Hege Tapio was the first artist in Norway to define herself as a bioartist, and to spread the idea about bioart to other artists through hosting masterclasses. Her practice stretches across 20 years, and throughout this period she has single-handedly run i/o/lab Centre for Future Art in Stavanger. With the establishment of NOBA – Norwegian Bioart Arena, Tapio has moved her practice into our larger institutional context, and continues combining her artistic practice with working as a curator and organizer of events at NOBA.
Bioart is a collective term for arts practices that draw upon methods, topics and technologies from the life sciences in creating artworks that are sometimes literally alive. Tapio is today one of the central forces at NOBA – Norwegian Bioart Arena, having been enlisted early on as guest artist and curator. She formally started in that capacity in January 2020, but had already been part of the conceptualization of the vision of NOBA since its start in 2018.
Art and technology: i/o/lab Centre for Future Art
Like many artists who have been active in this art form, Tapio started out with an interest in the connections between art and technology which was established during her studies for a BFA and MFA in artistic photography at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design. This was also where she first heard about bioart, when Joe Davis’s artwork Microvenus (1986) was discussed. In Microvenus, Davis created a genetically engineered living icon, a binary graphic code that looked like the Germanic rune for life and the female earth, often seen as a representation of the female genitalia. This code was synthetically made into DNA code and introduced into e.coli bacteria. As an artwork, it was thus invisible to the naked eye, but conceptually iconic. This left Tapio with a strong sense of fascination and curiosity: at that time the realization of DNA – the codes of life connected with computers working with code was still new to her, and to realise that there was an artist who had used codes to work with living materials had an enormous impact on her. The idea for i/o/lab as a centre at the intersection of art and technology grew forth as she realised there were initiatives for this kind of art in Bergen, Trondheim and Oslo, but nothing yet in her hometown of Stavanger. So in 2001 she founded the centre as a basis for the projects she wanted to see happen there: collaborative projects, exhibitions and events.
Article Biennial for Electronic and Unstable Art: the start of bioart in Norway
Since i/o/lab is a centre without a permanent exhibition venue attached to it, a lot of Tapio’s curatorial and organizational activity was channelled through specific event programs. The largest of these were Public Art Screens and, most specifically connected to bioart, the Article Biennial for Electronic and Unstable Art. The first iteration of the Article Biennial took place in 2006, with events in the streets and squares of Stavanger. The choice to place the biennial fully in the public space brought lots of challenges, but Tapio states that “it was exciting to get so close to people and promote the art in the public space”. Article aimed to capture the role of technology in society and presented artworks that invited reflection around the opportunities technology affords, and how it affects our everyday lives. The “unstable” in the biennial title refers “to art that does not have a fixed frame of reference, does not have a home”, Tapio explains, ephemeral, time-based pieces and experimental installations rather than art that you hang on a wall. That first year already included an artwork with a living element: Laura Beloff’s wearable artwork The Fruitfly Farm included fruit flies, that members of the audience could borrow and try to keep alive.
The reactions to the art projects were often astonishment, sometimes confusion, but also excitement and enthusiasm. Since the works were presented in the public space, they met people who would not normally visit art galleries, establishing dialogue with new audiences about topical issues.
In 2008 the next iteration of Article included the first Norwegian Biological Art Masterclass, organised in collaboration with the Australian artistic research centre SymbioticA and the University of Stavanger (UiS). At SymbioticA, the world’s first Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts, they had already been developing this approach for a decade, and SymbioticA director Oron Catts delivered the Norwegian Masterclass as one in a series of such intensive introductory courses. Over five days a group of ten-fifteen Norwegian and European artists learned basic biology techniques in one of the laboratories at UiS.
The knowledge of what opportunities and challenges biotechnology opens up was shared through basic introductions into how to work in a laboratory, how to keep living cells from animals and plants alive in the laboratory, and how to do sterile work to avoid contaminating a culture (for instance bacteria and fungi getting into a colony of cells). This quite broad introduction was supplied by lectures on art projects made through living materials, and how to relate ethically as an artist to working with such materials, which made for many good discussions. Such introductions are still an important forum for artists who want to work with living materials, and at NOBA today Tapio collaborates with biohacker and artist Roland van Dierendonck in offering a range of such workshops.
Tapio sees the vocabulary and basic knowledge gained through introductory bioart workshops as important in giving a foundation for artists to work with scientists. If an artist wants to develop a project in biological media, understanding what is possible is a basic prerequisite, and dialogue with scientists and lab technicians can be vital in realising a project idea. She stresses that a shared understanding of a problem can be key in order to gain access to the scientists’ time and resources, and getting them to see an interesting challenge in the artist’s idea. The dialogue she herself had established with UiS years before the 2008 Masterclass was the reason why they “let a whole bunch of artists in, making it possible to host the workshop there”, as she says, laughter in her voice. There is no doubt that she is serious about this work, however, and she stresses how, in awakening that sense of curiosity among the scientists, an artist’s input can open up new perspectives. In her experience, the path towards establishing a good dialogue and sense of trust is long, but very much worth the effort. She has herself benefitted from fruitful discussions with scientists, and when introducing her artist colleagues to scientists she knows, they have sometimes been “flabbergasted” by the ideas, but also found it hugely exciting how artists can work and think.
Art, Science and Cocktails
Tapio’s commitment to communicating between fields is clear in many of her projects. She has a knack for finding that common ground, and for conveying ideas across fields in ways that emphasise the exciting nature of the idea, so that its foreignness does not come across as intimidating. One of the more recent event series that does this well is Art, Science and Cocktails. These events are evenings of short talks by artists and researchers from various fields, always in an informal atmosphere and featuring some signature cocktails with an artistic spin (a “love potion” was a particular hit), and have been a great success. Often, the perspectives of the artists and researchers “complement each other”, she observes, although they work from their particular standpoint, hearing them speak in a shared context makes it clear that there are also many shared topics and issues, and that combining these perspectives can lead to exciting new ideas.
ArtMeatFlesh and the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy
Later instances of the Article Biennial were held in various indoor spaces, but kept the experimental angle. At the 2012 Article, Tapio again invited SymbioticA’s Oron Catts, this time with the artistic cooking competition ArtMeatFlesh, loosely inspired by the TV show Iron Chef and its unveiling of a secret ingredient for every episode.
Catts worked, in this event series, with Cathrine Kramer and Zack Denfeld, founders of the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG). Coincidentally, at present Tapio is working with Kramer and Denfeld again, as NOBA is hosting a retrospective exhibition of the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy at Ås in the fall of 2021. CGG has worked a lot with experimental and playful approaches to food and ecology. In ArtMeatFlesh, Kramer and Denfeld were on opposing teams, each joined by a researcher and a chef, and developed five-course menus reflecting on what meat will be like in the future. The audience got to sample all the dishes, which included vegan meatballs (very tasty) and pizzas made with cheese spread from tubes (not good).
One dish from each team had to include the secret ingredient unveiled by “competition host” Catts. The ingredient was fetal bovine serum, a nutrient used in growing animal cells in the lab. This substance is drawn from unborn calves as a side-product of butchered cows, and shows how even meat grown in a laboratory, which is often presented these days as an ethical alternative to meat that we get from butchering animals, is not actually “victimless”. The dishes that were made with the serum had a bitter aftertaste. This is one of the ways, Tapio stresses, that art can present a critical perspective on technology in society: lifting forth biotechnology processes and what they mean for ethical consumption. For Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, this is done through looking into food traditions, how culture is affected and transforms over time, changing what food we eat and how we think about it.
In the artwork HUMANFUEL (2016) Tapio seized onto a topical global challenge with a particular local imprint: her hometown of Stavanger, located on the west coast, is known as the “oil capital” of the oil nation of Norway, which means that the question of how to transition to a future after the end of the oil era is especially present. What energy sources will then be available to us? Tapio sees a paradox in how many of us want to show our engagement in the climate and environmental issues, but at the same time we are creatures of comfort, we want our luxuries. She started thinking about the transition from oil through her involvement in a project on biofuels, where both animal and plant products were considered. Then she came across a small note in a newspaper about a plastic surgeon who had lost his job because he claimed to have used the fat from his patients to fuel his car. This combination of the energy crisis and the obesity pandemic of the Western world spurred her imagination. The surgeon since seemed to have disappeared. Tapio thought, “he has to have gone somewhere”, and developed the story on her own: she created a fictive company called Lipotecnica, located in Lithuania, which claimed to do the same thing, making car fuel from human liposuction fat.
Next, she was challenged by the curator for Hybrid Matters, a big art and science program that organised events and exhibitions across the Nordic countries, to make the human fuel herself. Knowing it was technically possible, she took her time in thinking about how and whether to proceed. Acutely aware of the strong ethical implications of breaching a body, she would not have been comfortable asking for fat from anyone else; she had to draw on her own body. She found a plastic surgeon who was willing to harvest her belly fat for this purpose, and again got help from researchers at the University of Stavanger in using their lab and learning how to transform her fat into biodiesel.
When exhibiting HUMANFUEL, Tapio has shown the fat at various stages of development alongside a nitro powered minicar. It was tested, and actually works, but of course, the fuel gotten from one round of liposuction would not get you very far. “The piece started some good discussions”, she states, “around how do we view ecology, how do we perceive ourselves in the larger scope of things?” The operation is also painful, and when Tapio gets offers from audience members wanting to donate their own body fat to make biofuel, she emphasises this, telling them to “go ahead, if you want to inflict such pain on yourself”.
The reactions were quite varied, some seizing onto other dimensions of the piece such as the body image entailed in liposuction, where the artist was also made skinnier through the procedure, conforming to contemporary norms where “thin=beautiful”, which she felt it important to discuss with her teenage daughters before going through with the project. Another aspect which she had not been aware of herself was the reaction of Jewish audience members, Tapio believe that her reaction referred to “what I won’t call a story”, she says, “I believe I have found enough evidence that this actually happened: the Holocaust practice of using the body fat of Jewish concentration camp victims to make soap”. Beyond this eerie association, any use of human material is itself controversial for many, breaching the boundary that is the human skin. Whereas we feel quite comfortable with (or at least comfortable ignoring) the use of plant, animal and inanimate materials from our environment, using human materials brings forth a strong sense of discomfort.
Humanoil and Black Gold
Tapio has continued working with the idea of human fats, and became increasingly interested in what happens when fat is converted into oil. For this new project, which had its world premiere at NOBA as part of the Ars Electronica program 2020, Tapio harvested another round of fat from her body, focusing on the many dimensions of the concept of “oil”. The starting point of the project in black oil, the petroleum which has made Norway wealthy, is still present, but she also thought about other dimensions such as sacred oils, found in many religious rituals, and oils used for healing and for magic. In the performance video Humanoil she offers the oil of her body to a circle of volunteers as a healing ritual. Anointing the forehead of each participant with her human oil, she encourages the audience to change their frame of mind through receiving this ritual, and thus change their way of living. This is essential in moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
In parallel with this project, Tapio also went into a collaborative project with artists Mark Lipton and Marta de Menezes. This piece, Black Gold, started from Lipton getting the message that he had crystals in his urine. The three artists connected this conceptually to Tapio’s work with human fat, in discussions about what we value and what we find disgusting. Urine as a body liquid is generally viewed today with some aversion, but has a long history as a useful substance. Historically, Tapio reminds us, urine was used in the tanning of hides, and there was even a urine tax where the liquid was collected for tanning purposes. It has been used for fertility treatments, as fertilizer of plants, and in colouring textiles. A researcher also extracted phosphorus from large quantities of urine, a process similar in its refinement process to what the three artists did for Black Gold: they distilled 700 ml of urine into a small quantity of black viscous liquid, resembling the more familiar “black gold” of petroleum. Together, these projects are examples of what Tapio calls self-mining, artists drawing on their own bodies in the creation of their art, which she sees an increasing tendency towards since the 1970s.
Questioning the transhumanist vision
Connected to her interest in the human body and technology, Tapio has long felt a strong curiosity towards the philosophy of transhumanism, which argues that the human body and mind can be improved through technology and enhancement into a stronger, fitter version. She finds the transhumanist vision that we will ultimately transgress what we today consider human in achieving immortality, superhuman intelligence and new abilities, quite problematic and therefore fascinating. With the debate around CRISPR technology, which emerged with a bang around 2015 and promised to revolutionise biotechnology through providing a quicker, easier way to genetically modify all sorts of organisms, this interest took further hold.
In 2018, a boundary was broken when Chinese researcher He Jianku announced his team had successfully used CRISPR to modify human embryos. Two healthy babies were born from the experiment, involving a healthy mother and an HIV-infected father. The announcement of the twin babies, known by their nicknames Lulu and Nana, caused a huge uproar in the scientific community, since there is not enough knowledge about how the genetic changes made would change the babies, and the Chinese researchers were prosecuted for unethical conduct. Tapio was inspired by this ethically fraught incident into thinking about donating her own eggs to artist colleagues, asking them to do with them as they like. The project stranded as she decided against exposing her body to such a procedure. As she remarks, “I have gotten to an age where there are limits to what I want to put my body through”.
Tapio recently started a PhD in artistic research within the project FeLT, Futures of Living Technologies at Oslo Metropolitan University. Here she is exploring emotion technology, meaning research that measures human emotions. This inspires a lot of commercial interest, which to her is a point of concern. “Do you really want your emotions to be registered and perhaps put to commercial use?” At the same time, she thinks the question of how to preserve the human, and humanise technology, is super pertinent for this and other technologies.
Over the past 20 years, Tapio has been on a journey from a fascination with technology and how it can be used for art, towards an increasing concern with how technology affects us as human beings and the path we are currently on. “Do we want to go in the direction we are going, or is it time to think about how we are setting ourselves up for the future?” she asks. The market interests that constantly offer us visions and dreams of how much better everything will be with new technology trouble her. “I am not a luddite”, she says, “I think technology is great in many ways, but it comes at the expense of something. And preserving our humanity, and considering our vulnerability, will be more and more important going forward”. This is central to the project Caring Futures at UiS, which focuses on care technology and how it is used in situations where people are extra vulnerable. Tapio’s part in the project includes responsibility for creating an exhibition in 2022.
Beyond the UiS project, the idea of caring for the future is clearly central to Tapio’s practice, and also to what we are seeking to achieve at NOBA. As Tapio stresses, NOBA as the first permanent bioart arena in Norway aims to encourage Norwegian artists to get more involved in bioart, in a broad sense of the term, resulting in more art that works with the living world. This is important to NOBA’s vision of bioart: it is as much about ecology as it is about laboratory biology, and the aim is not necessarily to have artists working with the most high-tech methods and using living matter as material. What NOBA seeks to achieve is a critical attitude that encourages debate about the living world and technology. This requires a certain discourse, Tapio stresses, which “has been established internationally for years already, and it is about time we establish it here in Norway”. This critical discourse is not necessarily negative to technology, but involves entering into the issues we are currently seeing. Art can be vital to this discourse in offering other solutions, scenarios and imaginations, and presenting a counter-balance to market interests.