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PAZ TORNERO, exploring & thinking through juxtapositions in biomedia

Interview by Živa Brglez

IONI, Paz Tornero (2018)

Since roughly the middle of the 20th century, the concept of creativity has been popularly viewed as a constitutive part of both art and science. Inasmuch as it is something that inherently links the two domains, it is also possible to put forward a theory that not only observes the kinship between them but also proposes a kind of surplus value.

Biomedia artist, theorist and researcher Paz Tornero works exactly at this junction: how creativity could steer a course for developing new, unexpected and valuable ideas which would better suit our contemporary society than the ones we have. In her theoretical work particularly, she refers to issues related to the inclusion of art and science – and the other way around –all while addressing phallocentric scientific development. She believes the future is built from an androcentric vision, so she thrives to come up with a model of techno-scientific upcoming, one where women would be equal participants and, at the same time, she questions how would the development path change given the more gender-equal structure of contributors.

Her art practice is two-fold. On one hand, she explores social issues, especially those that address political power and domination. Here, her modus operandi is working through humour, so she often utilises satire to quickly and effectively capture the spectator’s attention. This mechanism is employed so that observations can be somewhat more objective and receptive since it creates a kind of distance between the observation and the viewer’s own socially constructed interpretative frame. On the other hand, some of her artworks deal with more personal levels. But she twerks these as well. Individuals and their behaviour become absurd once they have been transformed through her works. Presented as “common patterns”, be it coupling, perception, appearance, hierarchy or similar, it becomes silly to treat humans as each his or her own special snowflake.

In the early 2010s, she began using biomaterial in her art practice. Her first work in that area was fairly simple but very effective nonetheless. With Invisible Fecundation (2012), in which she left a sterile petri dish in room temperature for two weeks, she explicitly showed how much of science most basic beliefs may not as justified as thought – Petri dish was, naturally, contaminated with invisible organisms, which revealed that “sterile” is not so “sterile” after all.

Her latest work is last year’s Ioni is a more elaborate example of working with biological materials. In an attempt to present a rumination of identity, family and their inner ephemeral qualities, she put photographs of her personal life into Petri dishes, together with her own vaginal bacteria. Fungi started to proliferate and slowly grew over images to the point of their erasure. Given that bacteria are a kind of personal imprint, a signature, they actually function as bio-identifiers, and their aspect as identity constituents is, compared to social factors, truly often overlooked.

Human Instestitum Self-reflection, Paz Tornero (2018)

You are a professor and researcher at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Granada (Spain). For those that are not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about your background and how and when your interest in the crossover of science and art come up?

My great interest in the scientific field and its relationship with the arts stems from my academic background in high school, where I studied a specialisation in sciences while having a professional career in dance.  In my spare time, I liked drawing. After that, I went to Granada to study physics at the university, but a year later decided to leave it and study art at the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

During those years, my studies were focused not only on drawing and sculpture techniques but also on the use of audiovisual practices, installations, sound art and digital tools. With these specialisations, I was able to obtain several scholarships that allowed me to visit other institutions abroad and expand my curiosity.

My stay at the prestigious American Carnegie Mellon University was especially rewarding. I specialised in the field of electronics and its use applied to art. After this, I did an internship at the Engine27 gallery in New York City, dedicated to experimental and digital sound. I decided to continue with my Master’s in Digital Arts at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.   

Years later, I obtained a pre-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University. There I got accepted to attend Professor David Edwards´ innovative course, ¨The Laboratory¨. This course investigated design-science synergies. I was also at MIT, where I was very lucky to meet Joe Davis, an artist I deeply admire and with whom I shared several fruitful encounters. I also attended classes given by the great artist Antoni Muntadas of MIT Media Lab, thus surrounding myself with a transdisciplinary environment every day.

You teach Transdisciplinary education as “an enhancer of the creation of new knowledge.” Could you please expand on this idea more?

It means we have to dialogue with other professionals from different disciplines about topics of common interest as well as ¨empathize¨ with them. We must understand the other and embrace other positions as well as approach the languages of different disciplines, their methodologies and processes. Also, it means looking at the problem to be solved or the question to be analyzed from another point of view, outside the mysteriousness of each specialization, to look at the world as if it were for the first time. It means confronting new challenges and experimenting based on previously unimaginable hypotheses.

IONI (2018) is one of your latest projects developed in a scientific laboratory (this one in particular in a laboratory of microbiology); could you tell us the intellectual process behind it?

This project was created for the group exhibition ¨Narratives in Time and Space´s fissures¨, the participation of seven artists, I being the only woman. It took place in the museum at the University of Alicante (MUA) during the month of November 2018 and was curated by Enric Mira, professor and researcher. I was interested in developing my work in a scientific laboratory and wanted to research the concepts of identity, family trace and their ephemeral and temporal characters.

I wanted to use vaginal bacteria that represent, in the case of a female body, the identity or ID because of its close relationship with the gut microbiota. According to recent studies, vaginal flora is formed in the intestine, and we already know that the gut microbiota is unique in every human being. It is our inner fingerprint.

Space is understood as a time frame as a succession of events and their different narratives that establish periods with specific characteristics. They produce fissures in the historical-spatial continuity in relation to the human identity representation. We are unique beings, as well as our microbiota. Unrepeatable. However, we disappear.

I wanted, therefore, to show this dual character that determines our existence through the use of bacteria and the images of unique personal events shown in my photographs. I wanted to demonstrate facts that are part of the past, of memory. The vaginal bacteria are integrated within the photographic images (of our history) and installed inside the Petri dishes. With the passing of time, the bacteria (and fungi that proliferate) grow and invade the photographs until they disappear.

An ephemeral installation in which only empty contaminated Petri dishes remain and a monitor which produces a video art piece showing my amplified body (through a special lens) and how it is changing. The amplified body image is made with textures and colours, as is the painting itself. At the end of the video piece, there is nothing representational about the body, just painting and colours.

What has been your experience of this artist-scientist collaboration? How do you think bringing artists into the lab can impact science and vice versa?

My experiences outside Spain have always been very positive. I got my first introduction to cross-disciplinary studies at Harvard University and MIT. Then I had a tremendously enriching stay during the Field Notes artistic residency at the Kilpijärvi Biological station of the University of Helsinki, Finland program created by Ars Bioarctica and the Finnish Bioart Society.

But, my collaboration with researchers and students of the Microbiology Institute of the San Francisco University of Quito, Ecuador, was a major part of my impetus to discover more about the synergies between art and science as well as transdisciplinary methodology. I will always be grateful to the whole team for their welcome and professional generosity. It was the first time an artist had entered their laboratory.

This created a somewhat complex first period in which we had to achieve closeness and begin to establish ¨empathy¨ (communication and dialogue). The people were always very kind to me, showing me different scientific techniques as well as the functioning of the laboratory.

In Spain, although I have had relationships with some laboratories and scientific colleagues from the academy scene, there has not been any substantive progress nor interest in establishing alliances outside of purely academic approaches. That is to say. There have been minimal efforts at collaboration compelled by European funding or some more ¨humble¨ proposals originating from a small research group. I regret that I do not have a more positive ¨picture¨ for the near future.

Where do you see taking your work into?

I am passionate about microbiology, but also genetics, biotechnology, physics, and astrobiology. It is difficult to choose a specific area of interest. I often go and listen to talks from scientific experts at my university. And I always think about how those discoveries or research could be transformed into ArtScience projects. At the moment, I think I´ll continue working with body bacteria, sound and video.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

Routine and Monotony. The absence of passion. Loss of curiosity.

You couldn’t live without…

Love for life, music, and an inquiring mind.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
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