Leonardo Digital Reviews, 2008

Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond
Edited by Eduardo Kac
MIT Press, 2006, 420 pages, 89 b/w illustrations.
$34.95   ISBN:

Exploring the Visceral and the Transgressive in Bio Art

Review by Simone Osthoff
Associate Professor Critical Studies
Pennsylvania State University
Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond combines the examination of timely issues with a scholarly research that is simultaneously prospective and retrospective. Carefully edited, rigorous, yet comprehensive and instigating, the book addresses a wide-range of pressing artistic, philosophical, ethical, and cultural issues related to the biotech revolution. It helps fulfill a central need for reflection on new directions for contemporary art, on what it means to be human in an age that questions the very notion of species, on the continuum between humans and non-humans, and on our ever-changing relationship to nature.

            In addition to key contributions to the field of bio art, the book also expands the historiography of contemporary art by examining the usually unexplored connections between biology and modernity as well as biology and visual culture. Organized in four parts—Biotech Culture; Bioethics; Bio Art; and Biology and Art History—the book opens with an exceptional introduction by Eduardo Kac titled “Art That Looks You in the Eye,” which sets the tone, the depth and breadth of the research that defines this volume—from ethical issues related to the manipulation of life to human reproductive technologies, evolution, and the symbolic imaginary of hybrid beings and chimeras.

            Part one, titled “Biotech Culture” includes contributions by Eugene Thacker, who explores the connection between computer science and biology through open source DNA and bioinformatics bodies. The chapter by Gunalan Nadarajan analyses the historical and philosophical background of the concept of ornament by asking: “What happens when the ornament is natural?” Bernard Andrieu addresses the mythological and scientific notions of the chimera and the monstrous, and their relationship to identity. Richard Doyle’s chapter reflects on what he calls “transgenic involution” and new evolutionary practices. The first part concludes with a chapter by Louis Bec, a longtime European advocate of a literal art of life. Bec collaborated in 1987 with Vilém Flusser illustrating the book Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, which bypassed the philosophical problem of separating reality and illusion. Vampyroteuthis explored science as fiction while subverting our anthropocentric point of view through the examination of the life of a deep-sea squid that turned out to be our complete Other in sensory and cognitive terms. In Signs of Life, Bec articulates transdiciplinary principles unique to an art of life.

            Part two, dedicated to issues of “Bioethics” includes chapters by Cary Wolfe who focuses upon philosophical and theoretical questions such as: What is life? What differentiates human and non-human animals? What is the role of ethics in ontology and vice versa? Dorothy Nelkin discusses the ethical and cultural meanings of blood as a commodity in the genetic age. From a perspective other than that of a critic or art historian, attorney and professor Lori Andrews considers legal and ethical implications of public policy by offering a panorama of artworks that employ biological materials either as theme, substance, or medium, thus contributing to differentiate the actual from metaphorical manipulations of processes of life. The philosopher and ethologist Dominique Lestel focuses his essay on the intersection of aesthetics and animality, and addresses the difficult question of life creation and manipulation in the context of contemporary art.

            In a perfect segueway, part three, “Bio Art” is written by contemporary artist’s who manipulate the processes of life in vivo. It comprises fourteen chapters: artists such as Marc Quinn, Regina Trindade, and davidkremers explore bacteria, proteins and genes. George Gessert, Natalie Jeremijenko, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey manipulate plants. Oron Catts/Ionat Zurr and Marion Laval-Jeanter/Benoît Mangin explore tissue culture. Artists such as Brandon Ballengée develops breeding projects and Marta de Menezes works with somatic modifications. Paul Vanouse and Paul Perry subvert laboratory apparatuses and devices. Adam Zaretsky explores biological irreverence and Eduardo Kac creates new life through transgenesis.

            Part four focuses on “Biology and Art History.” The chapters include essays on pioneer artistic accomplishments often neglected by art history. Visionary modernist examples include for instance Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, who Kac points out deserves the same recognition as Picasso, Duchamp, and Kandinsky. The revisionist chapter by Oliver A. I. Botar about Moholy-Nagy’s German career underlies the artist’s involvement with the biocentrism of the Jugendbewegung [Youth Movement] and it’s associated communes, such as Barkenhof and Loheland. Botar’s chapter offers truly fascinating research and insight, along with the claim that rather than a rational formalist, Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion needs to be understood in the context of his pedagogy of organic functionalism and biological harmony. Among the early pioneers is Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin in 1928 and was also the creator of what he termed “germ paintings”—drawn with invisible bacteria directly on paper and later soaked in a culture medium to be grown in an incubator. Edward Steichen’s visionary botanical work is examined by Ronald J. Gedrim who focuses upon Steichen’s exhibition of Delphinium blooms at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936, when Steichen’s art of flower breeding was, unfortunately, received as gardening rather than art. Another visionary is the philosopher Vilém Flusser whose column in Artforum in the 1980s titled “Curie’s Children” first published his essay “On Science.” This short chapter is a lighthearted examination of the possibilities of biotech art and continues to be as provocative today as it was when it was first published in 1988. Barbara Maria Stafford’s essay reflects upon metaphors such as networking and bioengineering in relation to the historiography of contemporary art. Closing the book with a word of caution is Yves Michaud’s chapter, which contextualizes bio art within an “aesthetics of existence.” He considers how biotechnology today, in contrast to the impact of scientific discoveries of other eras, has the potential to affect the world in unprecedented ways.

            Amply illustrated and clearly written, this book contributes not only to historicize pioneer artworks under a new light but also to contextualize the innovative dimmensions of bio art (as opposed to, for example, representational uses of biotech themes in painting). The book accomplishes the fundamental task of addressing the difficult ethic/aesthetic debate directly, while preserving the visceral and transgressive aspects of bioart. Making no compromises, the book examines cultural break-downs, challenges, fears, errors, delusional fantasies as well as the fictional dimension of science and of the history of life-giving, life-altering technologies in all their excesses.

             From holopoetry to the aesthetics of telecommunications, from participatory networks to bio art—Kac has examined how technology-mediated environments structure our perception and cognition. Among the few artists who can lucidly speak about aesthetic concepts in relation to other disciplines including science, technology, and poetry, Kac’s voice has contributed to debunk the fantasy that studio work does not involve either theory or research, thus grounding artistic creation both in experiment and debate. By engaging public debates, not shying away from controversies, and expanding the historiography of contemporary art, Kac’s book refuses to domesticize the pressing challenges of our post-human future. Signs of Life is certainly a highlight of the Leonardo Book series and a major reference for years to come.

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