Biopolitical Cultural Festival Opening Remarks - Sally Whelan

Biopolitical Cultural Festival Opening Remarks - Sally Whelan
Biopolitical Cultural Festival

Good evening everyone, I’m Sally Whelan with Our Bodies Ourselves and I’d like to welcome you to the 2nd Biopolitical Cultural Festival of the Tarrytown Meetings.  Many thanks to Doug Pet for all the thought and work that went into organizing tonight’s event, and to all the participants and people working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. 

When we think of our first festival last year, what comes most strongly to mind is our dear colleague and friend Charlie Weiner, who passed away in January.  We are honoring Charlie here tonight and will hear much more about him in just a few minutes.  But what I’d like to say about him now is that he was a major inspiration for including the arts in these meetings, and when he introduced last year’s festival he urged us to do two things:

first, he said that after two days of intense discussion we needed to lighten up a bit and find refreshing new ways to engage with the issues we care about; and secondly, he thought we needed to deepen the dimensions of these issues, coming at them from new angles through music, image, story – and emerging new media – so that we will not only deepen our own understanding, but can also reach a much broader audience.

The general public is seeing an increase in biotechnology themes in popular, social, and artistic media. Many have mushroomed in just the past year, such as a comedic episode on the TV show The Whitest Kids U'Know, where a couple is pressured by their physician to choose traits of their future child, on the spot, in a prenatal counseling session.  Taken off guard, they end up deciding on one trait by flipping a coin.  You may have seen previews for the upcoming show The New Normal about a gay couple and the surrogate mother they hire. And you may also have heard about the new Ottawa based company DNA11 where you can send a sample of your saliva and receive a personalized image of your DNA on canvas for anywhere from $200 - $1,000. Or, as the company’s website says, When garden gnomes just won’t  do, complete your outdoor zen space with a waterwall made with your own DNA.”   That goes for just $25,000.  

These arts draw on the unknown, a bit of narcissism, humor, and the coolness of cutting edge issues. Whatever you think of them, it’s hard to deny that they are quickly normalizing biotechnologies in the social imagination.  And because of this, it’s increasingly difficult  to imagine  how the general public will become engaged in a deeper discourse on the safety, governance, social justice, and human rights issues involved; or how the arts will convey what is at stake – beyond the personal – for humanity’s future, not to mention for the cultural or spiritual meanings that may underpin our lives.

Our colleague Bruce Jennings articulates this need for a deeper discourse in his paper “Biotechnology as Cultural Meaning.”   He says that the quest for cultural meaning arises whenever society must grapple with any  

“rapidly advancing extension of human power and as we try to fashion a story about it that will domesticate and civilize this power. And domesticate and civilize it we must, for in its raw or wild form such power is too exhilarating, too frightening, too dangerous, too open to abuse precisely because its boundaries have not been drawn and the distinction between rightful and wrongful use of this power is not only unclear, it is nonexistent.” 

It is unrealistic to expect the arts to provide a moral compass that will tame this biopower. And it’s a tall order for the arts to fashion a story about it that will be personal and meaningful enough to stay with us in doctors’ offices and genetic testing sites, those personal and institutional spaces where people will face exceedingly difficult health decisions for themselves and their families, and where acceptance of emerging practices will often seem benignly mandatory, or, for others out of reach.

That said, the arts have always explored frontiers and had a leading role in nascent social movements. They can and will find a way to be more than glib about biotechnologies.  And they will give us glimpses into worlds –  relational, political, and environmental —  that we do and don’t want to live in. Further, they will bring to life the trajectory of decisions that might cultivate one world rather than another.   

Fortunately, there are people engaged in the arts who have already begun to grapple with the deeper dimensions of these issues, and are experimenting with art forms that are sometimes playful, sometimes serious.  Tonight we have some of these people here with us and their various pieces will engage us in the ways Charlie Weiner suggested they should and would.

First though, we want to open this evening’s program with a remembrance of Charlie himself, and I would now like to hand the microphone over to Shelly Krimsky, who was a very dear friend of Charlie’s and will be sharing a few words about him.  Shelly’s remarks will be followed by a musical piece written by Doug Pet that is dedicated to Charlie – and his love for jazz music and humanity.  The piece will be performed by Doug Pet and Jason Yeager. 

Thank you so much Shelly, Doug, and Jason for giving voice to our collective desire to remember and honor our beloved colleague and friend, and thanks to everyone participating in this festival, which is just a small part of Charlie’s ongoing legacy.