STEVEN ALYIAN The genesis of Biogenesis

From a brain-cell turned rockstar, to an ancient statue made out of living fat tissue, Art Bites: Biogenesis shows us the artists that are redefining nature itself through unique biological artworks. With the series premiering on ABC iveiw this week, DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Steven Alyian about the wondrous world of biological art, and the Perth research laboratory that makes it.

What is Biological Art?

Simply put; art that uses life as its raw material. This can mean something simple, such as the manipulation of entities such as plants into aesthetically pleasing arrangements, but I’m more interested in the intersection of cellular biology and tissue culture and art. This is where artists are manipulating or repurposing life on the microscopic scale, where the same rules and ethics about what life is, and what we can and can’t do with life, isn’t so clear.

How does art offer a different path for science communication?

Science is evolving fast, medical science is breaking into new technologically intertwined areas of human manipulation that not many of us understand yet. We’ve simply not had the time to learn about the emerging ideas or techniques or even learn the language we need to discuss these topics. Art allows us to find another language in which to study these ideas, for these new and sometimes paradigm-breaking concepts to find a place to land in our modern consciousness.

What is Art Bites: Biogenesis about?

Biogenesis investigates creative and peculiar living experiments, through the personal journeys of six artists, that have developed ground-breaking work by manipulating life in the laboratory. In each story we witness the birth of a new artwork, as the artists share with us what drove them down their distinct personal path of discovery, with insight from scientists and mentors that influenced and assisted them along the way.

In this series we look deeper into issues of artificial intelligence, the human microbiome, the social and medical discourse of fat, feminine identity and hygiene, the honeybee crisis and the invisible suffering of chronically ill medical patients. These biological artists question emerging scientific developments, introducing new stories that allow us to understand, embrace and utilise advances in science in the 21st century.

Through these six unique stories, we question how these artworks reflect upon our own bodies and our own definition of life itself, as we learn how these biological artists are influencing the international art world, through this fascinating manipulation of living matter into art.

What do you find interesting about the intersection of art and science?

That there really is no intersection. The search for truth of the universe can take many forms. One in freedom of expression, creative interpretation and unrestricted experimentation. And the other in a regimented form as a quest for raw data and results, comparison and authenticated knowledge. What makes the 21st century interesting is that we are starting to see the value in both of these methods, and now raw science is even starting to validate some of the more ancient mystical ideas that have been preserved throughout history. The more art and science work together, the more we can understand the meaning of what we see, in our deeper probing into the structure and patterns of nature.

Who are SymbioticA?

SymbioticA is the world’s first artistic science research laboratory. Inside, creatives are granted access to the knowledge, tools and equipment needed to invent and experiment with living biological matter. Established at the University of Western Australia in the year 2000, the laboratory is now world renowned as the place for biology-related-art, but it remains relatively unknown within Australia (hidden in Perth). Here ethically questionable and challenging concepts are born, evolve and are unleashed upon audiences around the globe. Since its inception, SymbioticA has hosted countless artists from around the planet, resulting in bold work that has challenged and questioned the ethics of how we interact with life.

How long have you had an interest in Biological Art?

I clearly remember the day I first went visited SymbioticA. I was still in my first year of film school and one of my tutors, who after seeing my rather experimental and obtuse short films I was handing in for assessments, introduced me to the team at the biological art laboratory. They were looking for a videographer who could stomach their unusual content and somehow I seemed to fit the bill. I had no idea how much that institution would become part of my life and would take me down my own path as an artist.

It has been over a decade now since I was first introduced to this world. In this time I’ve developed a close relationship to the artists and staff within the laboratory and I’ve documented and collaborated on countless projects there. At the moment I’m working closely with established Australian artist Stelarc creating multimedia performance art projects that are exhibited across the globe. I’m constantly travelling to other countries and experiencing other incredible biological artworks and constantly expanding my knowledge of what ‘life’ is. I feel rather blessed to have these insightful experiences and I’ve developed a specific skill of translating these incredibly dense ideas into films that explain their intricacies in clear detail.

What’s next for you?

I am developing a new documentary series, which also looks at the crossover between science and art, but this time focusing more on music and how it has influenced human consciousness and history. Otherwise I’m back to writing and releasing music for my bands Selfless Orchestra and Injured Ninja, the latter of which we are looking into reviving our larger ensemble project The Epic of Gilgamesh into a much bigger and explosive show for early 2020. That’s shaping up to be something quite formidable.