In Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium Donna Haraway writes, “[t]he chip, seed, or gene is simultaneously literal and figurative, we inhabit and are inhabited by such figures that map universes of knowledge, practice and power” (11). Thus, according to Haraway, these “tropic figures” (11) – chip, seed, gene – are in themselves not neutral, empty objects but must always be considered in the context of the social practices in which they occur. Following Haraway’s observation, this paper seeks to approach the field of biotechnology, asking how contemporary scientific achievements concerning such figures like the chip, the gene, or the seed – although at first sight appearing to be concealed in scientific neutrality – foster, serve and are dependent on political and economic demands. More precisely, this paper investigates the work of the American performance collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) who critically engage questions concerning the genetic market economy, new communication technologies and biotechnology.
Founded in 1987, the performance art collective CAE originally consisted of media designers, political activists and artists. This diversity also determined their work: CAE intentionally works at the crossroads of various disciplines and genres. Their works range from performances, installations, lectures and books and have been staged and published in both the United States as well as in Europe. Their early work focused on issues concerning the effect of new media on notions of the public and its agency (see e.g. Electronic Civil Disobedience). Hence, many of their works were staged as both theatrical performances and web projects which document and archive the theatrical events, but also go beyond the physical performance – a practice they continue until today. Recent projects, among these the two examples Free Range Grain (2003) and Flesh Machine (1997) this essay will discuss, represent the group’s interest in genetic engineering and its cultural and political impacts.
Generally speaking, the scientific fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering are only accessible to a very small, specialized number of scientists and “experts” – Haraway calls them “agencies and actors in congealed processes of sociotechnical production” (7). Thus, knowledge about these fields is limited to the information and explanations that these experts are willing to share with a broader, uninformed public. The average citizen interested in these fields of knowledge usually needs to rely on what he or she is being told, lacking the ability to gain this knowledge him/herself. Thus, the public has little possibility of experiencing, interacting with or participating in this distribution and circulation of knowledge of biotechnology.
By contrast, CAE’s participatory performances, multimedia installations and project websites offer their audiences a physical as well as an intellectual experience of these usually inaccessible fields of knowledge. What causes the group’s interest in biotechnology and their specific way of communicating this knowledge to the audiences of their performances is their conviction that the distribution and circulation of scientific knowledge – in this case the knowledge of and about genetic engineering and biotechnology – intersects and thus cannot be isolated from a consideration of economic and political interests. Accordingly, CAE states,
By viewing the scientific process through the lens of political economy, we disrupted the legitimized version of science as a self-contained, value-free specialization. […A]ny discourse exists within larger historical and political contexts. It seemed self-evident for us to place competing discourses in conversation, and show the socioeconomic ideologies at work […] (CAE, “When Thought Becomes Crime”)
Against the background of the ensemble’s self-positioning, this paper pursues a twofold interest. On the one hand, it seeks to examine the different sites of knowledge production created in and with CAE’s performances. This includes both an analysis of the spaces in which this knowledge is produced as well as an investigation of the means with which this knowledge is gained. In which respect might this knowledge be different from customary scientific knowledge concerning biotechnology?
On the other hand, since CAE intentionally locate their artistic work in the in-between space of various practices, being simultaneously educational and political engagements as well as aesthetic works of art, this paper also addresses the question of the situatedness and means of political performance art today.
In line with the very origins of performance art – resembled by the experimental “events” of the Black Mountain College in the late fifties and early sixties where artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage or Alan Kaprow suspended the boundaries of visual arts, music, dance and theater and also challenged the clear-cut distinctions between a work of art or performance and everyday activities – CAE’s performances and installations resemble a hybrid between visual arts, theater, and political action. In their purposeful blending of art and politics, CAE continue the tradition of performance art (from the mid eighties onward) in which “political and social concerns became one of the main lines of performance activity, especially in work involving individuals or groups with little or no voice or active role in the current system” (Carlson 130). But in contrast to by now ‘traditional’ performance art, I want to argue in the following that CAE’s work not only intends to draw attention to ‘political and social concerns,’ but must actually be considered as a form of political action itself. In focusing respectively on the aesthetic choices employed in the two works discussed, the question then arises of how the performative offers distinct aesthetic strategies which establish an alternative site of politics. Hence, in which respect can performance art be described as a distinct form of political practice?
Information Theatre: Free Range Grain (2003)
The first work I want to examine here is the 2003 gallery installation Free Range Grain, which was exhibited in several museum spaces across Europe and the United States. Unlike common art objects on exhibition in a gallery or museum, this installation consists of a scientific laboratory, including – besides Petri dishes, test tubes and pipettes – different technological applications such as vortex mixers, thermal cyclers or an electrophoresis workstation. The installation is designed to be an interactive art space [fig 1] in which the artists are present (most of the time) to communicate with the gallery visitors and in a very literal sense teach them how to conduct biotechnological experiments themselves. It is important to note that the members of CAE are not educated biologists. Instead, they stress the importance of their work as being that of an amateur or hobbyist. In this context, Eugene Thacker describes the practice of the amateur as follows: “the amateur or hobbyist [is] someone with a great deal of knowledge and an interest in the nonspecialist use of that specialist knowledge” (Thacker 313). Quite paradoxically, it is precisely this “nonspecialist use of specialist knowledge,” this amateurism, that the collective regards as beneficial. In contrast to official science labs which depend on financial funding, reputation, and their research’s estimated use for corporate interests, these artist-scientists operate outside those economic and social structures and thus gain the possibility to acquire a position of critical reflection concerning issues like gene technology and its various implications.
[I]t takes an outsider to science – a creative tinkerer – to rattle the cage of the discipline’s most dearly held assumptions and practices. With special regard to the institutional financing of science, the amateur reveals the profit-driven privatization of a discipline that is purportedly – mythologically – open to all [… b]y undertaking research as if science were truly a forum in which all may participate according to their abilities and resources. (CAE, “When thought becomes crime”)
What becomes obvious here is that instead of merely articulating a simple “science-for-all” attitude, Free Range Grain offers a consumer’s perspective on the issue of genetically modified (GM) food: Museum visitors could bring their own food, use the exhibited test lab and hence learn how to detect their food’s (GM) components. Here, I would argue, that the interactive aspects of the installation serve not only the means of educating the audience – teaching them how to handle biotechnological instruments etc. – but the participatory aspects also offer a potential of self-empowerment, namely the ability to detect whether the visitor’s own food contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients. In this sense, the artwork’s practical function, or rather, its very usability as a detector of GM components in food resembles the collective’s pragmatist outlook on art and its relation to politics. Here, one could refer to what John Dewey called having “an experience” (40, author’s accentuation). Dewey’s explicit stress on the social function of art as well as his distinction between an “art product” and a “work of art” provides a useful approach to Free Range Grain.
Dewey criticizes common art, because of its detachedness from human experience:
In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience. (Dewey 3, my accentuation)
In contrast, CAE’s installation directly “engenders in actual life-experience;” it is only in its actual usage of the displayed lab and its apparatuses (the ‘art products’), that is, when the museum visitors actually bring their own food and hence actively engage with the displayed objects, that the installation resembles both a ‘work of art’ as well as a unique form of experience for the museum visitor.
Considering the performance as a production of a specific knowledge usually inaccessible to both performers and participants, the notion of performance as practice – as a process or an operation – comes to the fore. Here, referring specifically to CAE’s work with biotechnology, Greg Bordowitz observes: “CAE’s practice is not rhetorical; they actually develop and perform research that tests their ideas in the world. They’re interested in the failures as much as their successes. The work raises consciousness by practical example” (214). Building on this idea, I consider the installation as an alternative site of knowledge production. It is the off-science space of the art gallery, the DIY-kit and the amateur approach of the performers that establish a public as well as an artistic and hence aesthetic site of critical investigation, evaluation, and experience of biotechnology. CAE “performs” knowledge by practicing science and experimenting with the subject of investigation on an amateur level. But with respect to the ways this knowledge is communicated I would argue here that it is even more interesting that CAE’s installation does not so much present itself as a detached work of art to be looked at but as a form of interactive and critical practice which has a very practical, everyday use for each individual visitor.
Yet, considering the performances with regard to their aesthetic strategies employed here, the impression arises that aesthetic considerations subordinate political positions. The arranged laboratory, the white coats and the performers’ technically complex experiments and their presentation of scientific data and “facts” clearly serves the means of educating the visitor and offering alternative accesses to biotechnology. In this sense, the performance is self-explanatory and highly didactic. Things are presented “as they are”. The performers appear as what they are: artists engaging in science. The installation does not take place in a theatre but the museum space is used as site of information and education.
Clearly, museum space is utilized as a tool to articulate political positions: By establishing a relationship between the free flow of commodities in the global economy and issues concerning the labeling of GM food, the installation suddenly bears an activist stance. In their position paper accompanying the gallery installation, CAE elaborate on this issue:
Recently, the EU has passed fairly strict laws regarding the importing and labeling of GM foods […]. Given these restrictions […] Europe will need to maintain strong borders that can halt the freedom of movement given to food commodities. With the relatively heavy importation of grains […] from the US, it appears to CAE […] that it will be very difficult to filter out GM foods. Not only are the protocols for product testing on a systematic basis different in intensity in every country, one has to also be suspicious about American ethical/legal resolve about volunteering information damaging to its profits. (”Free Range Grain,” Position Paper)
Considering these larger political implication I would hence argue, that Free Range Grain represents not only an educative approach in giving an understanding of processes of biotechnology. By putting the issues of GM food in a larger, hence political context, the artists offer their audience the possibility of (relative) autonomy: The installation empowers its visitors to autonomously make use of scientific processes and thus to decide, whether they want to consume GM food or not. This ability of choice therefore represents a form of self-empowerment since the detection of GM ingredients in our food operates independent from government labeling and global trade regulations. In this context, CAE states,
[T]he nonspecialist public does not have to leave the manufacture of the discourse and policies surrounding issues of biotechnology to the experts. In executing projects such as this one, we hope to contribute to an idea of public science by focusing on issues (such as food production) that are of direct interest to people […] (“Free Range Grain,” Position Paper)
Here the installation serves as a vehicle for a political concern, offering a suitable space for an activist enterprise, namely empowering the public to make use of biotechnological processes for their private, individual needs (such as the control over their consumption of GM food).
Hybrid Test Procedures: Flesh Machine (1998)
In contrast to Free Range Grain, for their performance Flesh Machine (1998)  being also staged in different art spaces across Europe, CAE chose a different form of presentation. The performance piece began with a thirty-minute lecture performance in which CAE critically reflected on issues concerning genetic engineering and biotechnology. Again, the didactic and educative intention forms the center of attention. But following this rather monological situation of a lecture, visitors were again invited to participate in biotechnological experiments: In the guise of a large pharmaceutical corporation called BioCom [fig 2], CAE demonstrated its critique of new reproductive technologies and genetic engineering on a practical level. Led to several computers, the audience was offered the market profile of the fake corporation presenting itself as one of the leading companies in the field of genetics. On the published website of BioCom [fig 3], products and services were displayed and the (fake) company’s research and development programs were introduced. Imitating the visual design of a pharmaceutical company and parodying its rhetoric strategies, CAE addressed the complicity of genetic engineering, eugenics, and market economy. By consciously mimicking entrepreneurial rhetoric with expressions like “surplus,” “consumer desire,” “services,” the fake representatives of BioCom used parody and ironic exaggeration as aesthetic tools for establishing their political message. [fig 4 and 5] In their position paper accompanying the performance, CAE’s political critique on the increasing “corporatization” of biotechnology comes to the fore:
To be sure, once eugenics is perceived as a means to empower the child and the parent, it loses its monstrous overtones, and becomes another part of everyday life medical procedure. Capitalism will achieve its goals of genetic ideological inscription, while at the same time realizing tremendous profits for providing the service. (CAE, “Flesh Machine,” Position Paper)
Regarding the fact that the chosen ‘carrier’ of their critique is a fake corporation, Alexander Galloway’s observation concerning contemporary art practices seems applicable here:
While corporate organizations have long aestheticized their moneymaking practices in the realm of culture – in everything from Nike advertisements to Giorgio Armani’s 2000 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum – it is only recently that artists have reversed this process and started to aestheticize moneymaking practices in the corporate realm. (227)
Comparable to the overtly articulated critique in the position paper, CAE’s parody of a corporation here represents an artistic assessment of a consolidation of biotechnological research, corporate interests and eugenics.
But Flesh Machine cannot be limited to this merely ironic dimension. In addition, the audience was invited to participate in a donor screening test to find out whether their genetic predispositions met the expectations a potential donor needed to meet. The screening test began with the potential donor’s self-assessment of his personality asking for information concerning intelligence, temperament, creativity, and so on. What followed were a determination of the bodily condition and finally a detection of diseases that are considered to be particularly prevalent among different ethnic groups. If the members of the audience turned out to be suitable as donors, they were invited to give blood for DNA extraction [fig 6], which was analyzed in an on site lab [fig 7]. In addition, the participants were photographed and cell samples were conserved.
Comparable to Free Range Grain, here, performance offers a means of personal involvement and experience (Dewey) which goes beyond a mere educational (and rational) elucidation of the cultural discourses of biotechnology. But in contrast to Free Range Grain where people brought their own food to detect its GM ingredients, this earlier performance Flesh Machine takes up a much more immediate modus operandi since here, the audiences’ bodies and identities literally become the subject and object of the performance. Here, CAE’s performance can be situated within the context of the works of recent performance artists like Orlan, Stelarc or Franko B. whose performances explore the relationships between corporeality and technology. While the former artists experiment with the limits of their own bodies, CAE uses those of their audience as performative material. In this sense, Marvin Carlson’s statement that performance artists “explored ethical, political, and social ramifications of this intersection [of science, technology and the human form] by means of performance” (133) seems to be equally, or rather especially apt concerning the work of CAE.
Comparable to the museum installation discussed previously, Flesh Machine also represents a site of alternative knowledge production and experience. Here, again, participants were offered a space to experience the effects and implications of a kind of knowledge which is usually not accessible to them and they were also given the possibility of applying this abstract knowledge to the personal sphere and to the individual circumstances of their lives. By explicitly referring to the complicity of new reproductive techniques and corporate, pharmaceutical enterprises, CAE stated with biting irony: “Participants can then assess the potential ‘value’ of their bodies as commodities, and hence their place in the new genetic market economy” (CAE, Flesh Machine, website, “documentation”).
Hence, the performance presents a space in which participants were able to put the obtained knowledge of their own genetic predispositions into practice and had possibility of experiencing potential implications or consequences of their genetic predisposition. Thus, the performance creates a space of role-playing for its audience, substituting the fictional character of a role with the authentic data of their genetic profile. The result is a form of playing through of possible implications of biotechnology in the “safe” space of a simulated situation.
The event of the performance with its limited duration, its prearranged dramaturgy and its actors performing in a clearly marked theatrical, hence extra-quotidian space establishes a sphere of experience which is detached from the everyday reality of the audience. By means of parody and a strategic appropriation of the visual presentation and the rhetoric of pharmaceutical corporations, the theatrical illusion is enhanced. At the same time, however, this theatrical, thus representational treatment of the subject ‘biotechnology’ amalgamates with an individual, concrete level of personal involvement on the part of the audience: by the end of the performance a survey of scientific data (implying also the potential economic value) of each individual participant is created.
Taking into consideration the proposed question of an interrelation of aesthetic strategies and political practices, I would hence argue that the politicity of Flesh Machine is created by the simultaneous employment of different aesthetics. Antonia Ulrich refers in this context to the explicit and implicit character of CAE’s critique. Educational, illustrative and documentary methods informing the audience and providing a comprehensive political critique of e.g. biotechnological commercialization are combined with a more subtle critique in form of an appropriative or imitative approach (5-6). In addition to Ulrich’s distinction, I would hence add a third category, namely the interactive, playful approach of audience participation. Here, Johannes Birringer’s observations concerning the interactivity of participatory artworks are useful. By revisiting concepts of theatricality, so Birringer, it is possible “to describe how installations theatricalize social encounter and play, and how they exploit the ambiguities or ironies of play in non-competitive contexts […]” (171). Hence, concerning CAE’s performances I would specify Birringer’s observation by arguing that the performance employs different theatrical forms simultaneously. Being reminiscent of forms of documentary theatre, scientific data and procedures are presented. Operating on an illusionist level, the visual and rhetoric appropriation of a biotech corporation employs a space of simulation and theatrical representation. Being also interactive and participatory, the audience is enabled to experience the social and political implications of the displayed and represented knowledge on a personal level. Here, once more, Birringer’s observation considering interactive installations is applicable. Birringer proposes,
we may have to look at how they [interactive installations] construct a socio-cultural space for play […], communication and symbolization, physical and mental interaction and interpretation. How they redefine cultural phenomena, in other words, and how they explicitly emphasize the observer’s response and active assistance in forming the media text itself. In doing so, they inevitably raise new questions about presence, levels of engagement (competition, collaboration) and responsibility experienced in such art. (171)
Tying in with Birringer’s remark, CAE’s performances offer an alternative frame of experience and a different way of knowing. It is here that performance as an alternative site of knowledge production and distribution becomes a form of art which thus can also be considered a distinct form of political practice. Both performances enable their participants to “tactically” experience and experiment with materials and technologies that have been detached from their institutional involvement, possible economic value, and dominant modes of presentation. Hence, CAE challenges and re-contextualizes cultural phenomena by means of a performative and interactive form of political activism.
That CAE’s work truly merges performance art and political activism comes immediately to the fore when taking into account the fact that, until very recently, founding member Steve Kurtz was facing legal persecution: first he was suspected of bioterrorism and now he and human genetics Prof. Ferrell, are charged with mail and wire fraud. The trigger for these rather absurd accusations is a tragic incident: In May 2004, Kurtz’ wife died of a heart attack in their home in Buffalo, New York. When the ambulance and police arrived at the house, they found the couple’s workspace – an amateur lab in which they experimented with bacteria for one of their upcoming performances. As Natalie Jeremijenko elaborates, “the material seized posed no public safety risk, the Federal Bureau of Investigation nevertheless continued under the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act as expanded by the USA Patriot Act […]” (3). It has taken almost four years, until just lately, on April 21st 2008 that Kurtz was finally found not guilty.
 The cyberfeminist art collective subRosa use the term “information theatre” in their essay “Stolen Rhetoric: The Appropriation of Choice by ART Industries.” Kunstforum International 158 (2002): 118. The English version of the text is available on subRosa member Faith Wilding’s homepage:<http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/fwild/faithwilding/publications.html> (10.12.2006). Here, it must also be noted, that subRosa’s work forms an important point of reference since both groups of artists work as collectives, their members are both academics as well as artists and both collectives share a common interest in the impact of biotechnology and a global market economy on notions of citizenship and the body. subRosa’s 2005, interactive installation, Epidermic! DIY Cell Lab, for example, presented at the Art Institute Chicago lends itself for a comparative analysis with CAE’s Free Range Grain. (see “Epidermic! DIY Cell Lab: Project Documentation”)
 The artwork was first installed at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany and was later adapted for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. (see Thompson 116)
 CAE’s technological devices used in the installation are displayed on the web page accompanying the exhibition: <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/free/> (22.12.2006).
 Here, a comparison with subRosa’s performances would, again, broaden the perspective: Quite similarly to Flesh Machine, subRosa’s performance Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century, commissioned by Arizona State University in 2000, also featured several lectures, a multimedia presentation (including an accompanied website) and a participatory part in which the audience was called upon to find a genetically ideal partner within the audience. (see “Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century. Project Website”).
 Interestingly, Flesh Machine was never performed in the U.S. Instead, between 1997 and 1998 it was performed at the following locations: Beursschouwburg, Brussels; Museumsquartier, Vienna; Kiasma Museum of Modern Art, Helsinki; Labor Gallery, Graz and Kapellica Gallery, Ljubljana. (see “Flesh Machine: Project Description”)
 A detailed description of the performance’s procedures are displayed on the performance’s website in the section documentation. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/index.html> (3.01.2007)
 At this point, I want to draw attention to another part of the performance, which I have not taken into account so far: in addition to the audiences’ DNA donation and the screening tests, both notices of the performance in Brussels and Vienna also announced that CAE bought frozen multi-cellular embryos of which a computer image will be projected throughout the performance. At the end of the evening, the audience is asked to donate money for prolongation of the rental of the embryo’s cyrotank. When not enough money is raised, the claim for the cyrotank expires. On the web-notice for the Brussels performance, the organizer states: “To the extent possible, people will get to live the reality of the commodification of flesh” (“Constant”) However, both the organizer’s rather vague formulation (“to the extent possible”) the fact that CAE did not document this part of the performance on the project’s website, as well as contradictory information about the origin of the alleged embryo (Rebecca Schneider, for example, explains that “CAE inherited [the embryo] from a couple who no longer needed their eggs” (122), while the notice of the Vienna performance (see Becker and Ringler) states that by order of CAE the embryos were produced and conserved in a lab in the U.S.) arouses doubts about the use and authenticity of embryonic genetic material.
 Due to the police’s confiscation of all of Kurtz’s genetic material, workspace, computers, lab equipment etc, Free Range Grain could only be presented in an incomplete version at the MassMOCA in North Adams in 2004. (see Sholette 53).
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CONSTANTvzw. Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) The Flesh Machine. 10 June 2007. <http://archive.constantvzw.org/events/e06/en/cae01en.html>
Critical Art Ensemble. Flesh Machine. 5 Jan. 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/index.html>
Critical Art Ensemble. Flesh Machine: Project Documentation. 5 Jan. 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/biocomWeb/index.html>
Critical Art Ensemble. Free Range Grain. 7 Jan. 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/free/index.html>
Critical Art Ensemble. genTerra. 10. Jan 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/genterra/index.html>
subRosa. Epidermic! DIY Cell Lab: Project Documentation. 15 Dec. 2006. <http://www.cyberfeminism.net/projects/doc/epi.html>
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Figure 1. Critical Art Ensemble. Free Range Grain. Online Project Documentation. 10. March 2007.
Figure 2. The Finnish National Gallery. Cenrtal Art Archives. 15. March 2007.
Figure 3. Critical Art Ensemble. Fleshmachine: Web Site. 15. March 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/biocomWeb/index.html>
Figure 4. Flesh Machine: Critical Art Ensemble Fotomaterial. 1. May 2008. <http://www.t0.or.at/event/cae/55.html>
Figure 5. Flesh Machine: Critical Art Ensemble Fotomaterial. 1. May 2008. <http://www.t0.or.at/event/cae/55.html>
Figure 6. Critical Art Ensemble. Flesh Machine. Project Documentation. 10. March 2007. <http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/index.html>
Critical Art Ensemble. Flesh Machine. Project Documentation. 10. March 2007. http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/biocom/index.html
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