In early April, my project space LOCCA: Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art hosted a mini-conference and panel discussion about a bio-art practice emerging from Latino/a/x artists in Houston.
Introduced were three artists suggesting new pathways for expanding the definition of what is considered “bio-art”: Sarah Sudhoff, Angel Lartigue and Francis Almendárez (who occasionally collaborates with his mother Jacqueline Posada). By inference this also suggests an expanded definition of Latino Art, as Houston is currently experiencing the ‘Primavera’ of Latino Art Now.
Bio-art is a highly challenged term, since there are so many subcategories of artwork that transcend disciplines in the various sciences. According to the working definition as outlined by the eminent, pioneering bio-artist and theorist Suzanne Anker, there are three types of aesthetic genres that emerge from this interdisciplinary practice.
First is the more traditional bio-art by way of mimesis, depiction and appropriation of images that come from the science sectors, or reference scientific images. This artwork can manifest in the form of paintings (with or without traditional mediums), photography — but also in MRI body and head scans, sonograms, photos of laboratories and other aesthetic presentations.
Second is the introduction of the technology — primarily the usage of science tools, laboratory equipment, microscopes, 3D modeling software, high-tech robotics or A-I theoretical models. See also: New media, interactive video, digital sculpture, hi-tech installations and other new emerging technologies ubiquitous in contemporary art.
Third is the category known as “wet laboratory practices,” or the use of bio-materials. Bio-matter is living art medium. The use of plant stuff, attempts at bio-engineering, and working with live specimens and bacterial samples in petri dishes are among many methodologies that dictate the form of the work presented.
Tying this together is an underlying proposition that many scientific practices and their intersections with art can and should be questioned. Inquiry into the ethical, political, societal, biological and economic implications and ramifications of the new frontiers of science become a central theme in the most effective bio-art works. Without such inquiry, the artwork becomes just an aesthetic exercise. Pretty, scientific images and forms devoid of any awareness of what they imply lack a rigor necessary for evaluating bio-art.
Ultimately, bio-art becomes a philosophical investigation, as much as it is about the science and art processes meshing together to make it look “scientific.” Because this is Art, it does not actually have to work scientifically. Firm scientific protocols do not have to be met, and thinking outside the box of science problems is a bio-art virtue. Artistic freedom begets scientific speculation. There are notable instances of the bio-artistic processes making scientific discoveries. Nevertheless, accepting or bestowing the title “bio-art” or “bio-artist” insist on questions such as: Is this work a truly interdisciplinary practice of art and science? Are ethical practices considered in the use of bio-materials? Does the work consider the socio-political, bio-scientific implications?
How does the work of Sudhoff, Lartigue and Almendárez fit into the working definition of bio-art? These artists explore a certain wedge into the bio-art definition — one that Anker alludes to as the “cultural imaginary.” If the term is stretched it can mean these Latino/a/x artists introduce their particular cultural practices, ethnic backgrounds and biological-biographical histories as another facet to an expanded definition of bio-art. Each use bio-material with an ethical concern. They evolve towards a deeper interdisciplinary practice that also includes performance iterations. While still experimenting with various scientific and biological methodologies, their work is guided and imbued with degrees of the autobiographical.
Sarah Sudhoff’s body of work can be seen as a textbook case on how the development of bio-arts interdisciplinary practices evolve. A photographer, Sudhoff’s taxonomy of comparing and contrasting medical devices, hospital rooms, used medical supplies and evidence of body fluids on surfaces dominate her early work. Recently, she has found inspiration in her own body as an art-form in durational performances, such as Supply and Demand, which involves the socio-medical implications of breast milk, and Wired 2.0, which stages the testing of bodily stimuli in order to measure arousal response. Her personal history and experience give the work a new background, structure and philosophical framework for ongoing art and science projects. Though thematically the experience of motherhood and female biology are familiar in contemporary art, Sudhoff’s approach to her personal “bio-material” from a scientific vantage point stands out. In what would otherwise be artwork that is medically removed — disconnected from emotions and theoretical — it instead layers personal, in-depth, emotional and autobiographical facets not always recognizable in bio-art.
For Angel Lartigue, the body as canvas was a starting point. Photoshopped images of themself encountering their own corpse in an urban nature gave way to role-playing and hybrid installations of altars, to science and the folkloric. Lartigue embodies the alter-ego Sub-Scientist (a submissive for his audience and the scientific process). Sub-Scientist asks participants for DNA samples (via swabbing the inside of one’s mouth and depositing it in vials with solutions to extract the DNA) to exchange, collect and intermingle. These are incorporated into ceramic abacuses and folk-art sculptures. Drawing connections between their body and sexuality and the scientific processes, they continue with new iterations, with cross-dressing roles wearing petri dishes containing necro-matter of avian and human cadavers. Lartigue, as the Sub-Scientist and Operation Psychopomp’s ring-master, explores the connection of our biology to the earth by way of gender roles, spirituality and ethnic heritage. They become a modern-day curandero/a (traditional native healer), equipped with an innate knowledge of the cycle of life, brandishing the tools of science while questioning its scientific purpose.
Francis Almendárez’s recurring theme of culinary heritage depicts crops and food play in a central role in his video installations. His videos narrate the food on his table, and ruminate about for whom and why the food is made, and recall scents and tastes. Almendárez’s recent exhibitions permit plant life to take proper place alongside video hardware. Potted in common plastic and recycled containers, the staples in his family kitchen — sources for seasoning and food ingredients — take sculptural form in an art space. Its materiality and witnessing of plant growth aid in the interpretation of ideas about sustainability, D.I.Y. permaculture, and culturally inherited knowledge. His collaborator, his mother Jacqueline Posada, insists on the necessity of such practices. Raised on a farm in Honduras, Posada knows that in the U.S. there are few opportunities to value this expertise. Posada and Almendárez present the physical fruits of a kitchen garden, which transport and transcend a cultural lineage in an age of scarcity. The ethical care of food questions the modern practices of corporate farming and mass consumption.
Let’s look at some other contemporary Houston artists who may fit in subcategories of what is considered bio-art.
Carrie Marie Schneider’s Survival Creativity in Scale Models, aquariums as mini-cinematic theaters, asks participants to play and reimagine life in a post-Harvey Houston. Lina Dib’s recent sound installation, North to South and Back, of bird songs and of people making bird calls becomes, from an ornithological perspective, sonic-art, transforming into an avian taxonomic system. Shrimp Boat Projects, by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, was a working shrimp boat the artists harnessed for seasonal fishing, and allowed access for the public to gain a rare waterscape experience. Dean Ruck’s Big Bubble, in downtown Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, is a consistent presence for the unaware tourist while oxygenating the waterway.
In fact, the first show at the newly built Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1972 exhibited pioneers at the intersection of art and natural science. Historically, Texan artists are known for bringing natural elements as medium into their work. But is the use of natural material as medium enough to fulfill an expanded definition of bio-art?
Sudhoff, Lartigue and Almendárez’s specific personal history, heritage, gender and cultural practices, combined with an ethical concern for the bio-material, indeed contribute to expanding definitions of bio-art. They reveal facets of the science-art aesthetic which intersect with spiritual and sociological speculations, suggest metaphorical loss, and explore bodily intimacy mediated through technology. These types of frontiers in art-making multiply the purposes of bio-art beyond an interdisciplinary practice with theory, and give greater meaning to the “cultural imaginary” in bio-art today.
Henry G. Sanchez is a Houston-based artist. Sanchez’s recent BioArt Bayoutorium — a social-practice, bio-art project located along Buffalo Bayou in the 2nd Ward of Houston — included a shipping container outfitted with microscopes, imaging equipment and nature tours on pontoon boats.
Anker, Suzanne and Flach, Sabine, The Glass Veil: Seven Adventures in Wonderland, Art / Knowledge / Theory. Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers. Bern, Switzerland, 2015.
Gershon, Pete, Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985, Texas A&M University Press, 2018.