Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Super Human

I have just spent two days at the Super Human conference in Melbourne, organised by the Australian Network for Art and Technology. The full title of the event was "Super Human: Revolution of the Species Symposium". It had a focus on the human body, in the context of interactions between art and science, and is part of a suite of events, including an exhibition at RMIT Gallery and the "re:live" conference on media art history.

The conference had quite a strong international representation. The first keynote speaker was Barbara Maria Stafford from Chicago, whose mission is to build bridges between the humanities, especially visual culture, and neuro- and cognitive science. Her talk was wide-ranging, but one of its themes was "slow looking", or paying mindful attention to something outside oneself. Automatic mechanisms of perception and the like have been much studied, but deliberately focused attention has apparently not.

Quite a strong theme was prostheses, extensions of the body (in various senses) and devices to help people with disabilities. Another keynote speaker was Ju Gosling from the U.K., who is a passionate campaigner for the rights of disabled people (she uses a wheelchair herself), and would argue at least in part that the normal/impaired dichotomy is to be avoided; we all have our problems. Not that she is against medical intervention; indeed the opposite. However, she pointed out that so far replacement hip joints, for example, are not as good as the natural ones; in general the technical substitutes available now are inferior. (The artificial lenses I have in my eyes after cataract operations may be an exception. I am much less short-sighted than I was before the operations.) Ju was also strongly opposed to the popular idea that medical science will soon solve all our problems, and so we don't have to worry about the disabled, as soon they will be "fixed".

After Ju we heard a rather wide-eyed and visionary talk from Natasha Vita-More (U.S.A./U.K.), who doesn't have any doubt that the combination of "nano-bio-info-cogno-neuro" will solve all our problems, and improve on our natural bodies. In particular she very much likes the idea of extended life spans.

Another talk in this area was from Junichi Ushiba (Japan), a scientist who has been working with a practical brain-machine interface device. It allowed a quadriplegic with essentially no limb movement to control an avatar in Second Life purely by thinking (imagining movement). But its most widespread potential use is in allowing stroke victims, who typically lose control of one side of their body, to regain some function on the affected side. This work is tied up with the body image of the participants, which is often damaged after the stroke.

All this was related to another theme that emerged, that of "embodied consciousness". How important is feeling and moving to thinking? The consensus appeared to be that our sensory-motor systems are indeed very important to thinking. The role of the emotions also came up.

There were two talks on scientific visualisation. Dolores Steinman (Canada) talked about the different representations of the same data (in this case on blood flow) required by physicists, engineers and medical practitioners; the different requirements are due to training and disciplinary culture as much as anything else. Tami Spector (U.S.A.), who is an organic chemist, talked on "nanoaesthetics", about the visualisation of atomic-scale structures, through conventional chemical structure diagrams, and through images obtained by techniques like atomic force microscopy. These images are derived in an indirect fashion and are not comparable with photographs, but we tend to accept them as such. There is a very good question as to what they actually represent.

Svenja Kratz, a student at QUT in Brisbane, talked about her artistic work involving human cells, and the ethical issues that arose. It is apparently possible to buy cell lines, in Svenja's case cancer cells derived originally from an anonymous 11-year-old girl, and use them, even feed them to ants, without ethics clearance. But when Svenja wanted to obtain cells from volunteers (who were keen to be involved), an elaborate ethics clearance process was needed. Svenja said that her own views on ethical matters had changed considerably as a result of her experiences. She also devoted some of her art works to creating an imagined identity for the 11-year-old from whom the cancer cells originally came.

Kathryn Hoffmann (U.S.A.) talked about some extraordinary displays that used to be seen in anatomy museums, essentially artworks made out of bones and other body parts. There is a link here to the nineteenth century practice of mortuary photography, photographs of dead people (even children) taken and used as mementos. The anatomy collections discussed by Kathryn are now very largely inaccessible and placed in storage; Kathryn is campaigning for some to be re-opened. The public treatment of death oscillates over time, and Kathryn thought a public focus on death was coming back. The question of respect for the dead was raised. Kathryn said that she thought the present treatment, stuck in boxes in a warehouse, was more disrespectful than any public display would be.

There was a lot more, including the phenomenology of avatars and virtual bodies, using software that can read faces to detect emotions, a project from Sydney University to make a figure with artificial touch-sensitive skin (how should a robot react to being touched?), the design of "medical jewellery", that is devices that serve medical purposes as well as looking attractive, and so on. Many of these topics were introduced by artists discussing their own practices.

The final talk was by Paul Brown (U.K./Australia), who had the task of summing up the conference. He outlined three possibilities for engagement of art and science. In the first, an artist appropriates scientific ideas for artistic ends, often treating the science in a critical or hostile manner. Conversely a scientific group may use artists as designers to make their own scientific work look good, essentially for PR purposes. The third and most desirable engagement is a true collaboration, where artists are involved early in the project, both sides contribute on an equal footing, and both sides benefit. We heard about several such successful collaborations during the conference.

Most of the speakers were women, an outcome apparently not particularly planned by the organisers. I did hear a rather acid comment (from a woman) that women were playing out their traditional role of handmaidens to someone else, in this case (male) scientists. I don't think this was fair, as in many cases it seemed that the artists in a collaboration were taking the lead or were equal partners. Also among the six or so (self-identified) scientists and engineers who spoke, two were women, and at least some of the (self-identified) artists obviously had a high degree of technical knowledge. And a substantial proportion of biologists (in particular) are female. The divide male scientist/female artist may still exist, but it is getting pretty blurred. My take on all this is simply that there are a lot of successful female artists.

It appears from the conference that just now Australia is a pretty good place for art-science engagement.

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