Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Pei-Ying Lin: I’m an artist/designer from Taiwan, currently living in the Netherlands. Although my highest degree was in Design, my current practice is mainly sitting within the art field, and I was trained as a scientist / engineer up to Bachelor level. I have a MA degree in Design Interactions from Royal College of Art, and a BSc in Life Science, with a minor in Computer Science and a minor in Humanities and Social sciences. Therefore, my practice is often the mixture of art, science, and design.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
P-YL: Yes. To be trained in different disciplinaries at the same time made me aware of how the same subject can be explored differently with different paradigms. The mysterious beauty of changing perspectives and how the structure of knowledge could influence the interpretation of ‘facts’, and how switching between different perspectives can yield an in-depth, fruitful understanding of concepts that are yet to be accommodate by different disciplines. Most often Art tends to be the only discipline that provides the flexibility.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
P-YL: What does the progression of our knowledge of the world – be it scientific, or cultural, or any other possibilities – influence ourselves and then further influence our search of knowledge. In simple words, it is the interaction between human beings and their creations. How can we redefine ourselves through the exploration of the world? What mechanisms exists at the edge of our knowledge and the unknown, and our emotional reactions to it. So far, it’s been manifested in my works around the topic of human-virus relationship, maybe sometimes around human-microbes, but there are also other aspects like language, emotions, etc.
RB: Your project Smallpox Syndrome considers the smallpox vaccine both historically and speculatively in its future use from the perspective of co-evolution between smallpox and humans. Can you say something more about this project?
P-YL: In Smallpox Syndrome, the co-evolution is perhaps more about how humans use our biotechnology to boost our immune system, but taking smallpox as a reminiscent symbol – the visible indication of the current version of vaccine the person has been updated with. The storyline starts with more of a research into how smallpox has shaped the human society and how it has played an important part for our decisions. Later on, where the fictional company Vaccine Beauty creates a service that provides its customers immediate or monthly updated vaccines depends on how much the customer pays so that they can stay protected from the novel pathogens in a world plagued by communicative diseases. By revealing whether the person is vaccinated, it also starts the trend of considering the vaccinated sign as the indication of ‘beauty’. Therefore, the vaccine is not just a vaccine but also a makeup/accessory.
RB: In your project, Tame is to Tame, you ask the questions “Can we tame the viruses? Can viruses tame us?” What conclusions did you reach in this project?
P-YL: While we try to live with viruses, we need to change ourselves to accommodate them as well. I guess there’s no simple answer to my conclusion but rather it unfolds how complicated it is when we try to think about viruses actively in our lives, trying to make sure our decisions are made with viruses in mind, and that our individualism needs to be redefined. It was particularly obvious when people engaged in playing the boardgame in Tame is to Tame, where the collaboration between the players becomes sophisticated. Tame is to Tame attempts to build a guided structure for the viewers to ponder on the possibility that we look at Norovirus not just from a “I’m sick, get me healed” perspective, but to look pragmatically at what challenges we will be facing if we want to carefully consider the presence of it. Although Tame is to Tame was asking an alternative survival strategy by the time it was created. The question of “can we tame them” is in fact not just a probability but a necessity now that COVID-19 has shown us that we are still far from stating that humans have overcome plagues. My conclusion for the question of taming would be that we definitely need to actively engage in exploring the aspects of living together with viruses in all sorts of different ways to build a more resilient society.
RB: In Kaleidoscope of the Universes you explore the possibly of updating the imagery of the Buddhist Mandala to our current understanding of the world. Could you say more about this project and, particularly, your view on the relationship between science, ritual and meditative practice?
P-YL: Kaleidoscope of the Universes began with the bodily experience of inoculating bacteria and reflecting on our understanding of the universe, how this concept changes as we develop the microbiological techniques and how we leave our own biological traces in our environment, how do we make this trace visible, and what is our biological connection to the world we live in. Apart from what’s described in the project description, it has started with the attempt to use microbes that carries all kinds of information of a location as the tool for reflection. Mandala ritual was used in the project at the start where I was trying to find a cultural symbol around sand/soil, the universe, and drawing. It was during the process of experimenting the mediums and techniques that I realised the body movements of cultivating microbes is highly repetitive, that itself is already a ritual being practiced by the scientists in the lab. While training as an undergraduate Life Science student, I often heard the stories of people in the lab searching for different kinds of spiritual supports as a ‘luck’ for the experiments, because the biological world is, to some extent, so sophisticated that we might sometimes interpret it as unpredictable. Every subconscious movement can influence the results. It must have sunk into the back of my head when I first trying to explore the connotation of a universe in the soil, expended and diluted on a Petri Dish.
The movement of inoculating bacteria requires extreme concentration and consistency, just like drawing a sand painting – the core of the Mandala ritual. It is hard to simply conclude that they are the same, but the physical restrains that are applied by the requirement of the tasks always brings the human body and mind into an interesting space. Of course, we cannot say science is a religion because it isn’t. However the essence of concentration, mindfulness, and sometimes even devotion (if you look at the Physics Theorists who wait for 40 years just for their theories proven in experiments), science does take its part of ritual and meditative practice in a way that is not often acknowledged by people outside of the scientific research field. As an observer who once being trained in such field, I find it profoundly fascinating.
RB: Your latest project, Virophilia, offers a fresh perspective to see viruses differently and resulted a cookbook written for 22nd century human beings to consider incorporating the positive usage of viruses into daily life. Can you say more about this project and how did people react to it?
P-YL: Virophilia is a cookbook written retrospectively with the fictional author P.Y.L – which is actually my initials – in the future of 2068. The book tries to make a logic of this ‘viruses-in-food’ trend where people start using viruses in food in all possible ways: to imitate the sickness induced by viruses, to use viruses to ferment food (who was once an living organism), to use viruses as a spice, to use viruses to change the taste and texture of food overtime, and to design meals for all the involved agents in a food chain including viruses. It is a thought experiment in a way, exploring how intimate can we be with the viruses. Can our relationship be more conscious and closer?
Apart from the cookbook, these recipes, and some other recipes that are not in the book, are being used for live performances. With a theatrical setting, the participants are offered ‘virus dishes’, where they eat while listening to the stories that guide them through the sensorial experience from the moment viruses enter their mouth and interact with their body until the moment they have finished the food. Many have been a bit too scared halfway through eating, fearing that the viruses are making them sick. However, some do find it pleasant and fun, and start to talk about the possibilities that we can have virus dishes. Some other dishes demonstrate the new flavours and textures of virus fermented food.
This dining experience is also presented with videos of an actress eating the virus dishes with subtitles indicating the viruses’ interaction with the food and the actress. While also in an exhibition setting the cookbook is displayed along with the ‘master species list’ of viruses names published by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which up until 2020 contains 6591 names and makes a list that’s 120cm wide and 7 meters long if printed with 14pt font.
The performance had also taken the form of online performance with food delivery at home during the COVID-19 pandemic time.
RB: Humans and viruses have always depended on the existence of each other. Are you optimistic about this future relationship?
P-YL: Will our relationship with viruses change? It is hard to say… or maybe more in the sense that we think we have a choice but actually we don’t. The relationship between humans and viruses will not change, we still live with each other and evolve with each other. However, I do think that how humans ‘think’ about viruses has the opportunity to change. Back in the time when there was smallpox, people were willing to kill and discriminate against each other due to the fear of viruses. However, nowadays we have understood viruses much better and know how to coordinate ourselves to collaborate, to avoid discriminations and hostile situations towards other human beings. Now we know viruses are not mystical curses, they are biological, with a shape and form, with a mechanism to ‘live on others’, that has the potential to be recognised by our immune system, that can be slowed down by medicine and, most importantly, we know how to keep an appropriate distance with them and we are able to evaluate the risks they bring. When we think about the human-virus relationship, very often what appears in mind is in fact the human-human relationship induced by viruses. Surely, of course technologies like CRISPR or gene therapies do provide alternatives of the human-virus relationship. However, before these techniques become widely commercially available, as simple products that everyone can buy from the stores, the real human-virus relationship probably still more exists in the aspects of either seasonal flu, or as the viruses that creates variegations on plants which have been there ever since organisms appeared on earth. They are just being implemented in a different cultural context now than before and maybe in the future. But it will make a huge change.
RB: What projects do you have coming up?
P-YL: Right now I am collaborating with a social object designer Yi-Fei Chen to explore how we can create different viral outbreak scenarios accompanied with a ‘physical extended immune system’ to explore our hidden fears and how these ‘physical extended immune systems’ (we called it ‘boundary probes’) can help us to be mentally adept to the ever-changing biological pandemic disruptions, as a way to create a more resilient society.
All images copyright and courtesy of Pei-Ying Lin
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