In defence of Bioartwork

Art, science and technology 

Bioscience and biotechnology both stand on the fastest moving and arguably most alarming frontier of cultural evolution.It is worth distinguishing them because the difference parallels the distinction between those unexpected epiphanies that we identify with art and the purposeful exploitation of those familiar ways of acting purposefully that drive the production of institutionally sanctioned works of art.

If every way of purposefully exploiting all of the regularities implicit in the unwinding universe were already known to us there would be no more science to be pursued, no new memes to be acquired and no art left to expand our minds. Available technologies and their implications would make accessible every goal we might be motivated to pursue by our moral, political, economic, legal, ethical and purely self-serving ambitions. We could in principle do whatever we decide to do; subject only to the frustration that other people might decide with equal conviction, and perhaps greater force, to do something completely different.

We presently fall dismally short of such omniscience. Nevertheless, in biotechnology (for example) we already have access to all the memes we need to generate at will a rabbit that glows in the dark or, more usefully, a crop that discourages insect pests or copes with dehydration. It is a domain in which the question of whether we should or should not purposefully do any or all of the things that we are already capable of doing is contested in the usual ways - whether we are real biotechnologists or mere amateurs invading their institutional territory and presenting our trespasses for contemplation as works of art.

The answer to the question about what it amounts to, to offer the results of random forays into biotechnology for contemplation as works of art, was once believed – and is evidently still believed by some elderly people – to generate objects that are ineffably imbued with aesthetic goodness. Confronted as we nowadays are by somebody's attempt to graft a live pig’s ear onto a mahogany sideboard this rationale has a diminished viability. A consensus of sorts is gathering around the very different conviction that the point of works of art is to open up our collective mind to the possibility that the world is in some ways much more wonderful and in other ways much more abominable than we had previously supposed.

On this revelatory understanding of what art is, making bioartworks is more like doing bioscience than it is like doing biotechnology. Scientists like to surprise themselves by what they have done in ways in which technologists don’t like to surprise themselves. Scientists welcome the news that the world does not after all have the regularities they thought it did, whereas technologists find these revelations disconcerting.

There is, as well, a disanalogy between art and science. The contemplators of new and compelling scientific discoveries do not suppose that they should be censored on the ground that they are morally objectionable or politically inexpedient or economically ruinous. In contrast, the production of institutionally sanctioned works of art is constrained in the same way as other technologies – as child-photographers have ruefully discovered. The art institution, as a hotbed of discontents, is in this way more like the institution of biotechnology. Just as genetically modified canola cannot be confined to the field where it is grown, the experimental smearing of Ebola virus on the walls of the National Gallery cannot be performed as a work of art without inviting an outraged, and probably punitive, response.

All this is familiar conceptual territory. The contest between Panglossian social optimists and differently motivated sociopaths is fierce enough on every frontier of cultural evolution. The additional factor in relation to biotechnology is that we are not merely contemplating the end of the world as we know it. It is worse than that.

 

Biological and cultural evolution

The human species has evolved biologically in a natural way that we think we understand reasonably well in principle, if not in every detail. Comparatively recently, in geological time, some animals – notably we ourselves – have initiated complex forms of cultural evolution in which cultural kinds, such as the internal combustion engine and the still life with fruit, are seen to evolve not through the randomly accidental orchestration of genes subject to differentiation by unpredictable environments but through the orchestration of purposefully deployed memes.

There has of course been a complex interaction between the purposefully wrought consequences of cultural evolution and the blind machinations of biological evolution. It has even been speculated that cultural evolution – particularly in food production and in medical technology – has brought our own biological evolution to an end. Although this is not true, it is certainly the case that cultural evolution has come to be a potent factor in the biological evolution not only of our own but of every other natural species. As George Monbiot recently put it:

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition [that endless economic growth is available].[1]

Our radically new ground of anxiety can be surveyed fairly quickly. Biological evolution has, until comparatively recently, been purposeless in the sense that no intelligence has rationally willed that we should evolve biologically in any other way than by genetic accident in a context of unpredictably emergent circumstances. The relatively minor and historically recent emergence of plant and animal breeding was restricted in scope and it was applied potentially to ourselves only by easily ridiculed eugenicists. But things have changed. It is now conceivable that we might generate living organisms artificially, beginning very soon with a primitive yeast. We are certainly already able to manipulate the genetic endowment of our own and other species in such a way that the course of future biological evolution is not just contingently responsive to cultural evolution but has become an artefact of cultural evolution.

The old distinction has collapsed. We face the prospect of our own species becoming a cultural kind – or perhaps many cultural kinds – and ceasing to be in any significant way a biological kind. But who are the we who are becoming capable of doing whatsoever we please, not only to our kind but to our genetically perpetuated descendants? How shall we reconcile differences of opinion among ourselves about which impulses to pursue? Worse, indeed: what if the consequences of what we do should turn out to gratify very few, or even none of the incoherent golem horde of individuals we spawn, locked as they may be into runaway fugues of cultural evolution free from any collectively mediated oversight?

Real biotechnologists no doubt ponder such questions on sleepless nights or under duress, when they are summoned to participate in panel discussions and talk-back programs. Those amateur biotechnologists whose real business is the generation of works of art have an even greater responsibility because they are not entitled to the indulgence claimed by real biotechnologists, who take themselves to be merely doing their job like pastry cooks and tax accountants – all of them appropriately deferential to those custodians of the human destiny who command the talk-back microphone and the benches of the High Court. To the extent that artists are seriously interested in art and not merely in institutional renown their job is not like this. It is to offer for public appraisal and criticism new ways of understanding the world and of acting within it in ways that are deferential neither to the ranting of inebriated shock jocks nor to the findings of sober judges.

Finding the right lawyer

Because of the impending collapse of biological evolution into an artefact of cultural evolution the 'academic’ defence for the outrageous offering of rats with heads at both ends may be insufficient. I take it that the academic defence is the one that might, in the hands of an adroit lawyer, protect an institutionally sanctioned researcher into child pornography from prosecution when abominable images have been found on her computer. It might even, in some jurisdictions, legitimise the open publication of these very images by a respectable university press.

The trouble with this superficially attractive defence is that artists have for decades now habituated themselves to a scornful repudiation of it, protesting that they are not merely contemplating the world but actively participating in it.

I have often run this argument, both for and against, myself. It may be that I have not taken seriously enough the possibility that it is not only the melancholy fate of the artist, like that of the whistle-blower, to risk unjust incarceration for showing us how things really are. It is also to risk justifiable punishment for behaviour that is, as a matter of fact, atrocious. An argument of sorts might go like this: if the introduction of public hanging is on the agenda, then people had better be shown a public hanging, to find out where they stand.

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ George Monbiot, ‘The Impossibility of Growth’ in The Guardian, 28 May 2014. http://www.monbiot.com/2014/05/27/the-impossibility-of-growth

Donald Brook is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts, Flinders University, a philosopher, art critic, artist and theorist.

Cartoons by Bart.

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