People Power: Art and Bio Ethics

Arriving approximately 1hr late to BioCentre’s The Role of Arts in Democratic Policy Making event, I was none-the-less welcomed by event organisers, kindly shown to my seat and handed the obligatory ‘conference pack.’

On arriving at the National Theatre for this mini-con I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. On the one hand I knew I had a decent understanding and growing interest in the visual art and bioethic space (so I follow the work of Orlan, Marc Quinn, Stelarc and Critical Art Ensemble quite closely), but I also knew that I felt pretty clueless about how this afternoon would play out. What I would ultimately come away with. I’m pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised! The event was great, and attracted a really cross cutting audience.

The first full presentation that I saw was led by Chamu Kuppuswamy who argued for the role of art to inform bioethics policy making. The emphasis of Chamu’s talk exposed the limitations of ‘legal certainty,’ and text based approaches in policy making and voiced the need for more embracing, publicly engaged, dynamic, flexible and international strategy in the development of legal frameworks around issues of bioethics.

Chamu’s main argument was built around her view that current policy making and legal debate across bioethics is misleading. It over values ‘scientific certainty’ she says, in a space where there is little. In doing so it over emphasises the science perspective.

Alongside this awareness of ‘scientific uncertainty,’ Chamu’s view was also driven by a dissatisfaction of broader public engagement in relation to issues of bioethics and debate. In focusing on ‘science fact’ policy makers and lawyers have a worryingly low awareness of the human and moral questions emerging out of bioethics research and activity, she say’s. How well do we really understand the implications of hybrid and cybrid embryology research and use? How do we actually feel about scientific developments in this area as a public, a society and individuals? What’s it like to under go fertility treatment or organ transplantation? How informed am I about issues of cloning? What is the Human Genome Project, and nano technology? And how do they relate to my life? What is bio-terrorism? Who is funding development? And are science communities conducting research and use responsibly? How can I engage with the purpose and meaning of this stuff as an interested individual? How can I effect regulation?…There’s plenty to go on…

For Chamu, the implications of bioethics research and policy making is far too ‘science fact,’ at present. It’s simultaneously disconnected from public debate, social values and personal experience.

As well as ‘scientific certainty,’ Chamu argues that legal and policy communities should also be asking questions and be better informed by human experience (the meaning of what we do, feel and suffer as a result of bio-possibilities), public conscience and personal moralities. So there is a need to both interrogate the broader meaning and implications of ‘science fact,’ in this area, improve public engagement with issues and heighten policy makers awareness of human perspectives and experience. This Chamu suggests, is where the role of art comes in.

Although I absolutely agree with the need for increased questioning, creative exploration and human reference in the development of legal frameworks and policy making in the area of bioethics, it seems an ambitious and tricky plan for ‘art,’ to deliver on its own. Artists, scientists and academics can (and already do) help question and explore issues of bioethics in more human, visual, accessible, socio-political, experiential and visceral ways. The tricky part is improving public access to and engagement with this work.

There isn’t for instance (in my mind), an accessible vocabulary for public audiences to engage with art of this kind. Nor is there a full-time and accessible public space where individuals and smaller stakeholder communities can participate, explore and question issues of bioethics in conversation with scientists and policy makers. Where can I take part in these conversations, bring ideas to the table and feel a greater sense of ownership in the bioethic debate? The most recent art exhibition of this kind that I’m aware in the UK for instance was SK Interfaces at FACT at the beginning of this year. And that was ‘a first.’

In terms of UK organisations that commission and platform artists working across this area, you can probably count them on one hand. They include Arts Catalyst, FACT, SciCult, Wellcome Trust, blip and Dana Centre (ok, well 2 then). Alongside artists and arts organisations for instance, it feels to me that public service broadcasters, newspapers, and other public engagement organisations like Involve and that have access to broader audiences also have a key role to play in public participation in this area. The question is, why don’t they? I’m just not sure there’s an answer to this right now…

Another area of creative practice that has historically and continues to play a huge role in engaging mainstream audiences with questions of science futures is science fiction. The games world (online and console) offers another (and relatively new) way for audiences to engage with and question the implications of science and technology and play out bioethic futures in a ‘safe environment.’ Admittedly, gaps in my knowledge mean that I don’t know much about what’s going on in these areas, experimentally or mainstream wise. But I’d certainly welcome comment and contributions…

So, coming back around to my original question…what did I get out of this BioCentre event…? The answer is a bunch of stuff. I gained a better understanding of ‘uncertainty,’ in the bioethics debate, a refreshed interest in artists exploring this area and a keenness to find out more about what all this stuff means to ‘us people.’


Dr Rob La Frenais (Guest Chair), Curator Arts Catalyst
Dr Andy Miah, Reader in New Media & Bioethics, University of the West of Scotland
Paul Meade, Director and Joint Artistic Director Guana Nua Theatre Company
Justina Robson, Science Fiction Writer

More on the speakers

~ by claire_w on November 9, 2008.

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