Report: Vivoarts Workshop with Adam Zaretsky (Pixelache Helsinki, 2010)

posted: 02 April, 2010

Lots of catching up to do here!  This is my biannual attempt to post more, documenting some of the things I've seen and some of the projects I've been involved with. 

So here's a few reports from Pixelache 2010 in Helsinki, which happened last weekend.

The highlight of the whole festival, for me, was the Vivoarts Workshop led by Adam Zaretsky.   


A simple premise: we can create new, hybrid DNA by combining various matter (food, houseplants, horse manure) and extract that DNA using household ingredients.  


The performative aspect of this workshop, as Mr. Zaretsky boasts a humorous American personality that borders between trickster con-artist and batshit-insane person, made it delightful.  It's always fun to put on a lab coat and play with food.

This resembled the game that everyone played as a kid - mixing up everything in the kitchen in a blender into a disgusting goo.  I buried said goo in the backyard once, circa 1986, and Mom never knew about it.  Here that activity was made public, but with a creative focus and political commentary to it.

The premise is "simple" - combine organic materials, strain out the liquid, put that liquid in a test tube.  Add some contact lens enzyme cleaner to the test tube, to break down the cell membranes and release the contents of the cells.  Wait a few minutes, and then dribble in some cold alcohol (vodka works, but isopropyl works better).  After a bit, the DNA will rise to the top towards the cold alcohol solution and clump together into visible white rings.  


Look, it's fun to make a mess.  Especially in the Kiasma seminar room, and Mr. Zaretsky was slinging slop all over the place, leaving piles of gross manure-loaded muck on the normally posh floors.  

But it's at the end that Mr. Zaretsky infused things with a political commentary.  Dipping a tattoo needle in some of the hybrid DNA, he stabbed himself in the arm, asking us if what he was doing was ethical. Then he picked up a plant and threatened to inject it with our DNA.  Would anyone stop him?   

The room was strangely paralyzed; I played devil's advocate (or "other American", or maybe just "dickhead") and started shouting back at him to go ahead, that it wouldn't hurt.  I share his views on genetically modified organisms, absolutely, but though it would be good to propel discussion along somewhat.  The security guards assembled to kick us out of Kiasma, being well past closing time.  In a rush, we left, and I feel Zaretsky, though clearly making his points, had a bit more to say.

Here's why this was amazing art to me:

  1. Accessibility.  Though I love obtuse, difficult shit, lately I've been really thinking about the importance of communicating.  This was crazy, but fun, and I can't imagine anyone not being at least curious about it.  If I think of this versus most of the "live art" I've witnessed in the past few years, the difference is astounding - this is direct, and effective, and not bogged down by its own weight or aesthetic problems.
  2. Interactivity.  Though Zaretsky was clearly running the show, he made this a group thing completely, as the pictures show.  I've been drawn to workshops and classes so much recently because I'd rather be involved in a dialogue between performer/artist and audience/participant than only on one side of that relationship.
  3. Great art often seeks out fissures in perception and tries to wedge them into wider gaps.  There were a lot of boundaries that Zaretsky danced along, and that he was able to do it in a format that probably most people wouldn't even think of as "art" is all the more of an achievement.  I spent more than half of this workshop thinking this was all a total hoax (and I'm still not completely convinced that it's actually DNA we've extracted from all the goop).  
  4. Commentary.  The political commentary was strangely effective, particularly because he had just led us all through an exercise that was turned against us and presented as problematic, when no one was really expecting it.  But in addition, there was a commentary on the artworld itself.  Throughout all of this, Zaretsky made biting comments about new media and electronic art (of which the festival was saturated in many mediocre examples of).  He also skewered his own field of bioart, referring to it as "shit" and sarcastically welcoming us into the bioart community through our participation.

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