Mathews, Ryan and Wacker, Watts. The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (New York : Crown, 2002). pp. 118-126.


Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker

We’ve touched on how the devox has eliminated the lines that used to separae fine art from commerce, social science, and politics. There’s a growing industry out there scanning the galleries and the hot clubs for hints about the next big market opportunity. It isn’t that these efforts are ill conceived. The problem is that the context of art changes so rapidly that its hottest incarnation lives safely outside the confines of galleries and clubs.
Consider the separation of art and science - a fundamental distinction most of us regularly invoke, at least colloquially, as in “Promotion (merchandising, advertising, product developoment, etc.) is really still more art than science.” Today there is increasingly less and less separating the two worlds. We have artists who use the tools of science to make art, and scientists who prefer to think about science as an art form.
The blurring of these worlds has helped abolish the traditional context of art and had a direct impact on business. Computing, for example, often produces individuals and products that are a hybrid of both worlds, hybrids with high commercial value. Nowhere, at least in a quasi-popular sense, is that blurring more evident than in the work of one artist, Eduardo Kac, and one artistic event, the Burning Man festival.
In 1950, action/drip painter Jackson Pollock lamented, “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age. The airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any past culture, each age finds its own technique.” Pollock may have been correct, but it seems that Eduardo Kac, whose work has erased the boundaries between art and biology, has done a fair job of resolving the Pollockian dilemma precisely by using the tools of the age as art. If he were a writer, Kac might be heralded as the poet laureate of the Biotech Age. His palette is DNA, the prima materia of life itself. Kac’s vision is simultaneously both unique and the outgrowth of an older tradition.
In Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century (1968), Jack Burnham noted, “Behind much art extending through the Western tradition exists a yearning to break down the psychic and physicial barriers between art and living reality - not only to make an art form that is believably real, but to go beyond and furninsh images capable of intelligent intercourse with their creators.”
This search for a way to “go beyond,” as artist Amy M. Youngs argued in an article titled “The Fine Art of Creating Life,” has been an active concern of artists at least since 1936, when Edward Steichen mixed traditional selective botanical breeding, the drug colchicine, and art. The resulting mutant delphiniums were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. As a footnote, it took more than half a century for the next exhibition of genetically altered flowers, George Gessert’s 1988 Iris Project at San Francisco’s New Langston Arts.


If Steichen was bioart’s Moses pointing the way to a scientifically enhanced aesthetic Promised Land, then Eduardo Kac is its messiah. In an article titled “Transgenic Art,” Kac proposed the creation of a transgenic animal as an artistic statement. “More than make visible the invisible, art needs to raise our awareness of what firmly remains beyond our visual reach but which, nonetheless, affects us directly,” Kac explained.
“Two of the most prominent technologies operating beyond vision are digital implants and genetic engineering, both poised to have profound consequences in art as well as in the social, medical, political and economic life of the next century.”
Kac defined transgenic art as “a new form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings.” Initially, Kac hoped to extract what he called the Green Fluorescent Protein and introduce it into a dog.
Kac saw his work - designing what he called chimeras - as a logical extension of the world around him. “Chimeras, however, are no longer imaginary,” he wrote; “today, nearly 20 years after the first transgenic animal, they are being routinely created in laboratories and are slowly becoming part of the larger genescape .... While in ordinary discourse the word “chimera” refers to an imaginary life form made of disparate parts, in biology, “chimera” is a technical term that means actual organisms with cells from two or more distinct genomes. A profound cultural transformation takes place when chimeras leap from legend to life, from representation to reality.”
In February 2000 Kac’s theories became reality with the birth of Alba, an albino ‘GFP Bunny” who glows green when exposed to specific bands of light, in Jouy-en-Josas, France. Insisting that GFP Bunny is a transgenic artwork and not a breeding project, Kac said, “As a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but in the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy.”
As to the boundary separating art from science, Kac said:
"The boundary between science and art cannot be defined by media, process and systems. Today this is more the case than ever before, since so many artists work with the very same tools employed by scientists worldwide. Needless to say, computers and the Internet are a case in point. The boundaries between science and art can only be defined by several factors and their complex interplay: the intention of the artist or scientist, the context in which a given work is presented, the rhetorical strategies employed by the artist or scientist, and the reception given to them by the public. Naturally, these elements can change in time, and their meanings can be reconsidered accordingly (as when a ritual mask is recontexualized in a museum hundreds of years after its creation and use, for example). One of the key differences between science and art rests on their conceptual and pragmatic approaches to tropes: while science erases the origins of its metaphors and metonyms (“gene”, for example, is a metonym: the part stands for the whole; “genetic code” is a metaphor first coined in analogy with how Morse encodes messages), art presents a high level of awareness of metaphors, metonyms and other tropes - its very material."

We think the blending of art and science, and the resulting Abolition of Traditional Artistic Context, will help the devox create whole new markets and product lines. Imagine designer pets bred to match the color scheme of your home. Imagine art that was so truly interactive it had to be fed and cared for. The possibilities are almost endless.

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