John Cage was not a bio-artist in the same sense as many of the artists that we have been discussing in this class. He was, however, passionate about bridging the perceptual gap between art and science or, perhaps more accurately, between "art" and "life." His aesthetic philosophies and techniques have greatly influenced my artwork. The techniques I used for this class--photographing yeast, then creating music using those photographs-- was inspired in part by Cage's compositional use of star charts and his interest in mushrooms. I feel that his ideas about chance, silence, and activity that is not our own speak directly to the kinds of work that many artists are doing with non-human biological bodies today.
Cage was invited by C.H. Waddington to speak at a symposium entitled, "Biology and the History of the Future" sponsored by the International Union of Biological Sciences in an attempt to "promote reciprocity between the arts and sciences." His contributions to the symposium were edited by Waddington and published by Edinburgh University Press in 1972. Since these materials are not readily accessible online, I thought that some of the ideas Cage presented at that symposium might be useful/interesting/inspiring:
"I think that the present way of deciding whether something is useful as art is to ask whether it is interrupted by the actions of others, or whether it is fluent with the actions of others. What I have been saying is an extension of these notions out of the field of the material of the arts into what you might call the material of society. If, for instance, you made a structure of society that would be interrupted by the actions of people who were not in it, then it would not be the proper structure."
"So I want to give up the traditional view that art is a means of self-expression for the view that art is a means of self-alteration, and what it alters is mind, and mind is in the world and is a social fact...We will change beautifully if we accept uncertainties of change; and this should affect any planning. This is value."
"When I first began to work on 'chance operations,' i had the musical values of the twentieth century. That is, two tones should (in the twentieth century) be seconds and sevenths, the octaves being dull and old-fashioned. But when I wrote The Music of Changes, derived by chance operations from the I Ching, I had ideas in my head as to what would happen in working out this process (which took about nine months). They didn't happen! --things happened that were not stylish to happen, such as fifths and octaves. But I accepted them, admitting I was 'not in charge' but was 'ready to be changed' by what I was doing."
"After...[the symposium]...he had convened in Mexico, which included the avant-garde composer John Cage, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and the Swedish biologist Gunther Stent, Waddington received from the latter a letter saying:
'Since John Cage had pointed out to me the analogy between the genetic code and
the I Ching, I have looked into this matter a little more. To my
amazement I found that the 'natural' order of the I Ching hexgrams
generates a table of nucleotide triplet codons which shows the same inter-codon
generic relations in Cricks' table!'
"Progress may be the idea of dominating nature. But in the arts, it may be listening to nature. In the forties, I conceived of a piece with no sounds in it, but I thought it would be incomprehensible in the European context. Five years later, I was inspired to do it by seeing the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--one of which was a canvas with no paint on it. Charles Ives wrote a romantic essay about sitting in a rocking chair, on the front porch, looking out toward the mountains, "listening to your own symphony. I once went to a Quaker meeting--with silence--and found myself thinking of what I should say--that is, how to dominate the meeting (Faustian!)-- and then I realized that was not the point--not to dominate, but to listen. And to listen to silence. By silence, I mean the multiplicity of activity that constantly surrounds us. We call it 'silence' because it is free of our activity. It does not correspond to ideas of order or expressive feeling--they lead to order and expression, but when they do, it 'deafens' us to the sounds themselves."
"I just was in San Francisco and then I went to Santa Cruz to see my friend Norman O. Brown, who has written those beautiful books, Life against Death and Love's Body, and we had very interesting conversations. And that thing that Jesus said in the New Testament came up, about considering the lilies, which is a kind of silence; but now we know, through science, that the lilies are extremely busy. We could say that Jesus was not thinking scientifically, or not thinking microscopically, or electronically; but then we could agree with him, because the work of the lilies is not to do something other than themselves. In other words, it is not production of something else; it is rather reproduction of themselves. And that perhaps is the proper work for us all, and that I think, could bring us back to silence, because silence also is not silent--it is full of activity."