Interview Questions from Vasia Hatzi (MEDinART) and Richard Bright (Interalia Magazine)
Please tell us about your background.
Helen Pynor: I’m a visual artist working at the intersections of art and the life sciences. My primary fascination is with philosophically ambiguous zones such as the life-death boundary, the materiality of consciousness, and the inter-subjective nature of processes such as organ transplantation. These issues have been the subject of my practice for some years. My first training however was as a scientist, I completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in cell and molecular biology before going to art college to major in photography, sculpture and installation. In 2009 I completed a PhD that combined my disciplinary backgrounds, undertaken as a practice-based doctorate in an art school. Since 2001 I’ve lived and worked in Sydney and Europe, initially in Paris and since 2009 in London. My practice has involved extended collaborations and residencies with scientists and clinicians, for example last year I spent 5 months in residence in the laboratory of regeneration biologist Dr Jochen Rink at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden undertaking a project exploring the liminal life-death border. Prior to that Peta Clancy and I spent 4 months in residence in the Heart and Lung Transplant Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney working with cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon Dr Kumud Dhital. My work has been exhibited widely in galleries and museums nationally and internationally and I have also published texts exploring these areas.
Could you describe to us the collaborative work/installation entitled “The Body is a Big Place”?
HP: ‘The Body is a Big Place’ is a large-scale immersive installation exploring organ transplantation and the ambiguous thresholds between life and death. The installation comprises a 5-channel video projection, a fully functioning bio-sculptural heart perfusion system, an undulating aqueous soundscape, and a single channel video work.
‘The Body is a Big Place’ re-enacted certain defining aspects of the human heart transplant process. During a series of live performances, the heart perfusion device was used to reanimate to a beating state a pair of fresh pig hearts, revealing the process of death as an extended durational moment, rather than an event that occurs in a single moment in time. Rather than sensationalising these performative events, we sought to encourage empathic responses from viewers, appealing to their somatic senses and fostering their identification with the hearts they were watching. This opened up the possibility of a deeperawareness and connection with viewers’ own interiors.
The work’s realisation depended on engagement with an organ transplant community in Melbourne who were performers in the work’s underwater video sequences. These were individuals who had received, donated, or stood closely by loved ones as they received or posthumously donated human organs.
The work’s title refers to the capacity for parts of the body to traverse vast geographic, temporal and interpersonal distances during organ transplantation processes. The project was underscored by risk and uncertainty, mirroring the uncertainties lying at the heart of organ transplantation itself. Collaborative research within and between the media arts and life sciences by scientists, clinicians and ourselves as artists informed the work’s development, which would not have been possible without large acts of generosity on the part of all involved.
What questions did you want to address in this work that could not be addressed through medical science?
HP: We initially set out to explore the inter-subjective borderlands of organ transplantation. We were interested in the anecdotal but widely reported experiences of organ transplant recipients who claim to have experienced an altered sense of self following transplant. Whilst these experiences are not universal, they are common enough to warrant serious attention and at the very least, curiosity. Our intention was not to weigh up the evidence for and against such notions or to undertake systematic research into these phenomena, but rather to accept their truth value for the individuals who report such experiences and to harness the metaphoric power this unleashed.
A related and parallel interest that emerged with increasing force as the project developed was the ambiguity of the life-death border, prompted initially by a formative experience that took place in the brutal conditions of an abattoir as I describe further below. The art work enabled us to explore these zones of philosophical ambiguity without needing to take a ‘truth’ position on them. We were able to set up a multi-sensorial environment in which the imaginative, somatic and cognitive faculties of viewers could be activated and perhaps to an extent integrated. We were able to confront, provoke and raise questions without prescribing conclusions.
You have collaborated a lot with scientists. As an artist, is it difficult to work with a scientist?
HP: So far I haven’t found it difficult to work with scientists. Although our working methodologies are very different these collaborations are fuelled by mutual fascinations and they emerge from prior dialogue. I pursue collaborations if I sense there’s compatibility in our terrains of curiosity and our personality styles, and so far it’s always been a positive and creatively productive experience. My prior science training is an asset in these dialogues as I’m comfortable with the language and conceptual frameworks of the biological sciences, this makes it much easier to communicate with scientists, to work in lab environments, and to learn the specific skills and theoretical knowledge I need for each project.
Do you think scientists and artists share any common communication path?
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