The Grain, The Snail and The Artist: An examination of transformations in contemporary agriculture through current visual arts practice

I am pleased to announce that my exegesis titled The Grain, the Snail and the Artist: Transformations in Current Visual Arts Practice through Engagement with Contemporary Agriculture will shortly be available on La Trobe University’s Thesis Online. If you are interested in buying a hard copy let me know, as I am hoping to have more printed in the near future.

Image: Belinda Eckermann, The Grain the Snail and the Artist, bound exegesis.

Belinda Eckermann, The Grain the Snail and the Artist, bound exegesis.

Abstract

The Grain, The Snail and The Artist: An examination of transformations in contemporary agriculture through current visual arts practice.

Manipulation, transformation and consumption are paramount to contemporary agricultural and arts practice through biotechnological enquiry. Using an expanded concept of drawing, I employ natural and artificial materials to explore transformations and biological processes. Using various methodological approaches, these drawings are a narrative of human experience analogous to scientific manipulation of biological organisms. Positioned within a culture of uncertainty related to cropping and food production, I have utilized site specific installations to encourage social engagement through sensorial experience. The snail enters my work and operates as a metaphor for transformation and manipulation of nature, and as an active agent in the production of my artworks.

This work was informed by artists Elaine Shemilt, Alexis Rockman, Sean Caulfield, Xavier Cortada, Eduardo Kac, Ooron Catts and Ionatt Zurr, Philip Beasley, Eleanor Gates-Stuart, Lyndal Osborne, and Jeff Schmuki.

Introduction

My art examines transformation and manipulation in agriculture as instigated by the inception of biotechnologies. Through theories of evolution, selection and societal constructs, my work explores how biotechnologies can be utilised for art purposes and to explore issues associated with its introduction into grain cultivation and production. Through the manipulation of biological materials I contribute to discourse surrounding biological technologies by exploring ways in which these materials can be mutated, transformed, or multiplied to emerge as drawings which respond to the agricultural environment.

The driving question behind my research was ‘How can artistic processes explore biological transformations in agriculture through an expanded idea of drawing?’ I explored this through ideas of transformation using expanded drawing mediums including shadows, rice, grains, flour, snails, bleach, salt and projections. I used methodologies which incorporate forms of transformation in my application of the materials and my processes of data collection and use of this information. These methodologies were selected and used to mimic the manner in which scientists conduct their own investigations.

Background research to this work was gathered through on-site research and photography, electron microscopes, discussions with agronomists, visiting a Warooka farm on the Yorke Peninsula, and attending the Synapse Canberra Symposium, the Sydney Biennale and the Melbourne Art Expo. All of these avenues contributed to my research.

Chapter one examines the history of evolutionary thought and how artists have used biotechnologies to explore these thoughts. From Darwin’s theory of natural selection to Edward Streichen and George Gessert’s hybridisation of flowers, I scrutinise humankind’s search for perfection, knowledge and truth with reference to Plato. This is presented through the introduction of biotechnologies to society and an accompanying reluctance to accept change. From here I discuss the privatisation of the grain industry followed by Marxist views on social change and the challenge to re-empower society through the work of the Critical Art Ensemble.

Chapter two discusses how biotechnologies have captured the interest of artists and inspired them to participate in discourse and increase collaborative work with scientists, eroding boundaries between the disciplines and instigating new research – informed through the work of Elaine Shemilt and the Scottish Crop Research Institute. Furthermore I discuss ways in which artists have used ideas of biotechnology in their work from metaphors and DNA essentialism to scientific imagery and chimerical beings. I also refer to Marcel Duchamp’s annihilation of the art medium and the new living and semi-living art of genetic transformations. These areas discuss the work of artists Xavier Cortada, Sean Caulfield, Patricia Piccinini, Alexis Rockman, Eduardo Kac, Ooron Catts and Ionatt Zurr and Philip Beasley. I also introduce how I began to explore some of these ideas through my drawing.

In Chapter three I introduce the proclamation of a forthcoming food famine and suggestions how biotechnologies could assist in preventing this. I discuss seed storage and specifically the work of Lyndal Osborne and her contrast of historical seeds with transforming, futuristic varieties. Food security and sustainability is further explored through natural and built environments and the spaces used by Jeff Schmuki. I then consider the work of Eleanor Gates-Stuart and her use of scientific equipment and information in reference to my own methods of working. I explain my methodologies for image collection and how I use the images to develop my drawing and visually discuss society, farming practices and concerns which biotechnologies raise in the agricultural sector.

Through Chapter four I explore how genetically modified organisms are perceived as unfamiliar interruptions to evolution referencing what Simon O’Sullivan termed ruptured encounters. Based on Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome, I use this notion to discuss how our habitual modes of thinking could be changed through art. I examine how these ideas were executed by placing my work in fields in the format of a crop drive, exploring ideas of production, consumption, and secrecy through modes of expanded drawing and spherification techniques inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s feasts and the petri dish art of Klari Reis. Futuristic ideals related to cropping are discussed through light works and silo projections referencing Beaudrillard’s notion of the Simulacra.

Chapter five introduces and explores an intensive change of direction following the conclusion of the crop drive; the use of snails as my medium and as a metaphor for transformation. I begin by discussing the use of pests as medium in contemporary art, and then relate the frequent use of snails as a metaphor throughout art history. I discuss variations within the snail species and in particular their behaviour in crops, referencing the use of genetically modified BT cotton to eradicate the bollworm and reapplying this idea to my snails in art. I discuss my methodologies with the snails and the transformations the snails make to my paper. I refer to my trip to Warooka and the devastating impact snails are having on agriculture there, and then return to Rainbow where I collect and count snails to determine the extent of the problem locally to construct a visual journey of transformation in an expanded idea of drawing.

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