Interview: Beyond Humans

Anita Hermann­städter in an interview with the artist Reiner Maria Matysik and the curator Ingeborg Reichle

In recent years artworks by the Berlin artist Reiner Maria Matysik have been exhibited at various venues and in very diverse contexts. His work became well known parti­cu­larly through his models of post-evolu­tionary organisms, which are situated between Matysik’s vision of active evolution, that is, evolution controlled by humans, and the future forms of living biolo­gical sculp­tures created by the artist. The artist’s motivation in creating these proto­types of future organisms stems from his conviction that the rapid advances in modern molecular biology and genetic engineering will have dramatic conse­quences for the process of biolo­gical evolution, as well as for art, that can hardly be assessed at present. The exhibition jenseits des menschen was curated by the art historian Ingeborg Reichle for the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité. Three aspects of Reiner Maria Matysik’s multi-layered œuvre are highlighted and brought together in a synthesis. From his extensive series of post-evolu­tionary organisms three exhibits were selected for a very distinctive space, the museum’s lecture hall ruin; they are suspended from the roof on steel cables and hang above the heads of visitors. In the second area of the exhibition the artist focuses on the future of human evolution and for the first time worked with modelling wax. In the third section Matysik also breaks new ground: with the support of the Deutsches Institut für Zell- und Gewebe­ersatz and using the techniques of tissue engineering, the artist created for the first time a living sculpture from his own cells, which is exhibited in the museum as a specimen. Matysik’s works and the processes used to create them can be understood as visual artistic experi­ments as well as a contri­bution to the contem­porary negotiation process for the world of tomorrow.

Interview

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, recently you have mainly exhibited in galleries and museums of contem­porary art, and not in science locations. In what way is it a challenge for you to exhibit your work in a medical history museum, which presents scien­tific objects and specimens? 

Reiner Maria Matysik

The ideal location for art is still the classical, sheltered exhibition space as found in a Kunst­verein (art society), art gallery, or art museum. This environment facili­tates the necessary access and enables engagement with the art without any energy loss. Some forms of art, however, feel constrained by such spaces and demand different, more open contexts. With regard to what I do, I am not actually sure whether it can be classed as art, and what qualities the ideal locations for it should have. What is certain is that I’m not doing science; but what it actually is remains uncertain. I think that the appro­priate context for what I have produced does not yet exist; at the moment it is art that lacks a better location. 

Ultimately, it’s about a child’s dream of disco­vering something new, and of pushing back the frontiers of thinking and experi­encing. For this, science offers different resources to art. However, both science and art endeavour to push forward into territory that was unknown before or make what has not been thought of conceivable. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, you see your works as being located outside of art, then? 

Reiner Maria Matysik

In the case of my works it is only logical that they appear in spaces not meant for art. But it would be a real tragedy not to appear in an art context ever again, because other visitors to other types of insti­tu­tions usually don’t know how to “read” what they are seeing. That art is encoun­tered outside of spaces dedicated to it is, in the meantime, nothing special. In the meantime the number of art inter­ven­tions has become infla­tionary, and I often get the impression that art is frequently being functio­n­a­lised; the spaces in which it inter­venes are to be rendered more attractive. For works that are created in peripheral areas of art, however, it does make sense to enter spaces not meant for art. Successful inter­ven­tions for me are those that do not behave affir­ma­tively to the context, but instead unhinge 
it. 

My exhibition Biofakte in the Zoolo­gi­sches Forschungs­museum 
Alexander Koenig in Bonn in 2008 was such an inter­vention. In natural history museums today animal specimens are mainly presented in replicas of their habitats and the tradi­tional mode of presen­tation, arranged according to biolo­gical classi­fi­cation in showcases filled to bursting point, is gradually disap­pearing. In the wing of the museum that I set up, the biofacts remained non-located, because they don’t yet have a reference landscape. Permanent abode in narrow showcases is not possible for them; the door would be pushed open and the glass shattered, because these biofacts have still to conquer their own terri­tories and to rebuild them in accordance with their needs. 

My exhibition in the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité calls a funda­mental perspective of the museum into question, because the museum displays the diseased, patho­lo­gical body. With this perspective I contrast works that show unusual forms of the human body, or forms that do not exist in this way, to provide a utopian view on the possi­bi­lities of the human. I regard diffe­rences as an oppor­tunity; when anomalies are not understood as defor­mities or mutila­tions but as an optional design, an extension, or change. 

When medical and bioscience proce­dures of the life sciences are used, like xenotrans­plan­tation or tissue engineering, the inter­vention and changes for the patient should remain as small as possible and be concealed by the results. However, I am especially interested in the collages and hybrids that could result from this. Organs created at a subhuman level do not necessarily have to be trans­planted in the place that nature intended for the organ. They could also be a basis for independent, individual organisms, which might enable completely different forms of human existence. Perhaps we are getting surpri­singly close to Friedrich Schlegel who wrote that the most highly perfected life would be nothing other than pure vegetating. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Ingeborg, you currently move between your job as art historian at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and as curator of this exhibition. What inspi­ration for curating this exhibition do you derive from your research on the relati­onship between art and science? 

Ingeborg Reichle

My work as a scholar over the past years appears to me in a new light through curating this exhibition. When I began working on art out of the laboratory ten years ago, I was not aware of just how complex it is to create laboratory condi­tions in the context of a public exhibition, or how difficult, actually almost impos­sible, it is for artists to get access to science facilities. In recent years it has become easier through artist-in-residence programmes and more and more openness on the part of scien­tists to integrate artists in their laboratory research contexts and to give them the oppor­tunity to realise artis­ti­cally motivated projects in the laboratory. Up to now the results of my research have mainly been presented in lectures and publi­ca­tions. 
Organising an exhibition I find to be both productive and meaningful, not least because of the combi­nation of theory and praxis. I first encoun­tered Reiner Maria Matysik’s work around ten years ago at an exhibition in Berlin, and it features in my book Kunst aus dem Labor (2005) / Art in the Age of Techno­science (2009). Preparing a meeting and publi­cation on Visual Models with colleagues in 2007 presented a good oppor­tunity to work in greater depth on Reiner Maria Matysik’s post-evolu­tionary organisms. Thus, before this exhibition I had actually worked for several years on the theories, and parti­cu­larly the production methods of the artist. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Ingeborg, with the Inter­ven­tions series the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité offers artists an experi­mental space in which they encounter the history of medicine from the eigh-teenth century to the present and engage with it from their position. In the exhibition jenseits des menschen the diseased and patho­lo­gical is confronted by visionary diversity. How is the speci­ficity of this location inter­ro­gated in your curatorial concept? 

Ingeborg Reichle

In the latter half of the nineteenth century Rudolf Virchow, the founder of the museum, began to research, measure, and classify the evolu­tionary history of humans. With his collection of over 23,000 wet and dry anato­mical specimens 
Virchow wanted to present in his museum the then known spectrum of human diseases as compre­hen­sively as possible. This included all kinds of forms known to nature and also showed some of the monstro­sities that it can bring forth. With the works he produced for this exhibition Reiner Maria Matysik shows us the diversity of life that humans could now bring forth, and likely will bring forth in the future. Possibly completely different notions of the body will dominate that are not oriented on contem­porary norms. And yet the future life forms that Matysik juxta­poses with the specimens at times do look a lot like the specimens in the glass showcases. The empty space that gapes between the artis­ti­cally motivated objects and the historic specimens is interesting: we do not see any technical aids, prostheses, or artifi­cially created products, which present the future human being as a cyborg. Techno­lo­gical inter­ven­tions in life itself are already so advanced that this can be done at the molecular level, and our eyes can no longer distin­guish between natural organisms and artificial organisms. This is not about technical visions of the future potential of medicine, but rather about the trans­for­mation of our notion of living organisms. Our concept of the human is far older than the technology that is at our disposal today to manipulate life. There are still strict legal and ethical rules which are closely connected to the purpose of healing. But what if in the not too distant future living organisms become a pure and purpo­seless medium in which artists, for example, are allowed to express themselves? In the autonomous, organ-like tissues we see entities that the artist presents whose status has still to be deter­mined. For me, the Medical History Museum is the ideal place to address these important questions, which concern us all, in a precise situation. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, for the exhibition jenseits des menschen you worked for the first time with wax, a material that has been used from time immemorial in art and science to construct models. What signi­fi­cance does the choice of this material have for your exhibition in the Museum of the Charité? 

Reiner Maria Matysik

Certainly, I became interested in working with wax through looking at the moulages in the museum. But the question of the material should not be viewed as so important. The decision to use wax is connected with the properties of the material: trans­pa­rency, fleshiness, warmth, skin-like. Obviously, wax has a long tradition, which one is constantly aware of when confronted by objects made from this material. But ultimately all means and all materials are appro­priate when one seeks to convey visual presence. By this I do not mean the genial manual skill that shapes from a formless mass the secret that lies buried within it. Instead, the work consists in making the given appear in a different light through a shift of context.

The two methods complement each other. Objects cannot be compre­hended via materiality, form, surface, or colour. They are embedded in the context in which they appear. With models, for example, classi­fi­ca­tions and descrip­tions are a part of the work. Form of presen­tation and presented object are an insepa­rable unit. This method of working also results in inclusion of the qualities of the surroundings. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, the exhibition is in three parts: the wax models in the specimens room, the organisms in the lecture hall ruin, and a »living sculpture«, which was created in a laboratory and can only be exhibited in the museum as a specimen. For the sculpture some of your skin was removed by surgery, which was then used to grow cell sheets in the laboratory of the Deutsches Institut für Zell- und Gewebe­ersatz. Does the use of this living material mean that you are consciously taking a step closer to BioArt, which seeks proximity to and imple­ments the technical methods of the life sciences? 

Reiner Maria Matysik

I see myself as one of the founders of BioArt. Since childhood I have been fasci­nated by biolo­gical material. Without consciously deciding to pursue art or science, the experience of nature and in nature has long played an important role for me. The question »What is nature?« has long been a preoc­cup­ation of mine. This interest has not disap­peared; only the means whereby I pursue it have changed. People from different parts of the world have posed questions that result from their history and culture about the organic aspect of our existence, and have worked artis­ti­cally with living substances using biolo­gical methods to produce their works. Already in 1995, the first year I began to study, I worked with vegetative, living material and joined organisms together through grafting. However, I found that working with living material was too limiting, too complex to organise, and too constrained by technical, logistic, and legal barriers, so I made use of the freedom that working on the level of models offers. In various projects in the area of art known as BioArt, I tend to wonder whether the experi­mental set-up is so promising that it justifies being realised. An example: In 1999 I published a book on future life forms, which brought genetic engineering and art together. Back then I asked Alfred Pühler, professor of genetics at the University of Bielefeld, if he would publish his work on fluore­scence markers in tobacco plants in this context. The plants with their glowing green colour that I had been shown ought to be displayed in an art context. To me this was (for the time) a specta­cular readymade and I saw no need to modify it unnecessarily or to apply this principle to other organisms. 

A further example: In William Gibson’s Neuro­mancer, instead of a steak the protagonist is served »vatgrown flesh«. Research on in vitro meat was commis­sioned by NASA in 2002; in Norway the food research institute Nofima Mat is working on it; and at the University of Utrecht molecular biolo­gists are doing research on meat grown from cell cultures in the laboratory. Now, with The Remains of Disem­bodied Cuisine by the 
Tissue Culture & Art Project, this vision that came from a literary work has arrived in art after scien­tific research on special cases of nutrition. Can an impetus be given for debate and reflection on what we refer to as the social and political effects of new biotech­no­logies when projects from other contexts are shown in the art context? 

After my early work with living plants there were only two instances of an interesting framework for working on a molecular biolo­gical level with living matter. 
At the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Braun­schweig, in the winter semester 2003 / 2004 I founded the ibiop. Under the project title From the biomass that you are to new life forms, in colla­bo­ration with the Technical University of Braun­schweig I explored how course content might extend the artistic radius of operation into the fields of biology and the life sciences. The decisive question of the evaluation report »Will there be a course on biolo­gical sculpture?« was unfor­tu­n­ately answered in the negative. Now, the Charité is again offering me an interesting framework wherein I can work with living matter. The basic segre­gation into metapho­rical and hands-on-science works only makes sense to a certain degree. Many artists use both for their works. One does not necessarily have to stand in a laboratory. Some artistic positions are assigned too quickly to the complex of BioArt. The issues and questions that arise from the skin penetra­tions of the Australian artist Stelarc can be debated more produc­tively if these are seen in the tradition of Viennese action art than in the context of BioArt. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, methods developed by molecular biology like genetic engineering or tissue engineering, and not least synthetic biology enable humans to intervene in evolution and probably to produce new life forms. In your view, what challenges will these develo­p­ments present to modern societies and what is the position of art on this issue? 

Reiner Maria Matysik

Art has a problem at the moment because it is strongly oriented on economic profit interests that come from outside. The question is, therefore, does art really want to be reduced solely to a commodity, or can it break free of this and pursue other interests? For sure, there has been art that wanted to revolu­tionise art and did not want to »serve the interests of capitalism«. In my view, art cannot simply relin­quish the present trans­for­mation of the world to vested interests and science. Quite correctly, art wants to be involved and in the forefront to make its own individual contri­bution to developments. 

When I began to develop my models, I didn’t know anything about synthetic biology (did the term even exist then?). And now texts on synthetic biology read like an intro­duction to my work. Is my project in the process of being overtaken by reality? I was perhaps the only person working on creating post-evolu­tionary organisms out of non-living matter, and now I find that there are other people – not in art, but in science – who are working on nothing less than the re-invention of nature. 

Ingeborg Reichle

Current use of the term synthetic biology has mainly been shaped by Eric Kool’s 2002 report in Chemical Engineering News on integrating artificial chemical components in biolo­gical systems. The term was used already in 1912 in a publi­cation of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc, La biologie synthé­tique. In the same year the German-American biologist Jacques Loeb said that in principle it should be possible to generate artificial living systems. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Ingeborg, art out of the laboratory is still a marginal pheno­menon in the contem­porary art scene. And this is in spite of the fact that in 2003 there were numerous exhibi­tions celebrating the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA by James D. Watson and Francis Crick and on the reception of genetics and the life sciences in art. What are the concerns and appre­hen­sions of estab­lished art insti­tu­tions founded on? 

Ingeborg Reichle

It is not only the art insti­tu­tions that have concerns but the entire art market. The contem­porary art scene is not geared to the »living« media that some artists employ to realise their works or concepts in the laboratory. A trans­genic rabbit or a research expedition in a biotope in the front garden can’t be hung on the wall over the sofa nor is it easy to locate them within an early or late phase of the artist’s œuvre, which is an important factor for an artwork incre­asing in value over time. In some respects I see here parallels with the history of media art, which for a long time was also a marginal pheno­menon; indeed, even today it has not arrived in a big way in the estab­lished art insti­tu­tions. To return to your question: the insti­tu­tions that present these artworks to the general public tend to have a scien­tific perspective, like medical history museums, natural history museums, or science centres. BioAr­tists often refuse to exhibit their works or projects in such venues because they see the insti­tu­tions’ didactic concerns as devalo­rising their art. This describes the dilemma of this art movement. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Ingeborg, art history is less like an archive and more a narrative that is repeatedly re-written. What contri­bution are artists who work in labora­tories with scien­tific tools and methods making to the present revision process? 

Ingeborg Reichle

I think it’s too early to give a substantial assessment of this process. However, this inter­vention process is already underway at art academies and univer­sities of the arts as well as at a few art history insti­tutes. In this connection I should like to mention The Arts & 
Genomics Centre, which was founded in 2005 by the art historian Robert Zwijnenberg and which is affiliated to both the Art History Institute and the Chemistry Institute of the University of Leiden. Further, there was also the Summer School Living Matter, Art & Research & Science Studies in Biolo­gical Labora­tories which took place in July 2010 at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. 

Anita Hermann­städter

Reiner Maria, your call for »active evolution«, which with the exhibition jenseits des menschen encroaches on the perpe­tuation of human evolution, could be misin­ter­preted from an ethical point of view. 

Reiner Maria Matysik

Active evolution is rather something that I think will come about; it is not something that I am demanding. And without a funda­mental revision of contem­porary ethics consi­derable diffe­rences certainly exist. Art as a project operates outside of ratio­nally justified contexts of agreement. Aesthetic enligh­tenment beyond pure reason operates so to speak in a vacuum. Then it becomes difficult for art to find a spring­board to new terrain or even terra firma. If it is not situated it counts as a case of diminished respon­si­bility or as suffering from a loss of reality. Is artistic work sinking into a quagmire? Is it just a patho­lo­gical figment of the imagi­nation? If the answer is yes, then fortu­n­ately it is in no danger of having to become a producer of knowledge. As the word knowledge is very much associated with science, art could seek reference points beyond estab­lished logic.

If it chances to find such a basis, then there is a possi­bility of designing completely new ethics, and not evaluating the works on the basis of dominant contem­porary ethics. We are currently witnessing how the organismic is being mangled, new creatures are being conceived and realised at a breath­taking pace. If we carry out scien­tific projects under the direction of artists, then we will have taken a first step.

This interview took place in June 2010 in the rooms of the inter­di­sci­plinary working group Bildkul­turen at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.