[*photos of the exhibition: link]
Discerning the precise relationship between various fields of truth, knowledge, meaning or sense production, whatever the task at hand may be, leads to a constant re-articulation of what is or could be denoted by the term science, mathematics, and art — what are their constitutive procedures that define and distinguish them from each other. This may resemble the now distant (although sometimes still to present) tendencies of grand systematisation, however the questions that seem to be most prevalent in this regard are not too concerned with the apparent autonomy of the mentioned fields, but rather with traversing their differences, tracing underlying commonalities and most importantly forming their implicit genealogies.
It is this line of questioning that defines the artistic practice of Nicole Prutsch, at least as presented at her recent exhibition La Méthode at the MUSA Museum Startgalerie Artothek in Vienna.
Organised around the prominent title is a particular web of references that at first glance seem almost arbitrary and share no immediate relations. However, by focusing on the commonalities of the exhibited artworks, focusing on something that could be regarded as the method of the artist, the links between them start to become apparent.
Tu sum up, there seem to be four main references that can be discerned from the exhibited works: René Descartes, a philosopher, mathematician and scientist of the early 17th century, whose paradigmatic work Discours de la méthode (1637) inspired the title of the exhibition; Viktor Lebzelter, an Austrian anthropologist from the early 20th century; CRISPR, a method of genetic manipulation that was discovered in the early 90s and developed in the recent years to the extent that it can now be used to directly manipulate specific parts of the DNA with a high level of precision; and Marcel Duchamp, the originator of the ready made and one of the most paradigmatic artists of the previous century.
By themselves, as mentioned before, these references have no immediate relation, opening a wide scope of possible interpretations. However, by considering them as they are incorporated in the artworks a more narrow or specific bundle of relations can be derived.
In this respect I would like to begin with ‘Genschere’ / ‘Gene Scissors’, a petri dish of E.Coli bacteria containing LentiCRISPR/CAS9, a microbial adaptive immune system that creates double-stranded breaks in target DNA at precise positions, usually eliminating invading viruses in the bacteria, but by genetically engineering the part of CRISPR that holds the biological information of its target (i.e. ‘rewriting’ its set target), it can modify or ‘slice’ a precise part of any chosen DNA. This makes it a tool, the scissors of gene engineering, with vast possibilities of application, sparking a new wave of debates in bioethics, but in the case of the exhibition, transposed from biology to art, a readymade, a cutting tool that points towards the artist’s own methodological approach.
What is meant by this can become more clear by turning towards the Machine Cutting Image, a short video in an endless loop, where the footage of an indistinguishable concrete type area is cut several times in a way that if forms a set of vertical pieces of footage. Each piece is cut on the spot where the other one is whole in order to form a moving image of an elongated, distorted space. As such (as a cut and reassembled footage that supposedly, as suggested by the title, functions as a machine cutting image’), it relates to the previous artwork, which is not only a cut and ‘rewritten’ DNA chain, functioning as a microbial immune system (the ‘scissors’ of gene engineering), but also an object of ‘cutting’, of severing its contextual ties and transposing it into the context of an artwork (a readymade).
This outlines a common denominator, a duality of the actual gesture of cutting and the tool or mechanism for doing so (‘the scissors’) as its apparent result, pointing towards the artist’s methodology and specificity of her artistic practice.
This duality can be observed among other exhibited works, for instance, № 7659, an installation of vertical strips or cut-outs of an image, placed against the wall so that they form a distorted portrait photograph of one of Lebzelter’s research subjects. Some pieces of this installation are cuts from the original photo, some from its inverted copy, while others from a copy with a yellowish tint, although it is not completely clear whether there is any specific significance to this variation, as it is, for instance, in the also exhibited series Portraits / Heatmaps, where similar photographs from Lebzelter’s research are used, but this time edited in a way that a specific feature of the photographed subject is outlined and furthermore converted into a pixelated image, magnifying and deconstructing the implicit mechanisms for isolating and outlining facial features in the portrait imagery, the invisible abstract mechanisms of the gaze that made possible the usage of photography as a methodological tool in anthropological studies of human characteristics in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The artist works with the fact that Lebzelter used photography to observe characterising facial features that were at the time supposedly vital for understanding various human characteristics, with the fact that it served as a lens for discerning its defining particularities. She exaggerates its own implicit principle in order to present it as a sort of ‘cutting’ tool (for instance, by cutting and distorting the portrait photograph of the woman from Lebzelter’s research as with № 7659, by outlining and converting the outlined areas of Lebzelter’s photographs, creating ‘heat maps’ as with Portraits / Heatmaps, and by gathering these same outlined areas or features, gathering them together and presenting them isolated on a white background — making the lines of the marked features even more apparent next to the white abyss, as with Fragments).
What binds these three artworks together is therefore again a process of symbolic and literal cutting by the artist that creates or makes apparent a cutting tool, an exaggerated mechanism present as an implicit principle of the chosen reference. This exaggeration of the implicit principle of cutting as means of making something distinct and observable does not fill it with meaning, as one could expect, but makes it rather (as in the case of the isolated features on the white background) void of it. It discerns the seemingly arbitrary nature of the implicit decision processes of Lebzelter and similar researchers that define, what is or could be regarded as a characterising facial feature. An arbitrariness that can easily give way to problematic value judgements such as racism and other form of discrimination — although, as I was reminded by the accompanying exhibition text, Lebzelter supposedly held an anti-racist position.
I could thus say that La Méthode is an inquiry into the shared methodological approaches of science, mathematics, and art, a conceptual discerning of familiarity of otherwise heterogeneous fields. It picks up a seemingly arbitrary gesture of cutting (also presented in the formula clara et distincta percepio, clear and distinct ideas, by Descartes in his methodological attempt of assuring the certainty of knowledge) as means of distinguishing and furthermore defining characteristics, phenomena or facts in a certain fashion. Discerning how it binds these heterogeneous fields together. But not only that. It is also an inquiry into the implicit processes of methodological approaches that are often overlooked or simply taken for granted. Using her artistic practice as a method for deconstructing the methodological.
What therefore remains to be asked is the question regarding the reach of this gesture. If a conceptually guided distortion of the visual and semiotic field seemingly presents the last fleeting possibility for a critical engagement with the problematic traditions of sense production, the last fissure for the political in art (as is often implied by artistic practices that deal with the power structures of the established cultural forms and traditions), what does this dialectically intertwined web of references and artistic strategies, something that could be summarised under the formula of ‘cutting into an existence a cutting machine’, pose for such a project? Is the automatisation that is implied by this formula already something that goes beyond the artist’s intent or ability to enact change? Does art reach a post-ethical sphere, where change is a thing of self-engendering visual and semiotic mechanisms? Or is this ‘coming full circle of a cut that becomes a cutting tool’ already an enclosing of the mentioned fissure of sense; its apparent depoliticisation?