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Artist Interview

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Virgil Wong, June 2003

Virgil Wong has studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Pont-Aven School of Art in France, and the Institute of Human Anatomy at the University of Rome Medical School. His work has been shown around the world, most recently at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art; the 2002 Sundance Film Festival; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Yucatán, Mexico; the Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paolo, Brazil; and the PaperVeins Museum of Art, New York City. Wong received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and he was a recipient of the JGS Foundation's Arts and Genetics award. His work has appeared in The New York Times ,The Los Angeles Times ,The New York Daily News ,U.S. News and World Report , and Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine as well as other print publications worldwide. He is currently a graduate faculty member in the MFA media studies program at The New School University in New York.

Alla Efimova
Interview with Virgil Wong
June 2003

Artist and Designer

AE:
What is your official capacity vis-à-vis your artistic persona?
VW: I am the Web Center director for one of the country's top medical institutions here in New York City and lead a team of web designers, programmers, and content writers. We are building the web presence of our main Hospital and Medical College along with hundreds of programs, centers, and departments. Our principal focus is to develop state-of-the-art Internet applications for use in medical education, basic science research, and patient care. Outside of this work, I make paintings, films, installations, and web-based projects that focus on medicine and society, human anatomy, and emerging technologies.

AE: RYT Hospital , one of the projects you develop in parallel to your day job, strikes me as a work of conceptual art. Traditionally, conceptual artists questioned the institutional framing of a work of art. For instance, in Marcel Broodthaers's fictional Musée d'Art Moderne (1972), visual conventions of museum display are preserved but they are filled out with absurd text. Content becomes secondary to the primary impression that everything is "in order"–all the institutional paraphernalia, such as labels, museum stationery, professional frames, and display cases, are present. Conceptual art raises issues not about the art object itself but about the way in which an institution creates the object's meaning through a set of conventions. Your work performs a similar move, only with conventions of institutional web presentation.
VW: Similar to Musée d'Art Moderne , the visual conventions of an institution–a health care organization logo and website, in my case–are preserved in the fictional RYT Hospital . However, while some people may classify my content as equally absurd as Broodthaers', the textual information in RYT Hospital is not secondary to the framework. Ultimately, the medium here is used to simply tell a story: about the first pregnant man, about how you could shape the genetic predisposition of your progeny, about a smart little transgenic mouse. The faint aura of credibility bestowed by designing a reasonably competent website makes the narrative just a little bit more interesting to me because it coaxes viewers to suspend their disbelief for just a moment and consider the remarkable implications if such stories were actually true.
I am also developing an art installation version of RYT Hospital that will look like a large-scale corporate kiosk island, the kind you would see at a biotechnology tradeshow convention. Higher-bandwidth versions of each individual project, like Male Pregnancy , will appear on interactive video and touchscreen monitors. So, again, the narrative is presented through the structure of an ostensibly legitimate health care institution–but this time, the work appears within the physical context of a gallery or museum as a more salient art object.

AE: How do you see the difference between what an artist and a commercial designer can achieve with their work?
VW: Certainly both individuals are capable of achieving similar results in their work. Ideally, an artist should focus exclusively on conducting a genuine investigation of an idea, whereas a commercial designer has the additional responsibility, by definition, to create something that markets or sells a product or service. Obviously, there are many examples of artists who did both: Pop Art figures like Andy Warhol and Peter Blake come to mind. For whatever reason, the value of commercial design is probably readily apparent to most people whereas the value of contemporary art is often lost on the general public.

AE: Modern and contemporary art did not always have this stigma. Presently, there is a widespread belief, reinforced by the ubiquity of corporate rhetoric, that everything has to be pragmatic, rational, and functional. It's only on the social margins of contemporary art that an allowance is made for making objects that are not necessarily utilitarian, creating projects that are not functional or profitable.
VW: Installation art, in particular, serves as a good example of this. Judy Pfaff's 1996 installation, Ear to Ear , encompasses a room filled with spiraling steel, cables, plastic tubing, and eucalyptus trees suspended from the walls and ceilings. Her paintings and prints certainly have significant commercial value, but this installation in particular appeals to me precisely because it is completely unconcerned with utility and it is far less easily commodified.
A more appropriate example for our discussion perhaps is Mona Hatoum's 1994 installation, Corps étranger . Hatoum co-opts video footage of her own medical endoscopies–normally, a purely functional clinical procedure where a camera is passed through bodily orifices for diagnostic or surgical purposes–and transforms it into an engrossing, non-utilitarian work of art.

AE: There are artists who started out as designers or commercial artists and then built careers by capitalizing on their commercial skills. Barbara Kruger and James Rosenquist come to mind. So you are following a long tradition in contemporary art. The important difference is the context in which art circulates, where it is encountered, and how it is framed. For instance, with Barbara Kruger one encounters unexpected content in a very familiar context, say in an advertising billboard. Thus, a familiar, conventional space is disturbed. The impact of Kruger's work is in understanding very well and utilizing the graphic conventions of successful advertising. It seems to me that the effect of your work also lies in the intimate knowledge of design as well as the fact that you don't take the work out of a commercial context but rather let it become a challenging presence right there.
VW: I take great interest in Kruger's effective use of mass media tactics to capture a viewer's attention while rapidly conveying her concussive messages. In her 1996 installation at the Museum of Modern Art in Heide, she included phrases such as "How dare you not be me," "Believe like us," and "Hate like us"–all messages that popular culture frequently seems to imply. By using the same design and visual language as mass media, Kruger is alerting us to our own collusion in this homogenous cultural group-think. Hopefully, RYT Hospital functions in a similar capacity.
The commercial context for RYT Hospital certainly seems appropriate to me. GenoChoice: Create Your Own Genetically Healthy Child Online! , a part of the RYT Hospital website, is all about the commodification of human reproduction. In fact, if I had unlimited resources–and perhaps a more delusional case of obsessive compulsiveness–you would be seeing millions of advertisements on billboards, buses, subwaystations, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines promoting the tagline: "RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center. All the miracles of modern medicine." I am working on a web page for the fictitious RYT Hospital marketing department, which will include altered photographs of the New York City landscape covered with RYT Hospital advertisements, including a 40-foot billboard of the pregnant Mr. Lee in Times Square.

Nature and Nurture

AE:
Could you go through the three components that make up the RYT Hospital site and discuss the specific issues you were concerned with in each of them?
VW: With GenoChoice ( http://www.genochoice.com ), visitors can ostensibly scan in their DNA, customize the genome of their progeny–to reduce susceptibility to disease or encourage more "favorable" hereditary traits–and then order their custom-designed baby online. E-mails over the course of the surrogate mother's pregnancy provide updates on the health and development of the designer fetus. This project was created back in 1996 after an extended investigation into questions of genetic determinism and the ethics of new reproductive technologies–mostly through the work of bioethicists such as Lee M. Silver, Glenn McGee, Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel I. Wilker. I had also attended two national conferences entitled "Genes and Society" at the Whitehead Institute and spoke with dozens of scientists who worked on the Human Genome Project, most notably Francis Collins from the NIH and Craig Venter from Celera. It was very interesting for me educationally but also gratifying to participate in this dialogue within the biomedical arena. GenoChoice was featured in numerous industry publications and bioethics courses, which adopted the site as a vehicle for deliberating the future of genetic medicine.
In terms of Male Pregnancy ( http://www.malepregnancy.com ), artist Lee Mingwei had told me over dinner many years ago that his dream endeavor would be to become pregnant and give birth someday. After realizing that he was quite serious, I did some cursory research and interviewed fertility experts at several different health care institutions. It appeared that it was probably possible to induce this kind of ectopic pregnancy, but it would be incredibly dangerous. In his 2000 book, The IVF Revolution , Dr. Robert Winston addressed the possibility of male pregnancy and described the inordinate risks during birth, particularly hemorrhaging of the peritoneum area where implantation would likely take place. As a less life-risking alternative, I offered to make Lee pregnant online.

AE: When one encounters the RYT Hospital website, it can be disorienting because it mimics so well a real commercial site.
VW: The commercial appearance of RYT Hospital , complete with banner ads linked to actual baby or health care-related websites, is definitely a key characteristic of the project. I was quite pleased in particular when The Los Angeles Times called GenoChoice "the ultimate e-commerce site of the future" because it is precisely something, like Kruger's work, that looks like a work of commercial media in order to effectively comment on it.
There are obviously innumerable ways to convey an interesting narrative through literature and visual mediums such as film. Two of the film screenings in your exhibition, Andrew Niccol's 1997 Gattaca and Lynn Hershman Leeson's 2001 Teknolust (which I had the pleasure to watch sitting next to Tilda Swinton at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival), are excellent topical examples. For the Web, however, it seemed more natural to find a way that allows visitors to be a part of the story. At this point, I am far less interested in what I created on RYT Hospital than in the more organic, living part of the project: thecritical and colorful discourse generated by people coming to the website. Due to an untenable amount of correspondence, I had to delete both e-mail accounts for GenoChoice and Male Pregnancy as well as a message board and contact form that had been on both sites. The fury over RYT Hospital bled into mass media publications worldwide, where national newspapers in Egypt, India, Taiwan, China, and Iran were reporting male pregnancy as fact–simply based on information from my website.

AE: What were the typical reactions to Male Pregnancy?
VW: Reactions were quite heated and polarized. Many people objected to male pregnancy because of their religious faith or traditional notions of normalcy and appropriate gender roles. Many of the more angst- and expletive-ridden messages currently appear on the malepregnancy.com website. Sometimes the condemnation is interesting in its contradiction. One woman suffering from infertility deemed it acceptable for her to have a child through medical intervention but unacceptable for a man–because only then would it become "unnatural." Interestingly, when Dr. Patrick Steptoe proved that human beings could be made outside the body through in vitro fertilization (IVF), with the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 (the first "test tube baby"), public reaction was decidedly hostile. Now, some IVF clinics produce over 7,000 births every year and no one bats an eye. Perhaps this same ubiquity and normalcy will be true for male pregnancy one day.
While some respondents lament how male pregnancy would somehow extirpate a unique power only held by women, other women apparently see it as quite liberating. A University of Florida student wrote her thesis on gender equality in the workplace and described how male pregnancy would "shatter the maternity leave bias" against female employees. Several women described how they could not take time off from their careers to have children whereas their husbands could, and so male pregnancy would be more conducive for their professional lives and family planning. Other folks who are thrilled at this prospect include transsexuals, women who have had hysterectomies, or men who simply wish to become pregnant. Dozens of people from a Yahoo! male pregnancy discussion group indicated that they have been dreaming about this possibility for their entire lives and deeply wish to share in the pregnancy experience as a point of connection and empathy with a fundamental human experience.

AE: And the third part of RYT Hospital ?
VW: The third piece of RYT Hospital is called Clyven: The First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence (http://www.rythospital.com/clyven ). One of my fictitious physicians is named Margaret A. Keyes, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Keyes is very loosely based on a real-life heroine of biotechnology, Dr. Susan A. Greenfield. Dr. Greenfield is director of The Royal Institute of Great Britain, a baroness in the House of Lords, head of two neurotechnology companies, professor of physiology and comparative anatomy at Oxford University, host of a BBC series on the brain, and author of several books, including Private Life of the Brain . She is an impressive figure in the biotechnology community and one of the individuals quickly blurring the edges of science and science fiction.
Like Dr. Greenfield, the fictional Dr. Keyes is also studying neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease as well as prionic brain-wasting diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob. By implanting human brain cells–grown from human embryonic stem cells–into a mouse engineered to have Alzheimer's, Dr. Keyes inadvertently made a remarkable discovery: she not only cured the mouse's Alzheimer's Disease, but the animal soon developed the relative cognitive capacity of a human being.
For an exhibition last year in New York City, I re-created Dr. Keyes's laboratory in a gallery setting, where Clyven was ostensibly placed inside a light-sensitive black box with electrodes attached to him. Through an audio recording and a small motion device, visitors could hear Clyven moving and scratching inside the black box. They could also chat with Clyven by wearing a neuro-interface helmet, also with electrodes. The chat was actually made possible through voice-recognition software and an ELISA program I wrote that generated canned spoken responses based on hearing specific key words. Visitors to the gallery could also play computer games with Clyven and determine if they are, in fact, smarter than a neurologically enhanced transgenic mouse.

AE: What does the name RYT Hospital stand for?
VW: There is a bit of cynicism here. Most health care institutions rely on the support of individual donors and in exchange, provide naming opportunities like "The John and Jane Smith Center for Botox and Cosmetic Surgery" or something along those lines. But when your hospital or medical college's name starts to change on an annual basis, it becomes harder not to perceive donor support as a symptom of rampant egotism rather than any purer semblance of altruism. So RYT are the initials of a fictional donor: Randolph Y. Teasley, chairman of a large investment corporation. His long fictional biography, referring to his many philanthropic activities–including historic contributions to the health care industry–will be online shortly.

Sleek and Polished

AE:
As a designer, what did you learn about the mechanisms of creating believable, convincing corporate-style presentations? As we discussed on another occasion, the keywords here are "sleek and polished." What does such a quality mean and how is it achieved?
VW: Any notable information designer, like Edward Tufte (whom I recently met), focuses on issues of usability and the successful presentation of content rather than any particular form of presentation, effect, or style (corporate or otherwise). Good design utilizes basic visual principles to communicate the essence and meaning of information. Successful design, as well as functional art for that matter, is analogous to the human body: it has to work first and foremost, and then it can worry about looking good.
That said, in a corporate health care environment, the design presentation should typically convey the impression of a solid, organized, and comprehensive institution. With our real hospital website layout, as you can see at www.nyp.org , we adhered to a grid system in order to reinforce our coherent organization of information. There is uniform branding on every page as well as consistent primary, secondary, and tertiary navigation systems. An interactive toolbar allows quick access to action items like finding a physician or downloading maps and directions to the hospital. The underlying grid system, typical on almost all non-Flash web pages, is utilized to help users easily navigate between these universal architectural components. RYT Hospital 's site has similar design characteristics.

AE: At the dawn of computer graphics it was customary to integrate grid lines themselves into design.
VW: In 1963, the first computer art competition, sponsored by Computers and Automation , included numerous images with the underlying grid lines readily apparent. Two years earlier, Ivan Sutherland at MIT created a program called Sketchpad that enabled users to draw and erase on the screen within a delineated grid (using a light pen and push buttons) and even demonstrate the results of engineering tests based on digital design images of bridges.
In 1983, I had attended a kid-oriented computer programming workshop at a local university. One of my first programs was an animation written in Pascal. To create an image–a crude-looking F-15 jet fighter in my case–I had to assign a specific block of color to each large pixelon the screen. To make the image move laterally, you had to tell each colored pixel to move one step to the left over and over again. The refresh rate was terrible, but if you blinked every second, you could convince yourself that a blocky-looking jet was moving across your computer screen. So, the idea of working with mathematically generated images inside of a grid pattern was something quite familiar.
The grid is certainly fundamental to design even today. Tim Samara's new book, Making & Breaking Grid: A Layout Design Workshop , is an excellent guide to first mastering the rules of the grid layout and then learning to deconstruct the grid in order to create less conventional design presentations.

AE: So your definition of "sleek and polished" is clean, organized, functional, consistent, visually readable, i.e. dependent on visual elements as opposed to text content. A lot of net.art undermines precisely these conventions of commercial web design.
VW: Andruid Kerne, a net artist I met two years ago, created a project called CollageMachine that literally eats up conventional commercial websites and spits them out as splattered pieces of code and images. Of course, the original sites stay intact on their own servers, but the effect can still be quite disorienting. Many net.art works explore the nature of the medium, such as visualizing algorithms or displaying the underlying code as a particular aesthetic rather than hiding it like most conventional websites. Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans's always fluctuating and disorienting jodi.org is one outstanding example.
Etoy.com, which became famous for its imbroglio with the now defunct online toy store, is probably the most impressive net.art example of the perfect corporate online aesthetic. ®TM ark, Inc. is another net.art work that adopts a commerical web presentation as an avenue for political and social commentary. M. River & T. Whid Art Associates (MTAA) is a Brooklyn, New York-based conceptual and net.art collaboration whose name is even evocative of a corporation or firm. All of these artists incorporate a commercial web design aesthetic as a primary format for their work and ideas.

Science and Fiction

AE:
Is there a science-fiction element in your work?
VW: The value of science fiction, including the sometimes silly scenarios presented in RYT Hospital , is often underrated as a conduit for technological development or serious social discourse In the 2000 book From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice , four internationally renowned bioethicists systematically examine the fundamental ethical issues underlying genetic technologies as applied to the human body. Their primary methodology is to use concrete cases–even far-fetched science fiction situations–to stimulate moral reflection and deliberation.
There is also a blurring of science fiction and science fact that reflects mass media today. New developments in neuroscience, robotic surgery, molecular biology, genetics, and proteomics may seem indistinguishable with advancements once thought impossible. The news media makes itself an easy critical target for contributing to this mass confusion by hyping and distorting the reality. Not only have members of the world press taken RYT Hospital as a legitimate news source in the past, but the media has consistently shown a clear predilection for sensational stories like the human cloning claim by those wacky Raelians and even head transplant surgeries using monkeys, which was actually reported by ABC News last year.
The worst form of science fiction by the press, however, is what the authors of From Chance to Choice call "gene-mania," or the media's gene fetish. A fetish is something believed to have a magical power that it does not actually possess. For at least a decade, if not still, the press enthusiastically propagated the idea that genes exclusively determine everything from obesity to sexual orientation–while reputable scientists tried to explain that a complex combination of environmental, genetic, and other biological factors all contribute to human characteristics and behavior.
I am fortunate to work at an institution where the future of medicine is actually being built. RYT Hospital is an opportunity for me to expand upon these actual advancements and imagine what could possibly be in store for the future. One upcoming component of RYT Hospital will be an advanced clinical system that would ostensibly allow physicians to monitor and treat patients anywhere in the world via telemetry and medical nanotechnology.

AE: So a patient never sees the physician?
VW: In America's current health care system, a patient would be extremely fortunate to see a physician for more than 15 minutes. Medical telemetry could notify health care providers in advance of a stroke, aneurysm, or heart attack. Medical nanotechnology could provide both preventive care and immediate treatment before a patient is even brought to a clinic, practice, or hospital. Obviously, there are innumerable logistical, scientific, and administrative issues to address here, but the potential for transforming and improving the state of health care using these particular forms of biotechnology is staggering.

AE: Do you read science fiction?
VW: Years ago, I had a predilection for authors like William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. Of course, I've re-read Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World several times now. Now that I am aging away into my more serious-minded 30s, I tend to read more medical literature and non-fiction on science and the humanities. I'm currently delving into Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future by Gregory Stock, The Third Chimpanzee: Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared M. Diamond, Consilience: Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson, Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the 20th Century by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. A woman on the bus this morning raised an eyebrow at two particularly salacious-sounding titles, but I assured her that Naked to the Bone and Stiff were actually great reads on medical science and society.

AE: Two components of RYT Hospital have to do with reproductive technologies. Why?
VW: Reproductive technologies strike at the core of our desires, motivations, and belief systems. I spoke with Dr. Silver from Princeton University years ago about his book, Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family . He described the impact of "reprogenetic" technologies–his term for genetic technologies that will affect human reproduction–and how they are permeating into every branch of society: politics, religion, social causes, arts, sciences, and the humanities. Bioethicists must grapple with an enormous range of multi-disciplinary topics to understand and synthesize these complex issues.

AE: Male Pregnancy is also about something else. Do you have a personal investment in issues having to do with reproductive technologies?
VW: If you are asking me if I wish to actually become pregnant someday, the answer sadly is no. But I strongly believe that every one of us has a personal investment in reproductive technologies. What kind of society do we want to live in? If possible, is it even desirable to bioengineer our children to be happy? Are happiness and insouciance necessarily good things? With these impending technologies, many parents may try to genetically and environmentally predispose their children to live a quiet, happy life, looking pretty and existing free from any semblance of disease, anger, depression, and misery. I prefer people who have known adversity, who have been rejected, and who have worked diligently to achieve and enable positive changes in the world. In a recent Discover magazine interview, Dr. Susan Greenfield, who I mentioned earlier, made a heroic statement for overachievers everywhere: "Happy people know what they want, but they are not ambitious. They are not the people who build civilizations."