Interview with Marta de Menezes

Image: Marta de Menezes, Nature? (Modified butterfly from installation/performance), 2007

Marta de Menezes is a Portuguese artist working at the intersection between art and biology. Last year, Menezes founded Ectopia, an experimental laboratory and artist residency housed at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Oeiras, Portugal. The program fosters collaboration and discussion between the Institute's scientists and participating artists. In this interview, conducted by Rhizome Curatorial Fellow Luis Silva, Menezes discusses her experience with Ectopia and her larger body of work. - Ceci Moss

Luis Silva: Ectopia, the artistic laboratory within the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência that you founded in 2007 and currently run, is an unusual operation, as it allows artists to create and develop projects in close relation to scientists. Its name, "Ectopia", which is a term referring to the abnormal position of an organ or body part, roughly relates to a certain "out-of-placeness." I would like to start this conversation by asking if you think art is out of place, or misplaced, within a scientific research context.

Marta de Menezes: First let me tell you, you're the first to actually ask that question!

I don't think art is out of place in the field of science, and definitely not misplaced within a scientific research facility. If I did, I wouldn't be working in this area, or trying to implement my ideas in a laboratory space. Ectopia, a singular initiative in a "hard science" or a basic research environment like the Research Institute, exists to promote the collaborative research projects between artists and scientists, so that both the arena of art and science can gain, grow and flourish in a new interdisciplinary environment.

Why did you decide to approach the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência with the idea of Ectopia?

A lot of my Portuguese scientist friends had some connection to the IGC at some point in their lives. And even I had already been there, presenting a workshop some years ago with Joe Davis. So, I already knew who to talk to and I knew I could propose the director with the idea. It was not too difficult to arrange. But it also felt like an ideal place to create something like Ectopia. The Gulbenkian Foundation has always been one of the most active institutions to support the arts and sciences, so the IGC was the obvious perfect choice for an experimental art laboratory.

What do art projects and scientific research have to gain from an interdisciplinary environment? Or stated differently, is there a common ground of understanding between scientists and artists, one which would allow a real and fertile collaboration between them?

I feel these are two different questions, so I'll answer both. First, I'm not sure exactly how art benefits from collaborative science projects. It is not, in my opinion, a given fact that art can and will benefit automatically from one project in the broad area described as "art and science." It is my biased opinion that the truly collaborative projects will stand a better chance for real profit and growth from the interaction because of their collaborative nature -- not just because they are situated in the realm of art&science. The same can be said from the scientific perspective. If a project is interesting, and based on a quality interaction between the science, scientists, science technologies, artistic concepts and expression, then it is in a better position to be challenging and rewarding for the scientists, but, more importantly, for the broader field of scientific inquiry itself.

To answer the second question, based on personal experience, I've found that it's very likely for artists and scientists to find a common ground of understanding. All of my projects are very similar in some ways, but also very diverse in terms of the techniques, labs and, of course, the scientists involved. But, in every case, I found that they were very fertile and rewarding for both sides. I suppose that the fact that some of those labs, like the one in Leiden, Holland, still refers to me as "their" artist in residence after 7 years lets me think they are still very content with our collaboration.

Can you give me a couple of examples of such collaborative projects taking place right now, or that have happened recently, thanks to Ectopia?

Ectopia is new, only a year old, so not that many projects are happening right now, yet. All projects (lots of them) will start in the near future (I hope). I am currently one of the artists in residence at Ectopia, I have just finished (not really finished, but made the first exhibition of the piece) Decon. In this project, I used microbiology techniques and bacteria that degrade color from replicas (in agar) of Mondrian paintings. Find out more in Also, I worked with a couple of artists to prepare exhibitions for the Polar Year Celebrations in 2008/09. The other artist in residence is Maria Manuela Lopes, who will begin soon. Manuela is starting her PhD project in the U.K. and she will use her residency to develop her work in science labs with different specifications.

In the future, Ectopia will be coordinating a European network of curators and cultural agencies that have been developing work on art, science and technology. It will strategically work for the development, research, production and exhibition of projects of art and science.

Also, we are expecting the participation of lots of international artists in the residency program over the next few years, groups such as Tissue Culture & Art (Australia), and Biotecnika (Canada), artists like Polona Tratnik (Slovenia) and Arcangel Constantini (Mexico).

How did you become interested in the artistic properties/characteristics of biotechnology, having a background and education in traditional fine arts?

It all happened on its own. When I was still in the fourth year of my Fine Arts Degree, I started dating an old friend of mine, Luis Grac, who was finishing his internship for a Medical Degree and was applying to a grant from the Gulbenkian Foudation for a Doctorate in Biomedical Sciences. He got it and started his first year in the IGC before going abroad. During this period, I met many of his teachers, many coming from all over the world to teach at ICG, and was very much immersed in that scientific environment. I guess this was crucial. Luis is now my husband and the connection between science and my thinking process is still very present. I have constant access to developments in basic scientific research, and it inspires me to think about possible art projects to develop.

What interests you most about working with biotechnologies?

The best part is that I can ask lots of questions, try to solve some of them and, in the meanwhile, try out some of the most amazing techniques to produce my work. I also think that we are now living in a time where a lot of our metaphors are of scientific and even biological origin. We use expressions like "it's genetic" without really knowing what it means. We, humans, are facing lots of challenges from our actions and their consequences for our planet, for our health, for our lives in general, and being knowledgeable about biology seems to be the best bet to find solutions.

So for me, both as a person and as an artist, it is very important that I strive to learn more, and working with biotechnology is very relevant!

What do you think is your most successful project so far? Why?

I have a few projects that I think of as accomplished projects, but in different ways.

I guess Nature? was, obviously, a very well received project. It was my first and people still find new things about it that surprise me. And I like doing it again every time I have an exhibition! It is about handling the whole organism. The butterflies are wonderful and every time I see them change into a pupa I get as excited and mesmerized as I did the first time! I worry still if they come out of the pupa well and can stretch their wings properly, and fly well, and if they look happy, etc.

But Tree of Knowledge was a project that also made me very proud due to the amount of work that I got out of it, and even the ethical challenges that it put me through. It was also my first experience doing an art and biology project affiliated to an experimental art laboratory. I did it at SymbioticA, and that was very enriching at so many levels! From the perspective of a residency program, that was probably the most accomplished of my projects.

But, also, you have my Proteic Portrait, which involved many years of work, such a big challenge and such a big leap of faith! I wanted to do it, I found the best scientists to do it with, but nobody knew if it was going to be possible to make, and then we made it! And it worked! And we were amazed! At one point in the project, I started working with a very special curator and friend of mine, Ines Moreira, for the exhibition, and the piece became a beautiful installation piece that made perfect sense as my portrait! I'll say that was a very well accomplished project!

And Decon-- it looked great on the wall!

Nature? is probably your best known work. Could you describe it?

Nature? is a project I did in 1999, that involves the manipulation of the wing pattern of live tropical butterflies. It is shown as a greenhouse, where the butterflies are housed, and manipulated. The installation includes plants, a microscope on a table and a monitor so that people visiting can see how I perform the manipulations. People are invited in the greenhouse so that they can fully experience the butterflies. It is a piece that makes you think about a few things that I find of extreme importance nowadays. I am manipulating the butterflies, which may or my not be very disturbing in itself, but most importantly I'm manipulating them one by one, with a technique that is at the same time so subtle and so low tech that it throws the public off balance. It is not genetic manipulation and the butterfly retains her own natural origin after the manipulation. The question becomes, is the butterfly natural or not? Even being manipulated doesn't satisfy me as a reason to call it man made, or even artificial. So I find myself, and the audience as well, struggling with the concept of natural, which is exactly the point I wanted to make.

Probably due to the modification of butterflies' wing patterns, Nature? has generated a lot of controversy, both from the audience and from the traditional art world. When I invited you to present at Upgrade! Lisbon I even received an angry email from someone with institutional affiliations saying that she was against any kind of genetic manipulation, especially if it had an artistic purpose solely. Care to comment?

Not sure. There are a few things in your question that I would like to discuss. Nature? has generated a lot of controversy, but usually because of texts that misunderstood my words or didn't care to fully consider my proposal. For instance, the butterflies are NOT genetically manipulated. The other thing I find intriguing (and unfortunately not that uncommon) is the idea of art in itself being not that important. I think you know what I mean. I see art as one of the most important areas of our culture. As such, it does not have a frivolous role as many people like to believe. Nature? is not decorative art. It does not exist just to be seen and for viewers to apathetically state "how interesting." It is to be thought about with a critical mind, and also to be made available to anybody, ANYBODY (not just art critics or culturally rich individuals). Its ethical challenges are to be engaging, and provocative, not passive and dismissive!

Is there an ethical dilemma when using biotechnology as an artistic tool? Or is that supposedly ethical dilemma a way of making a political statement? Do you consider your work political?

I think I've answered this question with the last reply, but I'd like to say that I do not consider my work political. The drive behind all of my works, the one to start the process, is very basic and simple. It develops dimensions as it grows and, also, complexity and depth. I find my work ideological, not political.

Also, because of this ideological mark, I find working with biotechnology ethically challenging and interesting, not necessarily a dilemma. There is a lot in biotechnology that is not an ethical problem at all!

What projects are you working on now?

I'm currently developing several new projects. I have an old one I want to make, which is to try and make the stripes on Zebra fish vertical instead of horizontal. I'm writing it down and trying to find a scientist who can help me with it. This project will most likely involve genetics and selection. Also, I'm getting very excited about the idea of trying to make an organism, or a perpetual motion machine. I found that it is possible to do something like a nanomotor that is propelled by bacteria. So I want to create a machine/organism that is symbiotic with the bacteria that propel it. This project will take some engineering skills and cutting edge nanotechnology research. I also found out that there is a lot to be said about sex. And that it is an issue that worries lots of scientists around the world. I found recently that one of my friends in science, that got the Gulbenkian Foundation grant the same year as my husband, is now working on sex with some very exciting organisms that have 7 sexes/genders?! So I plan on learning more and elaborate some sex theories of my own.

I've just started my Doctorate project! I'm working in Leiden, Holland in a department called The Arts and Genomics Center, from the University of Leiden, and they are an excellent group that has mostly worked in theory of art and science. I'm planning to research the variety of art and biology and applying a bioinformatics tool to try and understand the amount of manifestations that contemporary art and the new biological technologies have been throwing at us for the last ten years or so. The bioinformatics tool is systems biology and it is being generally used in biology and lots of other fields of human endeavor. Mostly to make some sense of grand amounts of information...