Wired science

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am

THE DISPARATE worlds of art and science come together in Kathy High's videos and installations. The New York media artist is at the forefront of an emerging trend of exploring scientific topics that was once the domain of white-coated lab technicians.

Now, avant-garde video-makers such as High are bringing a different kind of culture to science experiments and stirring up more than just beakers. Her works have examined such issues as the US health system, medical experimentation, animal testing and bio-genetics.

Now in Hong Kong as artist-in-residence at the Art School, High is hosting a series of workshops and discussions. She's also erected an installation with fellow-American Melissa Dyne at Para/Site called Big Tools/Small Tools.

'There's a camera obscura and a wall is put up with a lens on it,' High says. 'An image from the outside is projected in and within the image is a small LCD monitor showing further detail of that outside image. Melissa and I had wanted to do this for a while. It creates a funny meditative state because the room is dark and your eyes have to adjust to see it.'

This is a work with emphasis on form and technique, unlike most of High's creations, which lean towards politics. An artist since the early 1980s, High has delved into photography and installation. But video is her medium of choice now.

Her works have been shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Inside Out Gay and Lesbian Festival in Toronto, among others.

In 1991, she founded media-arts journal Felix. Over the years, High has been turning her eye towards experimental documentaries. But what was once experimental has become more readily accepted by a public acclimatised to reality TV and music videos.

In 2001, her comic video Animal Attraction, about people communicating telepathically with animals, was aired on US public broadcaster PBS. A more recent video project, Embracing Animal, documents her study of three lab rats genetically modified to be susceptible to illnesses. Instead of taking the animals' lives for experimentation, High raised them on herbal and homeopathic treatments to see how long she could extend their lives.

'I became very interested in issues related to the health-care system in the US,' says High. 'As someone who looks at science as a feminist concern, there are a lot of socio-political issues surrounding technology. Also, there are many women's issues - of us as patients - and how we're treated by doctors.

'Now, people are thinking much more about science issues. Everyone knows about cloning and new reproductive technologies, so it's easier to go off on these subjects. We're moving into an era that's more dominated by scientific experimentation, so it's imperative we engage in this dialogue, too.'

Which, perhaps, begs the question: Is High involved in art or science? Both, apparently. Embracing Animal is inherently a metaphor, too, for the way people are processed in the medical system.

'I'm very interested in having people think about what's done in animal research,' High says. 'Also, I want to try alternative treatments with these animals. It's the same research I'm practising on myself.'

She's not the only person challenging and testing such realms. An artist from a Buffalo-based group, Critical Art Ensemble, was arrested earlier this year as a terrorist suspect by the FBI for possessing DNA-isolating equipment. And SymbioticA is an Australian research laboratory dedicated to the artistic exploration of scientific knowledge.

All of these artists and groups are also lecturers at recognised universities. High is chair of the Video and New Media Department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute near New York City.

'I didn't mean to be a teacher,' she says. 'But because of the funding situation changing in the US, a lot of artists retreated into academia for jobs left and right. The programme [at Rensselaer] is really interesting because it integrates electronic arts. Artists there work with scientists and engineers.

'I think the most interesting works that I try to make, and my friends make, are things that push the edge very hard and are provocative. They also have a certain kind of tension - maybe they'll even make you mad, but sometimes they're the most compelling art.'

That's not to suggest High is an ivory tower snob interested in speaking only to the minority fringe. She's also in the process of making a musical titled The 23 Songs of the Chromosomes.

'I think I've been working on it for 10 years,' she says. 'The script is done and I'm working with a musician. It would be great to get it out widely. The two characters are lesbians who fall in love. I thought if I expanded it to be a musical about science and genetics, people would like it. It'll be political, but people won't recognise it because it's in music.'

Big Tools/Small Tools, Para/Site, 4 Po Yan St, Sheung Wan. Ends Aug 28; Kathy High's Shape Shifters workshop, Goethe-Institut, 14/F, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Sat, 2.30pm; Discussion forums, Aug 13, 20. Inquiries: 2922 2822