Gina Czarnecki’s career to date encompasses film and installation, with an emphasis on human relationships to image, disease, evolution, genetic research and specialising in advanced technologies of image production.
Created in collaboration with bio-technologists, computer programmers, dancers and sound artists, Czarnecki’s projects confront issues surrounding the convergence of biology and technology, and the possible corruption of the human genetic mix.
Ahead of her up coming exhibition in the Bluecoat, Art Feast got together with Gina to talk about inspiration, creation and her latest work Palaces.
Congratulations on your upcoming exhibition at the Bluecoat Liverpool.
Thank you I am really excited about it too,
Can you tell us a little bit more about your new piece Palaces commissioned by the Bluecoat?
The Palaces piece was formed – like many of my works – from numerous inputs; a melting pot of past and present experiences, knowledge, memories and emotions. The idea for Palaces started when my daughter, Saskia, returned from school at 7 years old and said to me “Just tell me the truth is the Tooth Fairy real?” That week she was also taught that Adam and Eve were the first human beings alongside the basic evolutionary principles in her science class. Nothing made any sense.
I had met Sara Rankin (Professor of Leukocyte and Stem cell Biology at the National Heart and Lung institute, Imperial College London) when I attended one of her Stem Cell workshops at Imperial College a few years ago now. We shared common ideals and the fact that we both had children of the same age helped. Most science funding now requires public engagement. But Sara understood the need to go beyond this into something that is far more touching and challenging in a way that all good art is. The project developed not only into an artwork but a big public awareness project that has multiple layers of meaning – stem cell research being one of them. Constructs of power and our belief in one “unprovable” belief system over another, mass participation, collective consciousness and also living in Liverpool was directly influenced by the permissions and consent issue relating to the “Alder Hey organ scandal”. This project together with the other Wasted sculptures were developed specifically with the Bluecoat Liverpool in mind.
For me, the Palaces project is like the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Its aesthetic – playful impact of the object – is critical, yet the actual artwork is not the object, but the process, a signifier of mass participation. Under the surface there are multiple levels on which this can be read.
I am interested in definitions, classifications, loopholes and grey areas, mediation, choreography in its biological form, the relationship between fact and fiction, religion, mysticism, science and so on….
The grey area between truth and illusion is a powerful area that allows trains of consciousness in the individuals’ own knowledge and memory. These deep and wide readings are critical.
Milk teeth have a particular significance as a symbol of transition and of progress. Stem cells can, allegedly, be extracted from these teeth and may in the future be used to repair or remake damaged organs.
A palace or a castle represents ancient power systems. They represent protection, a refuge, a place of dreams and magic. They are the official residence of rulers. Architectural constructs and creations of the imagined. Palaces represents our belief in these constructs and in established systems of authority. It alludes to what we hold to be true or fantasy.
And will this continue developing as it moves on?
As more teeth are donated, the sculpture will begin to grow – like coral. At the same time it will tour around the UK during the next four years including exhibitions at The Science Museum, Imperial College London, The Centre of the Cell London in 2012, and The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry in 2013.
To date, the teeth have been donated/gathered through a soft viral publicity and press campaign, the PO box number, the associated website, and word of mouth. There will be an interview on Radio 4’s Today program on 8 December and we are hoping that this, together with other press coverage will help to get the thousands of teeth rolling in. We have only had a soft press launch for Palaces to date as we have had no funding for press or marketing.
There are currently two schools running specific Palaces project: Sara’s childrens’ school as a science project and my children’s school as an art project, where all the children in the school are designing a tooth token. Currently we have about 500 teeth. We have been offered “thousands” by a private stem cell company but declined as the project is about consent and participation. we are in no way attached to any companies.
So far we have received donations mainly from the UK, many from Liverpool and London, NW10 where I and Sara Rankin live- some donations have come from the area surrounding the Herbert Gallery in Coventry, a lot from people associated with the NHS and many of my children’s friends hand there teeth over in small packages in the playground. We have received teeth from as far as Australia and Canada. In the future I hope that we can get more international donations to make this a worldwide project.
The way it grows, as a sculpture, is organic, taking on a structure reminiscent of natural forms. The teeth are not going to be adhered like bricks in a wall but will be stuck using a material like lava that solidifies instantly appearing like a solid liquid form. The material and its appearance are at odds with one another and there will be clusters of teeth forming in parts of the palace just like barnacles gather in areas, or crystals form and grow. The crystal resin structure will always be visible. As more donations of teeth arrive this will gradually cover more and more of the crystal resin structure but will never completely cover this form.
This work stimulates debate over the use of stem cells in medical treatment, is this something you feel strongly about?
Whilst I am fascinated with the potential of stem cells to regroup organs/parts and potentially letting the body heal itself (albeit through medical intervention)
My interest is not specifically in stem cells but the future of medicine, healthcare and who makes decisions about what research will be supported; this fundamentally includes ethics and the changing NHS.Who, in the future will be able to receive or afford treatment?
It is also about our attitudes and taboos in relation to human tissue. When something is removed from our body it no longer belongs to us, it is classified as bio-hazardous. We are increasingly surrounded by people who have cosmetic treatments that include poisons injected into the body in the name of beauty, cellulose injected into lips to make them youthful and full, augmentation of many kinds to provide a more pleasing appearance – the fact that the bits augmented may no longer function seems to be secondary to appearance – nipple enlargement being a good example. I’m interested in why people are disgusted about sitting on a chair made from fat but would get some unknown source of fat injected into their bodies.
Your work focuses a lot on the human relationship to image, diseases, evolution and genetic research – how does the rapid advance in science affect the format of your work?
I don’t think advances in science affects the format that I work in but it is key in developing concepts. Format for me is generally developed through combinations of concept, context, ‘audience’ or the experience of the work in mind as a starting point. With The Wasted Works, the sculptural format is more in line with traditional understandings of art and the age-old crafts of molding and sculpting. My background is in new media, digital media and film. So The Wasted Works were taking what I define as new media- the ability to mould and sculpt tissue, into an old media craft.
It was developed through a need to be a physical object and through participation. This could only be fully realised through the contribution of many donors. It is the proximity to tissue from living donors that is very physical, present and powerful.
In Wasted, you present a series of sculptures that explore the use of human tissue in art. What are your thoughts on the moral questions raised through this piece?
This has been a long journey through legal and ethical processes, people and grey areas, the questions that I can use in summary to this long process are:
Why are there no ethical requirements for the use of human tissue from living consenting donors for public display?
Why is there not a cultural committee established to influence biomedical research and development and define ethical guidelines? (This is defined predominantly by the biomedical industry itself)
Why is patient consent not sufficient to define what is ethical or not? where no ethical agreement is necessary or is not a legal requirement? Do we really have any choice? Does our belief and consent really matter or is this to be continually overruled by fear of bad press for the surgeons involved?
Should we be able to use the waste product of medical research in art?
Can we ever have fully informed consent when we can never be fully in control of context?
If stem cells are so valuable why do we throw them away?
Do you think your work opens up questions about people’s belief systems, and do you feel by challenging perceptions some people may feel threatened?
I hope people read into my work the questions about belief systems. I definitely don’t want my work to threaten people, challenge them, yes! Why is it encouraged to believe in God and not any other unprovable spiritual ‘beings’? I eventually accept the need to believe and the position of religion in that. Palaces is particularly about the need to believe. Palaces has the support (and logo) of massive institutions of power and authority that people do believe in – like The Science Museum, The Wellcome Trust, the Bluecoat and so on. Sending a tooth to an Independent artist in Liverpool may have had a different impact.
Simultaneous to making this work I have had to go through the secondary school application process with Saskia, my eldest daughter. I have witnessed people going to church for only a year so they can apply to schools on religious grounds. I was even fortunate enough to know someone who goes to a church that has a crèche “where you can text and read magazines but it still counts as going to church”
Our choices were massively limited because we didn’t go to church (having been brought up as a Roman Catholic and church three times a week for one reason or another – confession EVERY Saturday) but I wondered why the church itself encouraged this hypocrisy and what better value is there in someone who is prepared to abuse others religion than someone who is humanist and deeply morally and ethically grounded but not prepared to lie?
Saskia got a place at a religious school due to an art entry exam – the headmistress said, regarding her lack of religion, “she will be challenged”.
Without challenge we can’t learn and grow.
In your installation Contagion, the work explores the parallels between biological infection and the spread of information – in this sense do you view information as a living organism?
Short answer – YES,
The scientists I worked with agreed that the fear of pandemic is greater than the pandemic itself. Human fear through the mediation of information causes mass hysteria and panic. What may have been effective quarantine measures in 1918 – isolation until the virus has no more hosts and subsequently dies out – now pose a different problem? Questions of border control could not be overlooked, especially in Australia, where passengers on civil planes are tradition-ally sprayed with insecticide and where citizen-ship testing was first experienced. How do you isolate communities such as Australia? What are the ethical complications surrounding border control, the denial of visas and electronic funds to travel? Would isolation in a totally electronically dependent migration system be simple? Who would be vaccinated (with a vaccine already out of date due to the speed of mutation of the virus)? Who would be permitted to travel out? Or would the virus spread before awareness grew sufficiently to prevent international travel? If we don’t know about the pandemic, we cannot react, and mass behavior cannot be controlled. We are controlled by the mediation of information. Discrete systems of production, each with its own aesthetic and mode of delivery, signify ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’, and the main players quickly adopt the methods of communication thought to be the most ‘authentic’ – as for instance in viral marketing, or the use of an ostensible women’s rights agenda to support the invasion of Afghanistan, perhaps. We collude in all of this.
I met a Gulf War engineer on a train from Loughborough. He said, ‘Yes, I kill people, but they are little green dots on the screen and I go zap zap zap…’ Imaging technology is being developed to see more and more and increasingly used as evidence and ‘proof’ in surveillance and bio-medicine. But let’s not forget that it is also developed to provide smokescreens to disguise realities. Complex graphic visualisations are simultaneously part of the process of abstraction and rendering the world in new ways. We accept and decode, based on our predisposition and knowledge, the images that live in the grey area between.
I looked at the wallpaper of images on ten monitors spread across the wall of the gym, watching people biking nowhere and running on the spot. Porn on MTV, images from Guantanamo, newsreaders.
I first saw the live footage of 9/11 on a TV in Toys’R’Us, in Dundee, amongst a group of 11-year-old boys playing video games. I saw the report of the death of Princess Diana in Dens Road Market, a fleamarket in a dark, damp basement, on an early 1980s’ telly. It didn’t seem real. Seven years old, I visited Majdanek death camp and saw piles of bones, ovens and a list of how many and what sized human beings made how many bars of soap.
The imagery for Contagion could not be used as a surface seduction. I wanted it to trigger meaning, for the audience to travel outwards from the visual signifiers. The process of montage and our physiology and innate predispositions would determine what we saw, how we experienced the journeys through images that exist only on the borders of perception. Ambiguity and getting the viewer to work at reading images was important: was this still image of a mass orgy, a dance or a pile of dead bodies? One becomes seamlessly the other depending on our perspective and the temporality of images. One reading finally contaminates the other just as the participants, drawn into the game of mixing pure colour, infect one another. A database of imagery: the face of a woman near death, terror in her eyes, night-vision gun sights target Iraqis on the run, hand-held camera running from the Twin Towers crash, Saddam Hussein in a noose, Saddam dead, Guantanamo Bay. All we are fed on daytime TV, or on the web, at a time when the aesthetic of web imagery was becoming the aesthetic of the real, the ‘authentic’ mixed into a crisp high-resolution smoke palette. Images spreading the pandemic of fear, existing on the edges of perception. If we aren’t aware we are seeing, then how can we choose not to look?
We developed an interface intended to bypass the conscious mind and encourage random mutations – a technological interface, but one that had more in common with kids mixing colours in large round palettes. A game of easy rules, and with unknown consequences for an audience that would be encouraged to move away from passive viewership to a more active participation.
In the piece Infected, you question the future of technological possibilities through dance and manipulation what drew you to use this format?
It was never intended as dance. I found Iona through searching for a contortionist.
David Metcalfe saw the work and suggested that this could get a dance grant for production, since then I have gone on to develop many works described as dance,
Watching Iona, who stretches to the extremes possibilities of human movement, I wanted to combine these subtly with digital enhancement so you couldn’t tell what was real or not. This is the real beauty of digital image manipulations, when done carefully- it can present the illusion of the real from something totally constructed,
This piece followed on from Versifier Stages Elements Humans, in which I was interested in drawing parallels between the deconstruction of the image and the possibilities for manipulation and representation as ‘real’ and the deconstruction of the human to the individual genes and the possibilities for identifying, eliminating, manipulating and changing what we understand to be real or constructed,
The circular format is recurring in my work. A Seamless flow from end to beginning that it is a repeated circularly. However, when making Infected I was pregnant so this perhaps may have had something to do with the foetal-like imagery.
The projection is generally designed for a circular screen suspended above audience- in the Bluecoat show it will be shown in a pool below floor level. The decision to show it like this for the first time was because it is a much shown older piece and I still can’t resist playing. The general flow of the space throughout the exhibition is also important. We are to used to seeing video projections flat on walls, it’s so familiar we stop looking; the flow of the show is about the experience of viewing and the feel of the space.
I really hope you enjoy it !
The Gina Czarnecki retrospective opens at the Bluecoat 9 December 2011 and continues until 19 February 2012