work of Anna Dumitriu, in contrast, focuses on the history of entanglements between homo sapiens and other species, such as Clostridium pasteurianum, a bacterium that, along with its many cousins, is responsible for the retting (rotting) of flax, an essential step in the making of linen. Like winemaking, this is a process long practiced but little understood for centuries before the birth of microbiology. Pastorianum takes the form of a necklace of unspun natural flax, along with human hairs and other materials, referencing the work of microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky. The Russian scientist originally named the aforementioned bacterium Clostridium pastorianum which translates to “spindle from the field” but the name was later changed to Clostridium pasteurianum in honor of Louis Pasteur. In another work, Spindle, the artist utilizes the interaction between crocheted linen lace and biofilm producing bacteria from the human gut including spindle shaped Clostridium difficile, to thread an antique linen lace collar.
2. Epochs and Cycles
The imprint of humanity on the planet takes many forms and can be considered and measured on many scales, from the microscopic to the geological. At the grander end of the spectrum, counted in thousands or millions of years, we can recognize the tragic and irreversible scarring humans have left on the common property of all civilizations. Thanks to advances in satellite photography and the distribution power of the internet we can easily see and learn about vast, poisoned lakes and rivers around the world, the impacts of unyielding urbanization, of entire forests felled, and mountains eviscerated of minerals and abandoned. These are perhaps among the most lasting monuments our modern lives have inadvertently produced and by which we will be one day judged.
The theme of human impact writ large and the changes we are making to the planetary carbon cycle is explored in the work 50 Sisters by Jon McCormack, via images that blend the iconography of petroleum company brands with the forms of plants and flowers, all synthesized with a generative software mimicking evolutionary development. The work is informed by the process of extracting hydrocarbons in forms like oil and gas, which were once plants mainly, and adding it back into the atmosphere by burning fuel, as humans have an affinity for. The result, after several million years, will complete a bizarre and tragic cycle, in which our activity on earth adds carbon to the atmosphere, which is, in turn, helping form new plants, which will eventually become sediment and hydrocarbons once more.
The consideration of monumental scale, of epochs and history told in rock, is also at the heart of The Pink Chicken Project by the (Non) human (Non) sense Collective and Microbiocene: Ancient ooze to future myths by Baum & Leahy (Amanda Baum and Rose Leahy), who together won the BAD Award in collaboration with Julie Lattaud, Laura Schreuder, and Gabriella Weiss from the Royal Institute for Sea Research. It is rarely thought of how vastly expanded our consumption of chickens has become on the earth: we collectively raise and slaughter 60 billion of them every year, enough to leave a distinct layer of strata in the earth’s rock. The Pink Chicken Project proposes making this glaringly apparent via genetic manipulation, utilizing the DNA of the conchineal insect and the gene drives technique to spread the change rapidly, so that the bones of the animal become pink. The color is key to the absurdist taunt, a deliberate, symbolic opposite of hetero masculine supremacy that produced the desperate environmental mess and orgy of irresponsible consumption in which we find ourselves.
The work of Baum & Leahy begins with a perspective shift. They consider planetary development from the point of view of microbes, organisms that existed long before humans and which will doubtless endure for billions of years into the future. From this vantage the artists offer a new visual language system and an array of artifacts that mark important developments on a scale that is decidedly alien from the considerations of a human life or, for that matter, of a single species. Apart from spotlighting human hubris like that which claims a geological epoch for itself, the Anthropocene, the work adeptly blends far-flung practices, from biogeochemistry and semiotics, to science fiction storytelling and 3D printing.
Blood Related by Basse Stittgen, somewhat like The Pink Chicken Project, takes as its departure point the fraught relationship between different species, in this case Homo sapiens and Bos taurus, the modern cow. In presenting a series of deep red objects, made from dried and compressed cow blood, the artist confronts us with an aesthetically alluring tactile experience, as you are invited to touch them. But they can also repel, given that most of us are conditioned to think of blood as dangerous or dirty; the vivid cultural associations blood conjures are vast, from revolution and romantic passion, to religious ritual to pain. Stittgen works to create yet another, one of tragedy and empathy, of considering the billions of liters of blood that is simply disposed of by the meat industry every year. This connection is enhanced with sound, as a record, also made of dried and pressed blood, plays a recording of a cow’s heartbeat, pulsing blood slowly through a body that is, to the modern world, mere property.
Finally, in the work Moon Ginseng, the artist Kuang-Yi Ku takes as a starting point the practices of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which upholds ginseng as a source of vitality and rejuvenation, even having the power of reversing the effects of aging (Chinese: ??). Demand for wild ginseng has thus endangered it, and so this speculative narrative proposes growing ginseng, the roots of plants in the genus Panax, on the moon at some point in the future. In such a harsh context where, due to differences in rotation speed, one day is the equivalent of one month on earth, a “thousand year old” ginseng as measured on earth may be produced in 32 moon years. The poetry of this speculation lies in its effort to reconcile the need to preserve biodiversity with the fast-disappearing Chinese traditions in medicine that reach back thousands of years.
As these many works suggest, the shaping and reshaping of systems, bodies and perceptions is a never-ending process in which artists and designers play a central role, as they wield the kind of insight and creativity that allows them to influence change, to perhaps mold systems so they generate greater social and environmental justice. The imperative to steer our systems and perceptions in a new direction mounts each day, as we learn of impending crises from a changing climate, the extinction of species and habitable environments, and the depletion of natural resources like fresh water. As one of Ernest Hemmingway’s characters in The Sun Also Rises said of bankruptcy: it happens “gradually and then suddenly.” We may have collectively crossed over into a kind of insolvency with regard to our environmental bank account; but then again, change can take hold in a similar way if it’s wanted badly enough, in a drip and then a deluge.
Image: The Mature Age by Camille Claudel (1900), Collection Musée d'Orsay, Paris