The ecological crisis as a source of inspiration
Bioartist and researcher Margherita Pevere talks about biotechnology, the concept of leaky bodies and her new work Wombs, presented at Extravagant Bodies Festival.
FOTO: Sanjin Kaštelan
As a part of the EMAP - European Media Art Platform, and with the productional and curatorial support of KONTEJNER, in 2019 the bio-artist Margherita Pevere had been working on a project that explores the body as a biochemical cyborg.
I met Margherita in mid-August in the mostly empty Zagreb, as she was still working on her project. In the spacious studio at the Academy of Fine Arts, we talked about her research and artistic practice, she showed me the beautiful and unique glassware that was custom-made for this project, and also introduced me to Branko, a slug temporarily living in a terrarium in the studio, whom she had met at a local bar.
Pevere is investigating the materiality and desires of the female body in the framework of the absence of maternity as a physical, ecological and political experience. She is working on a project called Wombs, which explores the interconnection of the leaky materiality of the body, the gesture of taking hormonal contraceptives and its environmental consequences.
Wombs is going to be exhibited as an installation, a custom-made extra-bodily organ that hosts two cell cultures – her own vaginal epithelial cells and slug egg cells – in a hybrid ecosystem.
First of all, how does one get to the point in their artistic career where they are mixing human and slug cells?
I have a visceral attraction to biological matter and combine it critically with (bio)technology because I consider it meaningful for the time we are living in. Wombs is about understanding my own body as biochemically modulated – a "biochemical cyborg" – and is in relation with the environment. The underpinning question is how this relationship unfolds. I am a female human being taking hormonal contraceptives: how do these molecules change the way one can experience her own body not only from a social point of view, but as an organism? What relations to the environment emerge from this experience?
Slugs have become part of the work during the research process. The initial ideas lead to the question how these molecules interact not only with my own "ecosystem", but also with the environment outside of my skin. I looked at the performativity of hormones and learnt how similar molecules trigger the endocrine system of diverse organisms. There is a variety of organisms that have been used either in research of hormones or therapy, such as mice, rabbits or horses (in the production of the medication conjugated equine estrogen, which is used by menopausal women). Also, the Xenopus laevis frog was used for the early pregnancy test because when stimulated by estrogens contained in women's urine, it lays eggs. While doing this cartography, some previous research on gastropods such as slugs and snails caught my attention. Slugs and snails are generally perceived as organisms which are completely alien to us. Whether mammalian sexual hormones are active in gastropods is still not resolved scientifically, although there is some evidence of this, and previous research suggests that in hermaphroditic gastropods different hormones may activate either the female or male part of the reproductive system.
Because of this grey area and the complete difference of slugs to us, I thought it would be a fertile relationship to manifest in an art piece. The exhibit will feature both slug ova cells and my own vaginal cells in a custom-made incubator (a special machine for cell culture) whose shape reminds of a cyborghian extra-bodily organ. Both cell cultures are communicating biochemically by exchanging nutrients. A video and a photographic series completes the installation.
What can you tell us about the process of the residency?
EMAP residency is a wonderful opportunity and I am grateful my project was selected. The piece is part of my practice-based PhD in artistic research at Aalto University in Helsinki. I started with some preliminary research last year at Biofilia Laboratory at Aalto University. To develop the research further and realize the artwork, I needed a biotechnological advisor and production support. When I applied to the EMAP call, I asked artist and biotechnologist Gjino Šutić to advise on the project. Gjino founded UR Institute, an independent research centre in Dubrovnik where I worked for a month last spring.
Gjino and I worked at two levels: part biolab work, and part of artistic research on the narrative of the piece. I collected my own vaginal epithelial cells and observed how they behaved in different growth conditions, such as different reagents mix or culture condition. Then we extracted slug cells from slug eggs. Both cells types will become part of the installation in a custom-made cell incubator. Importantly, we mapped the complex of ideas around contraception, hormones, how they interplay with sexuality and the environment. This included my own individual experience and sexuality, as well as the invisible presence of animals in this field.
I then worked for four weeks in Zagreb in a beautiful studio at the Art Academy. My work here focused mainly on the realization of the installation, but I also continued some lab work at the Zagreb lab of UR Institute. I had the chance to work with very talented people. One of them is Ivanka Pašalić of the association Stakleni svjiet, who helped me distort the scientific glassware that will host the cells in the installation. Another one is sculptor Matija Plavić, who helped me to realize the installation, together with Kontejner staff, of course.
How did the idea for the project develop?
The project spurred from an individual experience and the question how to frame it in today’s environmental discourse. I've been taking hormonal contraception for a few years. This daily gesture is simple, yet significant in a woman's life. It’s a choice of responsibility and self-determination which is today possible thanks to the endeavours, social battle, and scientific experimentation involving people (and animals) who preceded us.
I wondered what happens to the molecules that I intake once my body metabolizes and excretes them. Specifically, I was interested in whether hormonal contraception may be actually a source of pollution when molecules end up in the environment. There is an emerging research field which studies endocrine disruption. It looks at how chemically produced molecules that are used in everyday objects or agriculture mimic the structure of diverse hormones, thus interfering with the endocrine system. Molecules can affect both human bodies, posing health issues, as well as on other organisms, posing environmental challenges. I asked myself whether the molecules I take to negotiate my sexual life could become pollutants or be harmful to other organisms: theoretically they could. From the research we did, it emerges that the amount of hormones that women take (and hormonal therapy in general) is negligible in comparison to hormones used in industrial farming.
During the research I had hugely inspiring conversation on the topic not only with with Gjino and Kontejner’s curators, but also with philosopher Marietta Radomska and my PhD supervisors Prof. Helena Sederholm and Kira O’Reilly, I mapped these areas that are related to the project and refined its core ideas.
To turn things around – if these hormones are not polluting the environment, do you think they are polluting us? In Croatia, the use of hormonal contraception is among the lowest in Europe, because there is this fear that taking it will have a negative impact and somehow disrupt the natural state of your body…
Well, as I mentioned earlier, we should first define "natural'" and "pollution"! Your question tackles a crucial point in the work: What is to be considered "natural" today? Bioart practice has been dealing with the question since the early works of the pioneers of the field.
With regard to hormonal contraception, during the research it emerged that there are divergent views on the topic. But where there is friction, there is space for art to say something. I'll start from my personal experience – which is so far positive. I take a contraceptive pill that is based only on progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone. It doesn't contain estrogen and has a very low dosage of hormones. It also doesn't fake the period like estrogen-based pills do. As I said, my experience is positive, whereas the same friend who suggested this pill to me eventually couldn't stand it. Bodies are different, so I can't answer for everybody: It's important that one finds what is comfortable for her / for him.
You talk about the concept of leaky bodies in relation to your work, can you tell us more about it?
The feminist idea of leaky bodies crucially reminds us that our bodies don't end at the skin. There is an inherent flow or openness that is uncontrollable – I'm not talking here only about female bodies. If there is something that leaks, it cannot be controlled. The idea that bodies are leaky and uncontainable unboxes the common understanding of bodies and life itself as something that can be ordered, categorized, aligned with productivity framed in clearly enclosed concepts. We live in an age of great transformations and face huge challenges (just think of climate change or bioethics). We need to rethink our fundamental concepts from bottom up.
Are you worried or excited about the direction in which biotechnology is developing?
I'm critical towards it, I'm not a techno-fetishist at all. I'm hugely fascinated by having access to biotechnology for my work, as the whole research process of Wombs shows. In general, understanding the performativity of biological matter not only from an ecological perspective, but also through biotechnology has been an illuminating process for my practice. It yields a huge imagination potential, but it has to be critical. Most importantly, artists have to be critical towards it.
What role does the environmental crisis play in your work?
It is a constant, crucial underpinning reflection, although I do not address it openly in all my pieces. I've been dealing with the topic for 15 years; before starting my artistic endeavours, I graduated in political science with a focus on environment. The debated hockey stick graph, which shows that the rising of global temperature is linked to the use of fossil fuels, has been out there for almost 20 years. The Kyoto Protocol was signed in the early 90s. Environmental disruption, and climate change as part of it, is a complex phenomenon linked to economic areas with huge corporation interests, but also to the production and use of common objects such as smartphones. That’s why it is so hard to tackle despite decades of research international diplomacy. Perhaps we can't all see the effects in our immediate surroundings yet, but polar ice melting will affect everyone. It may sound creepy to say so, but the scale of the phenomenon and the transformation it triggers, how organisms react to it, is an unavoidable source of inspiration and reflection for me.
I'm now working with Marco Donnarumma on a theatre piece called Humane Methods that tackles environmental disruption as a form of violence. The piece will be premiered at Romaeuropa Festival in Rome next October.
Do you think humans will adapt to these changing conditions? Or just the rich will survive?
No, I think artists will survive! They always adapt to survive in tough situations and come up with possible solutions. Talking seriously, climate change is unfair and will exacerbate social differences. But we, as a species, might come up with novel ways of living together… I hope. I wish I could say we'll change things in time, but I'm not sure.