Originally published in About.com, March 14, 2001 <http://arttech.about.com/library/weekly/aa031401a.htm>.

Genetic Memory as Art

Sharon Silvia

Part 1: Breeding

Mention the term genetic art and you might find yourself in a hot debate.
Artists can create genetic art... but, should they try to "play God"? Creating
genetic art isn't linked to creating a living organism that glows... or is it?

According to transgenic artist Eduardo Kac, his
collaborative work with scientists, which resulted in a
rabbit that glowed, was not an attempt at playing
God. Kac states he was merely drawing attention to
the possibilities that lie ahead in genetic engineering.
Was his glowing rabbit art or abuse of science?

To try and answer that question we need to step back from all the media
brouhaha and view the development, and eventual partnership, of art and
genetic science, in an historical perspective.

Genetic science, like art, has existed for centuries... but, not in the
technologically advanced form that we know. Robert Hooke's discovery of
the reflecting microscope and the cell, in the mid-1600s, opened the door
for genetics to develop as a science. By the mid-1800s, Gregor Mendel, an
Austrian monk, and Hugo Marie de Vries, a Dutch botanist, were playing
founding roles in the decoding and development of genetic science.

Gregor Mendel was intrigued by the theories of
French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamark. In an attempt
to prove Lamark's theory of evolution, rooted in the
belief of acquired characteristics (i.e., distinctly
environmental effects), Mendel discovered his own
theory of heredity, based upon genetics. Alas,
Mendel's experiments in heredity were published but
not readily accepted by the scientific community, who
felt his theory was too abstract to be considered
scientific proof.

I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination
as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the "Law
of Frequency of Error."... It reigns with serenity and in complete
self-effacement, amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the
mob, and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect
is its sway.
Francis Galton

Two years after Mendel's findings, Charles Darwin developed his theory of
evolution. In the late 1800s, Darwin's cousin, an explorer and anthropologist
named Francis Galton, countered Lamark's theory of evolution. He began
promoting his own theory of evolutionary science, called eugenics, which
was based in statistics. Galton's belief entailed enhancing inherited
characteristics to improve the human race. His theory was not widely
accepted and in later years was misinterpreted and abused.

In the process of studying evolution and biological mutations, Hugo Marie de
Vries, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, discovered Mendel's
theory of heredity. He developed his own theory of genetic mutation in the
1880s. De Vries, along with Carl Correns and Erich von
Tschermak-Seysenegg, eventually recognized their theories as being
Mendel's and appropriately credited him around 1900.

Part 3: Mutations

Mutation would play a major role in the theory of
evolution and the science of genetics. The genetic
puzzle was on its way to being solved. In the early
1900s, Hermann Joseph Muller discovered varied
techniques that could be used to artificially generate
mutations. He experimented with creating mutant
flies. This discovery opened the door to new genetics
research and artistic mutations... by both scientists
and artists.

In the early 1930s, artist and photographer Edward
(Eduard Jean) Steichen enjoyed breeding flowers as a
hobby. He exhibited his plants at the New York
Museum of Modern Art. It was highly unusual to be
exhibiting flora in an art museum. More amazingly,
were Steichen's flora... they had never existed in
Nature. His dozens of delphiniums were artificially
bred, he had genetically created them. Steichen's
unique exhibit may have had a dual purpose: an
affirmation of the potency and vivacity of Nature, and
an appreciation of a contemporary, albeit controversial topic, Modernism.
The more controversial subjects of genetic science and genetic art had not
yet fully blossomed. But they were on the horizon!

In the early 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered
deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the substance of heredity that includes the
genetic instructions for constructing living organisms. Crick thought their
discovery might be a tad boring. Then, as he and Crick dove further into the
elemental parts of all living life forms, Watson realized their discovery was
not boring at all... in fact, its total impact could barely be perceived.

Other than its first photograph, created by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice
Wilkins, DNA's visual potential remained silently sleeping within the hallowed
halls and microscope-clad labs of the academic and scientific communities.
Seven years later, Arthur Kornberg produced the first test tube DNA. By the
mid 1960s, scientists had discovered the first genetic code. Twenty years
later, scientists were producing genetically created drugs and food. In the
late 1980s, scientists undertook a very ambitious project, they began
mapping the complete collection of our human gene's package (information on
DNA, proteins, etc.), the human genome.

Ten years later, the first identical copy of an animal, a sheep called Dolly,
was created. Dolly was called a clone in the media, however, in genetic
science, the terms clone and cloning refer to the process of making a
singular copy or multiple copies of one specific gene, not a genetic duplicate
of an organism. A year after Dolly, three generations of mice were created.

Part 4: Hybrids

Genetic science was beginning to move rapidly in
directions which caused wonderment, confusion and
fear among both the scientific and non-scientific
communities. While genetic scientists were sprinting
towards cloning, artists were sauntering the
algorithmic track of genetic and evolutionary art.

Starting in the early 1960s, artists and scientists
began using algorithms (programs containing instruction
sets) to create computer-generated
images. Scientists working at Bell Labs, like A. Michael
Knoll, Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon, were the first
to pioneer computer-generated art.

The first images were made up of simple monochrome lines and shapes,
created by inputting letters and numbers into computers via punch cards.
The end result was not visible until a printout was produced by a plotter.

With the invention of the display screen, artists and scientists were able to
see their images during creation. Computer-generated images began to
come to life! During this period, there was little difference between artists
and scientists: artists were programmers and scientists were artists.
Technological advancements had produced hybrids!

With the creation of new programming languages and monitors,
computer-generated images went from being a tool used to study the
science of images (e.g., their aesthetic qualities and how the viewer
interpreted them) to a tool of creativity. Artists and scientists began
experimenting with programming computers to produce new forms of art.

By the mid-1960s, computer-generated artworks were being exhibited at
galleries and museums. Artists who were not trained in creating art using
algorithms and mathematical formulas collaborated with scientists who were
able to program computers.

Part 5: Algorithms

Some artists and scientists used genetic algorithms,
based on the schemata theorem of J. H. Holland, to
grow artworks and create new art forms. A genetic
algorithm performs mathematical operations on an
evolutionary set (propagation statement) of building
blocks (schemata) that exist in a population of artificial
individuals. The computer model uses all the
individuals in one generation to find all the genes
(schemata) which will produce an improved generation.
It then genetically alters and mutates those genes to
produce the next generation.

A schema is implicitly contained in an individual. Like individuals,
schemata consist of bit strings (1, 0) and can be as long as the
individual itself. In addition, schemata may contain „don’t care“
positions where it is not specified whether the bit is 1 or 0, i.e.
schemata H are made from the alphabet {1, 0, #}. In other
words, a schema is a generalisation of (parts of) an individual.
Dr. Steffen Schulze-Kremer, Genetic Algorithms and Protein

Roman Verostko utilized the algorithmic capabilities of the computer, similar
to biological growth, to grow art. He became interested in the computer's
ability to generate art, rather than the artist generating it. Verostko called his
art form epigenetic. In epigenetic creations, the computer uses algorithms to
grow complex structures from a singular simple form.

In the late 1960s, biologist Aristid Lindenmayer developed a mathematical
theory of biological development which he called L-systems. Lindenmayer's
theory used string notations to create production rules that utilized
rewriting. These algorithms created simulations of the development of
artificial multicellular organisms, and later, higher level, more complex
plants. Lindenmayer's L-systems became a part of Alvy Ray Smith's 1980's
vintage graftals. Smith's images used a simple structure and iterations of
that structure to create a self-similar growth pattern. The final result was a
complex structure (e.g., a plant or a mountain), created from a single element.

By the early 1990s, Karl Sims was using representations of genotypes to
create computer-generated graphics of complex simulated structures,
textures and motions. His works used interactive selection based on visual
perception, strings of binary digits, sets of procedural parameters and
mutating symbolic expressions. The resulting images portrayed a maze of
realistic-looking, yet, completely artificially evolved plants.

Following in the footsteps of earlier genetic and evolutionary artists, Steven
Rooke, a former geologist, spent years developing software and gathering
genes into genebanks. His current genetic art involves generating video
sequences using genetic cross dissolves. Based on Karl Sim's work, a
program called GenCross generates a trajectory (a video sequence) through a
series of images resulting in a viewing of previously unseen forms or genetic
possibilities resulting from the mating of two individuals.

Part 6: Evolving Art

Genetic engineering is transforming forever how society approaches the notion of
"life." Eduardo Kac

Today, artists and scientists can create virtual
organisms that can be controlled and mutated
digitally. So, why would an artist and scientist want to
create a live glowing rabbit? Has virtual mutation lost
its significance?

In 1997, the Japanese created the same type of
glowing effect in mice, however, the animals were
mutated for research, not art. Should that have
made a difference?

When transgenic artist Eduardo Kac created a
mutated rabbit, he and the scientists who were his
collaborators, knew that the experiment was not
dangerous or harmful to the animal. They were using
a tested procedure. Many scientists and artists felt
the experiment was frivolous.

The use of genetics in art also opens up a whole new world of possibilities to artists
committed to the investigation of the cultural impact of new technologies. Transgenic art...
is a new art 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.
Eduardo Kac

In line with the concept of transgenic art, artist and filmmaker Virgil Wong
has created a futuristic Web installation where one can create their own
progeny. A hypothetical scenario... at the moment. Could this become a

What benefit was derived by an assistant professor of art and technology (at
the School of Art Institute of Chicago) and scientists (at the National Institute of
Agronomic Research in France) creating and then using a living albino rabbit,
whose genes had been manipulated, as an art medium?

Answers to these and other questions are diverse and transitional... genetic
science and art may see even stranger activity on the fringes of the future.

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