Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 26 Page B15

From the issue dated March 2, 2007

Art From Life

Leonie Bradbury

Images from "Acupuncture for Temporal Fruit," 1999-2007 (metal, plexiglas, electronics, ultrasonic sensors, MIDI interface, acupuncture needles, tomato), by Jennifer Hall (lead artist) and Blyth Hazen (fabrication); photographs by Sam Ogden

In a world rapidly transformed by science and technology, experiments in genetic engineering are altering our conception of nature and culture. Although news of genetic engineering regularly makes headlines, it is difficult for the general public to keep up with current developments and to truly understand the meanings and implications. In the past decade, since the introduction of Dolly the Sheep (the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, in 1996) and the announcement of the mapping of human DNA (the human genome) in 2001, the field of biotechnology has undergone many phases of transformation. Cross-species cloning, anthrax, stem-cell research, genetic profiling, and the genetic manipulation of embryos and our food chain are but a few of the ways in which our lives are impacted by advancements in biotechnology.

Along the way there has been a growing need to respond to these developments, not only by scientists, activists, and ethicists, but also by artists, cultural theorists, and critics. The geneticist Eric Lander, one of the researchers on the Human Genome Project, supports such responses. In 2001 he stated that "the meaning of the human genome would not be decided by scientists alone but would be fought out in the arenas of art and culture." A growing number of artists have indeed perceived the cultural and aesthetic significance of biotechnology, and their work brings to the forefront the aesthetic, cultural, and ethical implications of scientific intervention into life as we know it.

This new generation of artwork created in response to current developments in biotechnology, so-called biotech art, blurs the boundaries between science and art.

In the last few years, the amount of artwork produced that directly deals with biotechnology has significantly increased, revealing new terms such as genetic art, tissue art, transgenic art, wet biology art, and the mutagenic arts, to name but a few. Some artists are actually employing biotechnological techniques, working with living tissue, human and/or animal cells, bacteria, viruses, and other genetic material to create new life forms or semi-living sculptures. Artists are cloning, breeding, creating hybrids, or otherwise intervening in biological processes to produce their art. A popular example, bio artist Eduardo Kac's "GFP Bunny" (2000), is the result of a collaboration between the artist and several French scientists who spliced the DNA of a jellyfish with that of an albino rabbit to create Alba, a glow-in-the-dark rabbit. ...

The genetic revolution has turned the artist's studio into a laboratory, the artist into a researcher, and living-tissue technology into a medium. Artists are experimenting with substances that are often considered biohazardous, such as E. coli, bodily fluids, and bacteria, and run the risk of being arrested and/or shut down, as happened with the Buffalo, N.Y.-based group Critical Art Ensemble.

The risky business of using living organisms as a new art medium and the artist as scientist has brought to the forefront a whole new set of ethical considerations and questions of responsibility. How do we as art historians, critics, and viewers understand this work? What are the social consequences of all of this experimentation, and where do we draw the line? While scientists are artificially cloning deer in Texas for use on private hunting farms, and people can get their deceased pets cloned, why can't artists explore similar territory?

The text is by Leonie Bradbury, the curator of the exhibition "It's Alive! A Laboratory of Biotech Art," at the Montserrat College of Art Gallery through April 7. Ms. Bradbury is the gallery's director. The artwork and text are from the exhibition catalog.

Back to Kac Web