Seattle Times, Saturday, April 06, 2002.

Seattle show brings DNA debate to life

By Eric Sorensen

Eduardo Kac, Genesis, 1999
Observers at the Henry Art Gallery check out live bacteria that are projected on a wall as they mutate. A line from the Bible’s book of Genesis is on the wall, translated into Morse code and the code of DNA. Photo: Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times.

You know you aren't entering just another art show when a person in a white lab coat asks you to sign an "Acknowledgement of Risk" waiver.

The lab coat is part of a performance-art project for yesterday's launch of "Gene(sis)," the Henry Art Gallery's artistic exploration of genome research.

But the waiver is real, and the risk of releasing recombinant DNA significant enough that University of Washington officials at first rejected the Critical Art Ensemble's participatory performance. Even after it was approved, using guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, the university's liability people wanted participants to sign a waiver with some rather intimidating language.

"I acknowledge that there are certain risks inherent in laboratory procedures and work with recombinant DNA, including but not limited to permanent or temporary illness."

You get the point.

In a way, the medium became the message. By showcasing the subject of transformed DNA in an attempt to stimulate discussion of the various issues it raises, the university and the Henry were sucked into one of DNA research's biggest questions: Is this stuff safe?

Jumping through the regulatory hoops was in some ways to be expected on a university campus, said Robin Held, curator of the exhibition.

"But it's also creating a new model for museums to show this kind of work, especially in a post-weaponization-of-anthrax, kind of bioterrorist moment," she said.

Held, who has worked more than three years on the exhibition, said it grows out of an increasing artistic interest in the impact of the Human Genome Project, the massive effort to sequence the complete genetic human blueprint. The genome has already been sequenced in rough form, but it will be a decade or two before it is more fully deciphered and understood, she noted.

"In the meantime, it gives us an awful lot of time to worry and fantasize and come up with all kinds of horrible and fabulous scenarios for the future," she said.

The wealth of genetic research going on in the Seattle area made the subject a natural for the Henry, she said. The exhibition's advisers reflect some of the region's genetics-related clout, with input from the likes of Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology, Mary-Claire King of the UW's Division of Medical Genetics and Maynard Olson of the Human Genome Center.

To be sure, many of the 50 or so exhibits deal with the imagined ramifications of genetic research and the jiggering of DNA. New York photographer Daniel Lee's digitally altered portraits of humans with animal-like faces highlight the potential blurring of the line between humans and animals.

But Chicago artist Eduardo Kac's genetically altered "GFP Bunny" is very real, even if it couldn't be in the show because the French institute where it was created refuses to let Kac take the bunny off the premises. The bunny, "Alba," was created by splicing the DNA of a Pacific Northwest jelly-fish into its otherwise albino genes. Under a blue light, the rabbit glows green.

The participatory performance was created by the Critical Art Ensemble, a five-person artistic collective. The goal of the performance, said Steven Kurtz, one of the artists, is to sort the irrational fear of transgenic DNA from its true risk so people can get to the next level of discussing what is in the public interest. Transgenic DNA is DNA that has been transferred with genetic engineering from a genetically unlike organism.

The performance featured 10 petri dishes: five with mold, four with the bacteria of human spit and one with E. coli bacteria spliced with jumbled human DNA. Push a large red button and the dishes turn and, in a game of transgenic-DNA roulette, a magnet lifts the lid off one of the petri dishes, releasing mold or bacteria. In another area, participants can swab petri dishes with transgenic DNA.

The DNA is harmless, said organizers; it can't live without the special sustenance of its petri dish and reproduces too slowly — all that human DNA gums up the works — to compete with other bacteria.

But it is still a lab strain of bacteria, posing certain infectious risks if it gets in a cut, said Michael Antee, health-and-safety supervisor for the university's Department of Environmental Health and Safety. And it is transgenic, activating a set of protocols overseen by the school's Institutional Biosafety Committee.

In the end, the entire exhibition was approved by the IBC as a laboratory research project. Staffers were given instruction on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, disinfection, transporting hazardous materials and spill cleanup.

"They got a lot of training," Antee said.

The Critical Art Ensemble performance ended yesterday, but streaked petri dishes and waiver forms will be included in the exhibition with artifacts of other ensemble performances.

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company

Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics
Today through Aug. 25, Henry Art Gallery, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays. $6 general, $4.50 seniors and students. 206-543-2280.

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