I was recently asked by Dr Tarsh Bates (SymbioticA • School of Human Sciences UWA), the exhibition curator of This Mess We’re In to write an essay for her exhibition catalogue.

“Dear Ainslie,

I am curating a queer feminist art exhibition, called “This Mess We’re In http://thismesswerein.com,” which explores the legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The exhibition will be held in Perth 13 October to 2 November 2018 as part of the Unhallowed Arts Festival in Perth, Western Australia. [Dr] Ionat Zurr from SoD [the School of Design at UWA]  suggested I contact you as a local curator [to write the exhibition catalogue essay].

The exhibition entangles queer feminist ecologies with “Frankenstein,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s seminal exploration of life creation and reformation The artworks pick at the stitches of life and technology, emerging, resist, reform and respond to the biotechnologisation of life. They reveal the messiness of life and technology, our mess-mates and the messes we are in because of our manipulations. They also explore the political, ethical and material implications of this mess for re-configuring, trans-animating, performing and de-colonising. The exhibition includes experimental works by first nations, national and international artists and forms a unique ecology of queer feminist perspectives on Shelley’s legacy.

The artists involved have been specifically selected because they use living materials to interrogate the socio-political implications of contemporary life manipulation and include Abhishek Hazra, Ai Hasegawa, Alicia King, Alize Zorlutuna, Cat Jones, Hege Tapio, Helah Milroy, Helen Pynor, Jaden Hastings, Karen Casey, Kathy High, Katie Wularni West, Kirsten Hudson, Lindsay Kelley, Mary Maggic, Mike Bianco, Pony Express, Rachel Mayeri, Sarah Hermanutz and Nenad Popov, Shelley Jackson, Špela Petrič, Svenja Kratz, Sue Hauri-Downing, Tarsh Bates, Verena Friedrich and WhiteFeather Hunter.”

Click here for my catalogue essay: Messing with Gender, Race and Biopolitics


Messing with Gender, Race and Biopolitics

It is 200 years since Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley wrote and published her seminal work Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. This Gothic-Romantic novel explores technologies emerging in chemistry as a science in 1818. Cutting, dissecting and manipulating biology to create something living was by no means a new concept to Shelley’s Modern Prometheus. Nor has it died out of fashion: the science of biological manipulation that dawned during Western Enlightenment continues today.

This Mess We’re In presents diverse feminist artworks grounded in biology, explores the relations between organisms and their environment, and examines the ways biology can be manipulated by science through biopolitics: the intersectional field between biology and politics. First coined by Michel Foucault in 1978, the term biopolitics is concerned with the biological life/death relationship administered by first world politics. Foucault (1978, 139) argues that “power over life evolved in two forms, firstly as the body as a machine. Its [sic] disciplining, the optimisation of its capabilities, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls.” Further, “it [biopolitics] focused on the species of the body, the body imbued with mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological progress.” Therefore, life is controlled through calculations and regulations. The power to ‘make live’ is, for Foucault, the core of biopolitics.

Over the past decade, the rising prominence of gender/sexuality discourses, race relations and the ever-pressing issue of displaced peoples as governments grant autonomous privileges to some over others have renewed the relevance of biopolitics. The biopolitics of gender/sexuality and race are identifiable within Australian governmentality. For example, equal rights in economies of power and sexual relations that second wave feminists lobbied so hard for have, in most part, been recognised. Today, new materialist feminists engage with more ontological discussions such as the nature-culture divide, post-humanism, and the location of biology within feminist studies. New materialist feminists attempt to reconnect with biology in a positive fashion, without stumbling into the traps of socio-biological determinism and essentialism that naturalise social disparities (Pitts-Taylor 2016).

Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip (2008) argue that, for new materialist feminist theory, biopolitics “is focused on the ‘species body’ the body that serves as the basis of biological processes affecting birth, death, the level of health and longevity.” Donna Haraway (2013) furthers this claim by declaring that “bodies, then, are not born; they are made.” However, this understanding of biopolitics differs from Foucault’s biopolitical connection to postcolonisation. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Indigenous rights have been prominent in the politics of Australia’s postcolonisation/settler-colony, although parity is yet to be achieved. From the early 1900s, Australia’s Indigenous population has been regulated and surveilled through a racialized biopolitical paradigm. In order to make way for colonisation, persons of Indigenous descent were removed from their lands and segregated to government-approved parts of a community. Children were removed from families, and maternal parent rights were discarded, which meant the severing of all ties to extended family and friends – a form of ethnocide. This included the prohibition of mixed marriages and the involuntary sterilisation of women and children.

The agency of the contemporary artist has generated greater awareness of the material implications for ontology that exist within biopolitics. It is the role of the artist, equipped with the tools of modern biology, to make evident techniques of life manipulation. Their employed methods of artistic engagement open debate about the broader philosophical and ethical consequences of the degree of human interference with other living things. While traversing the legacy of Shelley’s examination of life creation and restoration, the artists exhibiting in This Mess We’re In critically engage with the concept that human beings are merely technical resources to be managed, manipulated or eliminated. Shelley insists that we must attend to the social, moral and ethical context of science, which links her protagonist’s ‘bad scientist’ to artists’ persistence in pursuing new and better futures for all. This is the true legacy of Frankenstein.

 

da Costa, Beatriz, B. da Costa, Kavita Philip, and K. Philip. 2008. Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience: The MIT Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. “Right of Death and Power Over Life.” In The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Haraway, Donna. 2013. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria, ed. 2016. Mattering: Feminism, Science, and Materialism. New York: New York University Press.

 

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