Basic Life

At the Transmediale05 festival, there was a panel on Basic Life. Steve Kurtz and Claire Pentecost presented their work for the Critical Art Ensemble. Henk Oosterling held a lecture starting from the article Radical Medi@crity he wrote for the German magazine Babel.

Below you can find the panel statement, some short notes on the presentations by Claire Pentecost and Steve Kurtz and a synthesis of the article by Henk Oosterling.


Panel Statement
The handling of genetic information is determined by economic interest – long before the ethics-committee could decide how to go about the issue responsibly. Great Britain and Estonia have already begun to create national gene pools because they claim to recognize them as the business of the future.
The starting point for this panel is the development of bio and gene technology and a questioning of the ethical basics of our society. Which boundaries are transgressed by the new bio – political regime? How, with the present circumstances, should we newly define ‘man’, nature, agriculture and nourishment? Without claiming to provide an appropriate response, artists are creatively trying to negotiate their way through this moral quagmire. Questions regarding societal awareness of bio-technology and the protection of bio-political self-determination will be raised.

Claire Pentecost (Artist, Chicago) & Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble)

In the Introduction to the panel Jan – Christoph Heilinger, a philosopher from Berlin, states that we are living in a changing world with new problems and new choices:
– How far can we go with DNA?
– How local is global communication?
– What is the role of the people?
– What role has the individual?

Knowledge on biotechnology is becoming increasingly important. Amongst others because of the relationship between biotechnology and power structure. We need to find concepts we can work with.
Can art contribute to such a better understanding? In any case it is a special form of understanding and communicating. Art can confront and make a discussion possible.

Claire Pentecost questioned the concept of ‘Nature’.
 What can ‘nature’ mean?
– the physical world
– nature as the essence of something (human nature)

Nature often is seen as something that is timeless and unchangeable. Nowadays there also are less religious explanations. Religion had a constructive impact on our relation to nature, just like art for that matter.
The problem of the Critical Art Ensemble often has been to explain that what they do is Art.

Science too is a way to mediate our relationship to nature. People however don’t have a clear view on what science is. Who actually are the scientists? Science is being mystified and often it becomes a fetish. For the moment there is a sort of alienation of science.

In a capitalist society science is turned into an abstraction and a knowledge gap is sustained deliberately. Also the financial dimension in knowledge/Science is getting very ambiguous. What are the companies that support the scientific research? Science serves more as a “go-between”, a mediator between some of the largest companies.

Besides that there also is the legal ‘enclosure’ of knowledge through MTA’s, patents and in the transfer of technology.

An artist can take on the role of the ‘public amateur’. He isn’t legitimized by a corporation and he isn’t doing it for the money or to get ahead in the field. Artists can deconstruct and delegitimize “science” by showing in public the procedures and pointing at the underlying (economic) power structures.

Steve Kurtz is part of the Critical Art ensemble. They focus on Biotechnology and try to get a clear view of the ‘basics’. We need critical artistic developments. A lot of the original artistic work made out of biotechnology one big fetish and by that they became the new cheerleaders for the corporate science.

CAE would rather start from interventions. Amongst others by staging biotechnological research using the basic material that is publicly accessible. The aim was to show that biology can be accessible for a large audience.
For example the project The Flesh Machine which made human features “marketable”. The starting point was showing the banality of DNA – screening.

Again we see the importance of the amateur (artist) to step into the public domain to show the relativity of the myths around biotechnology and the new life sciences.

Radical Medi@crity – Henk oosterling

In the article Radical Medi@crity Henk Oosterling wonders how mediocre life of Western individuals has become. We have to take the notion ‘mediocre’ as literal as possible (radical mediocrity).
We travel around the globe as tourists, traders or terrorists, virtually locating ourselves via GPS or communicating our tele – presence to others via e – mail, SMS, MSN, MMS or whatever digital data device. Within this mode of “being” – actual and virtual at the same time – presence and absence are no longer oppositions: we are continuously anticipating our future presence. Over the last decades all life processes have sped up. It accelerates exponentially. Life has become very excessive, even extatic.

Henk Oosterling’s thesis is that global and local life – our glocal human condition – has become radically mediocre. But we have to agree on the way we use the word ‘mediocre’. Oosterling uses the word in a more psycho – technological than in a socio – psychological sense. Starting from the fact that media in the broadest sense – from transport media like planes and cars to communication media as computers and cell phones – are ruling our lives: mediocrity is first and for all medi@crity. Once connected to the world – and who isn’t nowadays? – former autonomous individuals have turned in to (and here Oosterling uses a term by Friedrich Nietschze) dividuals – splitt, cross-eyed persons whose lives are contractions of at least two perspectives: they are global and local, virtual and actual, and as a result: private and public. Living in the best of both worlds is being urban.

Both worlds can no longer be experienced as opposite, they are necessary supplements. The oppositions by which moderns subjects valued their own autonomy and the other’s alienation – true versus false, good versus bad, beautiful versus ugly, democratic versus fascism – have become hybrid tensions. These have torn the autonomous subject apart. The subject as traject became a dividual.

Post – modern man has turned himself into a capsular being. In order to counterweight the centripetal forces of acceleration and hybridization he has encapsulated himself in cars, planes, and digital devices, hiding behind screens and interfaces. From a radical medi@cre point of view these interfaces do no longer mediate reality. They produce reality. (Cfr. The concept of hyperreality by Jean Baudrillard)

This radical medi@crity has serious consequences for our experience of liberty. In the 19th and first half of the 20th century freedom was gained through collective self – knowledge. Knowledge empowered subjects. In the Information Society, however, knowledge has been fragmented into information. The will to be informed turns modern interiority inside out: We do no longer enjoy knowledge, but sheer access. Access being the main topic in our society, autonomy becomes secondary. Our freedom consists of inventing these instruments for enhanced comfort.

The bottom line of our mediocrity is not reason, as is always suggested, but unconditional belief. In order to feel free we have to believe in the media that ‘cocoon’ us. The former opposition between private and public is no longer operative. Post 9-11 men gladly exchange freedom for security. Seen from a modern perspective the capsular dividual can therefore be conceived of as an indication for a highly paradoxical freedom: we feel optimally free in being completely dependent upon ‘our’ media.

“Is this all there is?” Henk Oosterling is wondering. No, there is one promising aspect to radical medi@crity. We – but who is this we? – have indeed reached a point in thought that we’d better not neglect: consciousness can no longer ‘progress’ by opposing the mediocrity of the others to ‘ours’. We have to face our mediocrity directly in order to gain insights in other modes of existence. Our only hope lies in doing it radically. Therefore the active core of radical medi@crity is affirmative. We have to face the fact that we really want to be connected to everybody else.
Oosterling refers to a term which is used by German philosophers: Inter-esse. Post – modern capsular dividuals – always outside themselves, ecstatic – are first of all “in between” people. The current human condition is a psycho-technological inter-esse or a being-in-between.

What do all these rather abstract reflections mean for everyday life and for human, all too human policies? Why would not we face the inevitable consequences of our excessive auto mobility and create space for advanced and free ‘public’ mobility? If the perceived lack of safety on the streets is caused, in part, by reduction of the public domain to a sum of vacuous private vectors – capsular trajects – who only use public space for shopping and transmitting politico-economic messages, if so, why not negotiate a post-automobile urbanity?

The discussion talked about the pseudo – criticism that would be put forward by biotech artists. Is an artist a collaborator or a critic? Such a critique is, according to Henk Oosterling “hypocritical” because it starts inherently out of the system itself. He refers to the example of the anti – globalists.
Maybe we need a new discourse, a new vocabulary. The ‘agency’ of artists is not to be found in different people, but is “in – between” people. Oosterling refers to his theory on inter – esse and radical medi@crity. This however has big cultural and pedagogical consequences. How will you learn a child to be creative?