(unfinished proposal for the 'Preservations' project- last updated August 1997)
***The study of life can provide 'natural solutions' to cultural problems.
***Introduction: A Project about a Wall
I've been fascinated for a long time in the structures and mechanisms that maintain autonomy and develop difference, in the walls that separate different species of organisms and that separate individuals of the same species. This interest has led me to study the ethological (behavioral) and morphological adaptations organisms make to their environment and to each other- to study for example, the equisite relationships that evolve between predator and prey, between parasite and host. I'm interested in these intricate adptations and niche exploitations as design models for new cultural forms. It seems possible that evolutionary history can provide us with ready-made patterns for developing (and protecting) new forms of cultural diversity and cultural autonomy.
During a time when our economy's prevailing winds seem to favor mononopolies and monoculture it is important to emphasis the advantages of diversity. Diversity- whether it be biological, technological, or cultural- is necessary for a system's continued development and evolution. Increasing the diversity of a system correspondingly increases the amount of complexity and interaction between its members, resulting in more spaces (niches) and opportunities for success, more support for marginal existences and activities, more chance to discover new and better ways of doing things.
This conviction has become part of the background of my work and has led to a series of related artworks and projects over the last five years. The animal/human/technological mixes represented in the Temporary Autonomous Zoo sculptures (1993-1995) can be seen as anthropomorphic allegories, 'story book' examples of cultural autonomy and defense. Likewise, the shelter/public art proposals for Vaassen (Village Monument, 1991), Schiphol (Abri, 1993) and Den Bosch (Sloth Farm, 1997) can be considered as investment proposals, instructions for the creation of cultural preservation zones, intended to provide public art/space commissioners with an aesthetic as well as an 'economic' return on their investment.
Master Tseng said, The gentleman by his culture collects his friends about him, and through these friends promotes Goodness.
CONFUCIUS, THE ANALECTS
Walls have evolved to keep things that belong together (friends)- together, and antagonists out. Cell membranes do not differ in principle from medieval walled cities, the contract binding the employee to a corporation acts in much the same way as the skin surrounding the body. Barriers give shape and context to organisms and systems, determining whether one is in or out. Walls establish territory. Walls maintain identity.
Are walls GOOD or BAD? From the point of view of biological diversity, barriers are GOOD. They keep the primary agents of diversity- known as species, apart, maintaining their separate genetic identity. Biological barriers ensure nature's diversity. From the point of view of our society barriers between cultures and societies (races, castes, intraspecies relations) are BAD. Our policy is to break down the walls between diverse groups and cultures, to negate difference and integrate everyone and everything in the huge cannibal melting pot called monoculture.
Walls are never completely open or closed. Walls are often semipermeable, allowing some agents to pass and keeping other agents in or out such as the cell membrane of the cell or the doors of a police station. The more discerning and intelligent the wall (smart walls!), the better the wall can cooperate with its external environment and fulfill its prime function: maintaining the identity of its contents. A GOOD wall strikes a balance through design and programming between its internal and external environment- a GOOD wall engages in trade.
There are a number of possibe outcomes to the merger of two separate entities. One entity can eat the other, destroying the other's identity to fuel its own. Sometimes the absorbed party survives this 'eating' and manages to continue its existence within the wall of the cannibal (thus becoming a parasite). Or the two parties can fuse together in a equal merger. For both walled entities this mean substantial identity loss and death (a BAD thing) but the resulting hybrid has the potential to be more fit (in relation to its environment) than either of its precursors (a GOOD thing).
***The Natural Barrier
What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you? And all six of us to the amoeba in one direction and the backward schizophrenic in another?
GREGORY BATESON, MIND AND NATURE
For the project I'm about to describe I wish to examine perhaps the most fundamental physical barrier separating animal species- the jelly membrane protecting the ovum or egg cell. (In mammals the membrane surrounding the egg is made from glycoproteins and is called the zona pellucida.) This membrane functions as the gateway to the egg cell and requires the correct molecular key to fit its molecular lock, ensuring that the egg can be only fertilized by sperm of the same species. With a few notable exceptions sperm of foreign species cannot gain entry to the egg.
Biologists studying speciation call this ancient wall or barrier an isolating mechanism. Strictly speaking it is classified as a prezygotic mechanism, which is defined as any process (including behavior) that prevents fertilization between gametes of two different populations. In those rare cases when prezygotic mechanisms fail to prevent the fusion of egg and sperm there exist a number of postzygotic mechanisms to prevent either the development of the zygote or to ensure its sterility. The well known result of a horse/donkey cross, the mule, is the classic example of the sterile hybrid. Much less well known are 'ligers': lion/tiger crosses (also sterile).
The zona pellucida (or its equivalent in other organisms) separates animals species and ensures their divergence, but what about a pattern that connects the salmon to the bat sperm? The salmon is tested for fitness by the rapids and waterfalls it encounters as it swims upstream to spawn. The sperm is tested for its fitness in a race to be the first to wriggle through the zona pellucida. Not only is the zona or jelly membrane a barrier to alien sperm, it effectively acts as a final obstacle to separate 'accepted' sperm.
The zona barrier effectively connects and separates life as we know it.
I would like to explore the possibilities of getting my self (in the form of my sperm) in and around it this barrier.
The project here in Maastricht allows me to explore the possibilities and implications of using medical science to get my sperm past this great barrier separating life forms- resorting, if necessary, to interventions such as micro-injection of the sperm nucleous into the egg or the artificial removal of the zona. I am interested in mixing my germ cells with the ova of various echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish), and birds (swans, vultures).
***The Cultural Barrier
If the sky should fall, hold up your hands.
Culture is our nature. Cultural conditions, more than the conditions of nature, determine what it is to be human. Despite our love of nature, humanity has never been part of it. The human desire to be 'natural', to return to nature, is a desire for a cultural state rather than for nature itself.
Natural conditions change, cultural conditions change faster. Even so, in the past cultural conditions advanced at a pace slow enough for mankind to be able to stop and reflect upon them as if they were static. What we call the 'human condition' is in fact an abstraction of one or more slowly developing cultural conditions. Philosophy is the human condition writ large and analysed. A slow moving human condition allows organising structures such as morals and ethics to take root and develop.
Culture is an interactive product. Some writers describe culture as the interaction between man and his extensions or between man and his technolgy /science. Science and technology have been developing at an explosively accelerating rate throughout this century. The relatively stable human condition is dissolving like morning mist as advances in genetic engineering, medical science, computing, communications technology etc. transform the meaning and conditions of life and work.
Culture, like nature, is defined by its barriers. Cultural barriers are more moveable and emphemeral than natural barriers. Cultural barriers are built rather than found. Science and technology tend to challenge and overrun natural barriers by either destroying them completely or resetting them as more difficult challenges. Consider the above example of the 'liger' where a natural isolating mechanism like geography is overcome by transportation technology- in the zoo species which previously roamed exclusive habitats can be brought together and bred. Natural (physical) barriers are transformed into cultural barriers.
The project explores a natural barrier between two very different things. A barrier that keeps these two things apart. The barrier can be culturally breached in several ways, by microinjection of either genetic material or a entire sperm nucleous into the ovum, or by mixing the several celled embryos of two species together and reimplanting the embryo back into a donor womb. The result? Transgene organisms or chimeras.
What are the cultural restraints to combining and mixing different forms of life?
Like science and technology, art reshapes and restructures both nature and culture. Like science and technology, art is autocatalytic and progressive, bootstrapping its way upward, continuously climbing onto its own shoulders. Culture (and in a way nature) follow where art leads.
And where is art going? In the last decade there has been a strong re-emergence of cultural transcendentalism- a tip-toe straining to look beyond life's fundamental barriers, following the trajectory of our technological progress to the point where both human understanding and our claim to humanity break down, to the point that has been called the 'singularity'. Narrative artforms have so far led the way in this sort of speculation- the static visual arts (which are primarily non-narrative) lagging behind.
Except in the laboratories, where scientists and technologists creatively explore...
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Scientific American, December 1988
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