In conversation with Agnes Questionmark, a hybrid artist

Through her irreverent artistic practice, she imagines a new evolutionary route through which the human body can adapt to external changes by freeing itself from the rigid constraints of social norms.

Rebellious, provocative, surprisingly creative, Agnes Questionmark (1995) is a transmedia and transpieces artist. And as such, she cannot be locked into any predefined category. Born from the sea -precisely on the island of Ponza, Rome – like a modern Venus, she chose water as her first area of research. Fluid and changeable like water, the only physical element that changes state of matter while remaining itself, she creates eccentric – and at times disturbing – installations and performances that invite spectators to question their roots, their genesis, and the very notion of “human”. For her latest editorial project, QuestionGen (0.0022 ml), Questionmark has created a real anti-medicine: a capsule containing a fraction of her own DNA, an act of rebellion against the suffocating power that science exercises on the body of each of us. In this conversation, the New York-based artist delves into the mysterious realm of her research and addresses complex current issues such as the troubled relationship between nature and artifice, and the self-determination of individuals.

You define yourself a transpieces artist, what does it mean?

It means that, throughout my work, I transcend my assigned species: human. I reject any scientific norm that dictates social and private behaviors. The term “human” is impossible to fix, thus any attempt to establish a category becomes redundant. Assuming that an individual could live within those parameters is a violent act which hinders a more prosperous state of becoming that could lead to a freer self. Our being exists in flux. The flexibility of our identity is rooted in the transformative agency of our mind and body.

DNA itself is interchangeable, nothing is written in marble, not even our genetic code. Artificiality is what shapes our existence, surrendering to the artifact is the only viable way for a better planetary survival. “Human” should not be a coercive rule, it should be a more generous term.

Water has played a crucial role in your personal and artistic formation, right? How has this element influenced your research?

The sea was my first field of research. To study the biology of marine creatures such as cephalopods, deep sea organisms, mammals with special focus on the sperm whale allowed me to better understand our position in the world, our role as human beings and the possible future adaptations. Science plays a major role in our society, shaping our identities and political structures. It is also important to maintain an imaginary mindset and expand the research on speculative fiction theories. The sea is that place where science and fiction cohesively intersect. Growing up by the sea, in the Island of Ponza, has shaped my intimate relation with the sea, making me a sea creature rather than a human being.

I’m thinking of your performance CHM13hTERT (2023) in collaboration with The Orange Garden and Spazio Serra in which, disguised as a mermaid, you let passers-by observe you for 16 days and 12 hours a day. How did this project come about?

CHM13hTERT is the name of the human cell studied to fully codify the genetic code of the human being (ACGT). The impossibility of grasping the human gene in one code lies in the transformative agency of each of us and the multiple differences that make us unable to identify in a set of norms.

I was named the “mermaid of Stazione Lancetti” (name of the train station in which I performed). This is the power of storytelling and those mythologies verbally transmitted people to people which, believed or not, trespass reality. The project provoked an immediate chain reaction from the suburb underground train station, it spread into the neighbors shops, bars and houses until the viral reception of Instagram (which got more than 20M views). I was not perceived as a performance artist, I was not Agnes Questionmark, I was not an artwork, I was the Mermaid. The importance of performing in public spaces is to break the barrier that museums, galleries, and other institutions often create by enshrining the work and making it inaccessible. By presenting myself in public I surrender to the control of the other, to become an object rather than a subject. Vulnerability and transitivity were two key components of CHM13hTERT, in which my body was in absolute dedication to a transitory place where commuters brought their own stories, their own lives, their own perspectives. It was a social project which instigated passersby to question the genetic evolution of their gender and species identity.

Agnes Questionmark, “CHM13HTERT”, Curated by The Orange Garden and Spazio Serra, Directed by Tommaso Arnaldi and Arturo Passacantando, video art/still

What kind of relationship do you have with your body, the main medium of your artistic practice?

It took a while for me to understand that I am my body rather than it being a carrier of my own self. The body is a gestating being, able to take any possible form. Together with the machine it can create incredible things, it’s a matter of establishing a good balance. We are oblivious to the multiple artificial and mechanical practices deployed by technocratic companies to control and produce enhanced and altered bodies to speed the efficiency of an economical product. Bodies are surveilled, limited and suppressed in a coercive machinery interlock disguised as a scientific rule such as “nature” or “organic”. Understanding that nature is a plastic artifact, reshaping and restructuring itself, is the first step towards a liberation from the ruling political and social norms. Dictating the body is a limitation of its expansive self.

In addition to your own body, performance, installation, and sculpture are your mediums of choice. Where does this interdisciplinarity come from?

I have a bachelor in photography from Camberwell College of Arts, a very experimental and critical course. It has been the most formative experience I ever had so far. My main professor was Duncan Wooldridge, a seminal writer on critical studies, photography, and contemporary art. His approach was by far the most open and intersectional. Talking to him was something metaphysical, it felt like talking to Google, he knew everything and everyone at once. His references spanned from literature to science, photography to sculpture and I have to admit he had a great interest in performance art. Together with my peers at Camberwell we were immediately pushed to explore the unfamiliar and develop what we thought we could never achieve. As a photographer my antithesis was performance, if there was something transgressive I could do it was getting naked and performing in front of a class of photographers. It started as a mere provocation, an anti-conformist feeling, a protest against that institutional realm I was under. I always felt I had to do something rebellious, and my art has always been the starting point of my fight against any kind of rule.

You have just launched QuestionGen (0.0022 ml), a visionary editorial project that merges, once more, the worlds of art, science, and medicine. Could you expound the key elements of the work and what it intends to demonstrate?

There are three key questions that QuestionGen(0.0022 ml) poses. The first one is, can I assert my identity through the illness? And consequently, if the illness defies myself, who has the privilege to be deemed as “healthy”? The second question is, how is the medical system exerting its control both physically through the medical treatment and subjectively by forming a system of control and power relations needed to construct social spaces? The third one is, where and how is my body located in relation to these power dynamics and how can I get out of it?

QuestionGen(0.0022 ml) has nothing to demonstrate, it is an act of resistant against normative reproduction as political propaganda; a subversive tool to dismantle the medical structure as a form of control over people’s body; a criminal endeavor to upheld a transformative agency and a glimmer of hope toward genetic liberation.

How does QuestionGen (0.0022 ml) relate to your previous projects and your overall research?

The “illness” is considered to be a necessity in order to assure one’s identity. It seems like to exist means to be sick. This equation does not apply only to transgender people who are in need of pathologizing themselves in order to successfully complete their bureaucratic process of self- identification. It applies to the fetus in the earliest stages of their larval development. As soon as it is recognised, the fetus enters into a process of control and surveillance that lies outside and discerns from the biological carrier’s body. Before one is born, it falls into the grip of the medical apparatus. Either the soon to be expired scalpel or the ultrasound machine, the artifact and its mechanical approach will always precede any other form of recognition. To exist one needs to be a patient. Throughout my research I am exploring the possibilities, if there’s any, to alter the process of human identification through any artificial apparatus. The medical treatment for gender identity affirmation is artificial as a cyborg implant. Both defy and challenge notions of “human” and the limits of our future evolution.

Questionmark, “CHM13HTERT”, Curated by The Orange Garden and Spazio Serra, Directed by Tommaso Arnaldi and Arturo Passacantando, video art/still

For this project you even took a fraction of your DNA through a chemical extraction process; in fact, your work often features very complex techniques and production processes. Do you have training in these scientific disciplines, or do you rely exclusively on the expertise of other professionals?

DNA extraction is extremely easy. I did it for the first time in a scientific lab in Brooklyn (NY) during one of their open courses. From a saliva sample I managed to see a DNA string isolating from other cells by chemical reactions. For QuestionGen(0.0022ml) I needed to extract way more DNA strings in order to produce hundreds of pills. The extractable body part that has more genetic cells is the blood. Being an illegal process that one cannot do by themselves, I needed the help of a professional. It was a matter of finding the pathway through the limitations of the medical system rather than finding experts. The process was very easy, just illegal.

Josie Zayner, the biohacker who collaborated with me in this production, was able to separate my DNA from the blood sample. Therefore, I called a private company of nurses in NYC that could withdraw blood from my arm. The problem is that you are not supposed to keep any bodily samples nor organic discharges. I had to say that Josie is my doctor and she needed to conduct a genetic test. Without further objections I got my blood sample and sent immediately to Josie in Texas, where she extracted, froze, and pulverized my DNA. After receiving the powder, I went to my mother’s colleague’s pharmacy in Rome and encapsulated the DNA inside the pills with an analogue machine that looks more like a kid’s game. Pills were blistered by a specific technical company in Milan.

Although the processes behind my work are easy, they do require experts for its realization. My aim is to create an open source of everything I do and make all these steps and information available to people.

Your research seems to have no limits, neither mental or physical, pushing beyond the boundaries of art, performance and even the human body as we know it. Are there unexplored territories that you would like to venture into in the future?

I am about to witness my first live operation in Berlin, thanks to a collector who is also a surgeon. This will be my first access into a hospital without being a patient. I am sure it will lead my research to uncharted territories. I am very curious about those medical practices that are already deploying mechanical and robotics services as the means through which humans can live their lives. I am interested in those practices that make us less human than what we think; those practices that are already in place to proof that we have already lost being human and that we are something else. This “something else” I still do not know how to define it. I will put all my effort and research to discover what are the possibilities. However, I believe this isn’t my role, as an artist and researcher I am here to unveil what is happening in front of us that we are somehow unable to see.

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Agnese Torres
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