Art apparatus and the technology
of a (fruit fly) encounter
Art in the West is traditionally viewed as a tool for representation, aiming to reflect objects, phenomena and states of affairs that exist in the world or in the human psyche, the minds and souls of individuals and communities. At the same time, Western cultural tradition considers all representations – pictures, sculptures, diagrams, textual descriptions, etc. – as having a secondary status compared to the primary reality of objects or situations they portray. While reflecting reality, representations are unable to directly influence it; objects and their representations exist independently from each other. This view contradicts the very real power that artworks have in our lives, shaping our personal histories, social interactions, political and cultural realities, and ultimately, our collective perceptions of the destiny of humanity and its place in the universe.
The metaphysics of representationalism is linked to the classical mechanical descriptions of nature, such as Newtonian physics. In the early 20th century discoveries made in several new branches of science, such as quantum mechanics, produced a dramatic shift in our understanding of the ways humans engage with the world. The apparently simple and passive act of observation is now understood as a complex physical encounter between the observer and the observed objects or phenomena, mediated by human-made tools. For example, in quantum experiments a purposefully designed apparatus generates one version of reality out of two, or more, potentialities (e.g., light manifested as a wave, or as a collection of particles). This suggest that the universe is not a collection of independently existing objects, but a complex network of relational phenomena, where humans and non-humans are entangled in mutual contemplation, actualizing a specific reality in the process.
I believe artworks should be viewed in a similar way: not as passive representations of some independently existing phenomena, but as apparatuses that actively mediate encounters between human and non-human agents, generating different versions of reality. I will draw on theoretical writings of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, and Ian Hacking, and the practice of laboratory research in experimental physics and biosciences, to develop a conceptual framework and physical model of an art apparatus: a sculptural/pictorial device mediating humans’ interaction with the world, taking part in the creation of reality. Thematically, my new body of work concerns the borderline between the notions of a mechanism and a living organism. Who or what counts as alive and conscious of their existence? Where do we draw the line between human and non-human consciousness? Is it possible to draw such a line? My research uses a variety of historical and contemporary sources: experiments with genetically modified fruit flies (drosophila melanogaster), documentation of dogs undergoing Pavlovian conditioning,
photographs of Soviet athletes engaged in group exercise, schematics of early analogue computers and others. The completed artwork will be a sculptural installation of painted, printed and embroidered imagery mapping out the gray zone where the mechanical and organic structures become interchangeable.
It will explore the utopian and dystopian consequences of the mechanism/organism integration: its potential to transform sentient beings into senseless automatons and at the same time, to free them from their biological limitations, giving wingless creatures the ability to fly.
I use the residency to engage in a slow-paced, time-intensive practices of hand embroidery and fruit fly rearing. Drosophila is considered a perfect model organism, providing the basis of our understanding of genetics. The relationship between drosophila and human genes is so close, that the fly is used in research on most human diseases, from cancer to mental disorders. Paradoxically, while serving a good biological approximation of humans, the flies are still viewed as tiny robots lacking cognition or feelings, which removes all ethical considerations from their laboratory use. I’d like to explore this logical and ethical fallacy via a set of human-fly interaction experiments. Using fly stock from Vienna Drosophila Resource Center, I combine conventional methods of drosophila rearing with technically unnecessary and potentially absurd efforts to anthropomorphize the fly, building sculptural elements for its habitat and providing it with environments and props for interaction, such as pages from T. H. Morgan’s seminal work on drosophila genetics. Via these and other encounters, I get a close of view of drosophila beyond its utilitarian role in biological research: as an independent species with its own evolutionary goals, and a miniature model of a society ruled by some powerful, unknowable authority figure – as the human must be to a fruit fly colony. The results of the experiments and fragments of drosophila genome is be worked into hand-made embroideries and an experimental film – the fragments of the future human/fly art apparatus.