Betty Spackman: Posthumanism Debates – Interview Revd Jonathan Evens

Betty Spackman is an installation artist and painter who exhibited internationally for over 25 years with a studio based in Toronto and Europe before coming to British Columbia. She has a background in Theatre, Animation, Performance Art and Video Art with early video work shown at ARS Electronica in Austria and Long Beach California, some of which was made in collaboration with Austrian Artist Anja Westerfroelke. 

I’m still a ‘McLuhanist’– believing that the medium is the message – BS

Betty is also a mentor and community arts educator and has developed The Open Studio Program, an alternative community education model for emerging artists used in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Langley, BC. She is co-founder of The Fort Gallery in Fort Langley, BC, a cooperative gallery serving emerging artists in that community. In 1987 she won a National Film Award for a 5-minute animation ‘A Bird in the Hand’. A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, her illustrated book published in 2005 is a personal journal and commentary about images of faith in popular culture.

Betty Spackman
Betty Spackman All interior panels of ‘A Creature Chronicle’;
Panel 14 of ‘A Creature Chronicle

Her last major project, ‘Found Wanting. A Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude’, 2010-11, was about animal/human relations and dealt with a complexity of issues inherent/imbedded in an extensive collection of animal bones used in the 3000sq.ft. Show. The work addressed sustainability, cultural constructs of creation and evolution theories, killing and the nature of sacrifice, speciesism, the meat industry (including the in-vitro meat industry), and genetic engineering.

She has also examined the nature of ‘story’ in several projects. Her background in animation and having taught visual storytelling for many years has underpinned her interest in narrative as an essential part of a new work ‘A Creature Chronicle’. This installation combines the stories of both science and religion using well-known artworks as mediators and commentators to explore ethical concerns in both fields regarding transgenics and the development of posthumanism. Presenting itself as a non-linear multi-layered storyboard this work is meant to function as a catalyst for dialogue – a physical presence to be walked around and sat inside, with visual stories to be ‘read’ or discovered, contemplated, and discussed.

The basic structure of ‘A Creature Chronicle’ is a 24ft in diameter circle of panels painted on both interior and exterior surfaces. As an architectural space, it references a fire pit, a cave, a chapel, a hut. It is a place of contemplation and conversation. The circle is a universal symbol appearing in all world religions and science and is used in this work as a design element loaded with multiple complex symbolisms that repeat and spin their overlapping meanings.

‘A Creature Chronicle’ will be launched at Swallowfield Farm, Langley, BC, from 17 April – 8 May 2020 with a substantial programme of talks, panels and conversations exploring the issues raised by the work. The installation is then expected to tour to various locations internationally.

JE: Your work has always been focused on personal and cultural exchange, with language and conversation central to this exploration. How does ‘A Creature Chronicle’ fit with these themes in your body of work and what does it add to this exploration and the conversations it generates?

BS: I collaborated for about ten years with Austrian Artist Anja Westerfroelke. I knew very little German, especially when we started to work together, so we communicated most often in English. However, it was not long before we realised having the right word in translation did not necessarily mean we understood each other and so we would use drawings to explain ourselves. I am grateful for the difficult years of language and the cultural difference I had to negotiate. I think everyone should be disempowered this way at some time in their lives to empathise with those forced to deal with a new culture and language through exile and immigration etc. One of the first works we did together was a video called ‘A/B’. We built a boat that we manoeuvred vulnerably on our backs and shot footage of each other on the water. We then combined the two into a split-screen of the boats encountering or passing each other. The soundtrack was random instructions we were using on-site giving directions to one another as we filmed. It was about language, territory and the body as was the theme for my Masters thesis. It was our first work but was shown, because of the content, with video greats like Gary Hill and Bill Viola. It taught me a lot.

Another project we did together was ‘Reading Room’. We made an object library in the gallery with a coded online library system to look up the stories connected to those objects. This labour intensive work was about objects and the stories connected to them, about selective memory and what is true and what is fiction in story and history. We combined stories of the ‘wild west’ from German author Karl May and Canadian pioneer stories I collected first hand from and about my family as well as stories I simply invented. When local University students came to the art talks, I read them one of each and asked which they thought was true. They always picked Karl May or one of the stories I invented over the accounts from my family that seemed just too extraordinary to believe. It was a fascinating exercise.

Before doing my degrees in Fine Arts, I studied animation and in my undergraduate program at the University of Toronto for an independent psychology course, I experimented with different soundtracks from a 4.5min film I did that actually won a National film award. I created different soundtracks for the film that initially only used music and then surveyed a few hundred people as to what the film meant based on the version they had seen/heard. Again, exciting results.

Visual language and storytelling are a strong focus in all my artwork, but I also wrote and illustrated a book about kitsch (A Profound Weakness. Christians and Kitsch, Piquant, UK 2005). It was a five-year project dedicated to examining how image and text function concerning belief systems.

‘A Creature Chronicle’ is a continuation of these kinds of explorations, all of which were attempts to learn how communication works and how to understand the ‘other’ best. Combining the narratives of faith and art and science even as fragmented visual quotes is a way to break the linear lines of ‘telling’ and give space for the various narratives to connect, conflate even. The hope is that this might broaden, if not understanding, at least curiosity and questions.

I want to invite contemplation and conversation by being hospitable in bringing many different voices together on equal terms. The collage and the circular, double-sided ‘storyboard’ encourages this equitability as one can ‘read’ from any direction in any order even though there is a rough chronology implied.

Without the inclusion of religious jargon or technical language or even art talk, the viewer can make their own connections with the images, and consider and weave in their own story. Hopefully some who view this work will find common threads and forget about the need to prove a point. Perhaps to some because of the openness, it will seem like a cacophony of confusion, but so far that has not been the case. Those who have encountered this collage almost immediately start to have interesting dialogue and enjoy putting the puzzle together – together! And to help with individual images and symbols that may be obscure, I have done a reference catalogue that identifies each element should anyone want to know more.

JE: ‘A Creature Chronicle’ seems to emerge out of your previous installation ‘Found Wanting’. In what ways do you see ‘A Creature Chronicle’ as being a development of ‘Found Wanting’ and in what ways do the two differ?

BS: ‘Found Wanting’ brought me to consider things like transgenics, genetic engineering, and the in-vitro meat industry. It started me asking questions about how much we can and should interfere with nature. It also questioned how our stories about animals affect how we treat animals and raised topics such as speciesism to eugenics and transhumanism. ‘A Creature Chronicle’ addresses these same issues with a focus on the human species and on the stories and belief systems – political, religious, economic and scientific, which encourage, allow or prevent us from controlling creation. However, where ‘Found Wanting’ dealt with the life and death of real animals, ‘A Creature Chronicle’ deals with the emergence of things like a robo bee in comparison to a real bee and the technological and economic reasons for creating and controlling a species through technology.

Of any work I have ever done, I think that ‘Found Wanting’ was the closest to my heart. The subtitle was “A multimedia installation regarding grief and gratitude” and it was very much about both those things. As an animal lover, I wrestled with the problematic issues of killing and disease and factory farming in ways that both broke my heart and filled me with respect and gratitude for all of creation. It also alarmed and enraged me enough to keep researching and beginning on ideas for ‘A Creature Chronicle’. I no longer had a studio to work in and so I started planning the possibility of a series of painted collages. The advances in technology and bioscience were/are so extreme and so fast that I, of course, could not keep up even from week to week – and yet I realised that though the science was changing, most of the questions remained the same – questions that I was not hearing being discussed among fellow Christians or really anyone.

I know in my lifetime I have only the chance to ask some questions and I do not have the skills or wisdom to solve them. As an artist, I am not an expert in the many areas of life the project addresses. However, as an artist, I hope I can provoke some conversation about the ethics, the joys, the fears, the wonder and the horror of what we as humans are capable of creating as creatures on this fragile planet and perhaps help stimulate some action in those who are wiser and more capable than I am.

JE: With the transition from ‘Found Wanting’ to ‘A Creature Chronicle’ you seem to have moved from a focus on death to one on life. Would you see the development in these terms and, if so, what has driven this change of focus?

BS: Paradoxically perhaps, ‘Found Wanting’ was about valuing life through honouring the material remains of animals (mostly bones) and considering what the death of animals means to the sustainability of all of creation. ‘A Creature Chronicle’ is also about the question of death and about embracing our mortality as humans but using images and visual storytelling about the origins and evolution of life and the issue of the infinite.

Betty Spackman A Creature Chronicle panel 10 and 11
Betty Spackman A Creature Chronicle panel 10 and 11

I suppose the work I have done on both these installations, the research and the art-making, have brought me to a place of seeing life and death as not being separate events/realities. The work has enhanced my faith in the eternal, though I do not begin to understand what that is. Time and space are a conundrum but also a joyful wonder – considering the ‘Now’ as a promise of the ‘Forever’ – and that if the Kingdom of God is ‘at hand’, is ‘in us’ (Luke 17:21) there is no distance or time restraints in the living relationship I have with the Creator of the Universe of which I am a part. Death will not change that. I am more grateful to be alive and less fearful or concerned about dying. I could say even I am looking forward to it. (“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21)

The philosophy of posthumanism and the science of transhumanism to extend human life through synthetic biology and robotics is based on seeing time as finite and the desire to extend time by augmenting and prolonging life. The many wonderful and terrifying developments in science and technology to continue our life/time raises many questions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘if’ we can or should do this – questions that both believers and nonbelievers in a Creator need to be asking. ‘A Creature Chronicle’ is my attempt to begin asking some of these questions and to possibly provoke some creative and constructive conversations between believers and nonbelievers alike.

JE: ‘A Creature Chronicle’ differs from your early work in that it is consciously handmade and technically unrefined. Much of your other work makes substantial use of new technologies. Why did this project require a different approach?

BS: I had considered using layered image and text projections and had planned originally to use a soundtrack for this installation but realised that even on headsets sound would interfere with any spontaneous conversations that might happen inside and outside the space. The sound of people talking to each other actually is the soundtrack of this work. I also knew, though aesthetically appealing, projections would make this work more of a ‘show’ and an ‘artwork’ than the participatory, conversation piece, ‘storyboard’ it is intended to be.

I’m still a ‘McLuhanist’– believing that the medium is the message. Since we are philosophically and scientifically in the process of rewriting, editing and adding to our human evolutionary story, I wanted this work to be about that process and not just about me telling my own account or the Christian story exclusively, though of course, I cannot escape it being profoundly personal and biased in that direction. Coming from a background in animation and having worked as a storyboard artist, I know the value and the excitement of playing with various scenarios of a developing plot with a team of differently minded people. Brainstorming and discussing stories together opens up so many more possibilities and directions and reveals otherwise unnoticed problems, closed-mindedness and inconsistencies.

I appreciate work that is now being done from collaborations between artists and scientists using advanced technologies and with this work, I sometimes feel like a child bringing wax crayons to a laser party. But, at the same time, it exposes (through the mixed media mark-making and collage) my own imperfections and helps my position as a storyteller be more personal and vulnerable. I want to not only be ‘telling’, but ‘showing’ my thinking process and the questions I ask myself. And I want to ask the viewer, “What do you think?”” How did the story begin?” “How can we, and should we, change the plot?” and “How do you think the story should end?”

J: In ‘A Creature Chronicle’ you collage images and symbols drawn from art, religion and science to form a colourful survey of life and consciousness. While drawing on your animation experience of storyboarding, it is nevertheless important to you that the visual language created for ‘A Creature Chronicle’ remains open and non-prescriptive. Why is this of such importance to you?

BS: When we tell our stories I do not think it should be to prove something but to remember and honour the story ourselves and then to share and to invite others into one’s heart and mind and memories through that story. They can stay to listen, or they can leave. It is their choice. But if we want people to believe our stories as closed belief systems before they know our hearts are open and ready to hear their stories, it will not happen. It is our lives lived that will prove what we say and we should tell only to be hospital, vulnerable and open. We need to invite people into not only our stories but our lives. As Jean Vanier has said, real love is “wonderment” – it is a place of standing face to face, different but equal before God and learning from one another in humility. I do not want to preach, to be prescriptive, only to tell. I want to practice wonderment. If the story is true, it will speak for itself and will open others to share their story. And, though I do not have to agree, I pray that I can listen and even hear what they have to say.

So many of the discussions between faith (particularly the Christian faith) and science have been confrontational with both sides trying to prove their positions through facts and argument. I collage the image stories from faith and art and science to help see how they might have some common ground and allow the conversations to be more than binary and argumentative. The bottom line for me is to love my neighbour – and my’ enemy’. My job is not to prove anything. The Spirit of Truth will lead us into all truth. (John 16:13). I look for dialogue, even debate, but not a platform to pontificate.

JE: You have written in terms of your work exploring questions in order provoke conversation. How does this intent shape your work and why are questions and conversation of such significance for you?

BS: Christians are often afraid to ask questions. They feel it shows that they are they doubting, not having faith. Proverbs 25:2 says it is the glory of humans to seek things out that are hidden and Jesus actually invites us to probe for answers – as He did with Thomas, inviting him to put his finger in the holes of his hand and side. Every child needs to question. It is how they learn and shows they are thinking about what they have been told. There are so many substantial life questions coming from this time of advanced technologies, bioscience and the complex crisis in climate and environmental issues. Science advances faster than philosophy and religion can respond, but there must be a response. I have always believed that anything that can be shaken should be shaken. God will not change because I do not understand something, and besides, we really know so little. It would be wonderful if we could stand together even on that shared place of admitting we are blind to so much. Our questions, not any answers we think we have, will lead us deeper into the truth – even when we claim to know it already.

JE: ‘A Creature Chronicle’ seeks to open up discussion of our simultaneous anticipation and trepidation regarding advances in bioscience that raise ethical dilemmas to transhumanism and eugenics. What is it about these advances that you wish to explore and how does the design of your installation facilitate these discussions?

BS: There seem to be such essential questions to ask and such a need to be aware of and proactive in responding to the life-altering decisions being made by science and business in this time. For me, these are not just questions about the advances in technology but about the use and control and ownership of it – issues of ethics that require a multidisciplinary system of checks and balances. I want to suggest this in my installation by putting the voices of science, art and religion together to ask not only the how things can happen but why and if and when they should happen and who they should happen to.

It is excellent that we can have a tiny drone ‘robo bee’ to pollinate crops when the real bees are becoming endangered. But who decides why and how much we invest in the drone concerning what we invest in saving the real bee? I juxtapose images of each of them on a panel to say they cannot be considered independently. I’m not sure I would want to live in a world of replacement species, including the human species.

For me, the question of what is it to be human in the posthumanism debates is only part of what should be asked. I am interested in what is it to be humane. As James Speth, US advisor on climate change, said, “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these, we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Knowing how fallible we are as human beings, how we are still building walls instead of bridges, that there are more slaves than ever before in history, that some people are still starving while the rest of us feast, and so on, makes me hesitant to look at technological advances independently, as exciting as they are. Science and philosophy, religion and economics all need to be considered together. I have used collage to try and emphasise that in a straightforward and limited way.

JE: In this work, collage is used to depict synergies between art, religion and science. These are fields of human understanding which have often been viewed as separate. What is the basis on which you seek to bring them together?

BS: Life and learning cannot be compartmentalised. One thing affects all things. Different ways of seeing help us all to see more and to see more clearly. Faith and science communities have mainly been at odds and separate and the Christian community, in particular, has resisted seeing past belief systems they think they must adhere to and are afraid to explore new advances in science and technology. They are afraid to question and to learn from science as though God is going to be destroyed by knowledge. Yet faith is not about answers but mystery and awe – about walking in blindness. Science also walks blindly to discover and find their way. I feel we should be walking beside each other as we explore, and the faith community should be offering the questions of how any new thing discovered can be used to love – or not. And the arts? Well, I believe more than at any other time in human history, the arts can play the role of mediators, interpreters, and inquisitors – as well as comforters, and healers. The arts can allow difference without exclusion and controversy without intellectual or spiritual apartheid. I am often frustrated that I cannot be anything but an artist – and yet as an artist, I hope to be able to provide this place of hospitality and humility where the big questions of life can be examined freely and safely.

JE: ‘A Creature Chronicle’ is a non-linear storyboard built from facts, faith and questions set within a frame which seems to mirror the Biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. Within your installation, we are enveloped within the story you tell. To what extent does this reflect an understanding of human beings as storytelling creatures requiring a narrative within which to find meaning?

BS: Humans are storytellers. It is how we communicate and remember and lead and follow. Stories define our beliefs and our behaviours. I have told my own story in this work only in that it is my selection of parts of narratives that collide and conflate in my recalling and retelling of them. The narratives of scripture and the developing story of who we are as humans about creation and evolution are inseparable for me.

Meaning is elusive somehow, but the story allows us to make it somewhat tangible. I place the Superman logo beside a human uterus and the story of Superman and the story of human birth create meaning by being in proximity. Why do we want to be super, to be heroes? Why is the goal of transhumanism to augment us, to rebirth us into superhumans? What is the role of the woman, of reproduction? Who decides how birth of a new being will happen? And the plot thickens and becomes more and more complex. If I say ‘uterus’ one of my friends will tell her story of having a hysterectomy and someone else will tell a story of abortion and someone else will tell a story of cloning and so on. The accounts are always multiple and complex. Some are true and beautiful and some are not.

Truth can often be told much better through fiction than facts. This is the nature of story. And yet to even say something is a ‘story’ still implies to most in western culture that it is a fable, a myth, that it is not true. I take the stories of scripture as both fact and fiction and look for the truth in them. I accept the stories of Jesus, for example, as the ‘bread of life’ as both metaphor and reality. They are so connected it is impossible to articulate their meaning except in story. If I say I was hungry and I ate bread and I was no longer hungry, it is a story other hungry people will understand. If I say Jesus satisfied me the way eating bread pleases me, the meaning is also clear enough. It seems factual. And yet a story also has the ability to expand the facts into deep, deep realms of the imagination where one can know beyond the fact of bread or Jesus satisfying hunger and begin to know bread, to know Jesus, like life itself.

JE: You’re bringing together, through collage, of images and ideas from art, religion and science give ‘A Creature Chronicle’ a sense of being a kind of philosophical summa exploring, surveying and summarising a lifetimes thought and practice. Is there any sense of this piece being one that encapsulates a myriad of themes, ideas and images from your body of work?

BS: I think every new work one does is somehow a sum of all one’s work before, but yes, there is a sense of gathering fragments of a lifetime of explorations in this. However, though we tend to look at our work as continually developing and getting ‘better’, this project is not the completion of all my work, nor even the best. But it is the best I can offer in this time about the content I am dealing with and it is as honest as I can be, as open as I can be. It is a summary, but not a conclusion. It opens so much more to consider even though it is all I am and all I have to give at this time. I am grateful to have been able to complete this work under challenging circumstances and hope that it will be useful/interesting/helpful to others.

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