Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Considerations on Transgenic and Biotech Art, by Gianna Maria Gatti (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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Gianna Maria Gatti:

(translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro)

At the Experimental Art Foundation of Adelaide, Australia, there took place in 2004 the exhibition “Art of the Biotech Era” organized by Melentie Pandilovski. It involved the principal exponents of the artistic sphere connected to biology, genetics and bio-technologies, showing their projects and realizations. It brought together theorists and scholars of scientific and humanistic backgrounds, an important moment of encounter and reflection on the ethical, philosophical, and social implications of biological manipulation in art with regard to the creation of new forms of life.

In the Spring of the previous year an analogous event had already been organized in Nantes, France, “L’Art Biotech,” the first large exhibition dedicated to this theme, conceived and curated by Jens Hauser to whom goes the merit of having been able to assemble and display in a single context and under a single denomination the varied experiences of those artists who, employing the same tools, have elaborated personal and original approaches to  living material. On both occasions standing out from the explosive impact is the research carried out and the works exhibited by Eduardo Kac and the Australian group SymbioticA. Kac, founder of transgenic art, makes use of the techniques of genetic engineering to manipulate and alter the DNA of living organisms, transferring to them natural genes from other species. Going back to 1999, during the “Ars Electronica” of Linz, Austria, the presentation of his famous project called Green Fluorescent Proteins, centered on the possibility of introducing the GPF gene carrier of fluorescence, extracted from the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria, into the genetic code of the embryo of a dog, originating in this way a hybrid animal, an operation that the artist considers to be a continuation, carrying out with leading edge technology the selective process that man has conducted with the domestication of the dog. This project, however, has until now given life, in 2000, to a single specimen only,

a female albino rabbit called Alba and named by Kac GFP Bunny as work of art, fluorescent if exposed to ultraviolet rays; born in the laboratories of INRA (Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, National Institute of Agronomic Research, with headquarters in Jouy-en-Josas, France), the artist has never been able to take it in consignment, nor to bring it up as was his desire, nor to present it in artistic contexts, a possibility denied to him for ethical and social reasons, dictated by the intent to keep separate the scientific and the aesthetic levels, to avoid instrumental exploitation or use for one’s own ends on already controversial subjects. Notwithstanding the polemics Alba can still be considered to be the emblem of transgenic art, “shining only by its absence,” as writes Hauser interestingly about the exhibition in Nantes: “Alba is the synecdoche of an artistic tendency that nourishes itself henceforth from all fields of contemporary biology: transgenic, tissue culture, hybridization or vegetable and animal selection, human grafts, synthesis of artificial sequences of DNA, neuro-physiology, visualization technologies of molecular biology. It has become a reality: artists have entered into laboratories. They transgress deliberately the procedures of representation and metaphor to reach the point of manipulating the living being itself. Bio-technology is no longer only a subject, but a tool: green fluorescent animals, wings grown to be put on the back of pigs, sculptures that take shape inside of bioreactors and under the microscope, or again DNA used as an artistic medium.

A sort of revenge on the part of the artists, in whom is recognizable a role of mediation between that which occurs in the institutions delegated to deal with bio-technologies and the common man. The works of the artists make it possible for the ordinary citizen to approach what occurs there, to be aware of the possibilities that genetic engineering can present and to be informed about the epochal mutations regarding its present and its future. Reflections which incite Kac to relate artistic creation and divine creation, as in the bioinstallations The Eighth Day and Genesis. The former is a constantly illuminated artificial ecosystem where fluorescent plants, amoeba, fish and mice all live together in the company of the Biobot, a small ‘biological’ robot which has as brain structure a colony of amoeba that determines its behavior; the robot is connected to the Internet to allow the users of the Net to visit the environment at a distance. The title suggests that the transgenic life become reality here finds its place at the end of the sequence of divine phases of creation as reported in the Sacred Scriptures: an entirely human seal on the evolution of life. The reference to the Bible is at the base also of Genesis, where a verse from the Old Testament, translated into Morse code, has been chosen by Kac to form the DNA string of a synthetic gene, entirely the fruit of human invention and for this reason defined as ‘Artist’s gene’; it is inserted, in combination with the proteins of the fluorescence, within a natural micro-organism, a bacterium situated in a slide and magnified by a microscope. It is thus possible to monitor the mutations of such a bacterium – induced through the quantity of light regulated by the Internet users – and the consequent alterations of its genetic inheritance that, by inverse procedure, is retranslated into letters no longer corresponding to the original biblical verse: “The ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form in which we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it.”

From the mixture of genes, synthetic or natural, to generate new beings, to the growth of biological tissues to produce semi-living organs and entitites: this is the purpose of the collective of SymbioticA, founded by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, the first research laboratory aimed at exploring biological technologies from an artistic and humanistic perspective, born and operating within the Department of Anatomy & Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, in Perth. Connected to SymbioticA – it is Catts in fact who established it in 1996 – is the project The Tissue Culture & Art (TC&A), the aim of which is oriented in a specific way to the analysis and use of biological tissues in an artistic sphere, without omitting the implications and applications in the medical-scientific field. Molecular biology, the neurosciences, and tissue technologies become areas of interest for the artists who make organic material a means of creative expression: ‘wet art’, so-called humid art, which places wetware side by side with software and hardware.

Neurons of fish grow assembled on silicon chips in the project Fish & Chips, whereas stem cells of bone marrow taken from a pig form the shaped tissue on three models of bat wings that are developed in vitro in the work Pig Wings, curious interpretation of the traditional iconography of the winged body. In Disembodied Cuisine, cells of muscle tissue of living frogs, extracted through biopsies, are cultivated in order that they become edible ‘steaks’, ironically responding to mass breeding and to the relative ‘gastronomic slaughters’. In all of these cases, there is an appropriate structure, the bioreactor, that allows tissues, cells or neurons extracted from animals to proliferate in the three dimensions in the absence of gravity, and to guarantee, reproducing by emulation the conditions of the body and of the environment of origin, to maintain in life autonomously the organs that produce themselves, demonstrating that they can grow according to predetermined forms and function outside the body. Independent organs that Catts and other genetic artists, with a view to improving the quality of human life, propose to consider as prototypes capable of being transplanted into the human body as substitutes for damaged or badly functioning organs.

A further step in this direction has been taken by TC&A in collaboration with Stelarc, in the work Semi-Living Extra Ear 1/4 Scale, presented at the exhibition “Art of the Biotech Era” of Adelaide. Stelarc, Australian artist noted for the use in his performances of technological tools, employed also in the medical field, for the purpose of amplifying the physiological functions of the body considered by him as a “structure to control and to modify… object of replanning,” for example, enhancing the body with a third active robotic arm. Stelarc has found in the group of researchers of TC&A the ideal partner for the realization of his project Extra Ear, conceived in 1997. Starting from a minimal portion of cartilage and of bone marrow taken from the body of Stelarc, the living three-dimensional replica of his left ear was reproduced with an imprint in reduced scale, and cultivated within the bioreactor. The intention of the artist is to later have the organ surgically implanted under a strip of skin of the arm, so that it becomes a permanent extension of the body which can feed through it. One creates in this way an evolution of the physical human not carried out via the substitution of a part, like a repairing prosthesis, but on the contrary by means of the growth of an extremity that, although deprived of the auditory function, can acquire, with adaptation over time, a new value, and confer to the arm and to the body as a whole a new physiognomy. Catts, Zurr and Stelarc have demonstrated that the metamorphosis of the human body is henceforth feasible on the part of man himself. The goal still to be reached, as Melentie Pandilovski points out, is, however, the acceptance and the awareness of such an outcome, since it corrodes the identity of the human race that in the body as is recognizes itself: “Many would object to the enhancing of the human form, finding the notion repulsive. On the contrary, nobody seems to object to the expansion of human consciousness. What is it then that makes us so much in love with the human form as it is? Where does this attachment originate? In order to understand the driving current between the centre of consciousness and the world of forms that represent human reality, we need to explore ideas of our own identity – for example, the identification of our humanity with the form of the human body. The identification with this form, or ‘with any form in particular’, is an obstacle to the emancipation of consciousness, for our experience with the phenomenal world is conditioned by our own limitations. Through this identification, we experience the conflict between the need for the freeing of consciousness and the limitations of consciousness as such.”

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