When mind and body collide | Ira Melkonyan

Performer and scientist Ira Melkonyan speaks to us about a discipline that bridges both of her favourite practices – the multidisciplinary art form called Bioart – ahead of a talk on the subject she will deliver at St James Cavalier tomorrow.

Graduating in science, Ira Melkonyan is currently also a performer with the Malta-based rubberbodies collective.
Graduating in science, Ira Melkonyan is currently also a performer with the Malta-based rubberbodies collective.

First of all: could you talk a bit about your background - both as a performer and a scientist? Do you personally feel drawn to the meeting of art and science implicit in bioart... does its 'mash up' nature excite you?

My academic background is in science. I have a Master's Degree in Microbiology and Virology. Theatre and performance training has been running parallel to my academic practices since I was still at school. Therefore, being active and serious about both my performance activities and my science achievements, and not wanting to give up on any of them, it is only natural that I am very interested in combining these two. Last year I studied at a Liberal Arts College in Berlin, where the educational system emphasised and encouraged the bridging of disciplines through a basis in philosophy. This inspired me to take a step forward, start my own practice and research on merging these subjects.

How would you describe Bioart in layman's terms?

It's a mode of art that uses or comments on the techniques of biotechnology. Biotechnology involves the use of living systems like bacteria, cells or any others in the production of useful products.

Why is Bioart a challenge for ethics, as some have described it?

Firstly, because according to some critics taking live organisms like bacteria out of laboratories into gallery spaces might result in hazardous situations for the viewers. Secondly, because artists who use such techniques might not be able to control undesired growth of such organisms or avoid any other unpredictable consequences of genetic modifications. Also, the usage of animals or living entities for the art reasons might be considered unethical (just as usage of the same animals for scientific reasons is sometimes considered to be unethical too).

Finally, biotechnology has frequently found itself in the business of raising questions about its own ethical standing, and what the lasting consequences of its activities could be. This is even more pertinent when the practice spreads beyond the domain of scientists, but ends up in the hands of other members of society - like artists.

Which are some of Bioart's key practitioners, and what are some of their landmark works?

There's performance artist Stelarc, who by the means of genetic engineering grew an ear on his forearm; Eduardo Kac, who made a glow-in-the-dark white rabbit; Laura Scinti and her London-based art laboratory c-lab, who created a cactus with human hair. There's also Critical Art Ensemble and their numerous performances, including 'GenTerra' who created a 'genetic Russian roulette' which shoots genetically modified bacteria up in the air.

Why do you think Bioart is more than just another contemporary art 'gimmick'?

It actually might be. Some of its critics describe it as being little more than sensational exploitation. But there are others who find it a logical next step towards using scientific innovations which are separate from digital approaches, in order to question the same issues the art has been questioning forever: concerning human existence and the universe that surrounds us.

Do you think it's an easily digestible form of contemporary art, or do you fear it might be relegated to a niche? Why?

I don't think it's easily digestible at all. Just like all art, it makes the audience think, and in certain cases, challenges us to think long and hard. At the same time, I don't think it belongs to any particular group of people, or a niche. Everyone can participate and understand if one stays open and curious about things. Overall, I would just say that Bioart works are mainly described as conceptual art, so one has to have some interest in this manifestation of contemporary art in order to build a significant relationship with it.

Do you think Bioart could yield genuine scientific discoveries and/or lasting innovations in the world of art?

I think it has such potential. However, I'm not entirely sure that this is its ultimate aim. I would rather say it aims to question things here and now by the means of contemporary innovations (in this case scientific innovations). I don't think any mode of art ever thought about itself in the long term. It's the job of history to provide such retrospective analysis.

Do you think there's enough awareness of Bioart - and other, similar multi-disciplinary practices - in Malta?

No, I don't think so. Nevertheless, both the notions of Bioart and multidisciplinarity are relatively new movements in Europe and the world. Malta, in my opinion, has never pretended to position itself a hub for innovative artistic or academic trends.

So it's understandable that local society is only just now coming to terms with these innovations.

The next question is whether they will be able to well assimilate here, and whether the education of new generation will happen with the consideration of the contemporary trends.

Melkonyan will deliver Bioart: Merging borders between art and science at the Music Room of St James Cavalier, Valletta, at 7.30pm. The event is organised by Malta Cafe Scientifique. For more information log on to Melkonyan's blog.