The lesson we have learned from phenomenology is that society and technology co-constitute each other. Current and past events in the development of biotechnology point to the great changes we are going through as society and individuals. The ability to code life into symbols, and being able to interpret these symbols has changed the very notion of what we understand as life. (To complicate matters even further British physicist Stephen Hawking argued that computer viruses should be considered life forms since they submit to all the standard definitions of life). And, indeed, biotechnology and in particular the work with DNA allows us to alter hereditary characteristics. This is advanced even further with bioinformatics and nanotechnology where we can rebuild on an atomic level, and thus shape biological life forms. We have also unravelled the codes of life by mapping thousands of genes comprising the human genome, and have become able to genetically engineer embryos and alter the human species in general. Some hope that at the end of this process we will be able to thoroughly re-engineer life and dispose of death.
Moments in time
In May 2010, scientists in the US announced that they had successfully implanted a synthetic genome into an emptied bacterium cell. Essentially, this means that artificial (synthetic) life had been created with an organism controlled entirely by man-made DNA. The installing of an artificial genome inside a host cell was performed after completely removing the DNA. This artificial genome had then invigorated the host cell, which resulted in growing and reproducing. When speaking about the technical aspects Craig Venter, founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute said: “This is the first synthetic cell that's been made. We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.” He also said: “We are entering a new era where we’re limited mostly by our imaginations.”
As far as imagination goes artists are known to have it, alongside a dose of critical discourse. Artists have explored such things as extensions to the body; semi-living organisms; the relationship between the living and non-living; man-machine interactions; bio-couture (living “textiles”); the future of evolution and future of cyborgian systems; abiogenesis; and the inorganic becoming the organic. Equally important become embodiment issues, the enhancement of the human species, hybridity, but also the classical issues which artists have always confronted - colours, forms, fragrances, accidents, and textures.
Biotechnology and politics
Political connotations are often and not surprisingly found surrounding the realm of biotechnology in general, but also in issues of bio-tech culture and bio-tech arts. The activity of bio-tech artists has also been seen through a political lens. The artist-writer George Gessert points out that: “All art has political dimensions, but purely political art rarely tells us anything that we don’t already know. Agitprop has social uses, but is rarely interesting as art. What genetic art can do best is what art has always done best: engage our minds and hearts through our senses, break down stereotypes, define hopes and fears, baffle and astonish, relieve our isolation”.
But Gessert goes on to say that: “All works of genetic art, whatever their political slant, validate public discussion about biotechnology and genetics. This has important political implications. Business, science, agriculture, and government control not only biotechnology, but most of the discourse about it. Almost everyone else, including artists, have stayed out – or been held out – of public discourse about genetics. Until very recently the few who spoke up in even small ways were often ridiculed, marginalised or attacked. This was, in part, presumably because eugenics was lurking in the wings, ready to pounce if people as allegedly emotional and irresponsible as artists got involved. In the 1980s, when I first exhibited hybrid irises in galleries, I was questioned about eugenics, and heard nervous comments about Hitler and racism during the course of every exhibition; to many people, even the mildest reference to genetics in the context of ‘culture’ implied eugenics. Once in the gallery, hybrid irises weren’t irises: they were stand-ins for people.”
I agree with Gessert when he states that: “Genetic art has fostered discussion, not only about biotechnology, but about bringing consciousness to evolution – our own evolution, that of other species, and of the biosphere. The understanding of issues that surround these things is much greater today than it was just a few years ago, at least in the art world”. When questioned further on the fact that the work of bio-tech artists has often been under scrutiny for being in the service of bio-technology by acting in a normalising and regularising fashion, he responds “When an artist uses biotechnology, he or she is only validating its use for that particular work. Use of a tool is not an endorsement of everything else that it can do, in art or elsewhere. What is a valid use? The answer will vary from artist to artist.”
The theorist Eugene Thacker thinks that part of the reason as to why artists use living organisms in order to create art, is that “it has to do with the ‘reality’ factor, the idea being that in using life itself one moves beyond representation. But this is obviously a complex move, since many of the works are still exhibited and documented as traditional artworks. Other artists move towards performance, hoping to avoid this trap. But then why isn’t gardening or your own living body a work of art?”Thacker also looks into the changed connection between sciences (e.g. biology) with culture and informatics, and inverts Timothy Leary’s notion that computers are drugs of the 1990s by saying that “for the biotech industry, drugs are the computers of the 21st century”. This is a significant paradigm shift. “The idea there was that the bio-tech industry is largely driven by advanced computer technologies, much of which is used in the design of new drugs, which are modelled and tested, and then circulated in the market, ending up in the living body of the patient. So something that starts out as informational and computational ends up in the living body, thereby intervening in or modifying that living body. So information becomes more ‘wet’ and living bodies become more informational.”
And yet, we must not forget that many of the key bio-tech artists, including the Chicago-based Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, one of the main protagonists of bio-tech art, are suffering from looking at biotechnology through what are basically positivist lenses, which essentially contributes to the non-critical acceptance and formation of the bio-political apparatus. Both Alba and Genesis (Eduardo Kac’s best known works) have served well as a bio-tech break-through in the field of art, and culture more generally. They have also contributed to the “cementing” of the bio-political apparatus in art and culture, as one more sphere of human activities, along with biomedicine, agriculture, bio-patenting, human rights, bioethics, science and technology – in theory, practice and regulations.
And yet, as the artworld is inclined to think in these terms, most of these artworks have been seen as creations of a visionary artist who is using biotechnology for the purpose of creating avant-garde artwork. The critics remained blissfully oblivious of the service that these artworks have provided to the propagation of biotechnology, while also establishing a bio-political apparatus in the field of art and culture.
On the other hand, Kac himself, trying to diffuse any potential criticism says that “technological criticism is one of the most important responsibilities of contemporary artists.” Although he continues to say that he believes that technology cannot be left behind in art and that it’s the artist’s duty to raise questions about contemporary life through the use of new media, he is never explicitly critical of bio-technologies but instead proposes “transgenic art” – artistic appropriation of genetic engineering technology to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism in order to create new and unique living beings – as his personal contribution to contemporary art. Kac adds to the discussion “artists can offer important alternatives to the polarised debate” about genetic engineering, putting “ambiguity and subtlety” in place of polarity. The language he uses is basically modernist, and the tactic he uses is sometimes sensationalist, as in the case of Alba – also known as The GFP Transgenic Bunny.
Internationally famous, Alba is an albino rabbit whose entire body glows green under fluorescent light. She was created in 2000 at the INRA Institute in France, through the collaborative efforts of Eduardo Kac, Louis Bec, Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet. There was an obvious division of labour, whereby Kac did the conceptual thinking for the creation of the glowing rabbit, while the science team carried out the technical side of the project. The social side of the project was also important, as Kac intended that the rabbit would live with his family in Chicago, and was obliged to get involved in campaigning to get the laboratory to release Alba so that she could join the family.
Steve Tomasula explains a characteristic attitude in Genetic Art and the Aesthetics of Biology. He sees Alba, the first mammal genetically altered in the creation of a work of art, to have been part of a performed social event entitled GFP Bunny. He says, “In it, Kac and the rabbit were to live together first in a faux living room within the Grenier à Sel in Avignon, France, then with Kac’s real family in his real home in Chicago. What happened instead was that Alba was confiscated by the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, the research lab in which Kac’s biologist collaborators worked and the lead biologist himself was reprimanded. The public debate Kac hoped to generate did ensue, however, with some members of the French and German press equating Alba’s confiscation with artistic censorship and others characterising Alba as a work of decadent art.”
A few years later, in 2003, unrelated to Eduardo Kac’s project, “GloFish” was being promoted on the North American market. Due to the decision of the INRA Lab Alba never achieved the status of the First Biotech Pet, and the honour went to GloFish which was in fact specially bred to detect water pollutants and thanks to the addition of a natural bioluminescence gene glows red under black light.
Numerous questions surface in regard to these works, such as if Alba can still be regarded as a work of art, after it dies? From the point of view of bio-tech art it seems important to define the responsibilities of the artists, curators, collectors and the general audience in regard to live works of art. Eduardo Kac additionally questions under what circumstances, if any, can death or suffering become aspects of art. Kac points out that “we can make art in which the relationship between audience and work is the relationship of two subjects, not a subject and an object. What are the boundaries of a work of living art? Is all of it art, or only certain features, such as flowers or fluorescence? What kinds of interactions are possible with live artworks?”
Another example of artists dealing with the notion of a bio-tech species is Brandon Ballengée’s Species Reclamation via a Non-Linear Genetic Timeline to recreate a species of African frog, Hymenochirus curtipes, which is probably extinct. The piece is also a critique of the widely perceived saving power of science, as the artist is well aware that the recreated species have not interacted with the wild, and are therefore ill-equipped to deal with our changing climate. Still, Ballengée does attempt to reconstruct a vanished species. He is not alone in this. De-extinction has become a buzz word in many circles. The Australian scientist Mike Archer revived two species of Australian frogs, the Rheobatrachus vitellinus and Rheobatrachus silus, which had disappeared in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the revived specimens also disappeared. A team of Spanish and French scientists brought bucardo (the Pyrenean ibex) back from extinction, for a few minutes, before it died. Cloning techniques look promising for the return of the woolly mammoth, the thylacine, the passenger pigeons, etc. Bioethicists and conservations have become very involved.
Is there any difference between a scientist reviving a lost species, and an artist (who is also a scientist) doing this? It would seem that in the latter case the animal is not solely the test object, but is also the aesthetic object. The question of chimera also appears.
Life and semi-life
The Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A) was set up by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr to explore the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. The importance of TC&A in regard to the bio-tech species lies in the investigating of different gradients of life through the creation of a novel class of existence, the “Semi-Living”. The very existence of Semi-Living things or Semi-Living beings as parts of complex organisms sustained alive outside of the body and coerced to grow in predetermined shapes, questions our concept of life and what it represents today. Any analysis directed toward the Semi-Living thing has to take into account the virtue of its content, the enabling circumstances for its existence, as well as wider cultural meaning. The Semi-Living has to be viewed through the “lived experience” of the spatiality of bio-tech artworks (referring to the “lived space”); the corporeality of biotech artworks (referring to the “lived body”); the temporality of bio-tech artworks (referring to the “lived time”); and the relationality of bio-tech artworks (referring to the “lived other”).
I have exhibited the TC&A Project projects on three occasions. Pig Wings at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Skopje for SEAFair 2002 – Cultural Transformations – Consciousness and New Technologies; Extra Ear –1/4 Scale in Art of the Biotech Era at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide in 2004; and NoArk 2 for Biotech Art – Revisited at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, in 2009.
In their work, the TC&A Project has consistently explored the different relations humans have with other living and partially living systems. In the Pig Wings Project TC&A explored public reactions to the semi-living through the iconography of winged bodies. The type of wings represented the creatures (chimeras) as either good/angelic (birds) or evil/satanic (bats), as well as the Pterosaurs (culturally non-burdened). The use of tissue engineering and stem cell technologies in order to grow pig bone tissue in the shape of these three sets of wings represents the first ever wing-shaped objects grown using living pig tissue.
TC&A have explored the ethical and perceptual issues stemming from the realisation that living tissue can be grown and sustained outside of the body. In Extra Ear – 1/4 Scale a partially living 1/4 scale replica of Stelarc’s ear was constructed out of degradable biopolymers and seeded with human chondrocytes. TC&A sees this project as promoting a vision of the semi-living as an entity too subtle to become a monster and too fragile to be a threat; a benign, dependent being that challenges current cultural perceptions of life and questions the relationships we construct with living systems. TC&A therefore offers a phenomenological confrontation with evocative objects/subjects and an idea of interconnectivity and ubiquitous body that cannot be experienced through representational media or existing discourse. The same project, seen from the perspective of Stelarc has to do with the attachment of the ear to the body as a soft prosthesis. Extra Ear –1/4 Scale provokes discussion of new kinds of bodies, including a metabody and an extended techno-scientific body that foils standardisation and classification and is everywhere and anywhere connected. Thus the metabody is literal, but it is also a symbolic device that extends the notion of subjectivity, changes perceptions of body boundaries, explores techno-organic borders and extends bonds between life forms.
In the well-known Disembodied Cuisine TC&A looked at aspects of creating life forms as well as interacting with them by growing frog skeletal muscle over biopolymer, with the goal of creating potential food product. The idea was that a biopsy can be taken from an animal, or alternatively cell lines can be used to grow a victimless “steak”.
At the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, I curated two installations by Andre Brodyk: the hybrid installation glo(c)k gene, for Art of the Biotech Era in 2004, and Proto-animate19 for the exhibition Biotech Art – Revisited in 2009. The installation glo(c) k gene which is characterised by using living material as a new art medium, employs the processes used in biotechnology involving genetic engineering as new media art protocols to critique both art and science. Therefore glo(c)k gene centres itself around the idea that current transgenic technologies make possible the engineering of any living species with encoded genetic material from a variety of sources, including non-living ‘inanimate’ objects. The non-living therefore becomes a crucial part of life, changing “the lived experience”, referencing the temporal and transitory notion of life forms and the concept of the living. Presented as a hybrid of living/non-living as both science fictional and science fact, glo(c)k gene progressively deteriorates throughout the exhibition at variable rates.
Looks like life, walks like life ... is life?
Nowadays, computer scientists, microbiologists, physicists and artists occupy themselves increasingly with creating entities that look and behave like living organisms. They eat, grow, evolve, multiply and die. In other words, they display all characteristics of biological life. Bioinformatics assists us in cracking the codes of nature, as well as to create more effective ones, by taking evolution into our own hands.What is life? According to Foucault “the disciplining of the body” and “the regulations of the population” constitute “the two poles” around which the organisation of power over life is deployed. Directed toward the performances of the body and the processes of life, a certain formation of a classical apparatus of bipolar technology, in both its anatomic and biological levels, is characterised as a power whose highest function is no longer to kill, but rather to invest life through and through. Foucault points out that from the 17th century, power over life evolved in two basic forms, which constitute the two poles of development.
The first pole is centred on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimisation of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls. An Anatamo-politics of the human body is a term perhaps best understood as exerting power over the actual, physical body of members of the population. As the politics of anatomy relates to the power exerted over bodily parts, stem cells, genomic material, etc., in terms of access to them, their manipulation, and execution in the decision making processes the essential point here becomes about who is allowed to do what with their body parts, or what could potentially be done with the noted body parts such as stem cells, cloned organs.
The second pole focuses on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and one which serves as a basis of the biological processes: propagation, birth and mortality; the level of health, life expectancy and mortality, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision is being effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a Biopolitics of the population.
Artist George Gessert has stated: “From the 18th through the 20th centuries technological developments led to revolutions. I think that in the 21st century change will be generated less by technological developments than by their unintended consequences such as climate change, species loss, and ecological collapse. A key role of art will be to produce ways of thinking and feeling that point toward more sustainable economic and social systems.”
Though not interested in extending the possibilities of the physical body he is nevertheless interested in dreams about the body that biotechnology fosters, especially ones that express buried or marginalised desires. Same-sex reproduction, plagues crafted by ideologues, becoming machine, new human species – dangerous dreams that should be explored in art in part so that we can be forewarned.
Morality, adaptative technoscience and art
Trish Adams’s artwork machina carnis, the last work in a series of works called the vital force series, is situated in the field of enquiry about corporeality and potential changes to the body as we know it today. machina carnis explores the impact of taking the source material from her own body in the form of unscreened cells. Stem cells from her blood sample are changed to beating cardiac cells in vitro; creating an innovative model where Adams becomes at once both artist/researcher and human guinea pig. Having worked on the Apoptosis Project where she was killing her own cells, she became curious about the reverse construct where these cells might be regenerated, or capable of “changing their fates” and becoming other types of cells through biotechnical intervention. Adams’ use of human tissue and the subsequent immersive installation format in machina carnis encourages empathy between the viewer and the artwork, posing questions about what it means to be human in the 21st century, and the ways in which our understanding of ourselves will be changed by contemporary developments in biotechnology. It is a testimony to the fact that we are obviously changing as a species.
In an interview with me Adams said: “My intentional first-person engagement with both the experimental material and the laboratory processes means that this is an unconventional and subjective methodology from the outset. It contravenes customary scientific protocols and enables me to immerse myself as a human being and an artist. My aim is to recontextualise the scientific data through a sensual reading of my scientific experience as a whole. I perceived the work as being something totally new, both scientifically and artistically. I had the opportunity to be an artist/researcher in the lab experimenting on my own cells which was an amazing opportunity rarely available, if at all, to other members of the community. This put me in a position to share this experience with viewer/participants through the way that I created the subsequent artwork. I hoped to generate their empathy because the visual experimental data showed human cells much like their own.”
I asked Gary Cass, the Australian scientist turned artist, whether artistic appropriation of genetic engineering technologies in order to create new and unique living beings, as a personal contribution to contemporary art, is morally acceptable? “Mmmmmm! If the sciences can do it why can’t the arts? The eternal question. I suppose it is the proposed outcomes of these technologies. One may argue that to genetically modify in order to feed or medicate an ever-growing world population may be okay. To genetically modify for the recreation of others may not be. But this recreation could make people more aware and educated about possible outcomes enabling them to make more informed decisions. Morally, when it comes to GM technologies, the human species has dissociated itself from nature and believes it has the right to decide what is morally right and wrong; humans are nature. From an evolutionary point of view, the fact that one species has gained the knowledge to control life makes it stronger and from the means of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, knowledge is power. The future of natural selection may become human domestication.”
I put it to him that bio-tech artwork is after all an artistic and aesthetic experience and he seems to be concerned with the aesthetic aspects via pondering the idea of a pre-genetic, historical aesthetisation of the evolution of humans and other earthly species via selection processes, etc. Aesthetics seemed to be a generally dying discipline until the arrival of the digital age, and then aestheticians jumped on the bandwagon and started writing about digital aesthetics. Is there today a place for an “aesthetics of genetics”? Should one be written? What would its rules be? Are we today successful at aesthetising the biotech revolution?
Gary Cass responds: “I thought aesthetic and phenotype roughly mean the same thing? So if genotype = phenotype then the bio-tech revolution will dictate the aesthetic of genetics. The digital aesthetics is written about the unreal, where the genetic aesthetic is/will be written about the real. Therefore yes something should be written in order to protect and respect the real. I am worried that the anaesthetising of the bio-tech revolution to date has taken on negative connotations. But we see that the sciences by mis/not informing the public, create only fear and pessimism. If only science would open the lab doors and inform the public, a better understanding of biotech would be achieved.”
Micro’be’ Fermented Fashion, a project by Gary Cass and Donna Franklin is a project that starts with a bottle of wine. The artists refer to the ethics of textile production, in which we disassociate ourselves from the natural world, and suggest a way out. The living cloth/skin in Micro’be’ Fermented Fashion is produced by living microbes that ferment wine into vinegar, to produce a microbiological cellulose by-product, chemically similar to cotton. Practical and cultural biosynthesis of clothing is being explored, as well as possible forms and cultural implications of futuristic dressmaking and textile technologies.
Suzanne Lee’s project BioCouture is another example of organic fashion design trends, presenting a blouse made out of material derived from bacterial cellulose, as an environmental-friendly alternative to the heavy pollution inherent in the cotton and textile industry.
There are obvious complexities in working with biotech arts, as it generates enthusiasm for the changed role of arts in the 21st century and raises questions related to creativity, aesthetics, ethics, biopolitics, and the general shifting of the attention of our society towards science-technology, as well as figuring out of the texture of reality in today’s world.
The post-human condition is conveyed today by the work of artists such as Adam Zaretsky, Natasha Vita More, David Khang, Joe Davis, and Ted Hiebert, among others. Natasha Vita More is truly invested in the future being all about human enhancement. She is best known for her work Primo Posthuman and its iteration Platform Diverse Body, as well as for Substrate Autonomous Person – the cognitive networking for mind uploading and transfer across platforms. She firmly believes bio art will be deeply involved in radical life extension in the years to come, and that the interactions between artists and scientists will lead to important breakthroughs in this.
Intriguingly, Ted Hiebert’s work refers to the mysterious capacities of magnetic fields which are able to impede a bird’s ability to navigate while flying, temporarily suspend moral judgment, or stimulate spiritual experiences. Hiebert’s performances involve placing magnets on both sides of his head, and then patiently allowing these strong magnetic fields to affect his body and consciousness. We do not know what the consequences of this will be, as we do not fully understand magnetism. But the post-human condition is bound to take into account advances in understanding electro-magnetism, in the same way as it is embracing biological sciences.
David Khang is an artist (as well as being a dentist) who experiments with biomaterials. In Beautox Me he works with actors whose faces are used as a canvas for cosmetic/ artistic intervention through botox facial injections. Facial modifications occur as they pose for ‘before’ and ‘after’ video shoots while reciting highly affective scripts. The two channels are synchronised, to highlight the differentiated visual cues caused by the botox-induced muscle paralysis.
Adam Zaretsky in his recent reflections titled Oocyte Aesthetics, Human Design and Mission Creep asks the essential question: How do we decide what is worth engineering for? The wider question he is concerned with is: does oocyte (egg) modification in assisted reproduction for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease or treatment of infertility take into account the effect of any accompanying ‘aesthetic decisions’ on the long-term ecological effects of human design? Zaretsky believes in exploring the entire range of the programmed body and would like to see inherited genetic modification intervention move on from health promotion, to designing a wide variety of ‘aesthetic’ gene expressions in a collage of multiple genomic palettes.
In Malus Ecclesia pioneering artist Joe Davis experiments with a four-thousand-year-old strain of apple – the closest relative of the forbidden fruit that grew in the Garden of Eden. He is using synthetic biology to recreate the living Tree of Knowledge by inserting a DNA-encoded version of Wikipedia into the apple.
The profound technological changes ahead of us, reflected in the works of artists, are bound to result in significant changes in the political, social and economic systems. We find ourselves, however, in a different situation than the one predicted by Foucault, as biopolitics today begins to realise that biotechnology potentially allows for a further emancipation of the human being in terms of its self-understanding, its own genetic make-up, all of its flaws and virtues. The constant advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology and 3D printing, certainly signify a shift in the balance of power in favour of a society that can select and design desirable life-forms.
- a, b From my interview with George Gessert.
- a, b From my interview with Eugene Thacker.
- ^ Leonardo, vol. 35, no. 2, April 2002, pp. 137–144.
- ^ This sort of discourse is repeated in Carol Becker’s ‘GFP Bunny’ in Art Journal,Fall 2000; Carrie Dierk’s ‘Glowing Bunny Sparks International controversy’ in Biology News, 12 October 2000; Gareth Cook’s ‘Cross hare: hop and glow’, Boston Globe, 9 July 2000; Libby Copeland’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, Washington Post, 18 October 2000.
Melentie Pandilovski is the Director of Video Pool in Winnipeg. He curated two iterations of Art in the Biotech Era for the Experimental Art Foundation in 2006-09 and is a frequent speaker and author worldwide on bio art and technology.