In the accompanying blog post, my colleague Charissa explores the related, though distinct, concepts of biology in art and bioart. She describes the latter as, “contemporary art in which artists use living matter to make performative objects and installations.” We explored some examples of bioart in an earlier post, when we examined the agar art contest sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology. In this contest, as you may recall, microbiologists were challenged to create a piece of art with “microbes as the paint and agar as the canvas.” The results were stunning and illustrate both the creativity of the microbiologists and the metabolic diversity of the microbes.
This type of art, however, does not fulfill Charissa’s entire definition of bioart. In her entry, she further states that bioart pieces “comment upon genetics and the genome project,” and provide a form of political critique. As much as I admire the agar art pieces created by my fellow microbiologists, I would be hard-pressed to impart on them any deeper cultural or political meaning. Other examples of bioart, however, certainly meet this part of her definition.
To examine bioart that meets the entire definition offered by Charissa, let’s looks at the work of Eduardo Kac. He has termed his work transgenic art, which he defines as, “a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings.” (From: http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html) Perhaps his most famous creation was Alba, the fluorescent bunny. To create Alba, the gene for green fluorescent protein was inserted into the genome of an albino rabbit, resulting in a bunny that glows.
Green fluorescent protein, or GFP, first was isolated from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in the 1960s. When excited with light in the blue to ultraviolet range, it emits light in the green range. Since the 1990s, molecular biologists have been using GFP to “tag” proteins of interest. The technique actually is quite simple. In a test tube, the GFP gene is fused to the gene encoding a protein of interest. This recombinant DNA then is inserted into a cell. Within the cell, a fused, or chimeric, protein is produced from the recombinant DNA. The protein of interest has attached to it the green fluorescent protein. By exposing the cell to blue or ultraviolet light, the researcher can determine the location of the protein of interest based on the appearance of the green fluorescence. To create Alba, Kac engineered a rabbit to express GFP in all of its cells.
The creation of Alba in 2000 was met with much public interest and many questions. Was the creation of Alba ethical? Should we be allowed to altered life in this fashion? Is it art? Was Kac playing God?
Perhaps, critics should have asked other questions. Has Kac created something substantively different from the recombinant cells and organisms “created” by countless researchers in laboratories throughout the world? Does Alba differ from the GFP-containing cells generated and used by scientists? Was Alba worthy of the hype?
In her post on bioart, Charissa notes that critical thinking and awareness “arise as much, if not in a better and more powerful fashion, from basic scientific literacy, which is rooted in a passion for scientific thinking, ideas, and facts.” I couldn’t agree more.
Biology in Art and Bioart: A Study in Elective Affinities
Biology and bioart are bound together by materials and definition. Coined in the late 1990s, the term bioart names the cutting-edge field of contemporary art in which artists use living matter to make performative objects and installations that comment upon genetics and the genome project. Here, cells, flesh, and living organisms are the stuff of artistic form-making and political critique.
Biology in art is the much broader field that encompasses bioart, foregrounding this avant-gardism in the capacious expanse of history. In situating bioart under the greater rubric of biology in art, I seek to expand the political agency of the greater hybrid interaction of art-and-science by making the following argument: awe, wonder, and basic scientific literacy constitute a form of critical thinking – in addition to bioart’s interrogation of genetic engineering.
In Bioart and the Vitality of Media, Robert Mitchell argues that there are two basic types of bioart: prophylactic and vitalist. For Mitchell, the “prophylactic tactic” within bioart is more conventionally representational and uses distance as a mode of critique. He says that the prophylactic in bioart “seeks to protect spectators of art from what are understood as unhealthy excesses of the problematic of biotechnology.” (Mitchell, 12) Vitalist bioart, by contrast, “endeavors to transform this problematic by involving spectators more closely within it.” (Mitchell, 12) If the one offers critique from without and from afar, the other does from within and by way of full immersion. While spatially and materially distinct, both strains of bioart claim to bear a negative political critique on bioengineering and, to a greater degree, science.
By opening up the discussion of contemporary bioart practices to the greater historical-and-theoretical gambit of biology in art, I would like to argue for a critical impact rooted in the positive force of basic scientific literacy. So, to the prophylactic and vitalist modes of criticism coursing through bioart, I add the awe and wonder of scientific literacy.
While bioart is scintillating and topical, it is often daunting in its opacity and abstruse to art spectators. What goes lost sometimes on its talented creators is the fact that before being critical of science, the genome project, and bioengineering, the art-loving/art-going public must know what they are. It would be helpful if people understood evolution, embryology, the rise of genetics, the functions of the gene, the role of forces in morphology, etc. when they entered into the vibrant if not ominous fray that a work of bioart can instantiate.
My work in the field of biology in art brings to bear a broader, more multifaceted sense of politics to both the humanities and science. My thinking is informed by the history and philosophy of biology, in particular the split within the field that occurred roughly a century ago between embryology, evolutionary development, and genetics. In their essay about this caesura, titled “Looking at Embryos: The Visual and Conceptual Aesthetics of Emerging Form,” Scott F. Gilbert and Marion Faber write about the role of awe, wonder, and Yügen in watching life unfold through scientific visualization. The last term, Yügen, is a “concept connoting cloudy impenetrability,” which “is attached to the mood or atmosphere generated by an object of exception elegance or gracefulness.” (Gilbert and Faber, 133) The word also bears a “feeling of mutability.” (Gilbert and Faber, 133) While the authors unpack the aesthetic, intuitive, and irreducible side of biological science in action, their thinking opens up new ways of being conscious – political and otherwise – to bioart practices.
Critical thinking and awareness do not always manifest easily, much less correctly, in a monolithic takedown or deconstruction of Science (the miscommunication that Science is all bad). They arise as much, if not in a better and more powerful fashion, from basic scientific literacy, which is rooted in a passion for scientific thinking, ideas, and facts. A critical positioning of resistance to the politics of ignorance and hate emerge from the deep, body-borne pleasure of biology: from the awe, wonder, and Yügen that are invariably attached to scientific truth.