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藝術社群與COVID-19的疫之舞 | CLABO實驗波CLABO實驗波
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How Art Communities Dance with COVID-19

Špela PETRIČ’s work Phytoteratology was exhibited in THE CAMILLE DIARIES: New Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care. Photo courtesy of Art Laboratory Berlin; photo by Tim DEUSSEN
COVID-19Bio Artart community

In December 2019, a mysterious coronavirus outbroke in Wuhan, China.

In January 2020, countries in Asia began imposing lockdown measures. By March, Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Australia had followed suit.

Countries around the world remained in lockdown until March 2021. Some countries imposed stricter measures compared to the corresponding period of the previous year. Non-essential businesses stayed closed; museums and exhibitions were shuttered; and curfews were imposed. Permission was required to leave the home. A number of countries only permitted entry by citizens and permanent residents. Air traffic has recovered to a bare minimum to enable essential travel.

The pandemic manifested in different scenarios around the globe: From the strict military control imposed in China; to the close-contact tracking of transmission routes and closing borders effected in Taiwan; to Europe, where everything was evaluated according to probability, and where social distancing became de rigueur; and Mexico, where economic activities remained the top priority. Human activity and mental states in every region were impacted to a certain degree.

Defined as a quasi-lifeform, the coronavirus entered its first patient and began replicating and spreading to its second, third, thousandth, ten-thousandth, and even its hundred-millionth patient. The virus would vanish in those who recover, or die with those who succumb from multiple organ failure. The story of COVID-19 is also the story of human beings; it is a biological history written in collaboration with human beings. Viruses are nothing new, but perhaps it is human beings who have changed.

During the early days of the pandemic, while debates on pandemic measures raged across Europe and the United States with their public opposition to lockdowns, Tomas PUEYO, a French-born Silicon Valley engineer, published an article entitled “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance” 1on Medium. The article was viewed than 40 million times since it was published. He opined that the pandemic response 2 was a dance humans have engaged in with the virus. When the viral outbreaks peak, harsh lockdown should be imposed; and once the numbers ease up, humans and virus could coexist in the back-and-forth of a dance. Unsurprisingly, amidst the various scientific evidence, moral suasion, and governmental measures, the cultural terminology of “dance” achieved the most resonance around the world. Many people would refer to this article in an effort to convince those against more aggressive prevention measures.

After a year of vicissitudes and change, the ingenuity of the “hammer and dance” metaphor is apparent. Due to the rapid replication of the virus and its transmission through close human contact, preventative measures have turn into a series of precision calculations of probability. These have manifested in government strategies as a weekly-updated “list of prohibited activities.” This week, restaurants shall close and take-outs will be permitted next week. Shops stay open as usual this week, but close the day after the press conference, then begin taking pre-orders for collection three weeks later. This week, museums will close, but open for pre-reserved visits the day after the press conference, only to announce full closure at another press conference the following week. This week, travellers with valid EU residence permits or cultural visas will be allowed entry, but a press conference is called the following day to announce that short-term residence permit and artists visa holders will be barred from entry. The vacillation in strategies are attempts by governments to maintain economic activities while keeping the epidemic under control; however, it leaves everyone in limbo. The impact is even greater on the field of Bio Art, which relies heavily on real world experiences. Looking back on major art festivals, exhibitions, and events relevant to Bio Art over the past year, it is amazing to see ways in which the existence of this “viral” organism has catalyzed a plethora of new human experiences.

Nicole CLOUSTON’s work Mud Berlin was exhibited in THE CAMILLE DIARIES: New Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care. Photo courtesy of Art Laboratory Berlin; photo by Tim DEUSSEN
Nicole CLOUSTON’s work Mud Berlin was exhibited in THE CAMILLE DIARIES: New Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care. Photo courtesy of Art Laboratory Berlin; photo by Tim DEUSSEN

A Dance of the Curatorial Teams and the Artists

With quarantines and flight cancellations, pandemic measures have disrupted the familiarity of “physical presence” in the art world; however, this has opened up new categories of physical experiences. The Berlin-based Art Laboratory Berlin (ALB) focuses on the management of science and art, and attempts to establish long-term cooperative partnerships through exhibitions, forums, workshops, art residencies, and various forms of dialogue between curators and artists. As the two ALB curators have backgrounds in art theory and art history, the institution also carries out a number of academic writing and research projects. ALB organized two exhibitions in 2020, both featuring works using living microorganisms as a creative medium, and which continued to propagate during the exhibition period. For the first exhibition, Borderless Bacteria/ Colonialist Cash, which opened prior to the pandemic, participating American artist Ken RINALDO made an effort to reduce his carbon footprint by providing ALB curators Christian DE LUTZ and Regine RAPP with the standard operating procedures to install his works in Berlin. The second exhibition, entitled THE CAMILLE DIARIES: New Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care, took place during the pandemic lockdown when international flights were grounded. Some of the works that were originally planned to be installed onsite by the artists, also ended up entrusting the two curators and the curatorial team with production of the work as well as with the final deinstallation. A key component in exhibitions featuring microorganisms is that the exhibited works will continue to propagate over the course of the exhibitions. Curators Christian DE LUTZ and Regine RAPP expressed that they were accustomed to artists executing the work installation, with curators maintaining a distance from the process, but were compelled by the pandemic shutdown to participate in the artists’ production process, and this opened their eyes to a new aspect of artistic practice.

In her work for the THE CAMILLE DIARIES exhibition, participating artist Nicole CLOUSTON applied the Winogradsky Column technology developed by 19th-century microbiologist Sergei WINOGRADSKY. The project consisted of collecting mud from different locations throughout Berlin, then placing the mud in sealed microbial columns with nutrients enabling the microorganisms to grow. The growing microorganisms create rich colors and marbled patterns in the columns, which become the work Mud Berlin. The original plan of execution involved the two curators contacting local microbiologists to assist the artist in production upon her arrival in Berlin. The revised production method was for the artist to provide instructions for execution, and the curators to work with the local team. Christian DE LUTZ and Regine RAPP believed that the new approach allowed artistic practice to become a team and collective collaboration, which required increased mutual trust between curators and artists. With local professional wet laboratory shut down and unavailable, Špela PETRIČ’s work, Phytoteratology, was carried out using a DIY wet lab vulnerable to contamination. This compelled the artist to reconsider the connotations of “contamination” in the execution and conception of her work. By diverging from the pre-pandemic priority of “the work must be untouched and shown in its original form,” a profound discussion was initiated between curators and artists, which would not have otherwise occurred, and both sides welcomed the results of that dialogue.

Špela PETRIČ’s work Phytoteratology was exhibited in THE CAMILLE DIARIES: New Artistic Positions on M/otherhood, Life and Care. Photo courtesy of Art Laboratory Berlin; photo by Tim DEUSSEN

I had a similar experience of curator-artist collaboration of revising and reproducing a work as a result of flight cancellations and lockdowns. I was invited by the Berlin-based network Art & Science Node (ASN) to show my work at the World Bio Market event in Amsterdam in March 2020, which was initially postponed until November 2020 due to the pandemic, and then again until March 2021. Ultimately, the event co-organizer, World Bio Market, announced the dissolution and liquidation of their company. ASN then sought collaboration with Plan Biology Europe, and considered “an exhibition that can be held even if visitors are not allowed to enter a physical indoor space.” To this end, they developed a web-based virtual reality (VR) platform and transferred works into the VR space. Instead of converting works directly into VR space as a digital gallery, the ASN curatorial team considered new forms of presentation after discussions with individual artists. For instance, my work Virophilia included scrolls printed with around 7,000 names of viruses. This was transformed into the augmented reality (AR) space in the form of clouds. As visitors walked through the space with their smartphones, the names of viruses would float around them like clouds.

I also received a commission from the Tokyo-based 21_21 Design Sight for the exhibition traNslatioNs – Understanding Misunderstanding. For this exhibition, I created video works of five artificial personal languages. Participants included exhibition curator Dominique CHEN and four other multilingual residents of Tokyo. The execution required the Japan side to arrange a space and to recruit a videography team; as the artist, I was responsible for conducting online interviews and rehearsing the monologue. The participants were invited to the museum on the scheduled day to shoot the video. During the shoot, I monitored and gave direction via Skype and live-streaming, with the local production team capturing what was on camera using a smartphone. In this process, the artist/creator had control over 50% of the event; the remaining 50% depended on the expertise of the local team.

A similar situation occurred during the exhibition, Fictional Life: Hybridity, Transgenetics, Innovation that took places at the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-LAB) in June 2020. My project, Virophilia, made an online delivery adaptation for the exhibition. Exhibition producer CHEN Pin-Yi was responsible for coordinating physical spaces as well as the food delivery, filming, and live streaming. Chef WU Po-Yi also had to taste the dishes remotely during the preparatory stage.

LIN Pei-Ying’s project, Virophilia, made an online delivery adaptation for the exhibition Fictional Life: Hybridity, Transgenetics, Innovation in 2020. Photo courtesy of C-LAB

Curators, producers, production teams, and participants in collaboration try to create an ongoing, sharable production experience.

Curator Regine RAPP of the ALB, spoke about a ten-hour online forum organized for the THE CAMILLE DIARIES exhibition, which was able to reach a wider audience online, with thousands of views where a majority of viewers were from outside Berlin. From the curator’s personal experiences, the benefits of the artists’ virtual “presence” was comparable to that of their physical presence. From the curator’s perspective, the physical presence of the works in real spaces, the new sensory experiences of hands-on participation in the production process, as well as communications with the artists, made the artist’s presence feel palpable even when they participated virtually. Visitors also developed a deeper connection to the artist, because the one-on-one appointments allowed the curator to discuss the works in greater depth, creating a new space for conversation and a new way of seeing the exhibition.

The transformed “presence” also resonates with my experiences during the pandemic. Commodities and goods are able to move much more easily across international borders than human beings can. However, the living organisms in Bio Art cannot travel unaccompanied, so artists and curators must seek out local alternatives through online collaboration. The necessities of “physical production” engages curators, producers, production teams, and participants in collaboration to create an ongoing, sharable production experience. This has enabled them to discover new methods of interpretation for their work beyond “viewing.” Fluctuating conditions due to the pandemic necessitates a constant check with of all parties involved so that adjustments can be made accordingly; for instance, whether multiple visitors could be present at the same time in an indoor space, etc. These discussions provide all involved with a deeper understanding of the environmental and spatial context of others.

The Decentralized Global Synchronized Dance

The pandemic has propelled all parties involved into digitalization, and this is accompanied by a completely new atmosphere in the temporal aspect. The art world has suddenly been teleported into virtual space. The use of virtual space has remained underexplored in the art world, and represents a new foray even for the preeminent festival of new media art, Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. In May 2020, Ars Electronica Festival made a decision to adjust their program and organize a hybridized form of exhibition that included online and physical exhibitions. In collaboration with its existing network and partners, the festival decentralized the program and introduced the idea of “Kepler’s Gardens,” distributing the festival to various countries and venues by having exhibitions in 120 locations launch on the same day. During the exhibition period, the festival also organized an intensive five-day forum on four online channels running 24 hours a day. In addition to the online forum, Ars Electronica also experimented with online meetings using Mozilla Hub. Mozilla Hub is a free VR space where users choose avatars to represent them in the virtual world upon login. The avatars speak on the users’ behalf thorough their microphones, and enable users to chat with other avatars (other users) in the virtual space. This hybridized form of exhibition necessitated a dramatic change in the composition of the production team at the Ars Electronica Festival. Before the pandemic, festival exhibits were dispersed throughout the city of Linz, and required around two hundred staff members to manage the installation. These staff members comprised mainly of exhibition production and set-up teams, project managers, and administrators. However, this year, festival organizers mobilized a large number technicians to manage network facilities, live-streaming / broadcasting, and documentation, accounting for half of the entire team. The size of the team was also reduced to around 60 staff members.

Having an extended schedule to accommodate participants from different time zones was not unique to Ars Electronica. In the case of the online forum for the exhibition THE CAMILLE DIARIES, ALB organized a ten-hour consecutive online forum3 that was scheduled according to the location of each speaker: starting with speakers in Japan and Australia, and ending with speakers in the Americas. Participants could ask questions in real-time through YouTube live streaming, and the forums were automatically recorded on YouTube to be replayed online after the event. Ars Electronica also applied this model to its online programs, resulting in the best-documented festival in its history.

Besides the content of conventional exhibitions, Ars Electronica festivals changed its fiscal strategy by redistributing the budget for artists’ travel and accommodation and materials for physical exhibitions, into the commissioning of video works. The festival invited participating artists to propose plans for video works, and provided them with a budget for production. The final video works were live-streamed online during the five-day festival. Meanwhile, the jury sessions of Prix Ars Electronica and STARTS Prize, which traditionally invited judges from around the world to travel to Austria, were held online in 2020 as well. The jury meetings were facilitated using Miro, an online visual collaboration platform, as a tool for discussion. Judges living in different places around the world could leave comments and remarks on Miro, and the platform also functioned as a tool to document the adjudication process.

LIN Pei-Ying worked with the team of 21_21 Design Sight remotely to complete the discussion process of the exhibited works. Photo courtesy of LIN Pei-Ying
LIN Pei-Ying worked with the team of 21_21 Design Sight remotely to complete the discussion process of the exhibited works. Photo courtesy of 西田麻海江

A Dance of the Network of Cross-regional Communities and Lost Memories of Touch

The year 2020 was a time of hardship for the aviation industry, but a bumper year for the internet and online events. People stuck at home began to connect with each other through various online tools, and forged a shared physical experience. In March 2020, the American curator Claire NETTLETON initiated a weekly online gathering, “Viral Culture,” on Saturdays. The online gathering originated from the communities in North America and gradually reached audiences in Europe. Around two hundred participants joined in these gatherings, and NETTLETON has since organized more than nine online discussions. Meanwhile, BioClub Tokyo and Art Laboratory Berlin began holding regular gathering “Viral Cloud” in April 2020, inviting hybrid artists4 and makers of DIY biology from Japan and Europe to participate, holding a total of 14 meetings through March 2021. Hosted by Dr. Joanna HOFFMAN, the “Art Science Meeting” held each Tuesday at 10 pm (GMT+2), whose members are mainly based in Poland. In addition, artists Marta DE MENEZES and Dalila HONORATO organized the “Teapot Chat” every week in the afternoon within the FEMeeting (Women in Art, Science, Technology) community. And, on Mondays, American scholar Eben KIRKSEY hosted the “Coronavirus Multispecies Reading Group.” These frequent cross-national gatherings create opportunities for collaboration and conversations at the academic level, and have replaced the physical gatherings of the international art circle that, pre-pandemic, would typically have happened at the openings of exhibitions.

Donna HARAWAY’s Staying with Trouble, 2016.Image courtesy of Duke University Press

What makes science art, Bio Art, and hybrid art unique in the global pandemic is that artists in these practices are familiar with the methodology of understanding the microorganisms in terms of sociocultural context; and that their artistic practices are often based on these aspects. The relationship between “microbes and human beings” has always been a major concern for the community, and the latest developments in biotechnology are considered foundational knowledge for community members. As the pandemic unfolded, community discussions revolved around topics such as: “The public understanding of microorganisms had been progressing amicably, now will the global pandemic arouse unnecessary fears toward microorganisms?” “Institutions have finally agreed to exhibit microorganism after years of convincing. Will these works be banned in the future?” “The pandemic has made the public and artists working with microbes realize that human beings are part of nature, and that perhaps the binary opposition of human vs. nature is fundamentally wrong.” “The invisibility and unpredictability of microbes trigger public anxiety; can art provide an outlet?” COVID-19 became an inevitable opportunity for “encountering others.” Donna HARAWAY’s Staying with Trouble has frequently been discussed in the context of “Whether the constant cycle of lockdown and opening-up make social distancing a way of ‘making kin’ with the virus?” In the early days of the pandemic, hybrid artists developed a heightened sense of responsibility, reflecting on their artistic practices while searching for practicable artistic practices during the pandemic. The pandemic seemed to have confirmed the sense of urgency in hybrid artists to explore the coexistence of microorganisms and humans. Art Laboratory Berlin also mentioned that the Senate of Berlin (Office for Culture and Europe) had explicitly invited them to propose their ideas, as the pandemic “is the expertise” of Art Laboratory Berlin.

By the second half of 2020, a number of counties had experienced their second and third waves of the coronavirus, and the focus had shifted again. The physical confinement indirectly brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing to stem the spread of the virus, and the various contactless services developed in response to the pandemic (such as automatic doors, contactless card payments, and smart phone payments), all served to heighten the community’s awareness toward tactile alienation in the effort to avoid touching the virus. This prompted a rethinking of the boundaries of the human body, and the differences between the internal and the external. Meanwhile, the spread of the virus among the herd, and its interaction with human governmental sectors and prevention policies, have created a specific “sense of speed.” Joanna HOFFMAN and Karolina WLAZŁO-MALINOWSKA, the main coordinators of ASN, said that the structure of exhibitions and fairs constructed pre-pandemic sometimes fail to quickly adapt to pandemic scenarios, resulting in repeated postponements. As a result, many exhibitions and fairs have declared bankruptcy. Joanna HOFFMAN believes that we must react quickly to challenges posed by the virus, and seek alternative approaches and solutions. Due to restrictions on physical gatherings, we must also develop new models of collaboration. Karolina WLAZŁO-MALINOWSKA thinks that we should take into account that human beings may be unable to catch up to the speed of virus mutations. The overall risk of execution is much higher than before, and actual conditions may differ from expectations. People are reaching a point of fatigue with virtual events due to an excessive number of online gatherings and the dearth of physical meetings. At the same time, they both agree that the global lockdown is a large-scale contemporary experiment on human behavior, and proves that there are possibilities for human beings in their capability to suspend certain large systems and behaviors in order to confront unresolvable issues, such as climate change.

Is the loss of tactile experiences as a result of virtualization a positive or negative development? In the ASN’s Rhizosphere project, the organization had originally scheduled regular physical gatherings in order to work with microorganisms physically, and to conduct in-person discussion. Due to social distancing regulations and a lockdown, the discussions were moved online. Though they insist physical experiences are irreplaceable, online meetings do require a lower threshold for participation and so enable the gatherings to get on track; the now ubiquitous communication software also enables minor social interactions. Art institutes and organizations such as ASN, NOBA – Norwegian Bio art Arena, V2_Lab for the Unstable Media in the Netherlands, and Recoil Performance Group in Denmark have organized hybrid physical-online workshops over the past year by sending workshop material to participants beforehand.

If we must draw a conclusion regarding the collaborative dance performed over the past year by human beings and COVID-19 — an organism that exists between living and nonliving, it would probably be described as a dance of unprecedented vitality. As Regine RAPP says, the pandemic has forced us to engage in ongoing re-negotiations, and it is a global challenge. These ongoing re-negotiations have permeated otherwise ordinary days with an experimental atmosphere, and have stimulated all kinds of new possibilities. And this, is the dance of humans and viruses.

COVID-19Bio Artart community
Tomas PUEYO, "Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance", Medium, 2020.03.20.
Here, the author uses the term “pandemic” to refer to the collective existence of the virus.
THE CAMILLE DIARIES Symposium was organized by Art Laboratory Berlin on Sep 26, 2020.
For the definition of hybrid arts, please see the Wikipedia.
SUN Yi-Cheng, "Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition", CLABO, Jul 24, 2020.
LIN Pei-Ying
Virus, State of Exception, and Precarity: Reflections on the Contemporary Biopolitics
The spread of COVID-19 has ignited debates among philosophers on the prevention measures. This essay aims to clarify the discussions and reflects on the situation of contemporary biopolitics.
Why Look at Snails in Copulation? A Cross-Examination of Bio Art and Gender Perspectives
This article examines four Bio Art projects by artists collaborating with scientists and ecologists, reflecting on their explorations on aspects of gendered culture and anthropocentrism.
BioethicsBio Art
Recognizing the Creative Potential of Bio Art Laboratories
This article projects a comprehensive picture of the state of Bio Art practice, collating different types of Bio Art laboratories including biohacking labs built by bio-artists, Bio Art labs constructed by cultural institutions, as well as the Bio Art practice in academic biological labs and the observation of Bio Art labs at the ideological level.
Bio ArtBio Art LabBiohackers