| BIOTECHNOLOGICAL ART - 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.|
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.
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
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.'
|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 [ http://www.lelieuunique.com/ ] |
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 .