Journal of American Medical Association, Vol. 288 No. 12, September 25, 2002
Artistic Response to Genomic Research Shown
SeattleAdvances in science inevitably prompt exultation over projected
benefits to society along with angst over potential dangers of "tampering with
nature." Recent success in sequencing the human genome and mapping thousands
of genes is no exception. Artists have joined this debate, adopting laboratory tools,
techniques, and biological materials to probe implications of genomic research for
A new traveling exhibition, Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human
Genomics, features more than 50 works by 26 artists that examine genetic
engineering, ownership of genetic information and cell lines, cloning, bioethics, and
The show was organized by the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington
in affiliation with the Berkeley Art Museum of the University of California at
Berkeley. It started its planned 2-year tour in April at the Henry Art Gallery and
simultaneously at the online gallery at http://www.gene-sis.net, which invites
viewer interaction. It also includes performance art, a film series called Genetic
Screenings, and other public programs.
"The exhibit's goal is not to translate key scientific concepts for a lay audience,"
said Robin Held, exhibition curator and assistant curator of the Henry Art Gallery.
"It aims instead to show how artists view the critical social, emotional, and ethical
issues in genomics," she said, "and to prod viewers to think about these concerns,
Held worked with geneticists, artists, science historians, medical ethicists, and art
historians, as well as representatives of biomedical and biotechnology firms in the
Seattle area, for 3 years to develop the show. Funding came from more than a
dozen art groups and business organizations.
IN THE BEGINNING
The first work visitors see sets a solemn tone. Eduardo Kac's Genesis occupies
a darkened, high-ceilinged room. The Biblical passage that gives humans dominion
over every living thing (Genesis 1:25) flows in ghostly white letters across a black
wall. Below it, Kac translates this sentence into Morse code. Below that, he
renders the code as a series of DNA base pairs by replacing the dots, dashes,
spaces between letters, and spaces between words with C, T, G, and A,
Geneticists then inserted Kac's "art gene" into Escherichia coli similar to those
residing in the human intestinal tract. The bacteria live in a petri dish under a video
microscope in the center of the room. A much-magnified view of them projected on
a wall forms a violet globe that resembles earth as seen from space.
A computer console stands at the far side of the gallery. By clicking a button,
visitors can actually mutate the bacteria. The button turns on an ultraviolet light that
causes the mutation to occur, making the bacteria briefly glow greenish-blue. It's
easy to click, but disquieting afterward to realize that one has just taken the
opportunity to play God.
Kac also is represented in the Gene(sis) show by posters and photos of Alba, a
fluorescent green rabbit. Kac created the transgenic animal in 1999 by asking
French geneticists to splice the DNA of a Pacific Northwest jellyfish with that of an
albino rabbit. Under blue light, Alba glows. Alba's existence has prompted
extensive debate on the ethics of genetic engineering and the boundaries of art
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