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Artistic performances: MedUni Vienna develops new format for participatory artistic-scientific research

(Vienna, 15-10-2015) Experts from the Center for Public Health at MedUni Vienna are realizing interactive shows on psychotherapeutic and genetic issues as a new format for participatory artistic-scientific research.  In museums, on stages and at scientific conferences, together with the audience they are exploring questions of otherness, of body politics and the speculative aspects of art and science. The “Arts in Medicine” group at the Center for Public Health, which is heading the project, has received an award from Ars Electronica, and the leading scientific journal “Lancet Psychiatry” invited them to write a series of articles about their unconventional format.

The cross-disciplinary joint projects of the “Arts in Medicine” program at the Center for Public Health (Program Director: Klaus Spiess) are run together with Berlin University of the Arts (Fellow: Lucie Strecker, Artistic Director), the Medical Museum of Copenhagen University (Postdoc Jens Hauser: Theory of BioArt), the Arts and Psychiatry section of the World Psychiatric Association (Chair: Hans-Otto Thomashoff) and the Department of Cellular Biology/Genetics of Salzburg University (working group led by Mark Rinnerthaler). The experts on these projects carried out foundational artistic-scientific research and developed it into participatory performances, in which they share their research, knowledge and sensations with specialist audiences. The performances build on the techniques of US reality TV shows, Viennese actionism and quirky British humor.

They have already presented their work (which is funded by the Arts and Culture Department of the Federal Chancellery of Austria,  Department 7 of the Vienna City Council, the EU FP 7 and the Einstein Foundation) in the Tanzquartier Wien, Center for Contemporary Dance and Performance, at the Biofiction Festival in the Natural History Museum Vienna, as well as internationally. They have been awarded prizes for it by the Austrian Science Fund and the “Performing Science Competition” at the Center for Media and Interactivity of Justus-Liebig University, Gießen.

For a recent work they have now been awarded the Prix Ars Electronica, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes in the field of electronic art and culture, and have been invited by “Lancet Psychiatry” to publish their work in a series about art performances.

Therapy as a performance art: “Sherapy”
The recent paper in “The Lancet” – “Trust/Credibility is always at stake” – describes an application of the research at the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) Congress in the form of an intervention curated by the US performer Ann Liv Young: Young presented “Sherry”, a fictional character she has created, with whom she practiced “Sherapy” (She-Therapy). Young – herself a trained therapist – mimics psychotherapy, while simultaneously providing therapy. She has turned the associated cognitive dissonance into an art form. This plays with the theatricality of the authentic and the authenticity of the performed and questions the audience’s trust in the credibility of the process. In this way, Young draws attention to patients’ feelings of uncertainty when faced with their psychotherapists, who are not only performing a professional role but are also private individuals in their own right. The conscious play with ambiguity not only represents a therapeutic but also an aesthetic strategy, and Young uses this ambiguity to highlight the pretence of authenticity inherent in politics, gender issues and the media.

Service: The Lancet Psychiatry
Trust—credibility is always at stake: Ann Liv Young’s Sherapy at the World Psychiatric Association Congress. Klaus Spiess, Lucie Strecker and Ann Liv Young

Data as a commodity: “Spit Party”
Another form of performance developed by the group is the so-called “Spit Party”. A paper has already been published on this in the leading journal in this field, “Performance Research”. The experts re-enacted promotional parties at US fashion shows at which prominent celebrities provided samples of their saliva for genetic health risk analysis, advertised with the slogan “Genetics is Fashion’s Natural Extension”., In a re-enactment of such advertising parties presented by the experts from the Center for Public Health,  the audience were encouraged to kiss one another so as to modify the genetic material that was then extracted live on stage from their saliva by PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and then projected as images of the gene bands, so creating their own "artwork" while at the same time making their individual DNA samples forensically unusable. Klaus Spiess: “Even before the Direct to Consumer Genetics was suspended by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) at the end of 2014, the public in Europe was able to critically address the conflict between the desirable free flow of information and the need for data protection and the risks associated with data being treated as a commodity.”


A different type of remembering: “The hour of the analyst’s dog”
The next issue of “The Lancet” draws attention to a presentation which deals with archives of memory and has been developed in collaboration with choreographer Daniel Aschwanden for the Sigmund Freud exhibition in the Belvedere/21er Haus, new museum of contemporary art.  With DNA extracted from the hairs of Freud’s Chow Chow found in the London Freud Museum a so-called “zeitgeber [timer] gene” was experimentally cloned into living yeast cells.  Co-regulated via sensors recording the spectators’ body heat, the gene of the dog whose barking had for years served as a timer to end Freud’s psychoanalytic sessions now acted as a timer for a  psychoanalytical group session in the museum.

» Performance in the 21er-Haus

» Link to Prix Ars Electronica with the award-winning work by the Center for Public Health

» Website of the Center for Public Health