From The Leech To The Neurochip

The following dialog took place during kFP/02, a research project of the Künstlerhaus Dortmund, a municipal art institution. In the interview it is observed what kind of transfer and integrational services artistic activity creates in the context of science, politics, and economics and its relation with the daily life of society.

Dorcas Müller, who was born in 1973, deals in her art with interfaces on the human body. The leech since 1998 is her most important working material in the area of performative video and photography. In the year 2000 she came across the neurochip research of Prof. Peter Fromherz. The first functioning neurochip, interface between technical and organic material, was developed in the early 90ies at his research department for membrane- and neurophysics at the Max-Planck-Institut in Martinsried near Munich. It uses silicon chips and living brain cells of the leech. These so called “Retziuscells” measure 60 micrometers in diameter, which is an extraordinary size for cells and makes them especially well suited.

In may 2000 Dorcas Müller traveled to Martinsried to meet Prof. Fromherz. This encounter resulted in a spontaneous offer to work at his department and with the equipment there. She used this opportunity to make works for one year during 2001 and 2002.

The videos and photographies she made there concern themselves with the ports of the physically real connection of the human body to the digital net. The corporal performative act always dominates pictorial content and thus brings the body back into the center of scientific interest. The difference between her ideas and perceptions which are expressed in her performative video work creates a changed impression of scientific models at the institute. As an example, in her video “The creation of Neuros” the components chip - leech braincell – human being are translated into the world of immediate perception. A live leech pumps information between a (real) neurochip and a human hand, but the connection is not lasting... The scope of her work is not only comprised of an aesthetic, formalistic moment, but also moves on a social and scientific level: through curious and persevering intervention she has gained admission and artistic freedom within the area of neurochip research at the Max-Planck-Institut.

The interview was moderated by Bettina Reichmuth in July 2002. Translation: Julian Neville

B.R.: You`ve been collaborating with the Department of Membrane and Neurophysics at the M.P.I in Martinsried since May 2001. How did you become interested in science?

D.M.: I`m interested in the sensual, instinctive motivation that makes human beings explore. Science is merely a small area which is particularly well organized. A separé, so to speak, whose purpose it is to touch different elements of the world. This is an especially rich atmosphere where there is much to see for me.

B.R.: What obstacles did you encounter while working with the M.P.I?

D.M.: To be admitted to the world of science, while coming from a different background, one must prove a desire which at least matches the scientists’ urge to explore.

B.R.: Who made it possible for you to do research at the M.P.I.?

D.M.: It was Prof. Peter Fromherz himself who invited me to his department. That was very fortunate. As he is interested in communicating he even provides his personal e-mail address on the department`s homepage. This is how I first contacted him. During the time that I spent at the institute two other guests were working there, a psychologist and a restorer. Fromherz`s department already combines biochemistry and physics, which is not common in scientific institutes. So he is generally an open-minded person.

B.R.: Given that you are an artist, how did people react to you at the M.P.I.? Were your colleagues open to discussions?

D.M.: The first question I was asked was where I had left my easel! And the next one was why I didn`t spend such a beautiful day at the Pinakothek (museum) instead of watching work that was probably boring for me. In the beginning, I really had to develop diplomatic talent but soon I was accepted. I found out who was in charge of what, which was necessary to aquire the technical skills to operate the equipment and to be allowed to work in the different laboratories. Furthermore, I didn`t want to interrupt the routine but rather to remain invisible and watch.That`s better than creating a state of emergency. One has to judge when it is better to keep in the background as people usually work at a very high level of concentration. This was very much appreciated and, thus, I had many other chances to communicate. B.R.: Your photographic and video work is reminiscent of a generation of scientists who not only used matter as an object of their research but who were also natural philosophers, suspecting a deeper meaning behind measurable things and answers to questions concerning the theory of cognition. Do you have the impression that the scientists with whom you work lack this idea?

D.M.: I believe that these qualities are currently not in demand. The fact that my curiosity towards science left people astonished and bewildered already shows that it is rare that somebody from the outside really wants to know what`s going on inside. Generally, there are no questions from outside. But of course, there are many extraordinary and magnificent things to be found, not just bare facts - after all the scientists are human beings. It is just a great luxury to take one`s time to look at these things or to share them. If one is willing to make a sacrifice for this luxury everything is possible.

B.R.: Simply spoken: Science in the beginning explored the world so humanity could better understand it and make use of it. Nowadays, science interferes with the natural process of reproduction and endeavours to change nature to make it more suitable for humanity. Thus, science not only examines reality but actually creates reality itself. You look at the stategies that are used to overcome the body which is considered to be deficient. How do you feel about these strategies – expanding consciousness by means of drugs, plastic surgery, or genetic manipulation? Does the fact that new discoveries in science penetrate our immediate private life and the world we live in urge you to concern yourself with science?

D.M.: I personally do not hold the belief that we as human beings are seperate from nature or that we, through our deeds, disturb nature`s equilibrium. That would be similar to telling an ant that it is bad to build ant-hills. The objectiveness with which science and art observe the world is construed. One appears to look at things from a vantage point in order to have an overview. As this is naturally not really possible man makes all kinds of little models. These models are made up of the elements that constitute the world and are hence limited by the laws of nature. The product may often seem strikingly artificial to us, but nature is indifferent to that. The model merely expresses a manifestation of nature`s options. This is the phenomenon that I deal with in my work. I work with our consternation when we confront our own products. In a way, we fail in the face of nature’s vast variety and not vice versa. I find it delightful to reintegrate these aspects into one picture, together with the human being. It is astonishing that the world of scientific images is usually high tech while the human body has disappeared as if it was a disgrace. Paradoxically, though, all this was created to revere and help the body.

B.R.: Your performance videos reflect on interfaces of the human body and scientific research that uses it. Regarding your work, one might associate it with artists like Orlan who displays her physical insides in performative surgery on stage or Mona Hatoum. In 1994 she moved a camera through her body, making visible the total invasion by technical apparatusses and the organism`s vulnerability. What is your standpoint on these two very different artists, who apparently also concern themselves with the question of identity in reference to artificial intervention?

D.M.: That`s an exciting comparison. Both artists lastly present us with the following question: is the body actively offered for intervention or even manipulated self-handedly or is it passively invaded by the unknown. I like to compare this with all facets of sado-masochism. As long as war, unwanted violence, or impending death are ruled out the subject agrees with what is happening. If something happens that one cannot cope with after all, that`s a different story. We continuously change. This could happen under pressure, for example in front of an audience or to suit someone you love. Or because you are being observed by others, by a doctor, by family members, or by any kind of media. I use the medium video to justify an action that I otherwise woudn`t permit myself to enjoy. It`s difficult for me to jump into the day and experiment as if I was still a child. In contrast to this, even today there are still people who decide not to undergo the conventional treatments that everyone is offered, especially when they face certain death. You decide on your own what you do to yourself. And for this reason Orlan`s work is so incredibly powerful: because you don`t really want to realize this.

B.R.: You get back to your own female organic matter – using yourself as material, you conduct a kind of aesthetic self-experiment. Would it also be possible for someone else to appear in your videos instead of you?

D.M.: You address the question of authenticity. Identities for the image, of course, can perpetually be manipulated. This may sound easy, but concerning my work it would be a long walk before I found somebody willing to sacrifice herself for me.
I don`t want to make “snuffmovies”, after all. As long as I find myself appealing enough, I enjoy really exploiting myself! Or would you care to switch?

B.R.: Though you cooperate with science the outcome, as far as I`m concerned, is very sensual and it is not clearly intelligible how you arrive at your product. How important is this to you?

D.M.: In my work I bring together what actually belongs together in a form which shows the human body as the thing that it is. A highly complex, vulnerable, organic body which develops rituals and social codes to be able to approach and coprehend the things around it. And most importantly it is very slow in doing this. It needs time to get accustomed to new situations. Its life span is at the same time the most precious good that it posesses. Despite all strategies and aids lastly you have to deal with exactly these issues day by day. I find the shame about our own deficiency sad. Why punish yourself doubly?

B.R.: The M.P.I works with leeches because their brain cells are particularily large, making them suitable for scientific research. Because of your way of working you call yourself a leech. Thus you come back to the main laboratory animal in a self-referential image. You are the leech that sucks on science. Can you elaborate on this?

D.M.: Well, I came to the institute by way of the leech. I found the leech in my search of a metaphorical means of describing the opposite of all kinds of perception and consumption, whether in connection with various substances, information, multimedia, or whatever. To exaggerate the image: it is the very opposite of intavenous consumption. So I had already made several works with leeches before I became aware of the neurochip research at the M.P.I. Not until conducting incisive research on these animals did I discover that they inject a number of substances during a bite to care for the host. The English scientist R.T. Sawyer describes the leech as the medical cabinet of human beings. A creature which through the course of the evolution has specialized exclusively on the bodies of mammals. A creature whose advice you can depend on if you want to know something about the human body.You could also look at it this way: my parasites are the only ones who are really interested in me. In this sense, I am the friendly parasite at the M.P.I. Like a dog I sit under the scientist`s desk and go for the best pieces. B.R.: Or to put it a bit more general: art besides philosophy is one of the few disciplines that allows you to fly like a bird through the different areas of science. Thus, art is in the position to make connections. Certainly, the increasing popularity of contemporary art is connected with this. People everywhere endeavour to work and cross over between disciplines. How realistic do you consider the role of artists?

D.M.: This probably depends on the case. In my case, I really wanted to be in the proximity of research, inspite of knowing that it does not need me at all. Research though, of course, consists of many people that you can all stimulate and whose enthusiasm you can arouse to be admitted. So I kept my eye on certain plans while using a part of my energy to spontaneously react to the events there. At the same time, I was keen on doing something which could be interesting for the scientists – after all, you can also gain something when you allow for compromises. From work of any kind you get experiences and you can integrate a lot of it into the flow of art work. This way I came to making a 360° animation of a silicon chip on whose surface nerve cells are jailed in little cages, using pictures taken by an electron microscope. This was the first time in the department that anybody got such a three-dimensional impression of the chip`s surface. You have to do something like this on site. I learned to use the microscope, the know-how about images I had aquired in my own domain. Jumping between disciplines allows me to bring together components which otherwise would never meet. I have this freedom to jump as an artist. It`s my capital. One can definitely move this inert matter. It`s amazing how little communication there is between the different floors of an institute. But in the beginning you have to be a little intrusive.

B.R.: In the encounter of art and science the two are easily mistaken as having equal rights mutual interests. Two ways of perception are also two realities, though: on the one side you have science as a system with a high social status, well paying jobs, and a largely fixed view of the world. On the other side you have the inquisitive artist, an accepted outsider and borderliner of society whose financial situation is usually uncertain and who spends a great part of his life passing from one identity crisis to the next. Now the artist goes to meet the scientist, the situation is rather unfair: the power, the money, and consequently the power to make decisions are unmistakably on the side of science.Science often being self content, which qualities and artistic strategies do you think arouse its attention and fascination towards art? And what does the artist hope for on the other side? Do these interests meet or did you also have to make compromises?

D.M.: There was also a project by the brain researcher Dr. Ernst Pöppel who incited artists to make works in his laboratory. The problem with this was that the artists didn`t make this pilgrimage by their own motivation. In this case it was science that was interested in the work of artists. But the works for the most part remained illustrative. Science just has to accept this. Art on command just loses quality. If you ask me: when science decides to support artists it should do this spontaneously, but then thoroughly and consciously. Furthermore, I think that in the cultural sector and on the art market there is a great exchange of money which is used in a pretty conservative way. Employees at a museum do just as well as employees at the M.P.I. The artist, around whose products basically everything revolves in art, is only the last element in a long, long food chain.

B.R.: Surfaces: you mentioned that science increasingly has to use pictures to advertise, that it takes over strategies from the world of business. What kind of image-scape do you consider this? Could this be the connecting link for art?

D.M.: Science is dependent on funding and has to present its work to an audience which doesn`t necessarily speak the same language. If a particular section of science offers good images there will be more media coverage which again provides for more funding. And success last but not least is measured by the number of publications. The scientific picture like all images is constructed. The scientific representation of organic material for example is usually generated by high-tech. You don`t see a nerve cell in its every day routine as a labouring drewling bag of membranes, which of course is impossible anyway. You see an object remote from its context, already dead, mummified through a procedure, splattered with gold. Not even the picture is really photographed. It is a relief that has been calculated with the help of an electron beam. The visage of the cell in such a picture is just as true as the retouched picture of a star on the cover of a tv guide. In the latter case though, you do not complain, since you don`t care to see pimples in the magazine, it`s enough to have them yourself. It should be the same way with scientific images, also: It works because the spectator wants to see it this way. And the spectator wants science to have everything under control, that`s comfort. Regarding images, science could profit considerably from art!

B.R.: How transferable do you find your way of working in cooperation with scientists? Are you an exception who was lucky? Or have you learned to make out certain patterns of thinking that you can adjust to as an artist and which allow you to initiate a productive scientific – artistic dialogue?

D.M.: To be welcomed so warmly was certainly incredibly fortunate. Yet, I must admit, that my fear was greater than concrete obstacles. What one has to do, is to invest time and actually show up. Be there, really make contact. Science is something which humans do, one can visit these people and pester them!

B.R.: Art and science. To date, there have been several exhibitions and research projects on this topic. You took part in the exhibition “Fiction and Science” which was housed in the Lothringer13/Halle in Munich in 2001. What is your impression on the relationship of art and science? What about the effects of these projects?

D.M.: It is delightful to have such temporary forums where results can be discussed. That arouses attention. I find it important that one mustn`t drift off into a ghetto of topics but that one can plunge back into the whole. Otherwise the opportunity that friction between different areas just happens to bring is forsaken. It is conceivable that such exhibitions find their way back into scientific institutes. That would round up the exchange. Many institutes have exhibition space at their disposal which is often filled with a very indiscriminate program. One should join forces here.

B.R.: My personal experience was that I had to search for a long time in order to find artists for an exhibition project who, in cooperation with the industry and science, don`t let themselves be corrupted by monopolies of power. I find this aspect very well managed in your work. How difficult is it for you to stick with your own artistic models of thinking – which temptations are there for you in the realm of science? D.M.: When I began working at the M.P.I. I worried more about being allowed to do the things I had planned. I had expected to be scrutinized more or that I wouldn`t be allowed to touch expensive technical equipment in order not to break it. Or that nobody would care or find time to help me, thus keeping me from making progress. Or that someone might say: listen you can do this nonsense at home! This turned out to be a projection of my own fears. Such hindrances never appeared. However, what I really had to struggle with was my own temptation by the aesthetics of the technical world. The optical sensations continuously lure you off the path.You spend hours with all this new endless possibilities, unable to decide. If you limit your work to only this, that is documentation or illustration. These immaculate images can be seen in numerous technical periodicals. In the context of art they remain hermetically secluded, unable to communicate according to my conception.

B.R.: What new aspects does science bring to your work? Control, prognostication, systematic processes – is there anything that has come to play a role for you?

D.M.: A little bit I`ve lost the fear of simplicity. Especially the basic research in physics aims at arranging experiments as simply as possible. A physicist keeps reducing his experiment until the test model becomes as simple as a formula. He allows for no redundancy. To my astonishment, it is exactly this procedure which defines a terrain where finally all kinds of surprises are made visible. Like on an empty stage, a medley of absurdities now occurs, driving the physicist almost crazy as of course nothing happens the way he has anticipated. That has comforted me. Now I can bear more purity in my work without fearing that it might become meaningless.

B.R.: What are your plans for the future – what`s next after this phase at the M.P.I.? Do you want to continue working in the realm of science?

D.M.: Next I would like to come face to face with an Amazon Leech. These animals are considerably larger than the specimen you can aquire here. The above mentioned researcher Dr. Roy T. Sawyer breeds these leeches in Wales and isn`t aware yet that another parasite is already on its way to meet him.

“Transfer: Kunst Wirtschaft Wissenschaft”, Klaus Heid, Ruediger John (Hrsg.),

Baden-Baden:[sic!], 2003, ISBN 3-933809-46-0

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