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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - March 2004   
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 HOME
 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 Science and the world, art and the ego
 The enigma of knots
 The beauty of maths
 Research in all its aspects
 Intuition and fantasy
 Science in fiction
 The seventh art
 Crossed ideas
 The paradoxes of perception
 Experiencing science through art
 Museums of the digital age
 Europe, researchers and cultural heritage

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BIOTECHNOLOGICAL ART
Title  The mysteries of a mutant art

Biotech artists’ studios are laboratories and their materials are cells, DNA molecules and living tissue. The life sciences can be a vehicle for ethical, as well as, aesthetic inquiry. We take a look at a special coming together of 'art and science'. 

Art or science? It is sometimes in the culture section and sometimes on the science pages (as here) that journalists write about Alba, Eduardo Kac's fluorescent rabbit which has brought the notion of biotech art to the attention of the general public.
Art or science? It is sometimes in the culture section and sometimes on the science pages (as here) that journalists write about Alba , Eduardo Kac's fluorescent rabbit which has brought the notion of biotech art to the attention of the general public.


Alba is a white rabbit which, when placed under ultraviolet light, emits a greenish glow. Born at an Inra laboratory in Jouy-en-Josas (FR), she received a jellyfish gene which enables her to synthesise a fluorescent protein. Although, generally speaking, there is nothing really extraordinary about such transgenic animals for researchers, on this occasion, Alba's creator, the American-Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, used the mutation for a unique purpose. It is the starting point for a work which is structured around everything that has been said, written or organised on the subject of this 'fluo' rabbit, including exhibitions, the artist's comments and reactions by the critics and general public. The living creature as creative material, art interacting with science, the inevitable shadow cast by the biotechnological industry, the ethical issues raised by genetic engineering – it is in such terms that Kac, a pioneer of this new “biotech art” movement, sees the meaning and implications of his own transgenic art. 

Living art
But bioartists are not only interested in genetics and DNA. 'The first of these artists appeared in the 1980s and the approach gained considerable significance over the next decade. But our work is very diverse.

Today, we consider as bioartists all those who explore the body, cultivate new flowers, or whose work uses organic matter,' explains the Slovenian artist Polona Tratnik. The common element in all these works is that the point of departure is life itself, rather than its representation, its metaphor or its digital simulation. Wings designed for pigs, unique butterfly specimens, hybrid irises, genetically modified bacteria and tattooed skin cultures are all ‘living objects’ which   – while not always particularly spectacular in themselves –  serve rather as the point of departure for multi-dimensional works, encompassing often very provocative artistic expressions in the form of installations, words or performances. Rather than glorifying or rejecting en masse human engineering of living creatures, the way these artists present these sometimes 'monstrous' creations causes us to question science and technology, as well as the ambiguity of our own reactions.   

Art in the lab
All the artists presented in this article participated in the Biotech Art exhibition, organised by Jens Hauser at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes (France) in the spring of 2003. A debate between philosophers, researchers, artists and members of the public was the occasion to raise questions on 'this art which disturbs, which portrays our fears and our contradictions'. www.lelieuunique.com/SAISON/2003/2/ArtBiotech.html
All the artists presented in this article participated in the Biotech Art exhibition, organised by Jens Hauser at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes (France) in the spring of 2003. A debate between philosophers, researchers, artists and members of the public was the occasion to raise questions on 'this art which disturbs, which portrays our fears and our contradictions'. www.lelieuunique.com
To work in this way, artists must use the tools and the methods of biologists. This is why they must work together. This collaboration takes many forms. Some artists act as guinea pigs, such as the French duo Art Orienté Objet (AOO). Others, such as the Portuguese artist Marta de Menezes, use a number of techniques which they mould to their own designs. The Symbiotica group even founded, at the University of Western Australia in Perth, a laboratory which is subject to the same rules as the research units proper, in particular the practice of subjecting projects to the scrutiny of the university's ethics committee. Symbiotica investigates such subjects as the body's capacity for repair, organ culture and industrial animal rearing techniques. It creates so-called 'semi-living' entities by installing genuine mini-laboratories for cell culture at exhibition sites. At the other end of the spectrum, George Gessert, the plant magician, works in total solitude: 'I almost never work with researchers, or anyone else for that matter, just the plants.'

Initially surprised by these requests for collaboration, scientists now view the experiences as positive. 'Co-operation with an artist improves public knowledge of science. That said, I do not see how I could justify the use of my time and the subsidies I receive for purely artistic purposes,' points out Ana Pombo of the Centre for Clinical Sciences at Imperial College (UK), who has worked with Marta de Menezes.

In linking up with science in this way, these creations can themselves be the subject of controversy. 'It is hard to see how artists can be allowed to carry out experiments at the very time when scientists are prohibited from doing so, or are at least very closely monitored,' believes the philosopher Yves Michaud(1). Although the reality is that the artists are subject to the same laws and respect the same precautions as scientists, the point made does relate to a frequently asked question: have we got the right to manipulate living creatures for non-scientific purposes? Then there are the socio-economic concerns: are these artists not the secret spokesmen of the biotech industry? 'Scientists work with living creatures, children play with them, businessmen buy and sell them, we eat them and politicians determine the destiny of the entire species. Why can’t artists also work with living creatures?' asks Gessert. The plant magician readily admits that certain processes do raise ethical questions. As to the supposed link with industry, he believes that 'if there is a danger of exploitation, that is a risk to be run. The alternative would be an enforced silence that would benefit only the most mercenary scientists and big business.'

Ironically, Eduardo Kac's famous Alba has been described both as an 'act of resistance' against and as an 'act of collaboration' with the biotechnological industry. Could it be that the fluorescent rabbit also symbolises ambiguity?

(1) Art and biotechnologies, in the Biotech Art exhibition catalogue, Le Lieu Unique, Nantes (FR), March-April 2003 .


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  Marta de Menezes : Poetry and art

'I first began to investigate biology when I realised that it was a field I knew very little about. It was a time when important decisions were being taken about transgenic food, genetic engineering and the use of stem cells. I decided to learn by immersing ...
 
  George Gessert : Nature and solitude

'In the early 1990s, I was chiefly interested in auto-organised patterns, such as the spread of ink in non-coated paper. Working with living organisms, which are supremely auto-organised, was a logical extension of this approach. I have always been ...
 
  Polona Tratnik: ambiguous presences

'It was the desire to capture a certain presence of a living organism, of a body, that brought me to bioart,' writes the Slovenian painter Polona Tratnik in her installation entitled 37°C. The presentation consisted of three 'aquariums' each containing ...
 
  Art Orienté Objet : Frontiers and symbols

'Hybridisation' and 'poésie'. These are the two key words for Art Orienté Objet (AOO), the Parisian duo Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. 'The basis of all our work is the consciousness of the living creature and its manipulation ...
 

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      Marta de Menezes : Poetry and art

    'I first began to investigate biology when I realised that it was a field I knew very little about. It was a time when important decisions were being taken about transgenic food, genetic engineering and the use of stem cells. I decided to learn by immersing myself in the latest developments in research and, in so doing, I discovered extraordinary possibilities for artistic expression,' says Marta de Menezes, a painter born in Lisbon. She joined the laboratory for evolutionary biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands where a team of researchers, headed by Professor Paul Brakefield, were working on butterflies. The result of this collaboration was Nature? De Menezes changed the patterns on one of the wings of an insect about to be born by pricking the chrysalis at very precise points. Butterflies treated in this way produced one wing with a pattern modified by human intervention and the other with the natural pattern. These works, obtained without genetic engineering and therefore non-transmissible, were deliberately transitory.

    Nature? A butterfly with modified wings developed at Leiden University (NL). 'My main aim was to create works of art in which art and life are simultaneously present by using the possibilities of biology as a new medium for artistic creation.'
    Nature? A butterfly with modified wings developed at Leiden University (NL). 'My main aim was to create works of art in which art and life are simultaneously present by using the possibilities of biology as a new medium for artistic creation.'


    After producing 'DNA paintings' (Nucleart) at a British laboratory, in 2002, the Portuguese artist moved to Oxford University (UK) where she worked with Dr Patricia Figueirdo. Her attention there focused on functional magnetic resonance imaging. She used this technique – which makes it possible to visualise the brain's activity – to produce a series of ‘functional’ portraits of a pianist while playing and of herself while painting. These illustrate her innovative approach to representing the invisible 'essence' of models which painters have always sought to capture.

    The DNA molecule – the billions of nucleotides just a tiny proportion of which is enough to contain all our genetic information – has always held a fascination for de Menezes, for whom they represent a kind of internal universe. This inspired her series entitled ‘Inner clouds’. By precipitating an individual's DNA in a test tube, she obtained an opaque mass which she perceived as that person’s 'inner cloud'.

      George Gessert : Nature and solitude

    'In the early 1990s, I was chiefly interested in auto-organised patterns, such as the spread of ink in non-coated paper. Working with living organisms, which are supremely auto-organised, was a logical extension of this approach. I have always been fascinated by plants, for example, as aesthetic objects as well as life forms,' says George Gessert.

    Homage to Steichen, Steptocarpus hybrid, 1998'Walter Benjamin thought that mass produced works of art lost their aesthetic force. Ornamental plants prove the contrary.'
    Homage to Steichen, Steptocarpus hybrid, 1998'
    Walter Benjamin thought that mass produced works of art lost their aesthetic force. Ornamental plants prove the contrary.'


    He practices a biotech art in which technology plays very little part. He cultivates, crosses and selects flowers without any contact with scientific institutions. A former student of horticulture, he has an extensive knowledge of biology, chemistry and entomology. He views gardening almost as a fine art and works in the tradition of the German Edward Steichen who exhibited his hybrid flowers at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

    Gessert also makes a very specific selection, deliberately creating flowers unlikely to meet with much success on the horticultural market. Adopting a kind of 'Darwinism in reverse', he takes up a stance in opposition to the prevailing taste. His number one enemy is kitsch.

    His work can seem purely aesthetic and in fact seeks to be precisely that, but it also includes reflections on death, time and eugenics. Gessert never forgets this sinister use made of genetics during the XXth century. 'We can only fully appreciate a work of art if we recognise the issues that it raises,' he explains. 

      Polona Tratnik: ambiguous presences

    'It was the desire to capture a certain presence of a living organism, of a body, that brought me to bioart,' writes the Slovenian painter Polona Tratnik in her installation entitled 37°C. The presentation consisted of three 'aquariums' each containing small wax and latex statues covered in a skin cell culture taken from the artist at the Ljubljana Cell Type Differentiation Centre.

    37°C: Kapelika roka, kapelica poglde, kapelica josk


    37°C: Kapelika roka, kapelica poglde, kapelica josk



    In one, the cells are dead and decomposing. In another, they are lying dormant in a glass refrigerator. In a third, they are continuing to multiply at body temperature. The visitor is constantly faced with the contrast between the welcoming nature of the installation (familiar furniture, warm lighting) and an awareness of the artificiality (scientific devices, cold materials) of the living exhibits. A system which amplifies the sounds produced by the visitor serves as a constant and disturbing reminder of his or her own existence.

    Before using this cell culture, Polona Tratnik already sought to provoke the strange sensation – a mixture of attraction and repugnance – one experiences when touching the skin of a stranger. At that time, she was working with latex as a first step towards using laboratory skin, a tissue that is both artificial and living.

    Science? She uses it, and that is all. 'I am much more interested in provoking these emotions than in becoming a scientist.'

     

      Art Orienté Objet : Frontiers and symbols

    'Hybridisation' and 'poésie'. These are the two key words for Art Orienté Objet (AOO), the Parisian duo Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. 'The basis of all our work is the consciousness of the living creature and its manipulation by science and society,' they explain. Logically, it is themselves which they 'manipulate' to produce their strange creations.

    The artists’ skin deposited on a pig's dermis which is then tattooed. A human skin culture is too fine for this kind of operation. 'We present genuine pieces of ourselves, submitted to biotechnology. In this way, we are working with ourselves and no other living organism. This role as guinea pig is essential to our personal ethic.'
    The artists’ skin deposited on a pig's dermis which is then tattooed. A human skin culture is too fine for this kind of operation. 'We present genuine pieces of ourselves, submitted to biotechnology. In this way, we are working with ourselves and no other living organism. This role as guinea pig is essential to our personal ethic.'


    For Cultures de peaux d’artistes, for example, they allowed a reputable US skin production laboratory (its products are used in treating burns) to take biopsies of their epidermis. In return, they were given samples deposited on a pig's dermis which they then tattooed with animal motifs, usually of endangered species or those used in biology. The skin, as the barrier of the self, thus becomes the site of a symbolic alliance and a questioning of the 'species barrier'. Their latest project, entitled Que le panda vive en moi, will consist of injecting themselves with panda's blood which has been rendered compatible.

    Born into a family of researchers and herself a scientist by training, Laval-Jeantet has had to 'reconcile her sense of the logic of reality subject to physical laws with that of the world of vision.' The duo have frequent meetings with scientific teams in the belief that it is impossible to envisage the mental, social and ecological impact of biotechnologies without a command of the tools. As a result, their work becomes the focus of an extremely precise and articulate discourse.

    'The general public is shocked to see hybrids of our skin, but, in fact, what shocks is not so much the skin culture – even a hybrid one – as the fact of imagining the kind of world that such techniques imply,' believes Marion Laval-Jeantet. Her final comment? 'Art will have proved revelatory, and increasing our awareness of any issue is generally beneficial,' she concludes.

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