NY Arts Magazine, November 2002.

SCI-ART: Property, Identity, and Creation Mythologies of Genetic Research

Mina Cheon

A brave new world! With the possibilities of genetic research, the human race can approach the pinnacle of human evolution. Science makes dreams possible of a pro-longed life, an abundance of recreated natural resources, and a world made up of genetically superior beings. Let’s imagine this geneticsopia as a future: what will the (flip side) corrupted scene look like? People will desire better genes and the privileged will have refined genes, in much the same way that they elect cosmetic surgery today. But whose genes are we talking about? Furthermore, who determines the control of genetic information? Perhaps this future will be similar to ours with heightened copyright laws, war over ownership, and a genetic black-market. Today’s success of the Human Genome Project leaves us feeling a little triumphant yet vulnerable. The fact that our complex body systems can be reduced to bits of information and given a simple numeric value tells us one thing – that our genes are recordable and even reproducible. In other words, genetic information is an exchangeable commodity, a disembodied process of the body, and a quantifiable sequence that allows the birth of new patenting technology. Let’s take a look at a world of genetic research as seen through the eyes of three artists who are responding to that world in their artwork.
As early as 1989, Larry Miller began making an art piece that now, more than ever, calls for a new social consciousness. Miller was the first to stake a claim and declare the right to own his genes after reading about the Supreme Court allowing the first patent on bacterium genome in the early 80’s. Since 1992, he has made Genetic Code Certificate artwork to copyright others’ genes for them. With this body of work, Miller sheds a new light on the issue of Property Mythology surrounding genetic research and ownership. By signing the certificate and owning it, the certificate stands as a legal declaration to individuals for their genetic code copyright. In his words, “The Genetic Code Copyright certification project is an international art action that provides a means for Original Humans to claim their genomes as protected private property.” The certificates come in eight different languages, are mass produced, and freely downloadable on-line.

Now, we must wonder, did the artist Miller make this piece to really allow full ownership of individual’s genes? Or did he make this piece as a social comment on the mess and paranoia surrounding the issues of copyright? The necessity of copyrighting one’s DNA is still questionable. The artist’s willingness to protect the individual’s rights to own their personal genetic pattern suggests that, in copyrighting one’s own genes, it reaffirms the notion of genes as a commodity, as an object of property able to be copyrighted. Hence, giving someone the right to copyright their own genes leads to the possibility of sale and exchange of copyrights and the increasing commodification of gene ‘cultures’!
Miller’s artwork could be radical, then, in its critique of the copyrighting and exchange of body data as commodity, but if taken the wrong way, it could distort the concept of authority and copyright system over the body all together. Whether the government or science-related corporations will control rights to all human genetic information, the art piece suggests a future of genetic IDs replacing Social Security numbers and the disappearance of human rights to our own bodies. This artwork points to the danger of social distinction between the tangible and original “body” versus the body as “information” that could be reproduced and distributed around the world. Furthermore, Miller’s raises the question of whether any genetic information can be owned by an individual, for being completely independent and unique from other genetic code sequences. How much information can be deciphered from one human body without having to study the ancestral genes of other bodies to understand the pattern? To a great degree, Miller’s Genetic Code Certificates should prompt a debate in the scientific community about the ownership of genes used in genetic research.
Another concern introduced by the hype of genetic research is one that surrounds the issue of Identity Mythology created by the disembodied experience of body quantification. For example, with the presentation of the Human Genome project as being the blue-print, human evolution has been reduced to something that can merely be deciphered. Simply put, there is no reason for identity when people in general are seen as part of the myth of neutral coded beings. In other words, the conceptual space from social and cultural to race and gender identity becomes obsolete. On the topic of genetic information and gender, artist Kathy Marmor makes artwork that introduces a twist to unrevealed gender associations implied by the language and tool of genetic researching. She claims, “I am fascinated by the way in which gender is concealed within the metaphors used to describe DNA to a general audience,” and often quotes Jose Van Dijck that, “The digitization of genetics has further disconnected body and representation, and thus effectively ungenered genetic corporeality”. The artist suggests that the a-corporeal body of genetic information actually simplifies the complex identity crisis of the postmodern world-view by further disassociating the body from culture and experience. At the same time, her work explores the rhetoric of genetic research that masks the associated gender in its technology.
Marmor uses the term recipe as an alternative for blueprint and plays on the gender defining language that the scientific community has introduced as the presentation of the body. She makes note of gender associations terms such as ‘recipe, cooking, kitchen’ to have feminine qualities while ‘blueprint, construction, laboratory’ having masculine qualities. Terms that seem most neutral today still carry with them a gender quality that has been de-categorized from our consciousness due to the disembodied coding procedure of the scientific fields. Obviously, to call genetic research a ‘great discovery’ on the way to finding the ‘blueprint’ of the world carries a masculine voice that represents a hegemonic construct of power based on masculine success, strength, and achievement. But it is Marmor’s artwork that enlightens thinkers about the masculine identity also portrayed in bodiless beings.
Playing off the difficulty of cooking, she seeks to link metaphors between the kitchen and the laboratory and titles her body of recent work in process as Kitchen Science. One piece, The Measure of Me, is two digital prints exhibited side by side. In one, the artist’s face is obscured by holding up a measuring cup and in the other the face is revealed while holding up a science beaker. The two measuring devices representing the kitchen and the laboratory create a paradox to the nurture and nature paradigm as the identity of the artist is concealed in one piece and revealed in another. The second piece, Protocols, is a 2D collage that uses the lenticular flip to represent how the world of science has influenced a cultural ideology of what the kitchen should be – hygienic, sanitized, and composed of manufactured goods with connotations to house wives and the role of women. This piece explores the blueprint of the ideal kitchen, which originates in the fields of science, as a form of a gigantic index card. The reason Marmor fancies on making great use of index cards is because of the history of cooking recipes being hand-written on cards and passed along generation after generation. This represents a kind of personalization and embodied experience behind the science of cooking that has a set of instructions that are also coded.
Furthermore, Marmor’s last art piece, The Origins of Life, is an interactive digital sculpture/installation in which the audience enters a dark room to a freestanding kitchen bench that also functions as a science bench. In this bench, there is a series of four measuring spoons in different sizes that allow the audience to touch and trigger different movies to be screened. Each movie represents a building block for a larger recipe card that deals with popular science presenting new origin myths. For example, Marmor uses such contents as the illusion of DNA being represented as a recipe and the story of origin where humans come from dough. The combination of four spoons can present 15 variation of movies that have text and sound (a humorous narrative monologue by Marmor describing her inability to cook). Her voice deconstructs each recipe movie and brings the everyday back to the picture. Marmor states that “the kitchen is the laboratory but the laboratory is never the kitchen.” In her artwork Kitchen Science, the artist speaks about the disembodied experience of genetic research represented as a blueprint. At the same time however, she reminds us about the forgotten embodied and subjective experience that is conveyed in every measurement and every research done by a person. In sense, she brings the Kitchen back into Science.
Speaking about the origins of life, the development of genetic research perhaps is more frightening in that it not only allows the decoding of biology but also allows an intervention in creation history. The Creation Mythology created by genetic information and recent technology is one that is made by understanding the world as coded sequences. If religious doctrines once held the secrets to the wonders of the world, how long will it take for people to create a new myth based on what is possible in the altering process of history, time, and space through genetic research (not to mention the implications of quantum physics)? Darwin’s research on evolution has presented a two-sided argument to the world. On the one hand, the meaning of the ‘survival of the fittest’ suggests the existence of God who allowed the evolutionary process to occur for a higher form of his creation. On the other hand, the concept of evolution also suggests that it could have occurred regardless to any theological interpretation of the world. Today, God’s creation mythology can be replaced by a new type of molecular myth, one in which allows people as creators. The processes of genetic patenting as reproduction (cloning), implantation, alteration introduces a new kind of Genetic Creation.
Three years ago, Eduardo Kac created an art piece, Genesis, which is most appropriately titled. This artwork shows the artist’s creation of his very own unique transgenic DNA as a bacterium form. By translating the biblical phrase in the Genesis section into Morse code, the artist was able to then convert the code into DNA base pairs which were scientifically applicable in converting numbers into an organic bacteria. Kac specially chose the sentence, “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” to stand for man’s dubious supremacy over nature. Kac states that, “In the context of the work, the ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it.”
This artwork Genesis, was commissioned by Ars Electronica and presented on-line and at the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art in Linz, Austria. The piece allows Internet users to switch on the ultraviolet light above the bacterium plate in the gallery thus, allowing world participation in helping the growth of the synthetic gene as well as seeing the changes in the growth over the Internet. Of course, the use of translating the sentence into Morse code comments on our everyday use of telecommunication, which began with the first electric telegraphy invented by Samuel Morse in 1838. The signification of recreating Genesis however, goes beyond reflecting the development of technology and communications to questioning man’s control over nature in the essence and to creation processes. Perhaps allowing humanoids an opposable thumb was God’s mistake, for the thumb gave human beings the capability to grip tools and to alter the notion of God himself with the extensions of technology. The power to create has evolved into a power of alteration.

Artists are using the development of genetic information as a way to respond and take part in the on-going exchange between art and science. Larry Miller, a New York based artist who is also a Fluxus artist, has been working for over a decade with what he calls “Genesthetics” (http://www.creativetime.org/dnaid/copyright.html). Kathy Marmor is a Professor of Arts at the University of Vermont and with her background as a performance artist, she has been focused on making artwork that allows audience participation and interactivity in order to explore different ways of understanding the physicality of the body (http://www.uvm.edu/~kmarmor). And last of all, Eduardo Kac is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Art and Technology Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kac is famous for his collaboration with French scientists in genetically altering the skin pigments of GFP Bunny named Alba, a rabbit that glows under florescent lighting and one in which Kac has received a lot of media attention. Kac works with artwork that he calls Transgenic Art (http://www.ekac.org).
The exhibition “Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution”, held in 2000 at Exit Art is now traveling and introduces a large collection of artists who are working with issues of genetics and associated technology (www.exitart.org/paradisenow/index.html). Really, it ain’t no paradise yet.

The SCI-ART article series are made possible with the assistance from Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI) This pioneering NYC organization was founded in 1988 by Cynthia Pannucci (www.asci.org).

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