Marta de Menezes

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

As an artist I never do try to achieve one thing, if anything I always try to question and provoke the questions in the public, in particular with regards to issues and concepts like identity and contemporary practices. Nevertheless one thing that is constant and that I have been developing is the new strategies of representation in visual arts. As a consequence, I have been using research laboratories as an art studio. This way it becomes possible to use materials, methods and technology that are common in biological research to create artworks. I believe biology/biotechnology is not different from other technologies that have been co-opted by visual arts, such as photography, video, computers or the internet. Only the access to biotechnology is not as widespread as the access to those other “media”.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

I follow a recurrent strategy when I search collaborations with researchers. It is important in my practice to become a member of a research laboratory in order to learn the constraints and opportunities offered by a given technology. Different fields of biology, such as structural biology, neurosciences, microbiology, developmental biology, or immunology (the lab where I am currently developing a new project), have their own specificities. In each laboratory I can take advantage not only of a unique technology, but also a very specific environment. And it is these unique environments that influence how each of my projects evolve. This way I can research new knowledge and techniques that most fit and are more meaningful for each concept that I try to explore and express through my artwork.

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

"Serendipity brought me into the field of art and biology. While still in art school I became involved with biomedical researchers and began visiting a research institute that had a very broad focus: from plant sciences to neurosciences. It was an inspiring discovery. Specially to see how the visual landscape of science was influenced by “meaning”. For instance, when researchers would take me to see what was for them the most visually interesting object in the institute we would end up, invariably, in front of a machine more expensive than a house that could do amazing things. However, those machines were almost always visually very boring. On the contrary, we would pass shakers with bacteria growing that were amazing, but so common that scientists would not even realize their presence. My initial works explored those conflicting perception experiences. Later, while in Oxford, I attended a lecture by Joe Davis – an artist that was developing his own work within biology research laboratories in the MIT and was surprised to see the sophistication of his approach. At that time I have developed a project with live butterflies and Joe was very interested in encoding information in the DNA of different organisms. It was through Joe Davis that I became aware of other artists in the field. All the amazing scientists and fellow artists and researches that have worked with me on my projects are collaborators and therefore inspire me to expand my practice all the time."

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

"Serendipity is frequently present in my projects. Often, new ideas are a consequence of discussions following a seminar in a research institute. A project – DECON – where I created paintings seeded with bacteria that slowly degrade the colors as the painting is exhibited, was a consequence of the fact that I saw Petri dishes with bright colors on a bench in a laboratory and asked what those colors were. It was a research project aiming the development of bacteria that could degrade textile dyes to treat the highly toxic effluents of textile industry. I wanted immediately to use those bacteria to degrade dyes in the context of an artwork! The diversity of biological research is so big that I frequently bump into new ideas unintentionally. Most of my projects are like this, sometimes the ideas come from previous works while I’m in residence and sometimes it is the questions that the viewers ask me that provoke a thought that will then develop into a project, I never know what will come next."

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

Perhaps the greatest challenge has been to gather conditions to develop a project I love. The materials and technology involved in biological art project are frequently very expensive. In addition, both the funding of the arts and scientific research have been significantly targeted by austerity measures that were put in place following the recent financial crisis. As a consequence, I have been able to develop only a fraction of the projects I would really like to create.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

I believe one quality has to be present: tenacity to pursue your vision in spite of adversity. But at the same time, the ability to adapt and reformulate your idea. Otherwise the tenacity will just be stubbornness.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

I believe science and technology are overall good influences for the world. It is necessary however to have more widespread access and knowledge about scientific advances. And this knowledge should be from primary sources and not filtered through lobbyists or interest groups. I believe art has a role in driving this awareness. In the same way photography and cinema/video became nearly universally accessible, the science knowledge should also become commonplace. Through my work I do not aim to transmit knowledge in a didactic way, but I want to show how knowledge can be empowering for everyone, even someone without a science background.

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