Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kitsune Collective Interview

Here is an abbreviated interview I did with the ABSOLUTELY INSPIRING Kitsune Collective in 2008. The full article text can be found in Slit magazine's Weird Science issue.

Warren chats to the Kitsune Collective, an artist initiative founded by Eden St James and Alicia King. Whilst in Holland the pair worked at Vrij University, Amsterdam, to produce a body of work entitled 'go forth and multiply.' This research project involved growing a tumour cell line (HE_LA) over small glass figurines and then subsequently infecting the tumour with HIV. A process of staining the virus blue was embarked on through the use of protein markers and the results were small glass sculptures that showed to the naked eye where the virus had taken hold in the tumour.

"Biotechnology is highly fetishised in many ways and it’s always exciting to push the idea of what constitutes a legitimate artistic practice. The objects and documentation stand on their own as artworks, but it is the process behind the work that makes it significant.”

W: What do you think the potential impact of the Kitsune collective’s work could have on the scientific community? 

K: Upon our initial research for the go forth and multiply project, it became apparent that scientists working within the field of immunology and exclusively with HIV have very narrow fields of focus and due to funding restraints and the need to produce specific outcomes.

It astounded me that HIV has been extensively researched for the past 27 years, yet scientists still do not have any formal documentation of the HIV life cycle. Only recently did immunologist Thomas Hope of Chicago, who the Kitsune Collective collaborate with, produce time-lapse video that details the progression of the virus from initial infection through to total cell death.

I would assume that observing how the virus infects cells and mutates would be paramount to research outcomes but it has taken decades for researchers to produce significant documentation. Collaborations with bio-medical practitioners and artists will only widen the scope of potential research outcomes.

W: What could an artistic exploration of HIV provide to the positive community?

K: It is my belief that any and all, creative works surrounding the issue of HIV are significant. Artists provide the platform so that the unvetted expression of HIV issues and concerns can be pondered, discussed and validated.

W: How is HIV/AIDS a politically and poetically loaded health issue? 

K: The reasons that we have chosen to work with HIV vary for both Alicia and Eden. For Alicia it is a continuation of her practice as a bio-artist and social commentator but for Eden it is a process of understanding and collaborating with the virus that he has lived with for a significant number of years.

Particularly within western queer culture the HIV virus has become a complex entity within itself. In addition to 'gift giving' and 'bug chasing', HIV positivity can be seen as a validation of sexuality, and entry to a specific community. Resulting from issues relating to the sexual element of HIV transmission, HIV/AIDS education and awareness often comes under a banner of abstinence and/or ignorance, as in turn, does the HIV positive body, both of which then exist in a state of blurry unease.

W: What are some key bioethical considerations you apply to your work and have to respond to?  

K: The most significant ethical challenge for us was that we couldn’t use Eden’s virus/tissue, due to our minimal timeline and lengthy health and safety issues.  So, alternatively we used the he_la cancer cell line, derived from the cervical cancer of African-American woman Henrietta Lacks in the 1950’s.  

Henrietta’s tissue was taken without her consent, and has been the main human cell line used internationally since then - there’s literally tonnes of her cells in Laboratories all around the world.  We’ve used her cells in biological artworks before, to focus on her story in addressing issues of individuals and ethics, though intentionally infecting Henrietta’s tissue with HIV-1 was an intense experience, as I’m sure it’s something she would never have chosen to do with her body. 

So while seeking to empower one community the project inadvertently disempowered another.  It’s never clear-cut.  Every use of biological materials has its own layering of complexity and paradox.

W: What do you think are some of the potentials of the exploration of biotechnology for the queer community and self-determination of the body?

K: Democratization of exclusive skills and knowledge, such as those held by the biosciences can be key in giving individuals understanding and empowerment.  For queers and HIV positive bodies the issue of physical bodily control is a huge one.

Governmental stances towards HIV immigration in Australia conjure a view of the HIV positive body as a tool of biological weaponry, which needs to be geographically confined. Similarly, transitioning queers are subject to a whole range of political and governmental powers dictating the form and gender their bodies can take.

Accessing a high security AIDS Laboratory to infect human tissue with HIV-1 was a pretty awesome achievement for a couple of stray artists.  Living in a culture in which an individual’s bodily material belongs to institutions amidst a thriving tissue economy, where gender fluidity must battle the hard-wall of bureaucracy, and in which a sex act is portrayed as an act of bioterrorism - explorations in biotech can open alternative experiences and representations of the body, outside of those which are dictated by dominant culture.

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