Bioart cluster courses

Sex and Death: Biology from Beginning to End

Instructor: Michael Bryant

Bioart is traditionally defined as art whose medium is life. But what is life? It depends on whom you ask. This course focuses on biology, which is the scientific study of life. An individual’s life begins through a process of reproduction. Reproduction may be either asexual or sexual, and in some species both may occur. Regardless of modality, successful reproduction is contingent on the ability of the individual’s ancestor(s) to have survived long enough to reproduce. The differential survival of individuals may lead to evolution by “natural selection”, another hallmark of “life”. In the case of sexual reproduction, an individual’s immediate ancestors also had to find a mate and thus also had to beat the odds against a force called “sexual selection”. Because of intrinsic trade-offs between the ability to survive and ability to reproduce, death is inevitable. This course is organized around the biology of life-histories (the patterns of reproduction and death). Perspectives from anatomy, behavior, ecology, evolution, developmental biology, genetics, neuroscience, and physiology will be brought together to understand life. All life-forms will be considered, but there will be a particular emphasis on the biology of humans. Towards our more complete understanding of “life” in the context of humans, we will conduct a class project on human reproductive behaviors and examine some technological advances for controlling our reproduction and lifespan.

Here is a related interview with Martie Haselton, who will participate in our Tuesday, November 9th cluster event:

Take Care of Yourself (On Biotechnics)

Instructor: Arne De Boever

Open to upper-level BFA and MFA/MA students only. 200- or 300-level students with a special interest in the topic should contact Arne ( if they want to be considered for the course.

Instructor: Arne De Boever


1. Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself

Introductory discussion of the terms care, self, and biotechnics.

Although bioart is traditionally defined as art whose medium is biological life, the “life” that bioart links to “art” surely includes much more than just biology. What about the life of the mind, for example, and the various techniques of thought that humans have developed over the centuries? Might these psycho-techniques also be a form of bioart? Consider, for example, the case of French artist Sophie Calle: when she was dumped by her boyfriend with a letter that ended with the words “Take care of yourself”, she started to wonder what that imperative might mean. So she decided to ask over one hundred women—psychoanalysts, actresses, singer-songwriters, copy-editors, etiquette consultants, et cetera--to interpret the letter according to their professional activities. Their responses were collected in Calle’s work Take Care of Yourself. Art functioned as therapy here and helped Calle to come to terms with the breakup. In this sense, Calle’s work can be considered as a example of bioart. Starting from Calle’s artwork, this course investigates the long history of philosophical reflections on “the care of the self” (also referred to as the “cultivation of the self” or the “art of existence”), ranging from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” to contemporary thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Bernard Stiegler. The course focuses on the different “techniques” of care-taking that these authors discuss, specifically on the relation in their texts between “technics” and “life” (what we will call “bio-technics”). We will study, for example, reflections on bio-technics in the works of Martin Heidegger, Peter Sloterdijk, Catherine Malabou, and William Connolly. Throughout the course, special attention will be paid to the resonances of Calle’s work in US society today, specifically with reference to the current health-care debates and the question of biological life’s relation to political power.

Here are some examples of responses that Calle received:

One of the articles that we will read for the course is a text by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, titled "Techniques of the Body". It was published in Incorporations, an excellent book edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter. At the end of Mauss' text, the editors add an image of the soccer player Johann Cruyff in 1975, which reminded me that we will have to discuss the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, directed by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Pareno:

Also to be discussed in this context is the figure of the samurai. If you have a little French, you can read up on the connection between the samurai and Michel Foucault's work on the care of the self on the site of Ars Industrialis. Or you can simply watch the two clips below.

2. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

We focused on the following passage:

"In everything that is continuous and divisible, it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men, by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little--and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for a person who is to take it, or too little--too little for Milo [a famous athlete], too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this--the intermediate not in the object, but relatively to us."

3. Paul, "Romans" and "Galatians"; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

With Marcus Aurelius:

4. Foucault, from Security, Territory, Population and The Care of the Self

We focused on Foucault's discussion of the "art of arts," namely the "government of souls." Central to our discussion was the notion of the pastorate, which according to Foucault only begins with Christianity (it's present in the Greeks, but they reject it). During the final part of the class, we discussed Foucault's interest in the care of the self in this context. Whereas in STP, Foucault is interested in how our souls are governed, it appears that in The Care of the Self, he is interested in how we can govern our souls. Everyone thus becomes their own work of bioart...

5. Descartes, Discourse on Method

We analyzed a clip from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner through the lens of Descartes' thought on animals, machines, and human reason. The clip below is not the one we discussed in class--we focused on another scene in which Pris, a Nexus 6 replicant, quotes Descartes' famous first principle: "I think, therefore I am". But the scene below, in which blade runner Deckard (!) meets replicant Rachel is also worthwhile.

6. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality

We focused on the peculiar position that Rousseau takes up within the progress towards the Enlightened use of reason as a practice of care. What are we to make, for example, of the line: "[I]t is by dint of studying man that we have rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him"? We established the connections between this line and the "know yourself" motto that was, in Antiquity, in tension with the command to "take care of yourself". How can Rousseau claim to be outside of this pernicious effect of study?

We also discussed the second part of his discourse, where he focuses on the question of government and criticizes contracts that legitimate inequality. Can there be a form of government that would operate through equal relations?

7. Kant, "What is Enlightenment?"

We focused on the tension between Kant's two mottos for the Enlightenment: "Dare to know!" and "Argue you all you please, but obey!" How can his call for us to have the courage to use our own reason be reconciled with his insistence on obedience? We also discussed, in this context, an image of the Baron von Münchausen pulling himself and his horse out of a swamp by pulling his own hair. You should be able to see the image here.

8. Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?"; Agamben, "What is an Apparatus?", and Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology"

We shifted our attention to the question of technology, of technologies of care. In his essay on the Enlightenment, Kant urges us to "learn to walk alone", "without the harness of the cart to which [we] are tethered". What relation to technology does this reveal?

We linked this discussion to the following passage from Foucault's essay: "Now the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of autonomy are not as simple as the eighteenth century may have believed. And we have been able to see what forms of power relation were conveyed by various technologies ...: disciplines, both collective and individual, procedures of normalization exercised in the name of the power of the state, demands of society or of population zones, are examples". The conclusion, however, is not the rejection of technology that one might have expected. Instead, Foucault asks something much more interesting: "How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?"

This we then linked to Agamben, and his discussion of "the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses".

For our discussion of Heidegger, which we postponed for next week, we began to think about the following passage: "What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, 'The Rhine' as dammed up into the power works, and 'The Rhine' as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin's hymn by that name."

9. Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain?

"The brain is a work," Malabou writes, "but we do not know it." After reading her book, we know that the brain is a work. Then, the question becomes: now how are we going to work it? These questions obviously relate to the work we are doing in this course, through reading, discussing, and writing about philosophical texts. Here's a little clip about a school of philosophy that Malabou has been involved in--it states some interesting things about philosophy, its relation to institutions, the way in which it can be practiced with care. The clip features Catherine Malabou.

See also Brainwave music, by David Rosenboom:

10. Peter Sloterdijk, "Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism"

At the beginning of his text, Sloterdijk recalls Jean Paul's remark that books "are thick letters to friends". "With this," Sloterdijk continues, Paul "aptly articulated the quintessential nature and function of humanism: It is telecommunication in the medium of print to underwrite friendship". Humanism is thus "in the narrowest and widest senses a consequence of literacy". Philosophy is part of this history, it has contributed to the "brotherhood" that literacy/humanism constitutes. Sophie Calle's project--which revolves, importantly, around a letter--can be read within this context; however, it doesn't constitute a brotherhood but a sisterhood...

But what will be philosophy's relation to humanism today, in a time that, according to Sloterdijk, is clearly "postliterary, postepistolary, and thus posthumanistic"? "New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence"--what remains of humanism and the community it constitutes in the time of these new media?

We also spent a fair amount of time discussing what Sloterdijk calls "postwar humanism"--a humanism that is focused (after the experience of the camps) on the debestialization of man. Part of the provocation of Sloterdijk's article is that it is critical of his "taming of man", this "domestication" of man that the camp has produced, and in which "theory" has taken part. Sloterdijk turns to Nietzsche and Plato towards the end of his article to advocate what he calls a "self-shepherding". He does not so much rage against the human zoo--it would be folly to think that one could live outside of it. Instead, he urges one to become the agent of one's own biopolitical production--in short, to take care of oneself. To do so would mean to become a "superhumanist".

One could argue that this is what artists such as Eduardo Kac are doing. Sloterdijk's text can enrich debates about genetic manipulation today. On this count, you might want to have a look at Michael Winterbottom's Code 46:

11. Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations

We discussed Stiegler's use of the notion of "pharmacology" in Chapter Ten, “Oikonomia in the Object of All Attentions”.

12. Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body” and William Connolly, Neuropolitics, Chapter Four, “Techniques of Thought and Micropolitics”

Jumana Manna presented "The Danish Gymnastics Project".

13. Eduardo Kac, “Introduction: Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics”; Robert Mitchell, “Defining Bioart”; Jennifer Allen, “Care for Hire”

We did a comparative analysis of the two bio-couture projects featured on the homepage. Are they both bioart? Why? Why not? We worked with Robert Mitchell's distinction between bioart that's defined conceptually, and bioart that's defined by the medium it is using.

14. Class visit by Michael Bryant

We had a closing discussion about evolutionary aesthetics.

IM1006: Conversations on Technology, Culture, and Practice

Instructors: Tom Leeser and visiting speakers

During the 2010-2011 academic year, the Center for Integrated Media (CIM) course “Conversations on Technology, Culture, and Practice”--a lecture series given by visiting artists, writers from various disciplines, and members of the CIM faculty--, will host four talks that will highlight the crossover between biology, technology, and art. The talks will be held in an informal setting designed to promote serious, yet relaxed conversations about the importance of this interdisciplinary constellation not just for the contemporary art world, but also for culture (science, ethics, government) at large. A tentative list of speakers includes (amongst others) Philip Ross, creator of Mycotectural Alpha.

Critical Reading: The Soundscape, Acoustic Ecology, and the Field

Instructor: Michael Pisaro

This course will be concerned with modes of reading and listening that are associated with the soundscape and the field, and with forms of human, artistic interaction with both. The course will focus on what is called “bio-music”, and on the notion of “acoustic ecology” in particular. We will begin by discussing the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s book The Tuning of the World, in order to then explore various conceptualizations of both the “field” and the “human”. There will be ancillary readings by critical theorists such as Gernot Böhme, Francis Ponge, Alain Badiou, Oswald Egger, and Catherine Malabou (who will speak in the Fall 2010 MA in Aesthetics and Politics lecture series). In addition to these theoretical readings, the course will explore concrete examples of human interaction with the sounding environment: from field-recording work, to sound installations, to multi-media work by David Dunn, Max Neuhaus, Peter Ablinger and others. Final projects for the course will take the form of either an analytic paper or a project (artistic or documentary) with accompanying documentation.

CS721: Contemporary Aesthetic Theory

Open to MA in Aesthetics and Politics students only.

Instructor: James Wiltgen

What questions can be asked of art today? In an era of image saturation and digitized existence, what place does a thinking of aesthetics occupy? Is (or indeed, should) art be timely or untimely? This course investigates a number of key concepts in a genealogy of aesthetics ranging from the beautiful and the sublime, to the uncanny, the aura, Gestell, difference and repetition, the simulacrum, intensity, embodiment, representation, immanence, the image, the parergon, binaries, and the sensuous. Subtending this approach are three intersecting strands: first, an ongoing interrogation of the heritage of the West’s “Enlightenment”; second, the volatile and protean concept of “reason”; and third, the complex interplay of the tropes of freedom and equality. The final two sessions of the course address the ways in which the issue of “life” has affected the conceptualization of aesthetics, most particularly in terms of what has been termed the “biopolitical”, and its coefficient “bioaesthetics”. Starting from this example, the course explores how aesthetics has become a term used in a wide variety of contexts, often coupled with a provocative qualifying term: relational, torture, crash, digital, extinction, cosmopolitan, risk, engagement, post-media, bio, disappearance, et cetera. How are we to understand these formulations? How does it prompt us to expand our definitions of the aesthetic, linking it with compelling elements of contemporary theory as well as a thinking pressed toward the future? From this mix will emerge an intensive questioning of the entanglement of politics and aesthetics, as well as a certain task, namely to continue posing the most demanding of queries.