Yvan Tina is a Phd Student in the School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication and member of ArtSciLab. His work investigates the possible convergences of biotechnology, synthetic biology, and artificial life with the performing arts. He is a member of the international, multilingual podcast platform Creative Disturbance where he regularly contributes to Meta–Life and Virtual Africa.
STAGING LIFE: REFRAMING THEATRICALITY WITHIN ART AND ARTIFICIAL LIFE
The term ‘artificial life’ was coined, after German-American scientist Jacques Loeb, in order to describe the kind of work that dealt with the artificial reproduction of cells, such that it had primarily something to do with biology rather than with artificially created life in computers.
Yet, in his modern use, and thanks to the development of cybernetics as well as the interdisciplinary workshops on the synthesis and simulation of living systems led by American computer scientist Christopher Langton, the term ‘artificial life’ now refers to “The study of man-made system that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural systems. It complements the traditional biological sciences concerned with the analysis of living organisms by attempting to synthesize life-like within computers and other artificial media. By extending the empirical foundation upon which biology is based beyond the carbon-chain life that has evolved on Earth, Artificial Life can contribute to theoretical biology by locating life-as-we-know-it within the larger picture of life-as-it-could-be” . At the same time that the Santa Fe Institute was hosting the workshops on artificial life, Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser raised a question that many artists will soon take at face value: “Why is it that dogs aren’t yet blue with red spots, and that horses don’t yet radiate phosphorescent colors over the nocturnal shadows of the land? Why hasn’t the breeding of animals, still principally an economic concern, moved into the field of esthetics?” .
As a matter of fact the field of contemporary art presents today an increasing number of practices, such as the manipulation of living materials, that merge cutting edge technology with scientific protocols to create new forms of art and life. Yet, the use of biological materials as well as the invention of new living forms modify the aesthetics paradigm of art which then needs to be questioned and reevaluated. Drawing on the rich history of the performance studies, ranging from the live art of theater to installation, this research aims to investigate the possible convergences between the performance arts and the arts of artificial life, with a special emphasis on the notion of theatricality.
Indeed, as for the words ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’, the notion of theatricality has achieved an extraordinary range of meanings that it has been abstracted from the only field of theatre to be applied to various art forms and many aspects of life. In the famous text published in Art Forum in 1967, art historian Michael Fried argued that artworks that exhibit presence effects through relational strategies were theatrical. By enabling new relationships to the bodies and to the space, such artworks acquired a kind of ‘stage presence’. Considering installations in the context of art as a scenic devices, this study aims to reflect upon a scenography – a mise en scène – that translates the way in which the works of art are framed and presented such that it may enable a dramatic reading – a dramaturgy – of the living itself.
Current advances in the field of biology led to the creation of a new research area called synthetic biology that fuses the practice of engineering design with the manipulation of biological systems at the genetic level. Following Langton’s and Flusser’s insights on the possibility of creating life-as-it-could-be, paving the way towards the emergence of an art-as-it-could-be, it is proposed to question the theatricality of these biological and computational artefacts.
In his writings, Michel Foucault used the word dispositive to describe such a conceptual device, an absolute heterogeneous set, made of discursive and non-discursive elements. I argue that it is possible to use these living artworks as potential models for the elaboration of an ‘artificial theater’: an operational theater where the theatrical might be nothing but a conceptual device supporting the dramatization of the works. But also a theater where the artifice, as for the other means of representation, can simply refer back to the techniques employed in the staging of life-like art.
The body of works under consideration in this study, although not limited to it, is inspired by a recent survey from the Leonardo publications on the arts of biotechnologies and artificial life (bioart and a-life art). The neologism Meta-Life refers to new categories of (semi) living entities -artificial, synthetic, transgenic, inorganic- belonging to the arts of a-life and biotechnologies. It could also serve to signal, as indicated by the suffix -meta, the autopoietic attribute of life, its reflexivity, and can eventually be used to separate human gestures (artistic, scientific), distinct from that of evolution.
My dissertation aims at reframing the notion of theatricality in art and artificial life. Of interest to its completion are the relationship between performance, biology and computation (e.g the practice of live coding in dance), the speculative aspects of bio-fiction and bio-design (e.g. utopia and dystopia), their potential use in stage design or as fictional devices, the convening of theatrical aesthetics in artistic’s statements (Tissue Culture & Arts Project, Louis Bec, Orlan…) and so forth. In that regards, it follows the lines of the works currently done by artists and scholars such as Sally Jane Norman, Jens Hauser, Johannes Birringer, or Chris Salter just to name a few.
Some of the questions I will be exploring in my research are: How can these new materials be used on stage, if ever? How can it affect our own representation of theater and the performance arts? How can theater get benefit from the redefinition of life? What does theater has to say about the evolution of life? Can a synthetic or artificial organism be a character of a play? What, in this framework, can be considered as a theatrical action? What could we say about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric theater given the possibility of humans being removed from representation?
The central contribution of this dissertation is the mobilization of theatrical aesthetics and performance studies in the the context of bioart and a-life art by using the notion of theatricality as a conceptual matrix to re-evaluate the paradigm of installation and performance in art-science. It is suggested to question the notion of theatricality as a motif of displacement that also has something to do with the discursive operations of language. Furthermore, with the millennial history of theater, one important question would be to try to understand how the ‘living arts’ are reinventing the boundaries between art and life and may, by means of such technologies, introduce new visions and perceptions of life itself.
 Christopher Langton, Artificial Life: Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems, Addison-Wesley, 1988.
 Vilém Flusser, “Curie’s children”, Art Forum, vol. 27, no. 2, 1988.
 Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, Art Forum, vol. 5, no. 10, 1967.