Harlequin’s coat

13.09.2006 |


Concept / project

The idea is to present the realization of a composite, organic coat, made from an assemblage of pieces of skin of different colors, races, ages, and origins. This biotechnological Harlequin’s coat, consisting of in vitro skins and colored diamond shapes of a different nature, will be made in the image of cultural crossbreeding.

Pre-developments / origin

French philosopher Michel Serres wrote «Laïcité» as a preface to his book Le Tiers-Instruit. I used this text to construct and develop one of my performances, entitled «Image, New Image(s)».

“Many spectators had already left the room a long time ago, weary of ineffectual theatrical effects, irritated by the switch from comic to tragic, having come to laugh and disappointed at having had to think; some of them – learned specialists, no doubt – had even realized for themselves that every portion of their knowledge is like a Harlequin’s coat, because it operates at the intersection or conjunction of many other sciences, or of almost all of them. So their academy or the encyclopaedia was formally akin to the comedy of art ...”

Michel Serres used the theatrical figure of Harlequin as a metaphor for crossbreeding, for the acceptance of otherness, for conjunction and intersection. I also used part of this text to create a series of reliquaries entitled «The Text, my Flesh and the Language».

“What could the running tattooed monster – ambidextrous, hermaphrodite, and crossbred – show us now beneath its skin? Yes, blood and flesh. Science speaks of organs, functions, cells, and molecules, finally admitting that it’s a long time since anyone referred to life in laboratories, but science never mentions the flesh, which specifically designates the mixing – here and now, in a given part of the body – of muscles and blood, skin and hair, bones, nerves, and various functions, combining what pertinent knowledge analyzes ...”

Implementation / realization

Some of these skins will be cultivated from my own cells in cultures and from the skin cells of other people (of various skin colors), but also from animal cells.

These cells could come from :

- a cell bank such as the ATCC (http://www.lgcpromochem-atcc.com/) with a symbolism focusing on the issues of ownership of organic material and its classification characteristics (sex, age, race, pathology);

- skin donors, using biopsies taken from people who have volunteered to take part in the project; although this would be a more complex procedure, it would highlight the notions of individuality and of the absurdity of a bio-mechanistic attitude based on the alleged difference between «races».

These cultures could be carried out in the Perth University laboratories under the direction of SymbioticA, presented in vivo during the various stages of the coat’s elaboration, and finally attached after their development in Petri dishes.

Technical challenge / ethical questionings

These cultures pose various questions of a technical and/or ethical nature, which will contribute to the interest of the project.

Can skins of different colors be cultivated? Can the cells be hybridized?

What kind of information can be obtained from the donors? Can a person still be the owner of his or her cells? Does self-ownership continue to exist at the fragmented level?

Can I use volunteer donors? How are such issues perceived in Australia, and more generally from one culture to another, and in the context of a non-western viewpoint? What will the result look like?

One of the technical solutions would be to cultivate skin cells and superpose several layers; this would provide not only sufficient thickness, but also the properties necessary for the possible insertion of melanocytes between the layers. Such a process would simulate an effect of "functionality" by multiplying "the surfaces" while posing the question of the perception of surfaces (as in the expression: 'it's only skin-deep …').

We thus arrive at an analysis of skin color as a simple technological gesture which is reproducible and consequently devoid of the potentiality for cultural difference based on skin color. Furthermore, as skin is an organ, an interface, this would also contrast with the surface (see Dagognet, François: "Faces, Surfaces, Interfaces", ed. Vrin, 1982).

The miracle of Harlequin

“At a certain moment, I say in my book that Harlequin experienced a miracle: he became Pierrot. That is, by dint of adding pieces of all colors to his coat, it became white. Because white completely accommodates all the colors. It’s a universal which is not hostile to singularities.” (Serres, interview with M. Audelat and J. Chichizola).

The white that Serres refers to is not «whiteness» but colorlessness. So there would be a subversion of the notion of white skin as a symbol of purity (and thus of colored skin as dirty skin, as Claudia Benthien has argued), which would become neither privilege nor (spectral) prism, but, on the contrary, the blending of all differences.

Mise en scène / installation

This Harlequin’s coat (of about 2 x 1.70 meters) will be displayed horizontally on a Plexiglas light table. It will consist of adjoining patches of different colors. Some of these patches will feature Petri dishes of skins at various stages of culture (interrupted or in progress). During the initial stages, this "live" cultivation will allow us to create an event at each stage of the «Skin – Technological Interface» exhibition curated by Jens Hauser.

We will need to study the positioning of an incubator at the bottom of the garment, together with a pump for the live cultivation of the skins in Petri dishes. These elements will be studied, designed and produced so as to form an integral part of the installation. We could also envisage the integration of solar panels into the patchwork of the coat; these could supply energy to the pump, symbolically reinforcing the formal analogy with melatonin and the mechanistic nature of racism.


This project follows on from my hybridation project using digital photography. My latest series, entitled «Self-Hybridation: Précolombienne», «Self-Hybridation: Africaine» and «Self-Hybridation: Indiens d’Amérique» endeavored to crossbreed the beauty canons of other cultures and other media (sculpture, photography, painting) with my own image. The Harlequin’s coat project thus develops and continues to explore the idea of crossbreeding and hybridation, using the more carnal medium of skin. It also questions the relationships currently being established between (bio)technology and culture.


In order to study and begin to realize this project, I would be most grateful if you could grant me a three-month residency, from July to October 2006 in SymbioticA, at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

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