Codifying the changes | Cristina Ghinassi & Edward Duca

Combining performance art and science, artist Cristina Ghinassi and geneticist Edward Duca will be presenting their interdisciplinary take on the epigenetic process. ‘Switch’, an upcoming performance at Spazju Kreattiv, crystallises some of the outcomes of their Code: Switch initiative

Cristina Ghinassi and Edward Duca
Cristina Ghinassi and Edward Duca

How would you describe the Switch/Code Switch initiative, and how did it evolve over time? 

Cristina Ghinassi: The Switch performance is the artistic outcome of Code Switch #1, a research project where we wanted to prove how performance and video art can provoke epigenetic changes in the individuals practising the art form. 

During my repeated 28-day performance, I was performing in front of a camera for an hour every day, combining that with a very strict diet and a controlled life style.

Switch performance deals with Edward and I on stage while projecting the videos coming from my previous repeated performance. I elaborated these videos to create an atmosphere which reflects all the emotions and feelings I was experiencing during the experiment. They range from anger, love, freedom and liberation, all connected to other themes like sexuality and devotion.

Edward Duca: When Cristina was in Malta she insisted on working with me. I talked and talked with her about various science subjects and she kept pushing me for more socially relevant ideas within scientific phenomena. When I started talking about epigenetics, Cristina’s eyes lit up – Code Switch #1 was born. 

The project wanted to see if the epigenetics of a person change after some form of performance art. Epigenetics affects how hard our body’s genes work. Does performing change which genes in a person’s body work or don’t work? Considering that both our diet and exercise change a person’s epigenetics, I thought performance would as well. Cristina interviewed three other scientists (Dr Joseph Borg, Prof. Christian Scerri and Dr Stephanie Bezzina Wettinger) before we designed the experiment. Cristina had to subject herself to a rigorous diet with a daily performance for 28 days. We measured her epigenetic signatures before and after the experiment. We found that over 300 genes had been expressed differently, with an interesting connection between Cristina’s epigenetics and genes related to exercise, and neuronal and psychological influence. Other links suggest that the repeated performance could have additionally affected her physiology. All the above means that the pilot study works! We just need to repeat this is 10-20 people to discover if the science holds or not – exciting times.

After we devised this experiment Cristina urged me to perform. Performing is a challenge that petrifies and excites me, having had no training in performance art beyond Cristina’s support. We are currently meeting and rehearsing every other day, with the performance quickly taking shape. I am really enjoying the process of building this with her and I think we are developing something really special that will make people think and challenge them.

Cristina Ghinassi practised durational art for the purposes of the Code: Switch project
Cristina Ghinassi practised durational art for the purposes of the Code: Switch project

What are some of the outcomes you hoped to achieve with the project? 

Ghinassi: On one side, we wanted to see which epigenetics changes could be evoked by practising the performance and video art. I was the tester; we now want to repeat it on a larger scale, around 20 people. On the other hand, I wanted to produce experimental videos which artistically showed the difficulties and the progressive evolution I faced during the 28-day repeated performance. 

It was really challenging for me to keep on repeating my performance for 28 consecutive days while I was controlling all aspects of my daily life – my sleep, food and habits. The visual outcomes of my performance also reflect the way my own self-perception changed during the whole process.

Duca: We wanted to scientifically prove if someone’s epigenetic code could change when practicing performance art. We saw hints of this, but it is not proven just yet. Cristina’s epigenetic code changed, but we need to repeat it in many more people before we can say: this is scientific fact!

I personally wanted to collaborate closely with an artist to experience the process. I wanted to understand how it works. Every year I manage and oversee many art and science projects. I thought it would help me dig into this process.

Did the process surprise you in any way? 

Ghinassi: It surprised me a lot in many different ways. In the first ten days, the experiment helped me focus – it was positive. But slowly it started to affect me in a bad way: the daily routine made me feel like I was inside a cage, which tightened day by day. I really felt suffocated at times. In my last week, I unexpectedly and suddenly felt a positive change. I started to feel all the beauty of what I was doing. I perceived the outside world no more as my enemy but as a place I could love so much. Once I finished, I also felt the benefits of this experience in terms of liberation and peace.

Duca: I had few expectations. I try not to over think what I do. I formulate plans then follow them through. 

I found the process very interesting, helping me grow both as a festival manger and a person. The need to discuss and explain, to see yourself in the other person’s shoes, then try to understand them to develop your own ideas around that inspiration. That process was very maturing. I also think we are doing something that has never been done before.

Do you think it’s important for performance artists to engage with science in such a direct manner? 

Ghinassi: I think it’s challenging. If challenging yourself is a priority in your work, then this approach could be very beneficial. I can say mine was a durational performance, a form of art quite common in the contemporary performing arts. Science for me was a pretext to experiment, to delve deeper into my practice. That practice consists of many different approaches to myself and to the audience as well.

Duca: I think this is the best way to approach scientists and artists working together. Both the scientist and artist should get to know each other then develop a project together. In this way, they both own the project, are invested in it, and can balance each other out to do novel and meaningful work.

Would you in fact say that the distinction between art and science is an untrue one? 

Ghinassi: I don’t really know if I can answer this question. I think art and science are related to each other: they both look into processes, how they work, but from a different perspective. That’s why I believe that the combination of the two disciplines can benefit both of them.

Duca: Distinctions are often human constructs. Take how society viewed science and art throughout time. The distinction only happened over the last couple hundred years, becoming starkly concrete over the last 50 years or so. That distinction was useful for little else than ivory towers of academic power to be created. Many walkways are now being created between each ivory tower leading to exciting ideas and projects the world over, and Malta needs to be part of that. 

What do you hope to impart to the public with such a project – one with such a particularly interdisciplinary focus?

Ghinassi: The Switch performance can give the audience an open-mindedness towards a special approach to performance and video art. At the same time, the Q&A session following the performance will focus on the project as a whole. This session could be a great time to learn more about how our social environment can affect our behaviour and lifestyle. Changing one’s point of view can make the audience aware of how much our behaviours are influenced by the external environment. It can be a good opportunity to open up one’s mind.

Duca: Cristina and I have been working very hard to create this performance. We want to interweave her performance art with my scientific explanations and poetry. Her intense presence will provoke ideas about all of our behaviours and desires. Attendees are invited for something completely different – expect the unexpected.

The Switch performance will be taking place on May 12 and 13 at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta at 20:00. Ghinassi and Duca have been aided by Andrea Fronzoni (artist), Andrea Pedna (video) Dr Joseph Borg, Dr Stephanie Bezzina Wettinger and Dr Christian Scerri (researchers, University of Malta) for the project. The Code: Switch initiative is supported by the Malta Arts Fund. This performance is presented in collaboration with In_Ocula, and is supported by Regione Emilia Romagna and Italian Institute of Culture, Valletta.

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