A TECHNO-RELIGIOUS WORK OF ART
Paul Perry's GOOD AND EVIL ON THE LONG VOYAGE
"Are we justified in complaining of it as an unfortunate thing that all the human impressions we have of the world around us are so individual? No, I think we are not. Why have we discovered mirrors if not to get more than passing glimpses of what our own figures and faces have in them that is worthy of interest?" [jcp]
In solitude everything makes sense but our individual lives. I demand, no, I order eternal life - why settle for less? But I don't want it on my own. I'm only willing to achieve immortality together with you, my unknown other half, that I glimpse every so often in unforeseen places and faces and animals. The romantics succeeded in this shared immortality, the good old poets and their loved ones. The vehicle they used to achieve immortality in the 1800's was poetry. The man would have to crack open his soul, and the woman hers... Then, in a mystical marriage, vacillating between supreme happiness and utmost despair, the timeless and nonhuman in both of them would fuse into a nucleus which could escape destruction releasing an undefinable flow, a melodic harmonious rendition of a romantic poem - a hymn, a song of praise, supreme happiness: an eternal prayer that penetrated the thirsty soul of the chosen reader, who so invited, opened herself, himself up.
"Is it possible that around every Universe that exists there is a wide border of this twilight, a border that has to be crossed by all travellers who desire that their journey shall never cease?" [jcp]
William James defined prayer in 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' (1902) as: "...the very movement itself of the soul putting itself in a personal relation of contact with that mysterious power of which it feels the presence." He further specified: 'Wherever this prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or doctrines we have a living religion.' The possibility of, and the willingness for contact between the unseen and an 'I' - this living religion in which 'eternity finally endures' is relevant for all time. What does change however are the methods of transport. Prayers do not come to life in poetry any longer, but in cell cultures.
The immortality that Paul Perry attains with his work 'Good and Evil On the Long Voyage' (1997) is not in the domain of the soul, but in that of an individual cell of his body. His particular vehicle through eternity is one of the artist's own white blood cells which, fused with a cancer cell taken from a mouse forms an immortal cell - a new cell called a 'hybridoma'. The cancerous mouse-genes guarantee that the mitosis of the hybrid cell will never stop, and the human white blood genes generate a stream of anti-bodies which can be used as to penetrate and heal the thirsty body of a chosen patient.
Cancer, the messenger of death, is considered 'evil'; antibodies, the warriors of the immune system are 'good'. Yet they embark on a journey together. Art as inversion - the rampant death of the body (despair/happiness) resulting in immortality. The success rate for such cross-species transgene fusions is very low - in the case of Paul Perry's mix between his lymphocytes and the mouse's myelomas, there were only a couple of successful fusions out of approximately 10 million attempts. Perry: "Only when the researchers showed suprise that it worked at all did I realise exactly how unique our fusions were."
"Thus we see how life makes things work in pairs and brings it about that for every couple there is an antipodal couple, and for every passionate preacher an eloquent Antagonist upholding the opposite truth. The Life-Force which as Rabelais said has its centre everywhere and its circumference nowhere, has seen to it from the start that these inevitable oppositions become inescapable obsessions; for by some mysterious law of nature from these clashes alone does progress proceed." [jcp]
The greater part of the work occured at the molecular-genetical level, far beyond the threshold of visual perception (and well beyond the scope of the most powerful optical microscope). So what art work was there for the art audience to see? A cell culture is usually maintained in an intensive care unit called a bioreactor - a very expensive device. For the exhibition Paul Perry was able to borrow a bioreactor from a generous biotech equipment supplier. The bioreactor with the hybridoma culture was placed in an aluminum canoe that was lofted several meters above the floor in a scaffold. A large silver mirror was suspended above the canoe.
The material of technology - applied science - is immaterial in the realm of the soul and, likewise, the material of the soul is immaterial in the technological and scientific world. Art, when considered as a technique to attain immortality through a finished work of art, is the 'applied science' of ideas. Paul Perry is a conceptual artist: "I like to think about art and biology in terms of genotype and phenotype. A cell or organism's genetic constitution or genotype is perhaps much more concrete than an art concept, as the genes can be read, measured and re-recorded precisely. In some ways however, genotype and art concept are similar - both depend on a corresponding phenotype or genetic expression to get passed on into the next generation. The phenotype is both the expression of the genes and the art concept made physical in the world as body, entity or art work. For the exhibition, I insisted on the hybridoma being physically present (I believe in the presence of the real thing)."
"I'm very interested in the discussion around immortality and radical life-extension. The hybridoma culture we created is, in principle, 'immortal'. Some of my own genetic material will continue to live and divide forever (in a cell culture) and will not succumb to cell death." The concept, the idea behind the 'Long Voyage' is art itself, and what Perry (re)discovered was that immortality of an artwork is not a critical point, not a static final product, but rather a beginning, the beginning of a stream, an endless stream which - just like the words the romantic poets used to protect the soul from destruction - uses antibodies to protect the body from the external influences that threaten to ravage it.
The spirit exists because the body exists, and vice versa. Self-awareness is an awareness of one's individual mortality. Art arises from the desire to copy (or clone) an impermanence - the human phenotype - into something permanent which transcends our human experience, something nonhuman which can exist without us - an object, no, rather a process and its concept, its genotype, its inmost self which will endure without our presence, because it makes it's own presence known and duplicates itself, time and again, in us, the audience, opening us up, inviting us to participate in the process and to hybridise with it. Living religion indeed.
"Now what I believe is that the immeasurable and boundless mass of empty space which stretches to infinity in all directions exercises upon our little universe of matter a very special and remarkable effect. It intensifies the individualism of all the members of our little group of living creatures to a frantic extent. It has indeed occurred to me that the enormous pressure of the mass of empty space stretching to infinity, as it reaches the centre of energy and will in all of us, seizes upon this centre of energy and does two things to it at the same time. It intensifies its powers inwardly and deeply; but it also draws it into itself to such an extent that we human beings along with animals and reptiles and birds and fishes and insects actually find ourselves sharing the infinite life of infinite space; with the result that infinity carries with it forever whatever is happening or may happen to us all in our small world, the essence of each of us, the inmost self of every single man, woman and child, of every animal, reptile, bird, fish and insect." [jcp]
GOOD AND EVIL ON THE LONG VOYAGE (1997) is the title of a work produced by Paul Perry in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Frans Ramaekers and Mr. Wiel Debie from the Department of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, University of Maastricht for the exhibition 'Preservations' which took place between the 13th of December 1997 and the 1st of February 1998 in the former Bonnefanten Museum Maastricht.
The quotes in this article are from John Cowper Powys, 'Two & Two' (Londen 1974), a book written when its author was ninety years old.
Paul Perry (London 1956) was raised in Canada and has been living in Holland since 1982. He has his own website: http://www.alamut.com where he keeps his notebooks.
Arjen Mulder is an essay writer living in Amsterdam, Holland. One of his books was recently published in English: Adilkno 'Media Archive', Semiotext(e) New York 1998.
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