A review of Jennifer Willet's talk
“(RE)embodying Biotechnology”
Language à life

One of the more interesting aspects of bioart for me is how entering the lab as a nonspecialist constitutes a border crossing that draws attention to that “police line” and perhaps even shifts it a bit.

Willet considers three main strategies for protecting biotechnology from public scrutiny:
1) commercialization of the industry
2) overspecialization
3) the proliferation of digital metaphors/rhetoric
These factors make biotech. appear ‘unreal’ and ‘disembodied.’

Could bioart be a tool for (re)embodying biotechnology?

Willet sees bioart as a way to explore interaction between the ‘wet’ and the ‘dry.’

Bioart is also fascinating because it offers a way to approach biotechnology in a way that is not simply oppositional. Willet seeks to put biotechnology ‘at risk’ to public scrutiny, but (presumably) recognizes that it simultaneously ‘exceeds’ (see Fortun’s paper) these critiques. Deutscher writes similarly about Derrida’s deconstruction of feminism. Most important is the opportunity for debate. If the debate is closed too early, or diverse participation is prevented for various reasons/through various strategies, it will be impossible to deal intelligently with extremely complex issues.

Willet’s strategy of redeploying ‘embodied language’ and love for ‘juicyness’ seems at first to play against conceptions such as Haraway’s cyborg or Doyle’s expansion of what counts as life. When asked if her art reinforces ‘romantic’ views of life as having a particular ‘essence,’ Willet replied that she was interested in bodies not life; she’s not romanticizing life, she’s just enamored with fleshy bodies. Examining closely the differences between these two signs/constructs is, I’m sure, quite useful, but Willet didn’t engage this question much further, I’m not sure I understand her response. Perhaps since Willet’s audience is humans, with juicy bodies, she seeks to show how biotechnology, even if it is highly ‘informational,’ still affects bodies and, therefore, her audience is ‘at stake’ in its practices.

I’m not sure I really see the dangers of a “secular vitalism,” even if Willet was “romanticizing life.”

Haraway also certainly uses plenty of ‘embodied’ language, perhaps to draw attention to how the ‘dry’ (discourses, taken-for-granted assumptions, received origin stories, etc.) can directly affect the ‘wet’ lives of people, often in violent ways.

Embodiedness, now that I think of it, is also a motif in the work of tehnoartist Natalie Jeremijenko. Her “OneTree” project shows the physically visible effects of invisible pollutants and other environmental factors on 1,000 or some odd cloned trees.

At first glance, bioart might also seem like a great way to make information regarding biotechnology more ‘publicly legible’ than it often is. But clearly bioart (at least as I conceive of it) is quite marginal and limited in the audience it reaches. Willet mentioned ‘embodied educational strategies,’ but was less clear on the question of for whom this ‘education’ was intended. I was not particularly satisfied by Willet’s response to the question of how bioart might intersect/collaborate with other vectors for public dissemination of scientific knowledge. While I agree that it makes sense to ‘stick with what you’re good at,’ I find it hard to swallow that a ‘trickle-down effect’ is really better than intentionally trying to pursue strategies to maximize the effects of one’s work. Then again, what do I know, at heart I’m just a philistine activist who still wants to burn my bra in the streets, behind a mask and the barricades, in ’68, and hack CNN, FOX, and youtube, and get it all covered – replete with flashing subliminal messages: RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, or READ HAKIM BEY.

Oh yeah, and Jennifer Willet is part of bioteknica