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Research Trip to Tasmania and Australia Seed Vaults

by Molly Shea

CA

As an MFA1 Art Student with a specialization in Integrated Media at CalArts, my work takes root in scientific research that evolves into an interdisciplinary practice. This work takes special interest in how people are utilizing technology in order to handle uncomfortable universal ideas like death, disease and legacy. Last semester, my midresidency show, "I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You" was greatly informed by cryonics. Cryonics is the process in which some people choose to freeze their body after death in order to be resuscitated in a supposedly better future. This technology was started in the 1960s where it was considered at one time by an aging Walt Disney and it still is a thriving, though niche, practice today. 

I was able to go to the cryonics lab, Alcor, and experimental pseudo-utopian society, Arcosanti, which are both located near Phoenix, Arizona. Visiting Alcor and Arcosanti I was met with sad realities of blind hope and what it means to create a world for yourself to survive by any means necessary. The people I met were able to open my eyes to the reasons why people reach for the impossible and I was blown away by the architectural monoliths these institutions were housed in. 

I heard about people freezing their pets, children who had been frozen by their parents, members who joined Alcor during the AID epidemic and even hearing about Trans members who had decided to join with the hope of being resuscitated in their ideal form in the future.

From this trip I created feature-length documentary alongside porcelain ceramics sculptures of cryogenically frozen cat heads, a performative video installation and I welded my own steel cryonic tank/ karaoke booth. In addition to this, I created a cryogenically frozen head performance that was one part speculative fiction and one part Vegas musical number which I recently performed a new version of at MOCA Tucson. With approaching some of these topics in a sort of bird-shot manner, I resituate the research using humor in order to pull apart ideas that are hard for me understand as well as communicate these concepts with others.

I am interested in developing my research in regards to conservation and legacy with a trip to Australia and Tasmania. I want to spend one week in Australia at the Royal Botanic Garden of Sydney and the Museum of Human Disease and one week in Tasmania at the SeedSafe, the Sub Antarctic Plant House and the Museum of Old and New Art.

The Royal Botanic Garden of Sydney currently houses the Australian PlantBank where they are using cryostorage (freezing the plants) and using totipotency (regenerating plants from a single cell) in order to conserve at risk plant life and to maintain a database of diverse plant strains which become more and more at risk because of GMO farming and climate change. The Museum of Human Disease has a collection of over 2000 samples of human tissue as well as an OCULUS walk through of arteries. The Tasmanian Seed Safe not only houses more at risk plants but it also shares its databases with the public and teaches people how to germinate their own seeds successfully. They often will use smoke solutions to wake up seeds out of dormancy by tricking the seeds into believing a fire had occurred. The Sub Antartic Plant House is a controlled garden in which the house was developed to mirror the environment of the Macquarie Island. In addition to having the temperature and humidity stabilized to reflect the island it is also part-theater with includes sound recordings and hand painted murals.

Finally, the last place I want to visit is the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. What makes this institution unique is its collections of works that are part scientific and part spectacle. MONA was founded by David Walsh, who created his fortune developing a gambling system used to bet on horse races and the whole culture of the institution is both conceptually curious and cavalier. While I’m there I want to see a sculpture by Wim Delvoye Cloaca Professional, which is an installation that essentially digests food and creates excrement. Along with this piece there is also immersive science fiction show Pharos that is currently on view. It includes the more violently immersive works of James Turrell as well as other artist working with scientific and phenomenological works. I want to visit this space because I feel like the work that is collected by the institute is work that lives in several visions at the same time. The collection is part sci-fi, it is part sideshow, part mad millionaire’s vision and part high-brow art collection. What I am interested in doing is using my research to sprout new ideas about the archival properties of artistic vision.

When I am at the Plant Bank, the Seed Safe, The Museum of Human Disease and the Sub Antartic Plant House, my intention is to interview the scientists that are interested in preservation and archive. I want to use this footage as an extension on my documentary of cryonics as well as start as a jumping point towards a new body of work. This research will be prompting my final theisis show at CalArts. In addition to filming interviews, I also want to do naturalistinspired drawings to inform structures for new sculptures and performances.

Taking cues from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, my installation will be to envision a corporation that uses plant DNA and fuses it with human DNA and digital imprints as a way of preserving identity and desire. The corporation will be offering people a chance to upload their memories onto seeds so that people of the future will be able to access them and germinate them. My ideal presentation would be sort of futuristic flower shop where visitors could type up information about themselves on an ipad and the information is paired with an endangered plant. In exchange, the visitor would be given someone else’s seed to germinate. In addition to this, I intend to make “flower arrangements” that take visual cues for the Plant Bank in combination with the specimen preservation of the Museum of Human Disease.

These flower arrangements will take various forms from musical compositions, performances to sculpture. In addition to this practice, I want to create an immersive installation where thoughts would be “extracted” by accessing the subconscious. I would be looking into building Turrell-like structures and working with musicians to create soundscapes to prompt these states. Taking these ideas further I would want to develop the narrative of the corporation to include what the future germination of these plant/memories would entail and what the hybridization of two unrelated memories be like in comparison to two plants that have never been in the same biome would entail. What would a genetically modified memory be? 

Beyond conservation what I am interested in is what these archives can say about our relationships to loss. What happens when we destroy the things that sustain us and all that remains are symbols from our culture? Is there a correlation between the scientific desire to create a library of DNA, the desire to collect art and the fear of one’s own mortality? Are we remembered by chat archives, data visualizations or through gestures of artistic expression?

So far I have received the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Travel Grant which will partially cover the costs of travel and I'm looking for additional funds to help with costs of housing, materials and getting between Australia and Tasmania.

With your help we can sow the seeds of a better tomorrow. 

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