Bodily fluids are all over art again – you'd think it was 1969. There are people making music with blood and filling galleries with the smell of human sweat. But this isn't your mother's blood art. This isn't about cutting yourself in a gallery to draw attention to suffering in Vietnam, or even to "problematize the public/private divide." It's more about how we can use technology to expand our notions of self.
Here are a couple of recent examples: Last December, the Russian musician/artist Dmitry Morozov, who goes by the name ::vtol::, created a rather terrifying blood-powered synthesizer. It was exhibited in Slovenia.
It fills a room with creepy dangling chandeliers of red vials. It works like this: He drew and stored 4.5 litres of his own blood over 18 months. He then diluted the blood and added preservatives, including antibiotics. He found that if he put an aluminum and a copper lozenge into a vial of diluted blood, the electrolytes in the blood would cause an electric current, and he had a battery.
He suspended a bank of these, connected them to a little computer and to a speaker; the batteries power the algorithm and the speaker and make some atonal electronic music. Morozov has done a performance of having his blood drawn live while the music plays, to fully insert himself in the gallery goer's experience.
Meanwhile, in New York, a show is about to open at the Guggenheim: the art of Anicka Yi, which is "olfactory art" created with sweat and other human bacteria samples. She takes the sweat (from various people) then has it analyzed and distilled into chemical compounds, each of which is then reproduced and a perfume is created and pumped into the gallery.
Meanwhile, other bacteria are putrefying in petri dishes to create other unique scents. She recently won the Hugo Boss Prize for an art show for the blind, made up entirely of a scent tour. In the past, she has created her fantastic fragrances by boiling old Teva sandals in recalled powdered milk and by taking swabs of her female friends' bodies and cultivating the bacteria on them until they were smellable.
These two artists have different thematic preoccupations. Morozov has made interesting machines before, involving sound.
His laser-powered synthesizer, exhibited in Moscow in 2016, was large and menacing and loud. He also made a robocall synthesizer: It dials random phone numbers, then plays, to whoever answers, an electronic tune determined by the phone number itself, possibly in an effort to create the world's most annoying instrument.
All these are playful variations on existing technology, but the blood art is attempting something newly ambitious.
Morozov has said he wanted to create a human-powered machine: His own chemistry is here making electronic tones. In a sense, it is a kind of cyborg he has created, but instead of implanting machinery in a human, he has implanted the organic in the machine.
These are not the first artists to use their bodily fluids. Blood in particular has a long history of use in art: Most famously, Marc Quinn had his blood frozen into a bust of his own head, called Self (4.7 litres of blood were used and it is kept frozen electrically). Saddam Hussein had a Koran written with his own blood. Musician Pete Doherty had an art show with paintings splattered with his own blood. It has become a pretty standard material. But uses such as these are rather old-fashioned, offshoots of the "body art" of the 1960s and 70s, forms of self-expression, more about emotional questions than scientific ones.
Bodily secretions do tend to stink up a gallery. In 2000, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye created a huge apparatus that ingested food and used the chemicals we have in our own digestive tracts to "digest" it; it was excreted on a conveyor belt at the other end. I saw the machine up close once and the odour was distinctly lavatorial.
What interests me about the new wave of fluid-exploiting artists is how very interested they are in the latest science. Morozov is at heart a technologist. He enlisted medical personnel to supervise his blood-drawing. Yi described herself to The New York Times as a "techno-sensualist." She employs the latest laboratory technology to analyze and cultivate her secretions. She did a residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were she began working with MIT synthetic biologist and bacteria expert Tal Danino, who helped her stage her 2015 female bacteria show and gives interviews about it.
These are not just exhibitionists. The vogue for heroic self-abuse of the style of Chris Burden (who once shot himself as an art piece) and Ron Athey (who bled in a gallery to address AIDS) or Orlan (repeated plastic surgeries) or Gina Pane (self-cutting with razor blades) or Marina Abramovic (uncomfortable endurance) and other "body artists" is not reflected here.
The contemporary moment reflects a dialogue going on between laboratories and artists in an effort to fully exploit the abilities of both to explore our notions of self, particularly when our notion of self is so confused by our dependence on and reflection in our digital devices.
It is a dialogue that is questioning but also, it seems to me, essentially passionate – a love affair between studios and labs – and in that, one can only see optimism.