Yiannis Melanitis interview to Mario Savini, 2016
Mario Savini is a journalist and art critic. He is editor of Postinterface, a web magazine on digital cultures. He is a PhD student at the University of Teramo (Faculty of Communication Sciences). He is interested in the social aspects of New Media and in the relations between contemporary visual culture and new technologies. He has taught “Net Art” at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome and Macerata and “Digital Applications for Art” at the Academy of Fine Arts in Catania. He has collaborated with “Il Sole 24 Ore”. He is the author of the book “Postinterface. L’evoluzione connettiva e la diffusione del pensiero plurale” published by Pisa University Press. He collaborates with Wired magazine and is a member of SISTUR (Italian Society of Sciences of Tourism) and SLSA (Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts).
1 - What is “Melanitis Leda” and what is the aim of this project?
The Melanitis leda Project is about creating a transgenic model of the Leda Melanitis butterfly (the Common Evening Brown of the Containing group: Melanitini, Linnaeus 1758), using one of my genes (optix gene 6). The concept is to breed transgenic butterflies containing a gene of human origin, which is expected to miss-express a protein in order to acquire ectopic eyes in other parts of its body. The genesis of a hybrid butterfly is an effort to delimit an object (an organism), in relation to the concept that is expressed by its name.
The idea emerged from a study over philosophy, especially on the ideas of Antiphon the Sophist. In reasoning about the relationship of words and objects, Antiphon makes a unique conception, that “nothing real corresponds to the name of an object”, leaving onomatology in the realm of pure chance, while true knowledge becomes inaccessible. Name correctness becomes a key point for Antiphon and should be under survey: “Names can be erroneous… The concepts we use are not delimited by the exact way objects are”. That is the initial point for making LEDA MELANITIS. My surname, Μelanitis, derives from the Greek root melas (μέλας), dark, deprived of light; a property probably attracted Linnaeus in naming the inspected butterfly...
Names, however, contain other meanings, even indicatively (to remember Antisthenes, " knowledge begins by minutely studying names“), so we cannot define a concept without some correspondent, minimum information. The broader area of my analysis is information in contemporary art and under this sense, Leda Melanitis initiates a dispersion of homonymic information between organizations. I am absolutely convinced of the universality of J. Wheeler’s issue on the nature of the information in his statement 'It from bit' 1 and also of the attempt by R. Landauer to re-normalise information, consistently formulating that information is natural. 2
In the conception that information is impersonal, we may juxtapose the value of information as something unique, (here in the form a gene), de-materialised, “what is left” when everything else has been de-signified, precisely natural and interchangeable. The aim of Leda Melanitis is to interweave language and life not as bio-laboratory exercise, but in the tradition of a modernistic art strategy and practice.
1. "Information, physics, quantum: The search for links", 1990.
2. (Physics Today, 1991).
Which characteristics generally emerge from your artistic research?
A little after conceiving Leda Melanitis, i tried to define a neologism: ontogenetic art.
The concept of ontological art was in a broad sence perceived in Aristotle’s course Physics1, in which he raises the question of art, functioning in two ways: The arts, either act on the basis of nature and extend things beyond it (ἐπιτελεῖ), or mimic (μιμεῖται) nature. Ontogenetic change in art theory might also refer to the concept of the organism changing as a whole, used to emphasize on something that affects the organism so intensively as to modify its basic properties. (so might be an ontological change).
By adding information to the core of the natural world we are in a procedure of conceptualizing life. This however has consequences. A cluster of unexpected characteristics emerges in this effort, such as the perception that the body of the artist is a pattern. The term pattern here means a biological condition that is constantly evolving, operating outwards through self-organization, on a basis of biological unpredictability. Thus, what instantly emerged in search of a new artwork, was the need to underscore language, text and the code, as a set of values. That is a systematized set, subject to re-formations, re-programming and "mutations", sensitive in entropy just like the human body is.
My intent is to see all these characteristics as entropic changes of the artistic whole. Artistic ensembles, as I define them, are environmentally spatial-temporal events that have a certain initial amount of entropy (here in the form of disorder), without known outcomes. The purpose of artistic activity may be considered and calculated in relation to the amount of spillage from " normality ".
The artist's intervention, the biologist’s or the experimenter’s generally, make changes to the system’s entropy. This is a critical point in self-organization: if something innovative needs to be done, there is always a cost that may exceed the energy required for a specific artwork. Under this view, we may conceive my gene injection in the butterfly Leda Melanitis as an attempt of transcending the entropy restrictions of a text.
1. (Physics II 8 199a 15-17)
2 – What meaning do you give the word nature?
As a conceptual framework, the term physis (φύσις) that gave birth to nature, is wider. Physis is a point of great misunderstanding and controversy in its definition [Etymology: < ΦΥΩ, ΦΥΟΜΑΙ]. While in Homer the word physis appears just once, in most early uses, the word meant the natural growth without external influence. Physis indicates the process by which the object is what it is. This visualizes an agent, observer or actor on the scene of nature.
There is an inherent problem in a catholic conceptualization of nature, without first enlightening whether nature contains or not the observer. The observer, the philosopher or the artist, embeds additional information in the system, a ballast that is too critical to disregard. By making calculations on nature, feedbacks emerge, tending to be uncontrollable. Yet nobody today may defend a pure, solid idea of nature, since the Pre-Socratic philosophers designated physis ( φύσις) as a kind of mechanism; their ambivalent delineations included ideas of nature without clear boundaries as also ideas ruled by non-measurable quantities, where swerve, unpredictability and uncertainty play a key role in any given changes.
In modern times, the object of art is no longer the idea, pre-existing the work, as in conceptualism, but the artwork is a kind of a phantom measurement, rather unclear in certain of its parameters, perfused and endlessly displaced. Even after adopting this, one should admit that nothing happens or may exist out of nature.
That makes almost impossible to state any definition of nature itself.
Though, the noetic tools of our times are extended and more acute. As I think about the importance of the concept of information, which is impossible to supplant, I would not attempt a discrete definition of nature. I would simply describe nature, ad referendum, as the field that is allowing or not the movement of information.
3 – What type of relationship is being developed among art, science and life?
In a late postmodernist view, philosophical models that had been centered around consciousness, society or signs, can be replaced by information, considered as a physical entity. Without been an easy approach, this position can be approached ontologically with some concrete steps. There are several considerations for ontologically determining information1, mainly in three directions: the information as fact (such as patterns of physical signals, which is neither true nor false), the information relative to reality (semantic information) and information about reality (directives, such as genetic information, algorithms, etc.).
Towards strengthening the aforementioned, we consider that the body moves in a society of information exchanges, where information itself presents organic characteristics: germinates, grows, mutates, and dies. But this death leaves a trace; information never permanently disappears... It is impossible to remove all forms of generated information since the total ballast of information is increasing and no compression is without energy losses.
The ultimate connection point between these three issues would be an artist who manufactures an artifact which has mechanical efficiency and, in a manner of speaking, “saves” his life. As for example Daedalus, father of all sculptors, inventor of statues with reason, voice, movement and utterly, life.
So we turn back to the proto-sculptural icon of the mythical Daedalus, the patriarch of sculpture, of the ingenious idea, of flight, of life blown in inanimate matter... But, to complete the answer to your question, Daedalus lived a hectic life, chased and defamed…
1. Luciano Floridi, The Philosophy of Information, 2011, Oxford University Press, p. 51
Are there still differences?
Absolutely. The more we harmonize to the idea of absolute identification of life, science and art, will commit a teratogenesis like (in other ways excellent) Stockhausen when likened September 11th with the ultimate work of art. I see no conceit in Da Vinci’s writings when he drained his life with regard to the art and science . Why the great Ezra Pound’s obsession with fascism? Why Futurists were trapped in the cult of war ? How Nietzsche lost his sense of logic and came out to conceive the Eternal Return? The artwork tends to be an autonomous creature just after been conceived and realized....
Unfortunately, in this holy trinity of art, science and life, per case, one is deposed. In many circumstances, it is this loss makes an artwork monstrously interesting.
4 – What does “creativity” mean for you?
As today our contexts contain no themes, objects or memories but codifications, what initiates creativity is the realization that we have to encounter only “occurrences” (γεγονότα). Among them, the creative artist acts as an operator and redistributor of information. The importance of information on arts is immense.
Trapping information requires a technique extremely difficult because it prerequisites the deletion of collateral objectives. Moreover, to redistribute the perceived information needs awareness of the parameters of the natural world. The artist does not act as viewer of the occurrences but keeps moreover waiting, lurking for its prey on stage, preparing for the event, or in some cases he prefabricates it, in order to be “inside” it on the right time…As he skulks, he realizes that there he lies, solitary, alone, unable to exceed this energy threshold... This awareness is, I consider, an adequate prerequisite of creativity. Creativity itself is the entropic leap into the void that follows an exhaustive lurking period…
I use a general concept of transformation through information where physis (nature) can be remodeled through human creativity and intellect. The mental process produces the pathways that ideas or matter transform society. Self - transformation, i.e. an organic entity with heightened consciousness, lies at the basis of this hierarchy. This mental strength is what should give the artist a destination, in the sense that moves things towards the future. Actually through art I am drawing a biological chart for the consolidation of human forces.
5 - What way have you tackled the issues related to ethic dimension?
There is no way to judge a behavior as ethical or unethical on the basis of a “natural” standard. Subsequently, nature escapes the equation once again. Plato had realized that… In the platonic sense, seeking fundamental definitions for things, means that we participate in immutable values, static, which would be no hesitation to call ethical. Contrary to common sense that considers ethics to be flexible, they lie in the realm of the unchangeable, the eternal . Contemporary societies use ethics to prevent any uncontrollable exceptions that life produces, in an effort to mark them as unnatural.
Any serious attempt to “modify” life or these by-products, these exceptions of normality, has a political impact. A structured knowledge as a gene sequence may be available not only to the expert scientists but should be under persistent dialectic supervision. This does not mean that we are self-authorized to handle this sensitive data at will. Actually, thoughtful bio-artists will be requested to perfectise and idealize bio-products under a new sociopolitical formula that is currently not even envisioned. A rational bio-artist engages those eternal values of virtue and intellect under critical thinking and judgment. Ethics, as could be described in a modern artistic manual and I understand it fully, is a concept closer to correct judgment, (δίκη) and accordingly, a search for the proper (προσήκον).
Athens- Teramo 2016
special thanks to Matina Papagiannarou for the biolab support and process innovation.