Interview with Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey
DP: How do you see LumpCD and SO2 in the context of your overall art practice?
PP: They both deal with the issues that always inspire me - how we look at the definition of ‘life’, and how medicine and technology changes that.
DP: Why this fascination with creating life?
PP: The works have a lot of levels to them; there’s the idea that this stuff is actually happening and is therefore representative of the world today. There’s also the more personal stuff; artists make worlds for people to walk through. SO2 is like that — the dream of creating something really new, an ultimate creation — life itself.
DP: You introduce humour into work, a strange combination of humour and sincerity; and the ‘cutely grotesque’ as Juliana Engberg once described the Lump. A critical strategy, to produce ambivalent emotions in the audience?
PP: When I make these life forms, I believe that they’re endearing, and quite interesting and attractive. I don’t set out to make something that is repulsive and that would scare people. I know that some people don’t like what I make, and don’t find it cute, but that’s hard for me to understand. I certainly don’t see the humour in my work as something that detracts from its seriousness. It’s just a way of making difficult messages more palatable. I struggle in life to find a sense of joy in things. If there are moments in my work when people find joy and humour, that’s a real success for me. And I don’t connect accessibility with lowest common denominator.
PH: There’s a lot of faux seriousness in contemporary art that’s there to signal its value, depth and profundity. So part of Patricia’s humour is about refusing to work with that particular mode. And refusing the conflation of critique and criticism, where critical becomes saying that things are bad, which is pretty banal. The work avoids simple moral judgements, because none of the subjects of the work can easily be judged. So the humour sets something up and then cuts it down a little bit, so that it doesn’t stand on that edifice of seriousness.
PP: It’s difficult actually. It’s much easier to do something that’s seen as being serious because people accept it right away, they don’t question what you do, they just accept, because they think you must be right.
PH: There’s a whole history, support structure built in to contemporary art that allows that to happen; one of the things humour does is take away those supports.
DP: It’s not the nihilistic humour found in a lot of contemporary art, of post-ironic detachment.
PP: I feel that there’s hardly any irony in my work; if there’s anything, there’ll be sincerity, which people sometimes find hard to deal with. I would say my work is anti-ironic.
PH: There’s an interesting passage in the addendum to Dave Eggert’s book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when he rails against about irony with enormous fervour. The thing about irony is that it’s a very safe and acceptable way to avoid having an opinion. An ironic position is not really a position - it is not open to criticism because you don’t really believe it or espouse it. This happens as much in popular as ‘high’ culture: where it becomes difficult to distinguish from cynicism.
PP: That book is the closest thing I’ve read to my own work; a lot of humour, but also a sincere, honest account of the death of his Mother and Father.
DP: the familiarity suggests the uncanny; my experience of SO2 at the zoo was of the uncanny, upsetting the familiar.
PH: The things that Patricia creates are familiar. Part of what her work demonstrates is that these bizaare things are not in the future, they’re already happening. People talk about the thin end of the wedge, but the thin end of the wedge was year’s ago, we’re towards the thick end of the wedge and we haven’t even acknowledged the wedge! These ideas appear, and are extraordinary at first, but very rapidly disappear in to the background of the world. Like SO2, the first time you see it it’s bizarre, the second time it’s just SO2. SO2 always sits in a world where it’s almost not noticed by the people around it.
DP: Do you follow debates in the scientific community closely? At times, your work seems quite predictive.
PP: I keep up and am absolutely vitally interested in it, but really just as a lay person.
PH: What’s frightening is how little we keep up; we’re not looking anywhere obscure, just New Scientist and The Herald Sun.
PP: The Protein Lattice work was inspired by a TV segment; seeing the mouse with the human ear… for me was so phenomenal it made me think I had to do something.
PH: I feel that it is like catching that little flash that happens and holding it up for a little while, so that it doesn’t disappear back into the background noise of the world so quickly.
PP: And it’s also interesting to work with what’s important today, which is meaningful for our everyday lives.
PH: It’s social realism if it’s anything… the current political condition of people living in the world today, in our world anyway.
DP: Moving to the production side of it, how did LumpCD develop?
PH: Patricia started making Lump works in 1994 for an exhibition at the Basement. I produced a small interactive called the GMS (Genetic Manipulation Simulator) of that show. Around 1997 we received a grant from the AFC to develop a CD-ROM version We collaborated on the script and structure, and then I worked on the production with Patricia involved at more of a distance. Normally, we ‘collaborators’ work for Patricia, In LumpCD it worked the other way in the sense that I drove the project. A bit like being a director and taking someone’s script.
DP: You, Peter, are obviously the more ‘silent’ partner, less high profile. Exactly how does the collaborative process work?
PH: Our collaboration is not one of two artists collaborating together. The filmmaking model is the one that is closest to the way Patricia works. My role is one of many collaborators work towards a conceptual goal that is usually developed by Patricia. It is a collaborative process, but not necessarily democratic!
PP: The production my work requires a team of people. And luckily I’ve a strong association with Peter, and DennisDaniel and everyone else at Drome, who are always credited for the modelling, rendering, editing, video, and production work that they do.
DP: Do you think there’s still, despite everything, some suspicion in the art community or at large that you haven’t done it all yourself?
PP: I tell people straight out that I conceive the work and then bring together the pieces. How do people perceive that? I don’t know. I don’t care. If I didn’t have great people working on the projects, it wouldn’t work. I don’t want the ideas to be limited by what I can physically do. The ideas come first.
DP: Tell me about your experiences with distributing and exhibiting LumpCD?
PH: We wanted to produce a work that people could take home. Interactive works for an exhibition context have to make sense very quickly and allow you to move on; so that when you take them home they’re pretty thin. We wanted multiple hours of playability, which makes it perhaps too huge and complex for an exhibition context. It’s similar to the difference between cinema and video art. Video art is atemporal and has multiple in and out points, whereas film requires fixed duration. So one of the things we had to do was adapt it for the exhibition context, we added a few layers to enable people to get into it more quickly. To see and hear everything in LumpCD would take 6 - 7 hours solid, but your average exhibition encounter is maybe 10 - 15 minutes. As for selling CD-ROMs, we’ve sold a few, but it’s tough. There’s no culture for it and its difficult to place; it works within a gaming mode, but it’s art and doesn’t have ‘game-play’. We describe it as a virtual narrative environment.
DP: A lot of international shows recently: Kwangju Biennale last year, the Australian media art show Hybrid Life in Amsterdam, the Berlin Biennale just recently, Peru in June and returning to Tokyo in July. Do you think it’s the nature of the work, its universally accessible themes?
PP: Some of my work is very Australian (the SO2 series in the carpark with the Holden). This is Intriguing for people, but on the whole I’m dealing with international issues that are not specific to the Australian art world.
DP: Did the Melbourne Biennial help your international profile?
PP: Kim Hong-Hee came to the Melbourne International Biennial and selected me for Kwangju after seeing my work. In Berlin, when people knew about Melbourne it was usually because of the Biennial. Melbourne is a fantastic place to work, but its not the centre of the world.
DP: How did the ‘live’ Federation Festival version of SO2 come about?
Juliana Engberg suggested I work with a public institution and gave me a few choices, and I chose the Zoo. It has been challenging, because they have a specific goal, which is not only to look after the animals but also to create encounters between humans and animals so that people will go away with a sense of connection to the animals. They are totally self-conscious about the way they keep their animals. So when I said to them that I wanted to put an artificial animal in the wombat enclosure, there were clear implications of a critique. And they don’t want to deny them, they don’t feel guilt free, so they agreed for me to go in there and create an animal that questions the nature of life. It draws attention to the idea that the zoo is totally artificial. The idea that we can have a new life form, what does it say about the zoo’s main purpose, which is to preserve life? What does it say when the artificial and real animal can have the same attraction to people?
I looked at lots of animal for SO2, and decided what I really like are the naked mole rats from Africa. They’re mammals but act like a small community of insects. They have an incredibly sensual existence, they’re urinated on continually by the Queen so that they act as workersand collectively nurture the children. Their body can almost turn around inside the skin, they’re completely blind. So I thought, sensually, how crazy, in that burrow, so cozy…
So I came up with drawings of a creature that kind of looks like a Platypus but has the mouth of a stingray but ultimately I feel is a relative of the naked mole rat. It’s called a Siren Mole, or that’s its common name. Peter Stroud curator of mammals got me in touch with Paul Andrew, a taxonomist from Taronga, to gave SO2 a proper Latin name — Exallocephala parthenopa — which is a wonderfully romantic name which comes from Parthenope, a siren said to have been cast up and drowned on the shores of Naples.
PH: I love the name, because in many ways the ideas that the work refers to are themselves Sirens; alluring ideas that draw us towards a ‘new world’, but may actually lure us to our doom.
PP: Philip Miller from Puppetvision took my computer drawings and literally gave life to them in a three-dimensional form. The illusion of life is crucial for the work, otherwise the ideas wouldn’t be able to jump across, people wouldn’t engage with it. Now they’re intrigued by it and are going to think what’s this thing doing here; in fact, what’s this whole place doing here?
SO2 is about asking questions: why would you create new life? Where would it belong? Could it effect other life forms that are indigenous to our environment? It’s about the pleasure of indulging in pure creation. It’s about a story that was inspired by a real life event — the creation of SO1 the world’s first synthetic life form — a microorganism. It’s a fiction that — in this world of cloning and trans genic babies — is totally conceivable. It’s about cute, loving and adorable sweet creatures that ask to be looked after and inspire feelings of nurturing. Ultimately it’s about being the spark that might trigger off ideas in the public. It makes the zoo-going experience interesting for someone who doesn’t see art very often. It’s an interesting manifestation of the idea; what’s the place for artificial life in this world?
DP: Do you think of photomedia as anything special? I’m thinking of the way the character SO2 first appeared in the photographs.
PP: My Father is a photographer, so it was always around. I was trained in painting, so I learnt a lot of skills about composition, light, colour, the formal attributes of images. I started thinking of digital imaging, not photography, in 1994 as it seemed the most appropriate way to deal with ideas of biotechnology and advertising. My practice is conceptual — I use whatever media I think will best express my ideas and therefore I don’t have a lot invested in the idea of photography specifically. I am more interested in Art.