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In our time of epidemic Modernist and Post-Modernist retro — well-made art without a radical hair on its head — it’s refreshing to walk into something as different as At the Temperature of My Body, Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s exhibition at the Fridman Gallery.
The street door opens into a space occupied by tall potted plants and an oblong stainless steel table upon which sit a dozen white bowls. An adjoining room contains a metal trolley, reminiscent of a gurney you might wander across in a hospital, but drenched in mauve light and laid with smaller varieties of plant life — at once low key and startling, appropriately for this ambitious show.
The plant life is the raw material in Spirit Molecule (2018-19), one of the three projects here in which Dewey-Hagborg experiments with the connections between powerful emotions and the most minuscule working parts in the human system, with the results constituting the art.
Spirit Molecule, a collaboration with Phillip Andrew Lewis, an artist-botanist, began with the injection of the genes of Lewis’ grandmother, Jinny, into psychoactive plants, which are used for psychotropic drugs. Jinny is dead; the project deals with mourning. So why the psychoactive plants?
“They are plants that have an effect on our consciousness,” Dewey-Hagborg told me in a conversation at the gallery. “There’s a spiritual dimension to them. The act of inserting foreign DNA into a plant is not a dangerous thing to do. It’s symbolic. And it’s not a dangerous thing to consume.”
These are memorial plants, eating them will affect mood and perceptions, wholly legally, and it’s an ongoing operation. Sebastian Cocioba, a researcher, comes to the gallery to attend to the science weekly. “So the project suggests that there might be beautiful and poetic ways to use science,” says Dewey-Hagborg, “that aren’t just the big chemical companies exploiting us and damaging the environment.”
The central room contains Lovesick (2019), the second project, which consists of sculptures and photographs. The sculptures, ten small vials of hand-blown pink glass, are on two circular stands, one white as snow, one luminously blue. The individual vials look like unnaturally thick earthworms, except that some are rearing like snakes about to strike. They represent 10 different energy states of the oxytocin molecule and were produced using molecular modeling software.
Oxytocin is a hormone. Published research shows that it pumps up empathy and bonding, both social and sexual. In the hate-convulsed worldscape of today, Dewey-Hagborg’s Lovesick proposes oxytocin as that long looked-for potion: The Love Drug.
The third project, T3511 (2018), a collaboration with artist/filmmaker, Toshiaki Ozawa, is narrative art delivered on four video screens set up on inwardly facing walls. Dewey-Hagborg plays a real-life character, a woman who got hold of an anonymous saliva sample, researched what could be learned from the DNA, was smitten, and tracked the individual down. Dewey-Hagborg’s blonde cut somewhat gives her the look of Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), which reinforces the video’s Godard-esque documentary-of-the-future feel, as we watch her handling pill bottles, reading DNA evidence, and falling in love.
DNA may be the plot point in two of the three projects in At the Temperature of My Body, but it was not DNA that brought Dewey-Hagborg to make hard science part of her art. That began at Bennington College. “It is a really interdisciplinary place,” she said. “We were encouraged to take classes across the whole school. Neural networks were an area I found really interesting. I was drawn into them by the visuality of them, compared with other algorithms.
“Over the years that led me to do more research into Artificial Life and Artificial Creativity. Could an algorithm generate images that would look as compelling and creative as a human can? That’s what I was looking at. And I thought it would be very interesting to try to put that together with a conceptual art practice that could explore these questions of life and consciousness and intelligence through an artistic medium. So it just drew me in.”
Dewey-Hagborg first art use of artificial intellience was in 2007. “I did these experiments using algorithms to generate artificial faces,” she says. She was 25. Four years later she was at a therapy session in New York, idly looking at a print on the wall. “I noticed that the glass was cracked,” she says:
And there was a hair in the crack. I spent hours looking at this hair. And wondering what I could learn about this person. So I had this luminous inspiration, thinking that that hair was also data. And walking out and looking around the city and seeing cigarette butts and chewing gum. And people clipping their fingernails on the subway. Leaving this information all over the place and not giving it a second thought. And what would happen if I started collecting those things. And trying to learn about these people from the data. I was thinking you might learn what somebody looked like.
Which surely related to the surveillance culture?
“That’s right. That’s where I was coming from. My impulse for my initial foray into bio-technology came from thinking a lot about surveillance. I had been thinking about facial recognition. But biological surveillance wasn’t then even on the agenda.”
This led her to Gemspace in Downtown Laboratory, a community workplace, and a crash course in bio-technology. In college she had also looked at “bio-art,” such as the mutant bunny, Alba, which was created by French scientists by injecting the fertilized egg of an albino rabbit with the green fluorescent protein of a Pacific Northwest jellyfish. Alba glowed like neon grass in the right light, and was exhibited by Eduardo Kac, the Chicago artist, in 2000.
Dewey-Hagborg was also following what the group Tissue Culture had been doing by way of culturing cells as art. Then in 2004 Steve Kurtz, an artist with the Critical Art Ensemble, a five-member group whose work critiques bio-technology, was arrested by the FBI, who suspected that his art materials were actually bio-weapons. These charges were thrown out. Dewey-Hagborg has used forensic DNA phenotyping to create the work of political art, a series of 30 portraits of Chelsea Manning, all different, ranging across gender, facial types, ethnicity, and race.
It was Dewey-Hagborg’s enthusiasm for AI that brought her into this. “I hope we can create AI that makes more interesting art than anything we have ever seen. At least different art from anything we’ve ever seen,” she says. “Because it’s not interesting for humans to make the same things that people made 100 years ago. And it’s even less interesting for computers to do that. […]. I find [what they’ve been up to for the last decade] rather unimpressive.”
If AI programs do produce art will they recognise they’ve done?
“They certainly won’t. With language no chance. All the artificial intelligence in the world can’t even generate a grammatical piece of text.”
“Yet…,” I interjected.
“Maybe never, unless the algorhithms really improve. I was really excited about these things. But what I saw was the exploitation of big data by giant companies like Google and Facebook. And that there hasn’t been a shift in the conceptual layer of the technology. You’re going around and you think where is it? I found it a bit disillusioning. What’s next? That is the question.”
Heather Dewey-Hagborg: At the Temperature of My Body continues at the Fridman Gallery (169 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 9.