David Cronenberg recognized it first — the immense imaginative gold mine of the genetic revolution. As the seminal artist on this subject, with films such as Videodrome and eXistenZ, Cronenberg has played with themes of organic mutability in ways that both astound and disturb. It’s difficult to truly like Cronenberg’s films, but they are never less than deeply affecting, often in very uncomfortable ways. Throughout his work Cronenberg suggests that no organic form is fixed and that the very essence of life is the ability to change — indeed, he proposes that the more things change the more alive they become, a stance that has won him both plaudits and opprobrium. Given the significance of the topic, it is surprising more artists haven’t taken it on. Welcome news, then, that on October 24 the Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater will screen a series of short films by artists on scientific subjects, many of them dealing with genetics. Collectively titled “Soft Science,” and curated by Rachel Mayeri, a filmmaker and assistant professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd, the works range from fragments to extended narrative fictions, most created by L.A. artists over the past two years.

In many of these films, anxiety about gene science is palpable. The fictional narrator of Mayeri’s Stories From the Genome recounts the tale of his successful attempt to sequence his own DNA and generate multiple clones of himself. Inspired by real-life geneticist Craig Venter, who led the private-industry consortium to sequence the human genome in competition with the U.S. government’s effort, and whose own genes did constitute a significant part of the final sequence, Mayeri’s protagonist seems ambivalent about his achievements. In an attempt to understand his motivations, he subjects batches of the clones to experiments in child rearing, giving one group love but no education and another group education but no love, all the while submitting his original self to psychoanalysis by yet another of the copies in a kind of mental masturbatory loop. While the bulk of Mayeri’s film is a near-future science-fiction scenario, it is peppered in the middle by an eloquent film-within-the-film giving us a short history of Western thinking on the subject of human ontology.

For much of Christian history, life was seen not as a continuum but as a heirarchical chain with each link a distinct and immutable singularity. At the top was God, and beneath him the ranks of the Angels followed by Man, then Woman, and beneath her the animals and plants. This essentialist view was not dissimilar to today’s genetic determinism: Royalty begat royalty just as peacocks begat peacocks, and peasants begat peasants just as toads begat toads. Darwin, of course, challenged this perspective, threatening not only the theological view of man as the image of God but, perhaps more subversively, the very foundation of a society based on “inherent” class.

In the age of genetics, the foundations are undergoing yet another tectonic shift as humans acquire the ability to change our material makeup. Not only are we no longer bound by the chains of an inexorable order; on the contrary — we are told — we will soon be free to re-create ourselves in whatever guise we choose.

Mayeri notes that “artists have been mining science for years — in diverse experiments with icky substances, authority figures, and the ever-elusive idea of Reason.” While she focuses on the latter of these themes, New York artists Darrin Martin and Torsten Zenas Burns revel in the first. Their Learning Stalls: Lesson Plans is a dreamlike piece that divides into nine discrete one-minute “lessons” on subjects ranging from “Professor of Orgone Ethnography” to “Object Oriented Telescripting” and “Organic Exchange” — this last a direct homage to Videodrome in which a man plunges his hand into the stomach of his clone and pulls out a Rubik’s Cube. Though self-consciously “arty” at times, these loopy vignettes call to mind the surreal pleasures of a mild acid trip.

Many of the program’s finest films are its shortest. Sean Dockray’s Ameising, a two-minute excerpt from a much longer film, consists of nothing more complex than a bunch of Argentine ants trundling across a blank page, leaving trails as they go. “A pheromonal portrait of a colony,” Dockray calls it, but it might equally be labeled an action painting by ants, for the the cumulative effect is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Kaipo Newhouse’s Reanimation 3,4,2 also draws its power from the insect world, each minutelong segment made up of hundreds of looped stills of an individual ant or fly or beetle, in effect re-animating a long-dead specimen.

A similar technique is used by filmmaker David Lebrun in his brilliant documentary about the 19th-century marine biologist Ernst Haeckel. Here Lebrun has animated hundreds of photographs of radiolarians — microscopic sea creatures — creating the effect of a single endlessly morphing crystalline life form. The product of 20 years’ work, Lebrun’s film is a masterfully poetic visual essay on Haeckel’s role as the German champion of Darwinian theory. It is Haeckel who, going further than Darwin himself, first proposed the concept of a “tree of life” with new species branching off older ancestral forms like limbs sprouting from a tree trunk. Haeckel also turns up in Mayeri’s film-within-a-film, and here too the radiolarians add their otherworldly beauty to the proceedings.

Along with the deliberate artworks in the “Soft Science” series, the program includes what Mayeri refers to as “unadorned QuickTimes,” small snippets of scientific imagery whose evocative power often outshines the art itself — simulations of nanoscale molecular machines, glowing bacterial blooms, high-speed photography of a hummingbird, and digitized data maps whose provenance is unknown but which bespeak intense amounts of computer power. “Behind laboratory doors are some of the most astonishing outsider art projects around,” Mayeri notes, “autopoetic bacteria, tethered flies, hermaphroditic slugs.” In the preview DVD there were no tethered flies or hermaphroditic slugs, and I was rather sad at their absence, for Mayeri is right to suggest that beneath the veneer of Reason, scientific labs have (unconciously) become the sites for a vast array of highly innovative aesthetic experiments.

I am not so sure that it should be termed “outsider art,” as science is not attempting to be art of any variety, and scientists, with their considerable authority, are surely the ultimate insiders. In responding to such enigmatic projects we do not need to collapse everything into the category of “art.” Conceptually, science can enchant as well as inform, which is precisely the underlying messge of Mayeri’s curatorial impulse. Most of the time the point is made with grace and wit.

“SOFT SCIENCE” | L.A. Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater,
6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | Sunday, October 24, 7 p.m. | $8 |
(323) 466-FILM

LA Weekly