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Why Look at Snails in Copulation? A Cross-Examination of Bio Art and Gender Perspectives

An installation view of Sex Shells: Gender fluidity in the modern age (2019), a collaborative art work by Jonathan HO and Joris KOENE. Photo courtesy of MU Hybrid Art House; photo by Boudewijn BOLLMANN
TEXT YU Liang-Kai
BioethicsBio Art

Exhibition Space One: Snail Pornography

Designer Jonathan HO and ecologist Joris KOENE collaborated on Sex Shells: Gender fluidity in the modern age, one of the three winners of the Bio Art & Design (BAD) Award in 2019. The work featured several living snails in a terrarium, whose shells adorned with rhinestones and paint; under the terrarium was a carpet with a snail-themed design. Black-and-white slow-motion videos of snails writhing in copulation were projected onto the three surrounding walls of the exhibition space, accompanied by images of leather enthusiasts dressed up as snails caressing each other. Having long been focusing on the sex industry and the aesthetics of fetishism in his designs, in this work, HO combined the intersex mating between snails with the intimate practices in fetish communities, perhaps also blurring the boundaries of sexual desire between humans and snails. The caption of Sex Shells at the award stated that the work used the hermaphroditic freshwater snail as a metaphor for gender fluidity, in order to explore diverse possibilities within contemporary human sexuality.

A metaphor, you say? Although Bio Art is a multi-disciplinary art form that came into prominence in the 21st century, using animals as metaphors for human societies has been an age-old tradition, going back to the time of cave paintings. What was unsettling to me was not the timelessness of such practice, but the continued lack of interactivity between human beings and other life-forms in this work. The hermaphroditic snails were certainly effective in highlighting the preconceived gender frame at work in the modern human society, and yet, the entire installation of Sex Shells seemed to hint at another unequal relationship between humans and other animals. In his seminal essay “Why Look at Animals?,” British philosopher John BERGER wrote that since the ancient times, apart from serving as metaphors in human languages, animals have been in turns consumed and worshiped by humans, forming a curiously symbiotic and mutually affecting relationship between the two. Human beings look at animals, while animals also look back. However, with the advance of capitalism and industrialization, the returning gaze of animals were taken over by animal icons, dolls, Disney cartoons, pets, and zoos instead. The establishment of zoos not only affords us glimpses of nature, but also draws attentions to the removal of animal presence from our everyday life. Having lost all their survival instincts, caged animals are fed and bred by the will of zoo keepers, and these animals are kept merely as symbols of natural wonders. They have lost their agency, existing only to be observed.1

The luridly decorated snails in Sex Shells unfortunately recalls John BERGER’s lamentation for zoo animals. Here, from the snail-inspired carpet design to the rhinestone-studded shells, the terrarium was set up for an anthropocentric way of looking, and the snails were similarly reduced to objects of spectacles. With the sex of individual snail being pre-determined by the scientist through neurosurgery, the snails become mere curiosities in a cabinet, a tamed version of nature. Sex Shells aims to ridicule the cultural framework of male-female gender dichotomy. Nevertheless, if the goal of Bio Art is to examine human-centric point of view by way of other life-forms, then how we would imagine the snails themselves feel about their situation? Could they be given a chance to voice their opinions? If snails could speak out in human languages, what would they have said about the installation of Sex Shells?

An installation view of Sex Shells: Gender fluidity in the modern age (2019), a collaborative art work by Jonathan HO and Joris KOENE. Photo by YU Liang-Kai

Exhibition Space Two: Bird-Watching Techniques

If living snails cannot voice their concerns, what can extinct birds tell us? Starting with YouTube recordings of the mating song of Kauaʻi ʻōʻō (Moho braccatus), artist Jakob Kudsk STEENSEN adopts video game animation technology to reconstruct a science-fiction utopia for the extinct honeyeater in his work, Re-Animated (2018–2019). On the surface, Re-Animated seemed to take the form of a morality tale, a critique on modern socio-economical development that had led to present ecological devastation, but the piece in fact required one to be fully immersed to appreciate its complex narrative. On each of the three walls surrounding the virtual reality (VR) machine displayed a video recording: One was of biologists’ personal recollections of the honeyeater; another was about the ecological history of the bird’s habitats on islands of Hawaii; the final one was an animated video with the extinct bird’s looping mating calls as soundtrack but without narration, while a taxidermy specimen of a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was mounted on the museum-like white wall.

Starting from the introduction to the natural history of Hawaii Islands, STEENSEN actively included the many actors who had had an effect on a honeyeater’s life: birds, missionaries, biologists, mosquitoes, diseases, and mounted specimens. The installation showed that humans and animals interacted in the colonial and ecological networks; human beings were neither separate from nature, nor were its all-powerful master. Once wearing the VR headset at the heart of this installation, the viewer entered a virtual world built by the artist using real-world captures, able to traverse through vast jungles and rivers, the view shifting from land to underwater and into the air. Though the mating calls of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō could occasionally be heard during the VR experience, the viewer still couldn’t see the supposedly “re-animated” honeyeater; there was only a painting of the bird, standing tall like a tombstone.

In a pre-recorded interview, the artist revealed that the audio sensors within the VR headset adjusted the rhythm and animation of the virtual world according to the individual wearer’s breathing pattern, so every viewing experience would be unique.2Thus, the only constant would be the impossibility of actually “re-animating” the honeyeater itself. The artist did not offer a false promise for the future with VR technology, but emphasized instead on the notion that the only thing needed to be “re-animated” was the way how human beings perceived nature.

An installation view (section) of Re-Animated (2018–2019) by Jakob Kudsk STEENSEN, who leveraged video gaming technology to reconstruct a sci-fi utopia for an extinct bird species. Photo by YU Liang-Kai

Relevant to similar issues, Resurrecting the Sublime (2019) was another example at the exhibition that transformed an extinct species into art. In collaboration with a biotech laboratory, artists Alexandra Daisy GINSBERG and Sissel TOLAAS attempted to recreate the scents of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus – a Hawaiian flowering plant in the family Malvaceae rendered extinct by colonial animal husbandry—and two other plants, using their gene sequences. The artists built three glass cabinets, each with three pieces of volcanic rocks placed inside that held the keys to the discovery of the plants’ DNA. Once the viewer stepped into the glass cabinets, suddenly, the individual scents of the extinct plants were released. But how could we be sure it was the exact fragrance diffused by each plant before it was never seen again?

An installation view of Resurrecting the Sublime (2019), a collaborative art work by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas. Photo by YU Liang-Kai

Resurrecting the Sublime did not provide an answer to this question. In the introductory videos, the artists admitted that recreating identical scents was impossible, as current science could only simulate comparative smell molecules. In her Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species, environmental literature scholar Ursula K. HEISE points out that the anxiety of post-Darwinism Western society towards the extinction of species is not only reflective of ecological crises, but also of the humanity’s self-construction and value judgments.3Unlike the virtual world constructed in Re-AnimatedResurrecting the Sublime did not offer a “sublime” visual spectacle; instead, it evoked the irretrievable loss of extinction through the transient smells. However, similar to the use of VR technology in Re-AnimatedResurrecting the Sublime brought viewers back into nature by inviting them inside the glass cabinets and turning their bodies into items on display, exposing the culture of exhibition which often frames biological specimens. Instead of directly using and displaying specimens made from living creatures, Resurrecting the Sublime removed viewers from the visually dominant world through olfactory experiences, urging them to form a different, more interactive relationship between human and nature.

Exhibition Space Three: Female Semen

Among various animal- and plant-based Bio Art projects, Charlotte JARVIS’s In Posse (which means “having a potential to exist” in Latin) returned to the boundaries of the human body. Working with Susana Chuva de SOUSA LOPES, an embryologist at the Leiden University Medical Center, JARVIS created artificial semen with female blood serum, in order to challenge the preconceived associations between masculinity and semen in gendered culture. In patriarchal imagination, semen is often seen as the symbol of fertility, brainpower, or lifeblood; seminal emission is also a spectacle signifying sexual climax in the visual vocabulary of pornography. So the artist asked: If women were to possess the ability to produce this magical substance, how would it upset the established gender order?

In Posse attempted to simultaneously challenge art, science, and cultural imagination on a triangular dining table. On the table laid a great amount of dirt, dinner plates, candles, and experiment notes, blurring the boundaries between science and ritual. Three video screens were also placed on the table, one on each side. The first video was captioned “Paint Like a Genius,” in which JARVIS wore a dildo and painted with it in a pink pigment, all the while wildly and restlessly stroking it to mock the action painters, generally considered icons of masculinity in the post-war Western art canon. The second video portrayed the creative process of In Posse, wherein the artist and other female volunteers aimed to re-create the Thesmophoria of ancient Greece, a mysterious all-women festival scarcely recorded in the patriarchal history. Through the creation of female semen, they re-imagined the forgotten details of this religious event and questioned the scientific, rational thinking with their rites. The third screen recorded the experiment process, as the artist collected blood from 13 female volunteers to extract serum proteins needed for the production of artificial semen. The volunteers also participated in the discussions on experiment procedures and the design of exhibition space, acting more like creative partners of the artist than passive donors. In a talk, JARVIS emphasized that she avoided using bovine serum albumin (BSA), despite the usage of which being a common scientific practice, in protest against the inequality between humanity and nature. With this gesture, the artist not only created art with science but also reflected upon the mechanics of patriarchal hierarchy (such as the male-female, scientist-donor, human-animal relationships) within scientific experiments, in order to shape a new model of experiment and production.4

An installation view of In Posse by Charlotte JARVIS. Photo by YU Liang-Kai
An installation view (section) of In Posse by Charlotte JARVIS. Photo by YU Liang-Kai

Across the dining table of In Posse was a giant projection screen. On the screen, organisms in the shape of viscous fluid moved slowly in parabolic and symmetrical motions, reminding me of the writhing snails in Sex Shells. Nevertheless, in the visual presentation, installation design, and participation method of In Posse, emerged a keener sense of the power dynamics between human beings and other life forms, the nature of observation, and gender politics within interdisciplinary art and science.

In New Labour, one of JARVIS’s earlier works, she imagined a world in which women became extinct, liberated from duties of childbearing in the patriarchal society, and men were forced to take up the task; it could be a world where gender division of labor was subverted and possibilities of alternative families were expanded. Queer theorist Lee EDELMAN has criticized reproductive futurism, where the spread of capitalism is built on the premise of a better future for the next generation. In this vein, perhaps the radical practices of bio artists, be they from the angles of extinction, reproductive technologies, or of the expansion of physical, sensory, and temporal boundaries, are all attempts to distance the practitioners from this school of futurism.

TEXT YU Liang-Kai
BioethicsBio Art
Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” About Looking, Vintage International, 1991.
See the interview video of artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Heise, Ursula K. Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
See the lecture video of artist Charlotte Jarvis, “In Posse: Making ‘Female’ Sperm.
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