explain it, please

It seems that a good portion of my life has been spent trying to explain what I do. I moved from NYC to Charleston, SC in the mid 80’s. I had been dancing at the Martha Graham studio for a year. When people in SC asked me what I did I said I was a modern dancer. “Oh!” they replied, “is that what they do on Broadway?” I was left with trying to explain what modern dance is and how it is different than Broadway jazz. I have to admit that sometimes I just answered yes and left it at that.

Three years later we moved to Baltimore so that I could get my Master’s degree in Dance/Movement Therapy. Uh huh. Really. I got extremely good at the explanation…”it’s a psychotherapy using movement as a means of communicating feelings and healing the mind. Think how much better you feel after getting exercise and you have an idea of how it might work. Because it’s a non-verbal way of communicating it works particularly well with autistic kids and Alzheimer’s patients although it is useful with many different populations.” People often still didn’t get it, they seemed to think I taught dance classes to, well, I’m not sure who I was supposed to be teaching dance to.  So I changed the subject.

After I got my degree I started working with polymer clay. (e.g. Fimo, Sculpey, Primo) I began to make small items but soon graduated to sculptures of lizards, snakes, frogs and iguanas. Each of these was covered with a pattern made from the clay. The technique was called millefiori. Often someone would come into my booth and ask how I could paint such fine lines. “Oh, I am not painting them”, I said. “It’s called millefiori and it is an ancient glass bead technique. I make a long log or “cane” with strips of colored clay, somewhat like a sushi roll or spiral cookies, slice through it and lay the slices on the form of the animal.” “Ah”, one woman said, “and then you paint it”. I could see she just was not going to get the picture so I said to her “Yes, then I paint it.” But of course there was no paint involved. I started to bring unfinished “canes” that had been baked so that people could actually visualize what it was that I was trying to describe.

Autumn Gardening; polymer clay leaves...detail
Autumn Gardening; polymer clay leaves…detail…an example of millefiori.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, because once again I have dived into the murky waters of a difficult concept and am trying to figure out how to explain/describe it. What exactly IS Bio art anyway???

Goooooood question…

I will try to do this as simply as possible without using all the multi-syllable words that scientists and bio artist like to use.

Basically, in my mind, bio art is an umbrella term for an art made from biological forms. These forms can be real, manufactured or symbolically similar which then get manipulated to create art. One could argue, using this definition, that landscapers, gardeners, dog breeders and chefs (especially microbiological chefs) are bio-artists. Indeed they are. When I weed something out of my garden I am declaring “This is a weed, this is not pretty to me, I want it gone.” And I manipulate the earth to look the way I want it to. And rose gardeners have been practicing bio art for centuries as they manipulate roses to create different colors, sizes and smells.

There are artists, though, who have stretched across the bio-art sphere to use biological matter, computer programs and algorithms, and microscopy to create art that either tells a story or begs to begin a dialogue about what the biological sciences are doing in today’s world. Artists like Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Alice Micelli are doing projects that couldn’t have been conceived of twenty years ago. Dewey-Hagborg took DNA from cigarette butts and chewing gum found in NYC, added it to a computer program that came up with an algorithm of what the individual people might have looked like and then created life-masks from the information. Micelle spent several years traveling to Chernobyl with X-ray paper, seeing if she could take x-rays of the country simply by leaving the paper there for a few months. (she did.) The first of these projects, while not your typical “pretty” art, begs the viewer to start thinking about the role of DNA in our daily lives. Do we really want to give up control of who we are to a bunch of strangers? Micelli’s work shows just how much man has created “dead zones” on this earth. Places where no one can live, ever again…or at least not for several more generations. You can see some videos of her work here.

Oh my, this has been a chatty post hasn’t it? There is absolutely no way to do this subject any justice in a blog, but I hope you have a little bit more of an idea of what my residency at SVA was like. Needless to say, some of the lectures where a bit off the charts for me. I am, after all a simple soul, and old-fashioned to boot. But I’m guessing some of the lectures have already creeped into my psyche and may show up in some way in the next few years.

8 thoughts on “explain it, please

  1. A fun post. With more creative pursuits like yours over a lifetime it is hard to explain. The artist who put the X-ray sheets out in Chernoble is fascinating and disturbing, which I guess is her point.

    1. Yes, Alice’s work was fascinating and disturbing. So is her new work about land mines. There are huge swaths of land that are uninhabitable because there are landlines strewn all over the ground. We humans like to destroy stuff don’t we?

  2. I loved learning more about bio art through you. I think, at the heart, you are an artist, exploring and transforming the world through its many mediums!

    1. Thanks Letizia. It took be a long time to accept the moniker “artist” but now I embrace it as fully as possible. It’s a wonderful life.

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