Text by Georgia Vesma
Taking in genetic engineering, bioinformatics, cyborg ethics and religion, Margaret Atwood‘s 2009 novel The Year of the Flood focuses on the Gardeners, a sect dedicated to preservation of the Earth through vegetarianism and recycling. The Gardeners are preparing for the Waterless Flood, an apocalyptic event which forms the driving force of the plot. Their survival skills and dedication to re-using found materials enables the Gardeners to survive in the apocalyptic aftermath of the Flood. It is in this post-civilisation space that Spaceship Unbound situates itself.
Spaceship Unbound reflects in its curation the feminist tone of Atwood’s novel in its makeup-works by female artists dominate the exhibition, loosely linked by ideas of ecology, science, activism and mysticism. Hybridity and the feminist cyborg aesthetic of Donna Haraway feature prominently. Anne-Marie Culhane’s Corn Dollies documents an action by a group of female performance artists, including Culhane herself, outside the Houses of Parliament in reaction to a debate around genetically engineered crops. Their faces obscured by masks of corn, the women become unnatural hybrids themselves, both animal and vegetable. Embracing hybridity, turning it to one’s own purposes, becomes a valid reaction in the face of the new bio-ethics.
At the heart of the show is Sam Meech’s film Noah’s Ark, a retelling of the Biblical story using found footage from the North West film archive. Engaging with the more broadly religious themes of The Year of the Flood, this work is presented in symbiosis with Cyclevision, a design by the Hackspace Manchester collective. In order to view the film, one must first power it by generating electricity on a static bicycle. The presence of Hackspace throughout the exhibition reflects the influence of the Gardeners; the collective uses recycled objects and human ingenuity to create ecologically sound works that propose a new, sustainable mode of artistic creation.
Spaceship Unbound raises potentially useful questions about the relationship between art and the environmental crisis. Do artists have a responsibility to work in a more sustainable way? Can art and activism exist in a simple or mutually-beneficial relationship? What strategies are available to artists working in the looming shadow of the crisis? Sadly, I left feeling like these issues were not addressed in any depth by the exhibition itself. Worse, I felt that without Atwood’s novel to contextualise the works, the show lacked coherence. The diverse themes of environmentalism, social activism, religion, feminism and modern bioscience needed a more decisive pulling-together to create a more unified – and more powerful – exhibition.
Spaceship Unbound is on display at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester until 28 July 2013.
Georgia Vesma is a recent graduate living, working and writing in Manchester.