Saturday, April 19, 2008

Abortion as Art Debate Continues

Aliza Shvarts abortion as art Yale senior art project is continuing to create controversy. Originally billed as a student deliberately impregnating and aborting over the span of many months, and saving the fluids for an art project, was labeled fictitious performance art by Yale - a statement Shvarts immediately called inaccurate:
Shvarts reiterated Thursday that she repeatedly use a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself. At the end of her menstrual cycle, she took abortifacient herbs to induce bleeding, she said. She said she does not know whether or not she was ever pregnant. No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen, Shvarts said, because the nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.
Well, at least we are now starting to see bits and pieces of an artist's statement - something I'm still trying to track down.

But Yale isn't happy with this latest development, with the dean of the art school, as well as Yale proper, speaking out against this, and discussing how future senior projects will be reviewed, supervised, and approved.

Shvarts is right - we'll never know what "the truth" of this situation is. But that's not necessarily the point; truth isn't always needed to have discussion, to consider possibilities and what if's. And my problem with this entire situation is both narrow and broad in scope. Narrowly speaking, as a student myself, I'm irritated with the very idea of someone so blatantly causing trouble that will then turn around and impact other students - future art students are going to have a lot more grief and oversight and hoops to jump through because of Shvarts, and that seems almost intuitively unfair, and selfish. There's an element of "about-me at the expense of others" to the piece that I simply find distasteful.

But the broader concern is over art in general, and who supervises it - especially bioart.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of DIY biotech and the art that comes out of the movemet. The Critical Art Ensemble is one of my favourite performance art groups, and I love how thought provoking their biotech projects are. And as it becomes easier and easier to grow your own biotech, we're going to see more artists using biological materials in their work. The difficulty of Kac's Alba the GFP Bunny is going to give way to homebrewed experiments and art - sort of literally. As is, the walls of my office are decorated with art from students using osteoblasts to make things as diverse as religious symbols and art highlighting the life cycle of Pacific Northwest trees; freshmen and sophomores with no biology background spending 5 weeks in a basically equipped lab, making fascinating and interesting art. (I still wish I had a picture of the spiral nebula one student made out of her DNA. Figuring out how to photograph that one was a challenge!)

As DIY biotech becomes easier, as more artists begin to question what it means to use our bodies as art, interactive with the world, or any number of other justified reasons, we're going to hit these boundaries. These points that might generate a yuck or a wince or a deep-seated intuitive response; and what do we do then? Where do we draw the line? Art has often pushed boundaries, and in general we allow for the freedom of the artist to engage in whatever work they want, so long as it breaks no laws. That's part of art, to push and make us think, re-evaluate.

Are we going to need to change this idea in the face of DIY biotech and bioart? Are some sort of reviews of bioart proposals necessary? Does it need to be vetted by an ethicist, some sort of specialist? Or at least supported? Is it even a valid area for an ethicist to get into, or does it become antithesis to the entire idea of art, having someone approve or deny the process itself?

Shvarts is certainly getting debate and dialogue over her art project - I'm just not certain it's the dialogue she was hoping to create.
-Kelly Hills

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