Afterimage, Jan-Feb, 2002.

Paradise lost and found

Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York September 15, 2001 - January 6, 2002

* MELISSA PEARL FRIEDLING is a film and video artist and writer, currently teaching filmmaking in the Department of Art Media Studies at Syracuse University.

As it turns out, I have the same birthday as Dolly the sheep. I used to brag about having the same birthday as RTBarnum and Jean Cocteau, but now the historical celebrity I hope to share some astrological mojo with happens to be a white, fluffy, suspiciously grinning, genetically engineered barnyard animal. Dolly was cloned using a mammary cell from a six-year-old sheep and named, accordingly, after Dolly Parton. As soon as the news of Dolly's birth was released publicly, discussion immediately turned to the next logical step: human cloning. And, more specifically, debates raged over who would be a likely candidate for immortalization through cloning: Albert Einstein? Lady Diana? Leonardo da Vinci? Britney Spears? Today, a San Francisco company calling itself The DNA Copyright Institute (DCI) offers (for $1500) to record and store the DNA fingerprints of high profile celebrities who worry that their DNA might be "stolen" and cloned, protecting the patent 'author' from those who would hijack a few celebrity cells for the coveted code to their genetic genius. (1) It is to questions of the cult of celebrity, artistic singu larity, body as property and the obsolescence of human mediocrity that the curators and participating artists in "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," collectively engage.

The show, first mounted at Exit Art in Manhattan and currently on tour at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, addresses the relevance of the self-identical, unique individual in the age of human genome mapping, genetic patents, stem cell research and cloning. Author and Director of the Institute for Genomics and Bloinformatics at the University of California, Irvine, Pierre Baldi, argues that such a logocentric world view is not only irrelevant, but is also essentially "wrong" and "the result of evolutionary accidents"--and the conceptual equivalent of believing the earth is still flat. (2) Baldi argues that evolution has unfortunately wired us humans to understand ourselves as unique individuals with brains that cannot yet adequately appreciate the universe of all possible living beings available in a world transformed by the Internet and cloning technologies. Baldi's project is to try to get our heads around the vast possibilities opened up when the boundary between self and other is blurred and t he limit between self and world evaporates.

Certainly, this kind of conceptual boundary-crossing that Baldi wants to orient us toward has been taken quite seriously in the intellectual work of continental philosophy and social theory since 1968. But it seems that lately, many contemporary scientists, writers and artists are only able to speak of genetic engineering's actualization of such trespasses with tongue in cheek (even Baldi tries to illustrate the baroque obsolescence of sex by describing two computers literally mounting one another in order to exchange data). (3) The naming of the most famous cloned sheep after a famously big-breasted country singer marks one of the playful jokes that emerges as a kind of post-evolutionary Freudian slip. Such jokes appear symptomatic of the anxieties flowing from the conceptual, and now literal, erosion of the limits between human and animal, celebrity and obscurity, commodity and humanity. Not surprisingly, such jokes pervade the biotech industry. A Texas-based company, hysterically named Genetics Savings and Clone, charges $1000 to collect and cryogenically store cells from a family cat or dog, and $250,000 to clone it. (4) The puns are indicative of popular anxieties and, to be perfectly Freudian, rooted in the unconscious of a collective psyche struggling to understand what it means to be human in the time of cloning. And the jokes emerging out of genetic science and industry are as complicated and simultaneously transparent as much of the art that addresses the subject.

Visual puns and jokes pervade the "Paradise Now" galleries. For example, Bradley Rubenstein's "Puppy-Dog Eyes" series (1994-1995) appears as one such symptomatic response to the genetic revolution." His series of smiling elementary school portrait-type photographs are each carefully altered so that the figures stare out through the big black vacant eyes of their own pets. They call to mind both those androgynously identical boy-girl pairs of big-eyed-waif Keane painting or spooky possessed Children of the Damned alien hordes. Perhaps the punch line of Rubenstein's genetic joke is that it may represent the next marketing boon for a company like Genetics Savings and Clone--chimerical animal-human clones that not only immortalize one's pet, but also one's child in a hybrid form--for a substantial fee. Certainly, Rubenstein's pet-children are no joke to the legions of investors in biotechnologies who project profitable futures in such human-animal hybridization. The laboratory creation and propagation of cloned, chimeric and transgenic human/animal hybrids is already a reality as sheep have been "pharmed" to express life-saving medicines in their milk, pigs have been altered to be used for xenotransplants of vital organs, and oncomice (customized mice with an a human gene capable of manifesting cancer) have been engineered and patented for cancer research. One of the leading and most outspoken critics of the business of biotechnology, Jeremy Rifkin, along with biologist, Stuart Newman, has filed a patent for a "humanzee," a humanchimpanzee chimeric animal. They haven't created such a hybrid, and don't want to. Rather, their patent application is to prevent others from making a humanzee, or any other human-animal combination and to challenge the current patent laws. Ironically, Rifkin argues in his book. The Biotech Century, that the most horrific consequence of the age of biotechnologies is its creation of a new category of rogue artist that sees "nature as a 'creative advance into novelty"' and, according to Rifkin, "serves the ends of a eugenics future." (5) What is ironic about Rifkin's dystopic formulation is that Rifkin's own conceptual patent application is itself a kind of performance art/novelty act, or at least, an artistic strategy engaged by several "Paradise Now" participants, including Larry Miller who copyrights an individual's DNA and displays the documentation on the gallery walls. What Miller's and Rifkin's patents demonstrate is a kind of hysterical response to the loss of self-determination and "natural" selection that the vanguard creative individual must cling to.

Such a fear for the loss of the "naturally" occurring emergence of the inspired individual is again ironically, perhaps jokingly, exhibited in Karl S. Mihail and Tran T. Kim-Trang's piece, "The Creative Gene Harvest Archive" (999). The work speaks directly to the status of the artist in the age of biotechnology. Preserved in a glass box are 17 vials of hair cuttings by "creative individuals" (including author Jeremy Rifkin's) that have been harvested "in order to design and imbue future personalities with these same traits." (6) The wall text behind the vials clarifies the aims of the project and the respective backgrounds of the two artist/scientists. A certain cynicism pervades this work as the two artists pictured are described as former scientists engaged in genetic experiments. But actually, these fake profiles are lifted directly from Rifkin's Biotech Century. (7) In their sarcasm, Mihail and Tran align themselves with Rifkin's denunciation of the new "art form" of genetic engineering and his essentiall y reactionary stance that denounces the "new era" for promoting genetic engineering as a "counterfeit art." (8) Ultimately, an alliance with Rifkin is a rhetorical stop-gap for any artist who wants to short-circuit the dominant ideological grounding for normative, heteropatriarchy. This is finally the tenuous ground that Rifkin is clinging to for his own "naturally" dear life, and that remains secure in the work of Mihail and Tran.

Even more alarmist than cynical in its posturing is Julian LaVerdiere's "Laurus Nobilis" (2000) as the artist clearly worries about the loss of individual genius. The work features an organic-looking object enclosed in a glowing glass cylinder atop an imposing pedestal, making obvious reference to a Bmovie's disembodied brain, cultivated in a bottle by a crazed mad scientist. LaVerdiere's enshrined object, it turns out, is a synthetic piece of "transgenic" laurel. Laurel, as the accompanying wall text explains, has been an emblem of nobility, victory, poetry, wisdom and genius, still honored today with the titles Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate. LaVerdiere suggests that genetic engineering will render the gift of genius obsolete, as it will forever more be cultivated in a test tube. He further writes, "Laureation will occur as commonly as germination. GENIUS WILL BE DESIGNED TO ORDER AND GROWN ON TREES." Like Tran/Mihail, the science is presented as a freak show or novelty act and the work is more vaudevilli an than informed, committed critique. And, like Rifkin, whose books consist of exhaustively anaesthetizing technical glosses of the horrors threatening the world in this "Biotech Century," in both LaVerdiere's and Tran/Mihail's work, the critique of biotechnology takes the form, not only of visual pun, but of exaggeration, fictionalization and further mystification of the science that may threaten dominant forms of meaning and knowledge. But, as many other commentators and artists will insist, this threat is not necessarily a bad thing; and it not only redefines the meaning of humanity, but also reconfigures the functional terrain of "art."

A number of artists participating in "Paradise Now" take the creative possibilities suggested in genetic engineering more seriously and submit that the available and dominant understanding of art can't adequately describe the work of the postevolutionary artist. Eduardo Kac, for example, provocatively describes his ongoing work as "transgenic art," radically restaging the historical avant-garde's concern with the relation between art and life. Kac, more than any other artist proposing a hybrid art form that crosses aesthetics with molecular biology, has fully theorized the implications of his work and has generated the most energetic public dialogue (most notably, concerning his transgenic fluorescent GFP Bunny). (9) Kac, unlike Tran/Mihail and LaVerdiere, approaches the "biology" and "technology" of biotechnology not by further mystifying it and misrepresenting it, but by understanding it and profoundly engaging in all its material complexity and inherent symbolic drama.

Kac's contribution to "Paradise Now" is titled "Genesis" (1999). It inhabits a dark enclosure in the gallery in which, painted on a wall, is the sentence, "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Kac translated the sentence from the biblical book of Genesis into Morse Code and converted the Morse Code into DNA base pairs according to a conversion principle he developed for this work. Kac then synthesized a gene conforming to the Genesis-derived code and incorporated it into bacteria along with some fluorescent DNA that is displayed in a petri dish under ultraviolet light. While the Tang installation displays a looped videotape projection of the bacteria, in previous mountings of "Genesis," participants were able to interact with the bacteria, causing biological mutations in it, and thereby changing the biblical sentence. In the Tang show, the petri dish of bacteria is replaced by a tiny glass bottle of fluorescing wh ite powder next to a piece of fibrous, twisting gold (referencing alchemy, I suppose). While this work suffers a bit from its alternative presentation or, more properly, demonstrates the mutability of biologically-generated and interactively-conceived projects, it does provocatively consider the productive and critical transactional relation of art and genetic engineering.

Similarly provocative, technically precocious, and perhaps more poignantly executed is the work of Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey who, like Kac, reanimate the way living organisms and art might commingle in the age of biological control. Their collaboration with scientists at IGER (Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) in Wales enabled the artists to further investigate the photosensitive properties of grass and the possibilities for expressing an image through this biological material. Again, engaging molecular biology to deal with the ephemeral and changing nature of an organic medium, the scientists at IGER were able to genetically alter the behavior of grass so that it ceases to lose its green pigment, even under stress. What their collaborative experiment yields (exhibited in the Tang show) is a haunting, textured image of a woman and child in shades of green and brown, grown vertically on trimmed, thinly seeded grass that, the wall text tells us, will still eventually and irreversibly fade over time. Unlike many critics of genetic engineering who prognosticate a world where only perfection will be tolerated and individuality extinct, Ackroyd and Harvey's work admits to its own flawed and in-progress science. And, more interestingly, even in its imperfection, the possibility for something surprisingly new and transformative emerges. (10) Perhaps what the "Paradise Now" show finally demonstrates is that the defining gesture of the post-evolutionary artist is not to question the relation between art and life, but to de-activate that boundary altogether, so that life might fully be appreciated as a mutable work of art in progress.


(1.) Philip cohen "Born to make you happy: can start really be protected against rant intent on cloning them?" New Scientist (August 25, 2001).

(2.) Pierre Baldi, The Shattered Self: The End of Natural evolution (cambridge. MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 3.

(3.) Ibid. p. 44.

(4.) Ibid. p. 52.

(5.) Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), p. 222.

(6.) Others include Michael crichton (author of Jurassic Park), Jocelyn Wildenstein (socialite/art collector who had surgery to resemble a jungle cat), James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA double-helix), Damien Hirst ("sensational" British artist) and Richard Seen (physicist who wants to clone humans).

(7.) Tran is described as a veteran researcher of the "Vampire Project" cited in The Biotech Century, p. 57. And, in Mihail's enclosed statement, he claims so subscribe to [he 'philosophical framework of Algeny art dedicated to the improvement of existing organisms and the design of wholly new ones with the intent of perfecting their performance. "Algenists," the text goes on to affirm, "are the ultimate artists." As it happens, Rifkin coined the term "algeny," which is also the title of his 1983 book critiquing the "new technological epoch." Jeremy Rifldn, Algeny (New York: Viking Press, 1983).

(8.) Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century, p. 223.

(9.) See Kac's own Web site for a complete bibliography of the discussion at

(10.) Natalie Jeremijenko's work, "OneTree" (2000) also meaningfully demonstrates this point but was, unfortunately, not exhibited at the Tang show.


(1) Eduardo Kac, GIP Bunny, 2000. Green fluorescent protein (GFP) causes the rabbit to emit a green glow in the dark. Her name incidentally is Alba.

(2) Eduardo Kac. bacterial clones containing a synthetic gene. The image is from an incarnation of Genesis, 1999.

(3) Bradley Rubenstein from the "Puppy-Dog Eyes" series, 1994-1995.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Visual Studies Workshop in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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