Workshop: The Molecular Self

Sonja Bäumel, Cartography of the human body, 2010/11 (in Zusammenarbeit mit Erich Schopf).

On October 30, 2018, the department of Media Theory will host a workshop on The Molecular Self: The Artist’s Self-portrait in the Age of Genome Editing with Asimina Kaniari (Athens School of Fine Arts) and Frank Rösl (German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg): For centuries the art of portraiture concentrated above all on the face, a decisive prerequisite that became a constitutive fact of this genre. The portrait without a face, which appeared with modern art and which we will engage with in our workshop, gave rise to a number of dilemmas for both its creators and its interpreters.

The classic self-portrait differs from other types of artistic representation above all in that a relationship between the image of a person and that person’s physical existence was definitely intended. The classic portrait always refers to an existing element of reality in the form of a living person. The relationship of similarity between “original” and “likeness” was already a subject of discussion in antiquity, and stood on the one side for what the genre of the portrait achieved, and on the other constituted the precarious status of this genre. The portrait shows but one side of a person and is an art form oriented on the body, which first and foremost depicts the corporeal reality of a person. In art theory, this fact frequently led to depreciation of the portrait compared to other art genres, as the portrait merely copied, mirrored, and duplicated nature.

The same arguments were also advanced in the portrait’s favour, for it is precisely this similarity that asserts presence between original and likeness, and endows the portrait with an effect that other art genres cannot achieve. It is similarity that, beyond the dialectic of presence and absence, is able to transform actual absence into the fiction of familiar and authentic presence of reality. For a very long time the portrait was closely tied to concepts of “reality” and “truth”, and this established the special status of the portrait. From this commitment to veracity developed the special authority of the portrait and its creator, the artist. The portrait, which not only represented a likeness of the sitter but also showed a true image of the sitter’s self; a portrait that — particularly in the case of a self-portrait of the artist — is more like than the artist’s own face. In the age of modern art, however, the representability of an individual person increasingly came under scrutiny and was recontextualised. It is against this historical framework that the workshop will engage with contemporary artistic strategies, which, in the age of genome sequencing and genome editing, interrogate new concepts of the self.

Asimina Kaniari (Athens School of Fine Arts) will focus in her talk on “A Portrait of the Artist as ‘an ecology without nature’” on current projects like those of the Austrian artists Sonja Bäumel and Manuel Selg. “Being in the world as an individual really means being a multi-being community in a vital process of permanent exchange”, as Bäumel and Selg write in relation to their recent work Multi-being (2018). In an essay from 2017, titled “Dear Bees and Microbes” on her work, Testing the Waters (2015), Kathy High puts forward a similar argument. When comparing visually both images, analogies instantly appear to be in place at a formal level. Both examples of art practice may be seen as expressions of what Suzanne Anker has described as “the molecular gaze”. Yet, the prints and the forms both artists use to suggest an understanding of their connection to the world indicate that both works may be read as self-portraits as well. Since the 1990s, many artists (working with techniques of the molecular gaze) have produced similar images and claims as the object of display or performance. Cast as artists’ portraits in the context of this talk, Asimina Kaniari argues that such examples of artists’ post-1990s work also suggest a reading of the artist that recalls Timothy Morton’s notion of an “ecology without nature”. Indeed, artists’ portraits, also in the context of Anker’s work and writing, conceive the artist as part of the nexus of living forms in nature with no discrimination or hierarchy implied to life forms in the context of art.

Frank Rösl (German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg) will provide with his talk CRISPR-Cas: ethical implications and interdisciplinary desiderata an overview about the possibilities and risks of genome editing using the example of the CRISPR-Cas method. He will to put this new method in a bioethical, scientific-sociological and socially relevant context and pose some relevant questions: Would a research moratorium not be most appropriate in this situation? If not, what are the driving forces behind the fact that a scientific development is being pushed into our society in such a way? The conclusion — regarding this new challenge — will be that only interdisciplinary cooperation between researchers, ethicists, sociologists, lawyers and government representatives will make it possible to rationalize or regulate interventions in the human genome.


Introduction: The Molecular Self
Ingeborg Reichle, University of Applied Arts Vienna

A Portrait of the Artist as ‘an ecology without nature’
Asimina Kaniari, Athens School of Fine Arts, Athens

CRISPR-Cas: ethical implications and interdisciplinary desiderata
Frank Rösl, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg

Biographical notes:

Asimina Kaniari is assistant professor of art history at the Department of Art Theory and History, Athens School of Fine Arts. She received her doctorate from the Department of Art History, University of Oxford, under Martin Kemp. Her thesis looked at the location of the ornamental in nineteenth-century decorative aesthetics and science. She was an academic visitor at the same Oxford department from 2006 to 2010 and a Scaliger Fellow at the University of Leiden in September 2009. From September to December 2017 she was on sabbatical leave to conduct research at Princeton University as an associate research scholar (Seeger Fellow). She is the co-editor of the festschrift for Martin Kemp Acts of Seeing. Artists, Scientists and the History of the Visual. A Volume Dedicated to Martin Kemp (London, 2009) and has recently edited a collection of essays on bio art with contributions, amongst others, by Martin Kemp, Robert Zwijnenberg, and Ellen K. Levy, Institutional Critique to Hospitality: Bio Art Practice Now (Athens, 2017).

Frank Rösl is a scientist and since 2002 head of the Division of Viral Transformation Mechanisms Research Programme “Infection, Inflammation and Cancer”, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg. This field of research received considerable publicity when Harald zur Hausen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008, his mentor and colleague with whom Frank Rösl worked together for more than 15 years. Frank Rösl has been a professor in the faculty of Theoretical Medicine, University of Heidelberg since 2001. His research fields are: innate immunity and viral escape mechanisms; metabolic aspects, intracellular energy sensoring; papillomaviruses and non-melanoma skin cancer, vaccine development. In 1986 he received his doctorate from the Department of Molecular Biology of DNA Tumor Viruses, German Cancer Research Center. His habilitation thesis in 1994 was in virology at the faculty of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Heidelberg. Because knowledge and innovation evolve not only within a well-defined field, but rather through transgressing boundaries and through developing open and creative communication, Frank Rösl endeavours to bring art, science, and the humanities together to enable epistemic transfers. From 2008 to 2011 he was a member of the interdisciplinary research group “Bildkulturen” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin, and in 2008 was co-applicant of the research project “Transfer-Knowledge – Knowledge-Transfer. On the History and Contemporary Relevance of Transfers between the Life Sciences and Humanities (1930/1970/2010)” in collaboration with the Center for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL), sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) from 2009 to 2013.

Ingeborg Reichle is the Chair of the Department of Media Theory and was Founding Chair of the Department Cross-Disciplinary Strategies (2017–2018), designing the integrated curriculum of the new BA study programme Cross-Disciplinary Strategies: Applied Studies in Art, Science, Philosophy, and Global Challenges at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. She is a Board Member and co-founder of the German Association for Interdisciplinary Image Science (Deutsche Gesellschaft für interdisziplinäre Bildwissenschaft), and an active member of the U.S. College Art Association (CAA), the International Association for Aesthetics (IAA), and the International Association of Bioethics (IAB). In Vienna she serves as co-host for Leonardo’s LASER Talks (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous), an international programme of gatherings that bring artists and scientists together for informal conversations. Her main area of research and teaching is the encounter of the arts with cutting edge technologies such as biotechnology and synthetic biology, taking into account artistic responses as well as the respective discourses in the sciences and our societies in order to develop a critical understanding of the role of the arts in the twenty-first century. A further field of her research is the rise of new cartographies of contemporary art which are evolving through the process of globalisation and fostering new post-colonial constellations in the art world.

Date and time: Tuesday, October 30, 2018, 10:15 am.
Venue: University of Applied Arts Vienna,
Vordere Zollamtsstraße 7, 1030 Vienna, Lecture Hall 21, 4th Floor.

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