Report on an event mixing art and politics.
Gene Genies by Tom Jennings
A fascinating presentation and debate around genetic modification was held on 2nd April at the CCA, Glasgow in the midst of the collectively self-controlled chaos of the RISK art exhibition. Present were Carey Coombs from the Soil Association lambasting the patently despicable multinational copyrighting of genetic material (thus outlawing farming mutual aid such as seed sharing); and Susan Bardocz and Arpad Pusztai – sacked in 1998 from the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen for speaking publicly about findings of damaged growth and immune systems in rats fed GM food – on the political restrictions imposed on researchers. Also detailed was the arrest and prosecution of CAE’s (Critical Art Ensemble) Steven Kurtz for possession of harmless common bacteria and an over-the-counter device altered to detect the presence of GMified cells. His emergency phone call (after his wife had just died) – was answered by a SWAT team who confiscated his gear (and her body). The Fed retreated from their trumped-up bioterrorism charges to mail and wire fraud (maximum 20-year stretch). You couldn’t make it up … At least the CAE support campaign has heightened awareness of anti-terrorism laws used to harass artists and restrict public discourse.1
The CCA debate – with CAE’s Free Range Grain banners in the background – started from the best ultra-scientific guesses (little meaningful research having been commissioned) on likely effects of GM: growth promoters accelerating cancer progression; antibiotic resistance and allergies mushrooming; interrupting the sequence of gene functioning causing multiple and catastrophic organ and developmental failure, etc, etc. This is all bewilderingly complex as science, let alone common sense; but genetic control basically operates by switching key chemical processes on and off – which are usually implicated in many bodily processes simultaneously, not just the one you’re modifying (a far cry from the triumphalist one-gene one-cure balderdash peddled by education, the media, and corporate interests). A heartening variety of tactics for contestation and levels of attack were then illustrated, including those mobilising the artistic and cultural – rather than merely the traditional agitational – imagination. We need these things in our (political) lives.
In general the RISK programme has offered immense free-range food for thought – not least on artistic activity itself away from the usual snooty careerist middle class networks. Likewise, government definitions of the role of arts in ‘social inclusion’ never engage with the real politics of power. This project manages to do that, and more, in the realms of direct action, protest and political change – with some success in terms of genuine participation.
Regrettably though, when it comes to science, the development of fully-rounded grass-roots mobilisation is often hamstrung by entire schools of red herrings (e.g. rationalism vs. mysticism or primitivism, as in recent debate in Freedom). And, fair enough, some folks are partial to herrings. But if rationality can only solve problems when its limits are acknowledged,2 then letting elites decide what those limits are will be suicidal politically (maybe even literally). And if creativity and passion are just as important as brains, credit goes to RISK for getting to grips with all such good stuff. Some wisdom just can’t be put back in the bottle.
1. also a convenient excuse for blind sweeps on poor inner city neighbourhoods, deporting tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees (terrorists found = 0): see, e.g. Alisa Solomon, ‘The War on Immigrants’, Mute 29, pp.8-9, 2005.
2. see Mike Michael’s excellent ‘The Power-Persuasion-Identity Nexus: Anarchism and Actor Networks’, Anarchist Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp.25-42, 1994.
Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: