Interviews

"I'd like to see digital art on the same level as other established art forms"

 Erich Berger, the director of the Bioart Society

Erich Berger

10/06/2021
Teresa Bau
Erich Berger, the director of the Bioart Society

 

Erich Berger is a Finnish digital artist and curator, and the director of the Bioart Society. He explores and works at the intersection of art and science, and fosters interaction between these two worlds, with the objective of art addressing the world's complexities. Berger has recently taken part in a round table discussion on art and science in the pandemic organized by Hac Te, the Barcelona art, science and technology hub created by the UOC—through Pau Alsina of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities as its coordinator—and eight other institutions.

What is your professional experience and academic background?

My background is in Engineering and Philosophy. I started working as an artist in the 1990s, and then as an exhibition curator soon afterwards. Now, in my job as director of the Bioart Society in Helsinki, I also see myself as a cultural worker who creates opportunities for others. My roots are in digital art, and I am interested in how the transformational power of technology and science has spread to the field of biology.

What is the Bioart Society's mission, and what are your goals as director of the organization?

The Bioart Society aims to promote critical transdisciplinary work between art and science. On the scientific side, we focus on biology, ecology and the life sciences, as well as the post-humanities. We want to leave the artistic part as open as possible. In other words, although we are interested in approaches that use biology and living matter as material in their work, we do not insist upon it. When different disciplines work together, they take on new qualities that transform them.

We have been strongly committed to fieldwork from the outset, especially with our work with the University of Helsinki's Kilpisjaervi biological station, which has been our scientific partner since early 2008. We organize our Ars Bioarctica artist-in-residence programme at the station, and we also have field labs where artists carry out art and science projects.

Can you give me some examples of work at the intersection of science and art? What do you think these types of projects can bring to the world of traditional art?

I really like projects that come from networks which we are a member of, such as Symbiotics, Kershnikova, Art Laboratory Berlin and Hacteria. For me, the question is what art can contribute to the world or to science. I want this kind of art to address the complexities of the world, and not to create oversimplifications or moral statements. It is important that we share our experiences, so that more traditional institutions can present this type of work. This year the Bioart Society has published a book entitled "Art as We Don’t Know It." The title refers to the end in itself, but also to the exciting approach involved in what we are doing.

As an artist, can you do science? And can scientists produce art?

Knowledge creation practices are divided into categories today, and they can only take place within the institutional framework of academia. We need to end the academization of the production of knowledge. The writing is on the wall, especially in the fields of biology and DIY (do-it-yourself) biology and with regard to biohackers and TransHackFeminists. Doctorates and the academization of art also have a counterproductive effect on artistic practice, generating pressure to publish articles and apply for research grants rather than explore the entire artistic spectrum.

Art and science are creative practices that explore the world through essential processes and questions… They are very closely linked. But science looks at the world from a narrow angle, and comes down to producing objective facts, while art relates to the world as a whole. The best way for artists and scientists to work together fruitfully begins with mutual respect and professionalism.

What do you think of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) as works of art? Are they a bubble that will burst at some point?

I haven't kept up with the NFT craze, but looking at who the people involved are—and who have garnered headlines in the press—I think that speaks for itself. NFTs are part of the commodification that surrounds everything. Having said that, I think that, like any other technology, it needs to be explored and examined by artists, but not only in the intentional aspect, but also in its unintentional or hidden aspects. This technology is able to feed capitalism as a tool, as it creates bubbles, or in other words, it creates money out of nothing. That's how blockchain technology is presented to us. But there's more to it than that.

Can you imagine a future in which all artists work with technologies? Will traditional art as we know it today be replaced by digital art?

Most contemporary artists already use digital technologies, even if the result does not have a digital format. I assume that by traditional art you mean painting, analogue photography, sculpture, and so on. I wouldn't want that kind of art to become obsolete, because it has proven to be an extremely valuable form of human expression. We'd lose a great deal… We shouldn't think of the digital format as a medium that can reproduce everything, but instead we should find what is unique about it. I'd like to see digital art on the same level as other established art forms—not in terms of the market, but in terms of its ability to produce art.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We're working on several multi-year programmes at the Bioart Society. We've just finished FeralLabs, in which we were part of a network that explored fieldwork and work in the lab. We're in the middle of the Biofriction project, in which Hangar Barcelona is the partner leading the project. And we've just started Art4Med, which lies at the intersection of art, health and biomedical research, and the ArcHIVE programme, which is a collaborative digital platform focusing on biomedia. They are both funded by Creative Europe and enable us to work with a fantastic group of colleagues. We are also leading two collaborations with Scandinavian countries: m/other becomings, a post-human analysis of motherhood, and STATE OF THE ART NETWORK, a large organization that includes artists and professionals looking for ways to deal with the effects of the Anthropocene. These projects will keep us busy for two years, and will lead to artistic productions, exhibitions, conferences, field laboratories, workshops, residencies and plenty more.

You can follow our programmes on our website at http://bioartsociety.fi and subscribe to our newsletter, as well as following us on social media.