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February 16, 2023, 4:00 pm5:00 pm

ACT Cube
MIT Building E15-001
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA

Following the Symbionts exhibition walk-through at MIT List Visual Arts Center, ACT will host a dual book launch and discussion event at The Cube (E15-001) with Caroline A. Jones, Stefan Helmreich, and Sophia Roosth.

What is “Life” in BioArt?

Caroline A. Jones will present briefly on the concept of “biofiction” developed around the practice of artist Anicka Yi, and use this to open out the tense boundary between “living materials,” “dormant materials,” “simulation,” and artistic stasis in the practices (including discourse) of bio-art. She will address the historical “Bio Art” emerging out of computer art in the late 1990s, and discuss the current turn to analogue, entangled, and ambivalently synthetic/symbiotic forms – with specific focus on how the publication Symbionts engaged these concepts via materials and design.  More a conversation than a presentation, Jones may or may not present visual images – themselves biofictional, virtual, and digital “remains” of dynamic and unstable works of art.

“What is life?”

“What is life?” is a question that has haunted the life sciences since Gottfried Treviranus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck independently coined the word “biology” in 1802. The query has titled scores of articles and books, with Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 entry and Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan’s 1995 book being only the most prominent. In this joint talk, science studies scholars Sophia Roosth and Stefan Helmreich, two members of the biogroop editorial collective, discuss their own What Is Life? book (Spector Books, 2022), which curates and speculates upon a collection of first pages of publications from 1829–2020 containing “What Is Life?” in their titles. Replies to the question – and, by extension, the object of biology – have transformed since its first enunciation, from “the sum of the functions that resist death” to “a bioinformation system” to “edible, lovable, lethal.” Roosth and Helmreich will recount how they came to organize their archive of “What is Life?” publications and will discuss how they and their co-editors, anthropologist Natasha Myers and historian Michael Rossi, created the speculative fiction-styled reflections on life that punctuate their book. They will offer meditations on the “exquisite corpse” method of scholarship and also play some sonic and musical works that riff on the What Is Life? question.

Caroline A. Jones

Caroline A. Jones is Professor in the History, Theory, Criticism section of the Department of Architecture, also serving as Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. She studies modern and contemporary art, with a particular focus on its technological modes of production, distribution, and reception, and on its interface with sciences such as physics, neuroscience, and biology. Her essays on modern and contemporary art have appeared in journals ranging from Artforum to Critical Inquiry to Science in Context; she is solo author of several books and exhibition catalogues, and a co-editor of volumes that examine technology and the senses, art and neuroscience, and art history and history of science as parallel inquiries. Collaborative work with historian of science and physicist Peter L. Galison will culminate in a book on scientific and viral images of environmental harm, titled Invisibilities: Seeing and Unseeing the Anthropocene (forthcoming with Zone Books at Princeton University press). Her research has been supported with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Radcliffe Institute, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Max Planck Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, and other foundations interested in interdisciplinary inquiry emerging from art history.  Currently researching biologically-active art forms, she co-curated the exhibition Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere, October 2022, which is accompanied by a publication from MIT Press.

Sophia Roosth

Sophia Roosth is an anthropologist who writes about contemporary life and earth sciences. She is the author of Synthetic: How Life Got Made (2017) and is a Max Planck Society Sabbatical Award Laureate. Her scholarship has been supported by a Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin as well as fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives and teaches in New York City.

Stefan Helmreich

Stefan Helmreich is Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009) and Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (2016). His essays have appeared in Critical InquiryRepresentationsAmerican AnthropologistThe WireCabinet, and Public Culture.