‘More Than Living’ opened on September 27 at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris, as part of the ongoing ‘Open Source Body’ festival, following on from the previous events taking place between 2018 and 2021. It was a complex, multi-faceted and ambitious project on several levels. The exhibition is visible until October 22nd. Makery attempted an overview.
At the opening of ‘More Than Living’, the exhibition and main event of the Open Source Body festival co-produced with the Cité internationale des arts, it was an opportunity to see the work and meet many of the artists who have participated in the important ART4MED European project, which interrogates the way art interacts with health and biomedical research. I had the chance to interview some of the participants during and after the lockdown for Makery, when it was still difficult to meet in person and it was interesting to see how these projects had advanced since our conversations at this historic meeting at the Cité International des arts in Paris. The opening days were a heady mix of performances, cooking, workshops and talks, the final forum being with Marion Laval-Jeantet of Art Oriente Objet and Orlan, chaired by Jens Hauser. One memory I had was every day filing past sleeping homeless people in front of the gallery every night on my way to the events. This was apparently (according to director Bénédicte Alliot) a deliberate policy of the Cité over its 30-year history to give these people a place to stay warm and dry overnight, as well as giving large number of artists studio residencies, some of which developed their work for this project under the Art Explora programme.
There was indeed a palpable sense of excitement on the opening night, as many of the artists and partners in both the ART4MED consortium and the upcoming More-Than-Planet project had travelled considerable distances to be together for the first time in three years, because of the recent situation. Many of the artists were in their spaces discussing their work which added to a genuine sense of an historic event at the Cité. Maya Minder launched her ‘Green Open Food Evolution’ installation in the centre of which was which a huge vat of blue, smoking bubbling liquid and a team of biohacker/cooks busily producing fungal and algae-based foodstuff, eaten enthusiastically by the opening crowd. ‘Cooking transforms us’! was their battle cry. Disnovation’s new exhibition ‘A Bestiary of the Anthropocene’ opened simultaneously, a display of hybrid creatures, following on from their handbook which “aims at helping us observe, navigate, and orientate into the increasingly artificial fabric of the world. Plastiglomerates, surveillance robot dogs, fordite, artificial grass, antenna trees, Sars-Covid-2, decapitated mountains, drone-fighting eagles, standardised bananas…”. Finally Simon Berz’s ‘Tectonic’ sound performance, played on millions of year-old flagstones, resonated throughout the building. Curators Ewen Chardronnet and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez were inspired by the title from Theodore Sturgeon’s science fiction book of the fifties, ‘More Than Human’ in their title ‘More Than Living’, but the term has recently become a catch-all for describing our relations with other species, as opposed to ‘non-human’ or the ‘other’ as seen in the recent writings of Donna Haraway, such as ‘When Species Meet’.
There were three artists, or groups of artists I interviewed last year. Emilia Tikka worked with artist and reindeer herder couple Leena and Oula A Valkeapää on a project involving deep humans future and explicity, the more-than human. Here we get to see the first film Oula made intimately portraying his life and relationship with the reindeer. The sight of the herd is truly breathtaking, then we see Oula taking part in simple life-pursuits out on the reminder’s territory, constructing a tent, gathering wood, boiling a kettle. She said in that interview: “Since the nomadic ethics of the past are still present in Oula’s herding practice, he is able to discuss the on-going changes that he witnesses including technologisation and diminishing space for herding. Further on, the project turns to imagine a different kind of future, led by the ethics of the past. The idea behind the speculation of change through a biomedical transformation is connected to a wish to remember something that has been lost.” Her new film does just that, showing her visiting the Arctic in an imagined future, as a kind of anthropologist exploring a pre-climate disaster past, exploring the ‘resting lands of the reindeer. inspecting remnants of the herd, examining antlers. The implication is there are no more herds. In between the films is a ‘flying’ harness for reindeer suspended in the air, inferring the shamanic tradition of drinking reindeer urine to fly between realms, reflected in the popular image of Father Christmas in his red outfit on the sledge. There is also a ‘biometric visitor visa’ allowing temporary humans entry to only anyone with indigenous DNA, reflecting Tikka’s interest in speculative biosciences. It apparently dissolves 24 hours after removal.
I also interviewed the artists Helena Nikonole and Lucy Ojomoko in ‘The Smell Of The Human – Bio Reactors for the Skin’ whose ‘Quorum Sensing’ project creates a genetically modified skin microbiome that literally produces a scent in response to exposure to disease. I interviewed them at the height of the COVID pandemic, so this form of self-diagnosis was both relevant and controversial. I asked them then about the ethical dilemmas of this approach.: “Yes, we thought about this. If we imagine our project growing into a real self-diagnostic tool — we see it as a DIY-kit to work with bacteria, so it’s a person who decides if they want to use it or not. When it’s a free choice it’s more ethical. We also thought about pre-defining a way to switch off this smell gene again — if we implemented the project in real life that would be useful.” Here, they exhibited a series of retorts, which could be seen as a forms of bio-reactors equipped with special membranes that only allowed smell molecules to pass through and blocks GMOs but as a notice informed us “Please note that due to EU regulations we are not allowed to demonstrate GMO outside of a laboratory – this installation works as a prototype.”
Finally I interviewed Martin Howse of ‘Tiny Mining’ – the ‘first open source mining co-operative for literally mining the human body for rare earth and other mineral resources. Howse was highly influenced by another classic science fiction novel, Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, which describes the ‘’stillsuits’ of the inhabitants of a desert planet, influenced by the Bedouin’s relationship with their camels.Howse: “Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube in the clip at your neck… Urine and faeces are processed in the thigh pads. In the open desert, you wear this filter across your face, this tube in the nostrils with these plugs to ensure a tight fit. Breathe in through the mouth filter, out through the nose tube. With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day.” A typical ‘tiny mining’ lab was on display, with an instructional video by Howse on how to explore the extreme ecologies of the body.
Various continuing projects were on display, including Shu Lea Cheang and Ewen Chardronnet’s ‘Unborn0X9’, which questions the development of foetuses in artificial wombs and the cyborg future of parenting with an apparent homunculus in an artificial womb, being tended/monitored by a small robot, creepily skittering across the surface of the womb. Adriana Knouf, of the tranxxeno lab, a “nomadic artistic research laboratory that promotes entanglements amongst entities trans and xeno”, was in her space describing her ‘Xenological Preterrelations’ while Albert Garcia-Alzorriz’s ‘The Blue Flower In the Land Of of Technology’ at the start of the exhibition, treated the view to some highly visceral images of an operation – being performed by a robot as medics being trained to revive a body whose heart had stopped, using a replica. Jean-Luc Godard, who has just died, was referenced pointing out that the dawn of radiology coincided with the dawn of cinema. Estelle Banazet Heugenhauser and Cindy Coutant’s of 14Bouche ‘Jupiter Space’ installation consisted of various cinematic representations on tiny screens scattered around that room either borrowing from or parodying David Cronenbourg ‘Rabid’-style monsters emerging from between women’s thighs and “missiles, aliens, motherships and excremental inventions”. They inhabited their space at the end of the opening events with a performance with sound artist Claire Williams.
Clara Sukyong Jo’s ‘De Anima’ confronted various causes of the Coronavirus outbreak in an ‘ominous prelude set in Myanmar and Kenya that unveils how gendered, racialised, economic, and metabolic ecosystems embedded within the global health crisis drives fear of contamination from the nonhuman world” with some stunning shots of a sacred ‘Batcaves’ with field research done by veterinarians from the Smithsonian Institute who were studying the possibility of viruses passing from bats to humans in this high-risk environment followed by footage from Africa of a rhino sanctuary points out the spread of ‘zoonotic pathogens’ in human-animal interaction. Finally, the complex curatorial research project M/Other: Arts Of Repair by Edna Bonhomme, Nazila Kivi, Jette Hye Jan Mortensen and Luiza Prado explored reproductive justice for minority mothers in Denmark.
An important event in the open Source Body Festival was an encounter between Marion Laval-Jeantet of Art Orienté Objet and the veteran performance artist and provocatrice Orlan, moderated by curator and writer Jens Hauser, known for his extensive knowledge of biological art and curator of, among other exhibitions, ‘Sk-interfaces’. Unfortunately this unique face-to-face encounter could not happen as Jeantet was isolating with COVID. Both artists are well known for pushing the envelope in terms of risking their own bodies in terms of art, Jeantet in ‘May The Horse Live In Me’, where she injected plasma from a horse into her body live at Kapelica Gallery in Slovenia and Orlan in the surgically implanted ‘horns’ she proudly wears as a result of elective plastic surgery in the early ‘90s. She was also working with her own DNA in the late 90s, at a time when ‘bio-art’ was hardly even imagined. As a curator I was implicated in a marginal way in her plastic surgery project as she described her proposed medical journey to me in a visit to her studio in Paris in 1989. I invited her to take part in the exhibition and performance festival I curated ‘Edge 90’ in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1990 and we launched her project with champagne at that festival, although I declined as a curator to make contact with surgeons to actually do the operation, on the grounds that I would ethically never ask an artist to do something I would not do to myself. I’ve had a lively debate about this with Marion Laval-Jeantet herself since then, who also worked with curators I know personally to achieve her aim, which carried a strong risk of anaphylactic shock. Despite this, Orlan insists on teasingly claiming publicly that as a curator, I started the process of her surgeries, including at this talk for More Than Living. Her operation/performances, which also referred to non-western cultures, were done between 1990 and 1993 and were called, successively, First Surgery Performance, Successful Operation, Opera Surgery-Performance, 9th Surgery Performance, Omnipresence-Surgery and Tryptych Opera Performance, all of which were documented with a dizzying combination of costumed surgeons, other performers and Orlan herself in various costumes being operated upon. She went on to make the controversial work about race and representation ‘Harlequin Coat’, with SymbioticA in Perth, Australia, which asked “Can skins of different colours be cultivated? What kind of information can be obtained from the donors? Can a person still be the owner of his or her cells? Does self-ownership continue to exist at the fragmented level? How are such issues perceived in various countries, and especially in the context of a non-western viewpoint?” She worked with in-vitro skin of different colours to make this work. She is currently working on a large-scale installation involving a giant petri dish with bacteria extracted from her various orifices including her mouth and her vagina. Orlan, with a new and towering hair sculpture above her head, gave a fitting and lively conclusion to a significant final event in Paris.
While writing this, I heard that the eminent French social scientist, philosopher and radical influencer Bruno Latour had died aged 75. I’ll let him give the afterword to this article, from an article he wrote for The Guardian last year. which I think is very relevant to the Open Source Body project. “When you look up at the blue sky, are you not aware that you are now under some sort of dome inside which you are locked? Gone is the infinite space; now you are responsible for the safety of this overbearing dome as much as you are for your own health and wealth. It weighs on you, body and soul. Such a curvature of space is the great ‘bonus’ of the lockdown: at last we know where we are and with which fellow creatures we will have to survive. And we realise that we will never escape from the vagaries of their mutations. To survive under this new condition we have to undergo a sort of metamorphosis”.
More Than Living, until October 22nd at Cité internationale des arts.
The ART4MED cooperation is co-funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union.