When occasions dictate, I introduce myself as "an artist whose favourite hobby is dentistry." I came to dentistry as a result of what I call "an accident of migrant experience" - a common path for children of immigrant families facing pressures to establish cultural, economic, and emotional security within certain professions. After reaching some of these benchmarks, my intellectual curiosities would lead me to professionalize in multiple vocations, beyond the safety of disciplinary borders.
Phillip Roth, the American novelist, commented that he needs reality to write: "I need two sticks of reality to rub together, to write something new." In my current research, art and dentistry become two sticks of reality, in search of something new and insightful across disciplines. Amelogeneis Imperfecta and Beautox Me, two of my recent projects that combine art and dentistry, were presented at Subtle Technologies 2013 festival under the theme of Immortality.
Amelogenesis Imperfecta (How deep is the skin of teeth) is a project that achieved modest success in its failure. It is a "bio-art" experiment conducted at SymbioticA Centre for Biological Arts, University of Western Australia, in Perth. Utilizing their research facilities, I attempted to replicate bioresearch that explores growing enamel from stem cells. My objective as an artist, however, was to produce what are in effect tiny enamel sculptures, the shapes of which would be determined by the shapes of bio-scaffolds upon which the stem cells grew. Given the modest success achieved-to-date by major international institutions (Harvard University and University of Tokyo), a successful outcome for one clinical dentist fumbling through intricate multi-step research protocols was highly improbable. Of course I already knew this; my aim was rather philosophical in nature.
Enamel is technically a non-living, inorganic tissue that exists in living bodies. I sought to create a relic-like object that reminds us of the life-death continuum, produced from the very stem cells that entice us with the promise of immortality. Then there is the un(der)stated and sober reality of what life form provides these pluripotential stem cells that enable such bioresearch worldwide. After all, stem cells don't just materialize out of thin air. Just as we rarely think deeply about the sources of packaged meat products on store shelves, many of us are oblivious to the ubiquitous usage of fetal bovine serum in bioresearch. Whether we like it or not, we are implicated in these interdependent inter-species relations of living, dying, and killing.
Beautox Me, on the other hand, has strictly intra-species, human implications - unless, of course, we count the bacteria specie Clostridium botulinum, from which the Botulinum toxin is produced (can we imagine brushing our teeth in the morning as killing bacteria?). When British Columbia became the first province that licensed dentists for therapeutic Botox injections in 2007, my art project began its gestation. While indications for Botox include bruxism, headaches, and muscle spasms, we most commonly know it as a quick fix, if not for immortality, then at least towards the appearance of eternal youth.
Opportunistically, I signed up for a Botox workshop with a local dermatologist. Rather than using a canvas to paint on, I asked, what if an actor's face becomes the surface upon which to sculpt away wrinkles? In an era of High Definition media, we come to scrutinize, and to desire the smooth, pore-less skin of actors and celebrities, and then rush to fulfill these mimetic desires. I worked with two actors whose experimental practices made them ideal collaborators for this project that included facial Botox injections. The actors then posed for "before" and "after" video shoots while reciting highly affective Shakespearean soliloquies. The resulting two-channel HD video highlights the uncanny (perhaps even creepy?) differential appearance as the result of Botox-induced muscle paralysis.
Both projects, I believe, act as mirrors to some of our enduring as well as shifting cultural values, and the subtle technologies that are quietly and busily at work under our skin.
This year's Subtle Technologies Festival will took place June 7 to 9, 2013. For more information, please visit subtletechnologies.com/festival