sk-interfaces and Jens Hauser
Interview and Review by Gaynor Evelyn Sweeney
02 March 2008
sk-interfaces, an exhibition at the FACT (Liverpool, England) and curated by Jens Hauser, is an extraordinary and thought provoking cultural analysis of arts, science and philosophy. It takes skin as the media for interface, where seventeen international artists have explored through various creative and scientific technological processes the concepts of liminality. Those very shifts and transitions of the inbetweenness of the current socio-cultural climate. The extensive creative overview captured by the different artists is equally explored in the curatorial parameters of the gallery setting and public spaces by Hauser.
The exhibitions encompasses the work by Orlan; Julia Reodica; The Tissue Culture and Art Project by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurrr; Art Orienté objet by Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoit Mangin; Stelarc; Jun Takita; Zbigniew Oksiuta; Maurice Benayoun; Critical Art Ensemble; The Office of Experiments; Zane Berzina; Eduoardo Kac; Kira O’Reilly; Jill Scott; livier Goulet; Wim Delvoye; Yann Marussich and others. Plus, a full extensive programme of seminars, lecturers, films and more.
Hauser provides further insight to his professional involvement and curatorial objectives of sk-interfaces and contemporary arts and culture.
Sweeney: How did you become professionally involved in arts and science, both as a writer and curator?
Hauser: We are living in a world that is, on the one hand, shaped and deeply interpenetrated by our contemporary technosciences. On the other, art increasingly conquers new terrains, and aesthetics‚ evaporate everywhere into society. Art in our highly mediated age can be seen as an ‘incubator’ in which the technologies of our age make new aesthetics and models of self-understanding breed and hatch. Especially in the field of what is often called ‘media arts’, the integration of contemporary knowledge has modified a certain view of art as being primarily guided by intuition or the quest for the sublime. It is not surprising that these FACTors have influenced my own development: I passed my higher education entrance qualification with a focus on biology, then studied aesthetics, film and psychology, and ended up with a degree in scientific journalism, before working as a cultural journalist and founding collaborator of the European Culture TV channel ARTE since 1992 – and then adapted myself to this stimulating cultural environment by becoming an art curator and writer. But we should not see sk-interfaces as a ‘sci-art’ exhibition. Its aim is not to illustrate knowledge or scientific methods but to subvert them to primarily non-utilitarian ends, in order to make us think about how our technologies and media have taken over the role of our skins through which we relate to the world.
Sweeney: How did the concept of the sk-interfaces exhibition come about?
Hauser: sk-interfaces explores what was once believed to be the limit of our bodies and identities, the external boundaries, but which are currently being perceived as more and more unstable. Launching FACT’s 2008 Human Futures programme, sk-interfaces emphasizes the growing importance of the liminal state of ‘inbetween-ness’ which we encounter in the age of technological extensions and bio- and nano-political changes, even beyond the consequences of the digital age. Its focus is on the process of becoming, rather than on snapshots of what we think that we are. Materially and metaphorically, artists explore trans-species relationships, xenotransplantation, telepresence and permeable architecture. The exhibition presents ‘victimless’, tissue cultured miniature ‘leather’garments or designer replacement hymens, video-, interactive- or haptic installations.
Sweeney: What are the core objectives to this exhibition?
Hauser: The exhibition asks how to replace borders that tend to separate by membranes which need to be negotiated. How do we relate not only to each other but to the other in an increasingly technological and mediated environment? Will distances and distinctions still be felt the same way? Generally speaking, the art works reflect on our relationships we not only have with other humans but also toward other living organisms. Let’s think of biotechnological satellite-bodies which bridge gender, ‘races’ and species, or architecture which tends to escape earthly gravity. The works critically engage us into a deep questioning of whom and how to inter-face with, and whether our identities still stop at our skins.
Sweeney: Why did you select the ideas imbued to skin as the interface process in the exhibition? Hence, the title sk-interfaces.
Hauser: The exhibition does not simply deal with ‘skin as interface’, this would have been much too literal. sk-interfaces is a trompe l’œil concept for the exhibition and the publication. While skin and interface can be readily identified as solid words in their own right, tempting us to make the immediate association of ‘skin as interface’, it is the title’s hyphen that demands our attention. The intrinsic quality of the hyphen to change its position allows it to take up the position of in-between, exploiting its potential to modify our perception of a given word. As a mediating material signifier, the hyphen is more than merely a link; it dynamically induces an ability to become into the very ‘body’ of the concept sk-interfaces. It is designed to emphasize the growing importance of this liminal state of ‘inbetweenness’, as a period of transition between two states of being under the fluctuating socio-cultural climate.
Sweeney: Why did you select the artists to represent the theme in this exhibition?
Hauser: After the exhibition ‘L’Art Biotech’ I curated in Nantes in 2003, it was becoming obvious that many artists using new expressive media, including biomedia, were rediscovering ‘skin’. A five-year empirical study of why and how artists have recently developed an interest in the material properties and functionalities inherent in the notion of skin as a physiologically mediating instance then revealed common patterns of motivations. Put succinctly, art came first and cultural theory followed. What these works share is their liminality within which major shape-shifting transformations can occur. In the ambiguity, openness and disorientating indeterminacy of these unstable transition zones, ontological crises and epistemological doubts relating to our ever-expanding identities are given material form: from trans-border, -gender or -species issues and mixed ethnicity to the fascination of growth, self-experimentation, infection and healing, to matters of the living and non-living, such as the status of foetuses, stem cell research and tissue culture.
Sweeney: Who do you believe the contemporary audience is for this exhibition?
Hauser: sk-interfaces is designed to provide a locus for debate for all audiences, including less art-, science- or philosophy- ‘literate’ audiences. And the large number of visitors reminds me a similar phenomenon we had observed in Nantes in 2003: people often spend a very long time in the galleries experiencing the displays, and obviously the show attracts audiences beyond the typical contemporary art lovers. An exhibition of this type is not a capitalist spectacle whose aim is to please absolutely everybody. But it is a very sincere and profound offer from the artists to everybody to ask existential questions of our times. It is an exhibition that proposes visceral matter and escapes an elitist conception of how the contemporary arts are sometimes protected behind the rules of their own milieu.
Sweeney: Do you believe there is an educational or enlightening value to the exhibition?
Hauser: I hope so. But there is no centrally intended ‘message to learn’. The exhibition is designed in way which not only gives the visitor the opportunity to concentrate on each work independently but also establishes subtle links between the pieces: from apparently playful interactivity to political art and uncanny encounters with psychopharmacological self-experimentation; from the tiny level of cultured cells to the perspective of growing large structures in outer space. In other words: There is not just one linear way through the exhibition, no one-way-reading of added meanings, but a circular situation by which many combinations become possible. This may make the pieces mutually enrich each other, and stimulate the viewer to ask new questions even to works that he or she has already seen. The space design tries to echo the underlying questioning of our logocentric cultures in which we tend to ‘add up’ words to form sentences like pearls on a cord. Instead, the scenography tends to create singular encounters with tangible and questionable scenarios that are presented rather than represented. We see viewers experiencing the pieces more than once, and the design has been done avoiding guiding audiences too directly through the space, so that they can build their own story and interpretation of the whole.
Sweeney: The exhibition moves throughout the main foyer to the principle gallery areas of the FACT Centre, why did you adopt this approach in variable spatiality of the building?
Hauser: The FACT building is multi-functional, and many people come there only for the movies. We wanted to attract all kind of audiences. Also, the idea of sk-interfaces implies to go beyond the skin of the gallery spaces; therefore we use the foyer, the outside surfaces of the building, and several offside venues. As an example, the SkinBag shop by Olivier Goulet has been temporarily installed in the International Gallery run by The Arts Organisation. This asks the question whether art always needs to be sanctioned and confined in a white cube or whether creative energy isn’t almost emerging out of the grey area between disciplines and labels.
Sweeney: How do you deem the balance between the aesthetics of the art in the exhibition against the scientific content? Do you see both as integral and an equilibrium achieved both by subject and visual dialogue?
Hauser: I suggest that we need to prepare ourselves not to try to argue with an anachronistic art/science dichotomy every time technoscientific tools are being appropriated by cultural players. sk-interfaces is not a so-called ‘bioart’ show. Only some of the artists here use various kinds of biotechnology in collaboration with scientists, and work in controlled conditions while respecting and complying with regulations and ethics approvals. Artists in sk-interfaces have not been chosen because of the medium they use but according to how they expressed this idea of permeable boundaries – which may be epistemologically induced by scientific discoveries. For this reason we find artists here who may come from such different backgrounds as body-, digital media-, tactical-, conceptual-, ‘classical contemporary’ or ‘bioart’ as well as from architecture or design, thus overcoming the borders that cultural institutions often establish.
Sweeney: Why did you select the FACT Centre in Liverpool to platform this exhibition?
Hauser: There could not be a better opportunity for sk-interfaces than to happen at FACT within the framework of the European Capital of Culture, whose initial idea was to move beyond national borders – the exhibition’s theme of ‘inbetween-ness’ fully hits the very concept of the European Capital of Culture itself. And after having been working and presenting similar topics mainly in France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Australia and the USA, I have been attracted by the specificity of the UK context: examining the influence upon the national identity of being an island, questioning whether it affects how people might consider the concept of a changing border. It is also a country in which politically and culturally there is a determination to ‘integrate otherness’. More specifically, Liverpool as a port is historically very much a symbol for international exchange – be it for trade or slavery – but also for important and sometimes painful mutations the city passed through. sk-interfaces is about the liminal, the phenomena that start at the margins, and thanks to risky contact rather than through safe centrality. Therefore most of the European capitals would have been much less appropriated to present this art than Liverpool actually is.
Sweeney: Do you intend to tour this exhibition and where?
Hauser: Such an exhibition is very difficult to tour. The infrastructures have been developed over two years specifically for the Liverpool context, and the art at display does in majority not consist of such plug-and-play installations that can go easily from one place to another. Nevertheless, the Casino Contemporary Arts Center in Luxembourg will stage a slightly modified version of sk-interfaces in 2009, and other venues internationally have confirmed their interest.
Sweeney: What is your next cultural initiative planned?
Hauser: I’m working as a co-curator with Hege Tapio on the Article Biennale in November, as part of the exhibition programme of Stavanger in Norway, the other European Capital of Culture 2008.
The exhibition is a challenging and provocative on the subject of scientific intervention and indeed those very ideals of what constitutes art and the fluctuating and merging parameters of arts and science. Some of the work which attracted my attentions included – but the overall collection is inspiring and enlightening:
The Harlequin Coat by Orlan is commentary on cross cultural breeding from the potential of hybridinng origins and species. The skin coat takes as its point of departure Michel Serres’ book The Troubadour of Knowledge, in which the Harlequin figures as a metaphor for multiculturalism. It relates to modifications previously achieved by the artist, on a digital and virtual level, in her Self-hybridation series. A fusion of combined media and biological processes pervade the viewer senses and entice and nurture the analytical propensities.
Stelarc presents the Extra Ear: Ear on Arm. The projections and photographs present the documentation of the surgical process by which the artists has constructed the ear-sharped scaffold and communication device implanted and constructed on his forearm. The additional ear is meant to have a microphone and Bluetooth transmitter built-in, and, through wireless technology, it effectively becomes an Internet organ for the body, representing the dual reception and transmission functions of the skin. The extra ear is, in the artist’s words, a prosthesis that is not seen as ‘a sign of lack but rather as a symptom of excess’. This intriguing implant sturs the maccarbre curiosities in the viewer.
hymNext Hymen Project by Julia Reodica are unisex ‘designer hymens’ are sculpted from the artist’s own vaginal cells; they are designed to symbolically re-virginize repeatedly. It establishes an enquiry to the traditional value of virginity in certain cultures at a time when the symbolic tissue can be easily re-created and implanted. Each hymen or set has a specific motif or symbolism and each intended for sale to art collectors as novelty items presented in a ceremonial box. Adjacent to this collection of quite ornamental boxes with the perceptibly fragile sculptures within, there is set on view the sterile feeding appliances, nutrient media and flow hood, which serve as the the creative ritual. These intricate and ritualistic objects become the commodification in societal notions of the precious and collectibles.
The work by Jun Takita, titled Light on Light is a magnetic resonance scan of the artists’ brain has been 3-dimensionally printed and its surface covered with transgenic, bioluminescent moss, developed with a technique similar to biomarkers that are routinely used in science. Presenting us with a plant that emits light, Takita presents through this technological sculpture the possibilities of transforming the innate traits of living human creatures through the scientific intervention. Through transgenic process of the human brain it enables the creations of plants to illuminate expanding those parameters of natural order and the possibilities of science, art and imagination. It a strange disturbing sense it touches on the sentience of the self, the temporal awareness in human evolution and significantly with those very implications of intervention on existence by science and philosophy.
The Tissue Culture and Art Project by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Victimless Leather, displays three garments on as ‘semi-living’ sculptures in the form of miniature jackets. The concept by the artists is to ironically consider the utopian ideals of leather without need to kill animals. These are shown in growth incubators, as they are essential to the art to enable them to continue to grow and form. The structures are supported by biodegradable polymers of minitature stitch affect coat shapes. The art looks at the ethics in society of clothes manufactured from dead animals for aesthetic and protective purposes. The Tissue Culture and Art Project is an award-winning artist group hosted by and centrally involved in SymbioticA, the art and science collaborative research laboratory at the University of Western Australia, which received the prestigious Ars Electronica Golden Nica award for Hybrid Art in 2007. The work is cultural commentary on those very moral implications of clothes, indeed stimulates discourse on the fashion industry and significantly the extent for aesthetics and trends we are willing to exploit and on a similar note those very ethical boundaries of experimentation for scientific advancement.
The exhibitions runs from 01 February 2008 to 30 March 2008 at the FACT Centre.