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Art & Art History

Biological Agents

Tuesday, October 14, 2008–Saturday, November 22, 2008

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Artists: Brandon Ballengée, Caitlin Berrigan, and Natalie Jeremijenko

The complexities of our contemporary life fundamentally challenge the way we understand ourselves as biological entities within larger ecosystems. Biological Agents focuses on the work of Brandon Ballengée, Caitlin Berrigan, and Natalie Jeremijenko: three artists who engage the intimate participation of organisms and the public alike, examining what it means to be human, to be animal, and to have personal and social agency. The exhibition also features the Knowledge Virus Research Station, which offers printed and online resources and information on biological topics from a variety of creative perspectives as well as a Biological Agents events series.

The emerging practices of BioArt move within and between the disciplines of science and art, challenging the standing dichotomy. The intentions and presentations of the art within this broad categorization are many and varied, ranging from the aestheticization of biological processes to laboratory work that is introspective and deeply political. In each case, such work raises new questions about the ethics, the aesthetics, and the culture of our scientific and technological interventions in the biological world, and the work does so in a way that neither art nor science alone could generate.

The artwork presented in Biological Agents confronts the tension between the authority of scientific knowledge on the one hand and personal and collective participation on the other, posing pro-active models for inquiry and communication within the biological realm. In conjunction with the exhibition, artist Claire Pentecost led a discussion following a screening of the film Marching Plague by Critical Art Ensemble and the film Strange Culture by Lynn Hershman Leeson, which documents events following the death of Hope Kurtz, wife of Steve Kurtz, and a fellow member of Critical Art Ensemble. Also, in November, Lennard Davis, UIC professor of English Literature and Medical Humanities, led a panel discussion on BioArt with Lori Andrews, Chicago-Kent College of Law; Hannah Higgins, UIC Associate Professor of Art History; and Andrew Yang, co-curator and biologist. Through events, research stations, workshops, and collaborative artworks, Biological Agents engages directly with public communities, environments, and even other species, allowing otherwise passive viewers and scientific subjects a means to exercise their agency as active biological participants.

According to curators Christa Donner, professor of Studio Arts at UIC, and Andrew Yang, professor of Biology and Liberal Arts at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago:

“The three artists featured in Biological Agents—Brandon Ballengée, Caitlin Berrigan, and Natalie Jeremijenko—present intriguing and pro-active models of practice that engage the biological in ways that require the intimate participation of both organisms and the public in equal measure. Through direct collaborations in the field and in the gallery, they connect our multiple roles as biological hosts and biological agents alike. Their work succeeds in carefully, critically, and humorously exploring what it means to be human, to be animal, and to have personal and social agency in the complex ecologies we are all a part of.”

Biological Agents was co-organized with Lennard Davis and Project Biocultures.

Related:

MEDIA COVERAGE

Gunn, Dan. “Biological Agents/Gallery 400.” newcity.com, Oct. 26, 2008.

Pearson, Laura. “Art for Our Growing Bioculture.” gapersblock.com, Oct. 9, 2008.

Schroeder, Amy. “Biological Agents.” TimeOut Chicago, Nov. 4, 2008.

ARTISTS BIOGRAPHIES

Brandon Ballengee Head ShotExploring the boundaries between art, science, and technology, Brandon Ballengée (born 1974) creates multidisciplinary works out of information generated from ecological ?eld trips and laboratory research. Since 1996, Ballengée has collaborated with numerous scientists to conduct primary biological research and create ecological artworks. A particular area of study is the occurrence of malformation and global declines of amphibians, highlighted here in the Biological Agents exhibit. Collaborating with biologists, he has documented these animals using scienti?c staining techniques that both visualize and aesthetically transform their biology in ways otherwise unknowable. Ballengée ’s project in Britain this part year, “MALAMP UK” (for “MALformed AMPhibian”) continued this research site-speci?cally to examine the status of amphibian life in Yorkshire. Working with local residents in the ?eld, Ballengée extends the notion of “bio-art” practice out of the gallery as well as into the realm of primary scienti?c research. Ballengée ’s work has been exhibited in Australia, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Recent solo exhibitions of his work were held at Arsenal Gallery in Central Park, New York City; Peabody Museum of Natural History,Yale University; Archibald Arts, New York City; and Kunstverein Ingolstadt in Germany. He participated in the 2004 Geumgang Nature Art Biennale in Kung Ju, South Korea; the Waterways Project, installed at the 2005 Venice BiennaleBiennale for Electronic Arts, Perth, Australia (2007); and ?lm screenings of the 3rd Moscow Biennale in Russia.

Caitlin Berrigan Head ShotCaitlin Berrigan (born 1981) is an artist who works in tactile and edible sculpture, immersive installation, electronic media, and interactive performance. Her works address the ruptures and con?uences of the body ’s grotesque form, its medicalization, and many variations as object of desire. The results are quietly disturbing works of subtle humor and irony that speak to our violent and con?icted relationship to the body. Berrigan is often inspired by materials that resemble or hyperbolize organic bodies. Yet the materials she employs—food, perishables, video, wax, plastics, rubbers, stains—possess a distinct odor, tactility or elastic property that triggers a sensual and primal experience in viewers that is equally important to the piece as its conceptual component. She has presented her work in the Whitney Museum ’s Initial Public Offerings; Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York; Dumbo Art Under the Bridge Festival, New York; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Stuttgart New Media Festival; and Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv; among other venues and festivals. She creates works at the intersection of performance, edible sculpture, participatory actions, and the life sciences to initiate dialogue about biopolitics and culture. Less concerned with visualizing the unseen, she is interested in employing spatial aesthetics to make imperceptible forces an embodied experience. She stages conflict between pleasure and discomfort through intimate, choreographed encounters between the public and sculptural media—provoking multivalent readings and visceral responses. By uncovering layers of ambiguous emotions, she aims to open a space of potential to confront uncertainty within the context of social issues.

Natalie Jeremijenko Head ShotNatalie Jeremijenko (born 1966) works at the intersection of contemporary art, science, and engineering. Her practice takes many forms that include large-scale public art works, tangible media installations, single channel tapes, and critical writings that investigate the complex interactions between animals, humans, and technology in contemporary nature. As director of the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, she helps prescribe creative health solutions for the environment that are carried out by enthusiastic volunteers. As a professor in New York University ’s Visual Art Department, she creates and supervises real-life projects for her students like HowStuffIsMade (a website that details how everyday objects are created) and Feral Robots (packs of robot dogs that have been hacked to monitor pollution or even act as breathalyzers).

Her individual work has been exhibited at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; Whitney Museum, New York; and Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, and she is part of an artists’ collective called the Bureau of Inverse Technology. Past projects include the Despondency Index—a motion detector camera was installed on San Francisco ’s Bay Bridge to record suicides, which were then graphed in relation to stock market data. Jeremijenko was named as a 1999 Rockefeller Fellow, one of the 40 most influential designers by i-D magazine and one of the Top 100 Young Innovators by MIT Technology Review. She was included in both the 2006 Whitney Biennial of American Art and theCooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Triennial 2006–7.

EXHIBITION CHECKLIST

Brandon Ballengée

DFB 31, Arcás, 2008
Unique IRIS print on watercolor paper
Scanner photograph of cleared and stained multi-limbed Pacific tree frog from Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Dr. Stanley K. Sessions
MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair

DFB 42, Êléktra Ozomèn, 2008
Unique IRIS print on watercolor paper
Scanner photograph of cleared and stained multi-limbed Pacific tree frog from Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Dr. Stanley K. Sessions
MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair.

DFB 45, Arès, 2008
Unique IRIS print on watercolor paper
Scanner photograph of cleared and stained multi-limbed Pacific tree frog from Aptos, California in scientific collaboration with Dr. Stanley K. Sessions
MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair.

Styx: Chicago Variation, 2008
Sculptural installation with deformed, cleared, and stained European toads (Bufo bufo) and a Common Frog (Rana temporaria) collected in Yorkshire, England. Field research commissioned by the Arts Catalyst, London and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, England. In scientific collaboration with Richard Sunter, The Yorkshire Naturalist League and chemical preparations with Stanley K. Sessions, Hartwick College, Biology Department
MALAMP titles in collaboration with the poet KuyDelair.

Malamp UK, 2007–2008
DVD, estimated running time 7:00 min.
Commissioned by the Arts Catalyst, London
Courtesy the artist and Archibald Arts, New York

Caitlin Berrigan

Tea Party to Befriend a Virus, 2006–08
For the opening-night performance, Berrigan serves dandelion root tea and shares her handmade “Viral Confections” with visitors in exchange for personal dialogue about the prevalent and under-represented hepatitis C epidemic

Viral Shelter (Part of the series: Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus), 2007–2008
Geodesic dome built after the protein structure of the hepatitis C virus
Wood, brass, organza

Viral Confections (Part of the series: Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus), 2006–2007
Chocolates cast from a rapid prototype of a 3D cryo-electron micrograph of the hepatitis C viral capsid

Letter to a Virus, 2007
Offset brochure

Natalie Jeremijenko

Keeping TaBs, 2008
Inkjet prints, clipboards, tadpoles, aquariums

Coyote: I love Chicago and Chicago loves me, 2008
Inkjet prints, clipboards, pigmented ink on wall

Peace Declaration for Pigeons, 2006–08
Inkjet prints, clipboards, electronics, injection-molded plastic

Temporary Travel Office

Invasive Irrigation Kits

Inkjet prints, mustard seeds, plastic containers, thumbtacks

CURATORS BIOGRAPHIES

Christa Donner Head ShotChrista Donner launched her first solo exhibition at Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999 as the recipient of a Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artist Award. Since, she has been actively exhibiting, publishing, curating, and teaching. She uses large-scale drawings and small-press publications to explore issues around the human body and body image. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Christa’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums including Kravets-Wehby Gallery and Longwood Arts Project, New York; POST Gallery, Los Angeles; Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; BankART NYK, Yokohama, Japan; ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art, Kuopio, Finland; and Centro Columbo Americano, Medellin, Colombia. Now based in Chicago, Christa teaches at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Christa Donner earned an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2005.

Andrew Yang Head ShotAndrew Yang is Associate Professor of Biological Studies at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Research Associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in the Department of Zoology. Yang has exhibited at MVSEVM, Chicago; Beverly Arts Center, Chicago; Old Gold Exhibitions; Chicago; Work Gallery, Ann Arbor, Michigan; and BankART NYK Summer Open, Yokohama, Japan. He has published extensively on topics including both biology and artistic practice. Yang received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biology from Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania and a PhD in Biology from Duke University.

PRINT COLLATERAL

Postcard: Biological Agents – Opening Reception

    EXHIBITION ESSAY

    Curator’s Note

    Andrew Yang and Christa Donner

    The notion of a biological agent is an equivocal one. On hearing the term these days our minds may jump to the thought of infective microbes produced for the express purpose of making others sick. Of course, the weaponizing of life in this way is not the volition of the infectious “agent” itself; the microbes are causes without choices, simply the means to more nefarious ends for which another kind of biological agent–a human one–has intentionally manufactured them. But even these two inceptions of “agents” and what willfulness they may possess becomes more indeterminate when considered in a wider social context that includes organizational agencies of the state and federal sort as well, be that the FDA or FBI. Two cases this past summer–that of Defense lab scientist Bruce Ivins, his suicide, and the murky connections to the anthrax poisonings of 2001 on the one hand, and the long-awaited dismissal of the charges against Critical Art Ensemble artist Steve Kurtz on alleged “bioterrorist” connections to his whorl on the other–can be seen as bookends to the range of fears, complexities, and relations of power tied up in biotechnology.

    Viewed in an ecological context, however, it is increasingly apparent that biotechnology is just one of the many elements within a much broader system. As our understanding of ecological dynamics grows, we see that any factor that significantly alters the function of ecosystems by way of pollution, disease, or the balance of species is a matter of real biological concern. Rather than simply assuming we are “perpetrators” on nature or “victims” of it, we have begun to understand more accurately the role we play as potent links in an environment network of causes and effects. In this light, our perceptions of and daily engagements with non-human organisms confront us with ethical and agential questions as pressing and nuanced as those posed by biotechnological innovation.

    These biological matters preoccupy both artists and the public at large, although they are typically expressed and addressed on very different terms. For example, the gallery focus of much “BioArt” and the mutations of scientific language that characterize its discourse may do little toward bridging the gap between the public and the concerns that contemporary biology confronts them with. At times, distinguishing between what is commentary, critique, or simply fetishization of the biological becomes increasingly difficult, only reinforcing the divide between certain forms of BioArt and the public audiences it is intended to engage.

    The three artists featured in Biological Agents–Brandon Ballengée, Caitlin Berrigan, and Natalie Jeremijenko–present intriguing and provocative models of practice that engage the biological in ways that require the intimate participation of both organisms and the public in equal measure. Through direct collaborations in the field and in the gallery, they connect our multiple roles as biological hosts and biological agents alike. Their work succeeds in carefully, critically, and humorously exploring what it means to be human, to be animal, and to have personal and social agency in the complex ecologies we are all a part of.

    ****

    Christa Donner and Andrew Yang, Curator’s Note, October, 2008.

    This essay was distributed in the gallery during the run of the exhibition.

    EXHIBITION SUPPORT

    Biological Agents is supported by UIC Project Biocultures, the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. Additional support was provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UIC, Department of Biology and Department of English.