Patricia Piccinini: Ethical Aesthetics
Originally published: Artlink
by Jacqueline Millner (2001)
In a cultural landscape until recently left arid with irony or scarred by anti-aesthetic gestures, Patricia Piccinini’s work immediately distinguishes itself. What makes Piccinini’s work so compelling is its use of aesthetics to develop an ethical position on one of the major conundrums of our time, namely the changing conceptions of life and nature under the onslaught of technology. Her work is acutely poised between beauty and idea, its concerns earnest and profound but always worked through the aesthetics in a way that avoids the heavy-handedness of message art, the aesthetic poverty of conceptual art, and the self-referentiality of formalism. The research of each project is extensive and meticulous, taking Piccinini well beyond the boundaries of the fine-art world into the realms of science, industry and popular culture.Hers is a complex process, whereby her artist’s understanding comes to inflect disparate discourses and compels us to consider how these discourses construct our knowledge of contemporary phenomena.
Take one of her latest projects, Superevolution (2001), mounted as part of the Melbourne Festival. Piccinini created a synthetic organism, christened it ‘the siren mole’, and found a home for it amongst the wombats in Melbourne Zoo. Through a perspex window, visitors could spy two sleeping siren moles, intimately entwined in a dimly lit burrow. They breathed and twitched gently, their vulnerable mottled-pink hides rippling in testament to their aliveness. The public puzzled over these strange creatures which were not immediately recognisable as an established species, even within the strange canon–Australian native fauna–that confounded the Europeans for so long. Despite the contextualising information that alerted visitors to the fact that they were witnessing an artist’s project, the spectators tested their intellectual knowledge against what they saw.The ensuing confusion highlighted the different ways in which we construct our reality, whether by seeing or reading, common-sense or expert opinion. It also however highlighted pressing ethical issues around what we classify as ‘life’, the process of that classification, and the privileges that flow from being deemed to be alive.
Piccinini undertook wide research in creating her new species of synthetic organism.The siren mole first began ‘life’ as a sketch, not unlike a cartoon character (the famous animator Chuck Jones once recounted that his favourite feedback from a child had been, "You don’t draw Bugs Bunny, you draw pictures of Bugs Bunny!").It then took shape as a 3-d digital image.In this incarnation, the siren mole appeared in a series of suburban settings documented in digital photographs: in a parking lot mixing it up with some local skateboarders (Social Studies 2000), in a car Waiting for Jenny (2000), arguably looking "more real"–genuine, original?–than its immediate pointedly artificial environment. The mole then featured in its first animation, scuttling from one computer monitor to another in Piccinini’s installation The Breathing Room (AGNSW, 2000).A short narrative animation Siren Song (2001) is currently in production; it portrays the moles in their ’natural’ habitat, converging at twilight around a watering hole in a gurgling cacophony.
The logical next step was through the confines of the screen into the ’real world’: the zoo, in animatronic guise. To execute this coup the grace, Piccinini interviewed several biological scientists, including experts who could fill the blanks in the siren mole’s evolutionary progress, behavioural patterns and environmental aptitudes. From conversations with one biological etymologist she derived her creature’s name: exallocephela parthenopa, the former word Greek for "extremely strange head", the latter a reference to Parthenope, the legendary siren said to have been washed up on the shores of Naples, whose origins and history remained unknown. Another biologist suggested that the mole’s hairlessness, large head and short legs would ill equip it for survival in a ’real world’ eco-system; indeed this creature of human design would be forever dependent on the care of its creators and the provision of an artificial environment. For Piccinini, this conclusion inevitably invoked Mary Shelley’s morality tale: the monster-child of human manufacture, brought into the world with no regard for the consequences of its own subjecthood and desire, introduced into an environment for which it had no adaptive features. The creature was thus rendered wholly dependent, yet was destined to be feared and loathed for its abject otherness.
With the siren mole–first called ‘SO2’ in reference to SO1, the world’s first synthetic micro-organism created from inorganic chemicals in a laboratory–Piccinini confronts us with some profound and thoroughly contemporary ethical questions. What are our responsibilities towards life created through other than biological reproduction? Should our ethical responsibilities depend on the means of life’s creation? What of the increasing number of children created through fertility technologies? How can we still meaningfully distinguish between a natural and an artificial living being given the extent of technological intervention in producing, maintaining and enhancing life? In what way is the siren mole less real or natural than the zoo within which it ‘resides’, given that the zoo is a human-made simulation of a natural habitat sustained through technological means?
Piccinini’s work does not suggest that human intervention in the essence of life is morally wrong; exuding as it does the sophistication of high-end technology, her work partakes in a discourse of first-world progress founded on the commercialisation of scientific and electronic innovation. Piccinini rather forces us to confront that this intervention is well and truly with us, that the implications are not clear-cut but ambiguous, even contradictory, and that it is therefore vital that we see the consequences of technological innovation with clear eyes. With clear eyes, but also with a look of love. The siren mole, after all, despite its apparent otherness, evokes human compassion and a desire to protect. Its likeness to an early human embryo is not unintentional, its large head the artist’s deliberate attempt to grant it an intelligence superior to its physically kindred species; this would presumably allow it to develop more survival strategies but also to evince a higher degree of human identification. Unlike Dr Frankenstein who grew to hate his creation and suffered the consequences, Piccinini would urge us to bring an attitude of love to the products of technology, to accept our ethical mantle as creators, to take care of all our progeny, even of the artificial variety. The love she appears to propose is not of the romantic, infatuated ilk–classic technophilia– but of the familial variety, with its overtones of responsibility, ethical guidance and life-long commitment.
This exhortation to love our technological progeny is also evident in Truck Babies (1999), adorable scaled-down models of those fearsome juggernauts that commandeer our highways. With their pastel pink and blue duco, compact proportions and perky curves, these human-scale sculptures are as calculated to tweak our cute response as any Disney cartoon. Yet Piccinini pulls back from Disney’s characteristic anthropomorphic overkill. The trucks maintain a measure of machinic otherness, a certain inscrutability, emitting something fundamentally unlike human presence but a strangely intelligent presence just the same. That these things are worthy of treatment as sentient intelligent beings is reinforced by the testimony and encouragement of their Big Sisters (1999), adolescent girls who speak out to their charges from surrounding video screens with the wisdom and responsibility of older siblings: "Be the truck that you admire".
The conjunction of family love, particularly maternal, and the products of technology is a persistent theme in Piccinini’s work. Some of her earliest digital prints featured the LUMP (Lifeform with Unevolved Mutant Properties), a genetically engineered ’baby’ who could manifest all the desires of his/her parents as stipulated in an order form. One photograph even featured the artist herself as the proud new ‘mother’, displaying the multi-eyed, puckered LUMP in a fresh take on the Madonna and Child. For an interactive installation, Piccinini designed an interface whereby the user could choose the physical characteristics of his/her child from a menu written in the near-hysterical language of consumer promotion (part of Love Me Love My LUMP, 1995).
Of course these works acutely comment both on the first-world commodification of children as ‘must-have’ accessories, and on the increasing commercialisation of the process of reproduction, whereby today fertility can in effect be purchased if one has sufficient cash to pay for expensive IVF procedures, buy an ovum or rent a surrogate womb. However, these works also affirm the ethical relationship that we have towards the products of technology. Piccinini’s works appear to suggest that adopting the mantle of good parents might enable us to handle the intervention of technology into the minutiae of our lives in a way that avoids an unproductive, dualist confrontation between ‘us’ and ‘them’, humans versus machine. This apocalyptic fantasy scenario is well- represented in popular culture (a good example is The Terminator) but also increasingly apparent in the rhetoric of such respected scholars as Stephen Hawking, who this year predicted that intelligent computers would eventually take control of our world. Piccinini’s work reminds us that while these technological offspring have their own logic and rules of being, they are nonetheless our creations. They are both of us and other than us. James Martin, writer and chairman of Headstrong IT Consultancy recently commented that our mistake in the development of artificial intelligence has been to attempt to model it on and judge it according to human intelligence. His opinion is that only when we acknowledge that once left to develop independently of original programming, computer intelligence becomes fundamentally different, a form of alien intelligence, will we be able to instigate a productive relationship with it.
This idea of computer-based intelligence and the potential for a form of independent artificial life also informs one of Piccinini’s most spectacular installations, Plasticology (1997-2000), which comprised an array of 57 TV monitors displaying a virtual forest of unfurling and wind-swept ferns and trees. This eco-system is entirely computer-generated, a result of painstaking digital modelling and animation. It has its own climate, its own principles of life, its own nature, and yet is the creation of the artist and her technical collaborators. The multi-tiered images, clusters of screens and constant action suggests an expansiveness and complexity to this environment that rivals the natural one it draws from. Indeed Plasticology threatens to overflow the confines of its design architecture, a possibility the artist emphasises with the presence of a bird that interacts with the viewer by way of motion sensors. However, the bird inevitably takes flight as we approach and only returns once we’ve retreated. As much as this plastic ecologymight reach out from its confines, it remains in an entirely self-contained and self-sufficient parallel world. Although it is a human creation and its artificiality looks so familiar as to remind us of how plastic our natural environment really is, a salient otherness remains. Piccinini, however, attempts to ameliorate any fear that its ‘alien intelligence’ might provoke with its beauty.
Piccinini’s work confounds the much harangued but nonetheless still common distinction between ethics and aesthetics, between idea and sensual pleasure. Her work partly trades on the well-tried aesthetic strategies of advertising and consumer design: it is attentive to formal exigencies such as colour and composition, it is well-finished often to the point of slick, it regularly invokes commercially-endorsed understandings of beauty. For example, Protein Lattice (video installation and billboard, 1997) features an exotic model sporting preternaturally plump, glistening lips; Psychotourism (digital photograph from the LUMP project, 1996) borrows the glamour of then-starlet Sophie Lee; Panel Work (2000) and Car Nuggets (1998) reproduce the mouth-watering colour, texture and form of the latest car model.But the sensual pleasure we derive from these images and objects is intrinsic to our conceptual engagement with Piccinini’s ethical position. Their beauty alerts our attention, provides, as Elaine Scarry puts it, a "small wake up call to perception, spurring lapsed attention back to its most acute level" and introduces us to "a standard of care that [we] can extend to other more ordinary things".In Protein Lattice and the Sophie Lee works (such as Your Time Starts Now (1996), Psychotourism and Psychogeography), the commercial beauty Piccinini brings to contextualise her digital creatures lends them a certain legitimacy that is underlined by the formal seamlessness between model, creature and virtual landscape. This legitimacy is in effect a kind of beauty by association that allows us to feel well-disposed towards these otherwise monstrous hybrids, to deign them with the warm regard we bring to the beautiful. From beauty grows love.
Piccinini also works through the network of beauty, love, consumerism and machines in Car Nuggets, in their original and most recent incarnation. First made in 1998 out of foam, polystyrene and automotive paint, these smooth and glossy organic forms not only answer our desire for sculptural beauty but are also designed to capture the essence of ‘carness’, that is, the quality beyond functionality that eroticises the car as commodity. As Piccinini has pointed out, Car Nuggets: They’re good for you! derive their name from chicken nuggets, whose appeal is all in the crispy surface; their interior of reconstituted pulp is immaterial given the identification of their exterior with their essence. This exploration of surface as essence and its erotic appeal is also evident in Panel Work, a series of square plastic segments spray-painted in various shades of duco; at first they look like distillations of standard design detailing but gradually they come to resemble skin displaying the idiosyncrasies of individual identity.
Piccinini extends these themes in her latest rendition of car nuggets, Car Nuggets (GL)–‘greater luxury’–part of an exhibition entitled One Night Love (2001).Here, she pays homage to the culture of personalised car aesthetics that takes a generic product, gives it a beauty treatment and renders it unique. This time the nuggets’ production process has been refined so that the end result is that much closer to the car the artist wishes to evoke–the sculptures are now moulded fibreglass, hand-drawn and conceptualised before being computer-modelled and manufactured according to automated directives. Again, the shapes are smooth and streamlined, scalloped to resemble the designer details that represent engineering quality. But clearly it is in the surface detail that Piccinini has most invested. These nuggets are lusciously painted in lurid orange, turquoise and burgundy, and decorated in the flaming and pinstriping that are the preserve of car customisers. Their names reflect their individual, anthropomorphic qualities, as well as relish the highly-charged language of colour marketing: Arctic Heat, White Night, Latin Lover, Summer Love. These nuggets embody a labour of love, a time-consuming hand-craft central to a culture where the car becomes a vehicle for artistic expression as well as a source of community for the appreciators and exponents of such car artistry. The customised car thus becomes both an object and generator of love.
In many ways, Piccinini’s work seeks to engender love. Even her titles, casting back to her earliest works, underline the central place love occupies in her project. It is a love that sometimes manifests itself as intimacy, as when she confronts us with the closeness of a familiar yet alien body in Breathing Room, surrounding us with this quasi-human, digital but organic presence whose breathing we can hear and feel, whose expanses of exposed skin we can see in detail. It is a love that sometimes manifests itself as tenderness, as in the gut response to the siren mole’s palpable vulnerability. But ultimately it is love in the form of an ethical position towards the products of technology, particularly biotechnology. This position might accept responsibility for human intervention in life and in nature, and acknowledge that there is no longer much to be gained by insisting that we distinguish between what is artificial and what is organic, with all the ensuing value judgements and differential treatment. At the same time, like the love of a model parent, this position might also grant technological progeny the opportunity to affirm their own autonomous way of being.
Linda Michael makes this observation in her essay on Piccinini’s work in the catalogue for The Song of The Earth, Kassel, 2000, p 110
2 James Martin interviewed on ABC RN The Buzz, September 24 2001
3 Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, p 81, p 66
4 Interview with the artist, September 10 2001
Jacqueline Millner lectures in the School of Communication, Design and Media, University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on Australian contemporary art.