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  • Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble
  • Rebecca Schneider (bio)

When an audience member enters the performance space for Critical Art Ensemble’s Flesh Machine, she might think she’s stumbled upon a lecture in some Biology Hall of her past, except for the fact that the information is extremely up-to-date and delivered by artists. Dressed in lab coats, CAE presents information on medical and scientific practices in the field of eugenics, peppered by short performance sketches so that the “class” will stay attentive. Unlike a parodic or distantiated performance of a lecture (recall Ron Vawter performing Clifton Fadiman’s explication of Our Town in the Wooster Group’s Routes 1 and 9), CAE’s opening is a lecture without overt irony. They are lecturing (which is not to say they are not performing).1 Wanting their audiences to know some facts about contemporary eugenics, CAE finds the lecture to be both the gentlest and most reliable entry into what quickly becomes a more complexly challenging event.

Opening with a lecture, emphasis is placed on the particular situation that many women face in regard to the political, social, and economic pressures to reproduce and raise children. In fact, for CAE biological reproduction is primarily an “Ideological State Apparatus” (Althusser 1977). From the start, CAE explains their own political position regarding issues of reproductive technology—as one member put it, they don’t want to “trick anyone.” Frontally and predictably staged, with all the trappings of an orthodox presentation, not only is this format a functional means of getting across a body of information, but the traditional theatre/lecture presentation panders to habit, providing, in CAE’s words, a “cushion for the impact of process theatre” which follows.

In the second part of the event spectators become far more involved—this is the “lab” portion of biology class. Audience members participate in actual lab processes and encounter various models of artificial reproduction. This is CAE’s attempt to include a tactile relationship to the material, going beyond presentational language—what Junior High teachers call “hands on.” But this is no labeling and pasting of leaves onto paper (my own memory of Junior High bio). For this section, CAE built its own cryolab to house living human tissue for potential cloning so that audience members become hands-on genetic engineers. But is this any more than a theme park of cryopreservation? How much “real science” is involved? [End Page 120]

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1. Flesh Machine, a 30-minute lecture/performance. Performed from 1997 to 1998 at Beursschouwburg (Art and Science Collision), Brussels; Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki; Public Netbase, Museums Quartier, Vienna; Labor Gallery, Graz; and Kapellica Gallery, Ljubljana. The project opens with a stage performance to critically contextualize the event that follows by problematizing various elements of new reproductive technology.

In preparation for Flesh Machine CAE studied in biology labs to learn cryopreservation and biopsy techniques. They lived with and documented a couple going through in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. They studied material science to learn how to build a cryolab. In the fall of 1997 they mounted their performance in Vienna at Public Netbase,2 touring participants through the “signage” of the reproductive process (from theory to testing to representations of the process). Their aim was to reveal what they considered to be hidden eugenic agendas, agendas that become most apparent on the intimate level of the literal procedure.3 To do this, they stumbled across that social sacral line between hard science and soft art. When asked about the specifics of their study process, CAE gave me the following response:

We didn’t study “seriously.” We are amateurs. However, to get to the political economy of this situation, and the sociological impact of these goings-on, you don’t have to get a degree. We simply read lots of books and journals; spent a semester in cell biology lab (more like a participatory researcher in anthropology); spent two weeks living with a couple going through IVF; did numerous interviews with molecular biologists; had biologists (experts) check our work, and generally act as consultants. When we did Flesh Machine in Vienna, a team of...


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