Apparently, when the rain falls in New York, the sewage overflows. That is, the overpowering amount of sewage becomes too much for the poor drainage and sanitation system to handle. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t know what to do with it, so they dump it into the nature-born, man-created trash bin that is New York’s harbor. While this might not have much to do with our story today, it is on the shores of this harbor that we begin, stepping into an abandoned military production facility.
The facility is now a biotech lab, like the ones you see in Into the Spiderverse—long, brightly lit hallways with a maze of red and white pipes attached to the ceilings and observation windows where visitors and supervisors wandering the BioBAT can creepily stare at the scientists from Sweden, who wave back hesitantly when they catch your eye. The BioBAT is a SUNY-funded lab space located in the Brooklyn Army Terminal for start-ups to pursue both business and research endeavors. Our trip, however, is not to focus on the labs but the art space on the first floor where bio-art exhibits fill the white walls and blend scientific research with artistic presentations. Currently, “Vibrant Matter” an exhibit by Yoko Shimizu and curated by Elena Soterakis is on display.
In the bottom of this facility, concrete pillars line the basement, where, long ago during World War II, parts for tanks and other machines of war and destruction were brought in by train or boat. Now it seems eerily empty. The space is almost cleared out—a pile of dust there, a piece of wood here—and three white lattice-like sheets of paper, each the size of three of our classmates. The paper is not really paper. Or rather, it is paper, in the material sense, but the pattern is that of Luna, a slime mold. This is a gallery space in progress, and as we sit in the half-dark, Elena explains to us that once it fully opens, the basement will be devoid of light except that which is needed to illuminate the bio-art. In some cases, the bioluminescence of the art itself, as the artist works with the bio-material live, will offer the source of light.
As we emerge from the basement, we step into the lobby, which is ever so slightly tilted, giving the room an off-kilter effect, which is only enhanced by the crooked lights and the only thing properly 90 degrees from the ground — the chandelier of glass test tubes. This too is a gallery space, but one designed around the use of the lobby as a place where large amounts of equipment, deliveries, and (surprisingly enough) children from BioBAT’s pre-school pass through. None of the artwork is particularly fragile, and most of it is printed on glossy paper featuring black backgrounds with vibrant flowers. The work displayed here is in conversation with the science being practiced and discovered upstairs. Yoko Shimizu, a Japanese artist based in Austria, is a researcher who works at the intersection of biology and art, using each field to build on the other and inviting the audience to look beyond the binary of the artistic and the scientific.
The exhibit utilizes its white space to emulate the lab spaces above. Shimizu’s dissected flowers, bright blooms on black backgrounds, are lined on the walls, pages stuck up with tea pins like notes on a board or subjects pinned down for dissection. Other pieces are framed, joined by large screens playing time-lapse videos on loop. Framed by two industrial pillars is a set-up of mycelium speakers, trailing copper wires like veins down to an audio port for someone’s phone to play jazz music. The sound is richer, warmer, as it comes through the mycelium. One day, the gravity-defying tulips will hang in front of the massive window in the lobby, completing phase 3 of the gallery’s plan for this exhibit.
However, where most galleries focus on framing final pieces and inviting people to engage only with a “finished” product, BioBAT’s exhibit highlighted not only a series of finished experiments and pieces but the process which went into the work’s creation. The multi-media nature of the work invites viewers to do more than just reflect on what they see: to engage with it through their own experimentation. Our tour of the exhibit included in-depth explanations of the scientific process behind each piece, which also included several tables where the supplies to recreate the art were left for the attendees’ own curiosity. At the water-filled flask chandelier, you could fill your own flasks and test tubes with a pipette. At the image-printed leaves, kale plants were left under a UV lamp and a bottle of iodine was waiting to be used. A screen ran through a video explaining how the image was processed like in a darkroom for photography.
These moments of interactive opportunity are more common in science museums, yet here the invitation to reproduce the work did not diminish the beauty of Shimizu’s creation. Later in the tour, during a glimpse of an upcoming extension of the exhibit, David explained Shimizu’s work to be, by nature, interactive. It is one of the themes she is primarily concerned with. As science and art blend together in the BioBAT, the fusion opens a larger question about the accessibility of art in the first place.
At the Tate Modern Museum in London, where contemporary exhibits accentuate a collection of modern art, the only in-depth explanation of process was in a temporary exhibit about Aboriginal art in Australia where they followed the traditional craftsmen and revealed the processes behind the work’s creation. While highlighting Aboriginal work and highlighting Britain’s colonization of the land, the curation choices create a message which focuses on education and revealing generational knowledge that is passed down. It also in a way diminishes the work in traditional views of art. Art as an idea values originality, the ability to show something never seen before. Suggesting replication in a gallery is to infringe upon the greatness of the work, the reason why the piece exists in a museum space in the first place. For this very reason, I suppose, process is less important than the final piece and to include videos of process is to thus diminish the value. It reveals the disaster that comes before creation and unveils the fact that the artist is just as human as the viewer. The finished product masks the errors, drafts, and re-boots; it erases the very work that goes into the piece, resulting in the snobbish, “I can do that.”
It’s a tricky outrage that sparks from the saying, “I can do that.” On one level, it’s a lack of recognition of art as a labor and a career, belittling a skilled craft and the work that goes behind it. Yet, BioBAT is asking a question at the root of the insult: Why can’t we do that? And not in the sense of what physically prevents us, but in the unspoken rules of art, why aren’t we teaching process alongside masterpieces? Master studies—a reproduction created to learn from canonical artists—are a crucial element to learning a craft in the first place as an art student. Yet, the budding artist’s grit is seen not in learning technique but in looking at a piece and determining from typically sight alone how to recreate it.
Bio-art challenges this idea. The very nature of science is to create replicable process and results. Weaving in this concept to the exhibit defies gallery tradition and changes the power dynamic of a passive viewer and a master-created artwork. It also invites art spaces to think about reproduction as a starting ground. To experiment with Shimizu’s techniques are not to recreate perfect reproductions of the work, but to learn the technique and hopefully expand beyond it—to become excited enough about both science and art to continue chasing down new ideas. It opens the question of what the art world may look like and who could be included in it when we think of galleries as thinking and learning spaces as much as showcases of finished work.