Saturday, July 16, 2016

Confessions of a Former Bio-Art Skeptic

I must be behind on my clichés, because I had only recently heard the phrase “art imitates life.” I didn’t give much thought to this saying at the time, but this unit on biotech and art brings it to new relevance for me. Perhaps for most of the history of art, this was true. But with the prevalence of genetic technology, art has a new role, not just to imitate life, but to create it as well.

I remember in the first unit on two cultures, we read an article from 2000 by Stephen Wilson that talks about the intersections of art, science, and technology. He expanded on genetic engineering as an example and proposed that “perhaps artists could produce useful or interesting modified organisms for reasons other than commercial profit” [1]. At the time, I mentally scoffed at the idea and could never imagine that such creatures had come into existence that very year.  Alba, the “GFP bunny” modified by Eduardo Kac was an artistic tool that was meant to promote dialogue among many disciplines about the creation of life [2]. 

Alba, Eduardo Kac’s fluorescent bunny (passed away in 2002)

I must admit that when I read Wilson’s article, I was not only doubtful but also concerned about artists using modified organism in their work. However, learning about artists like Kac and Kathy High – who rescued “retired” transgenic mice as part of her work [3] – gives me more confidence that genetic biotechnology is in good hands with artists, perhaps more so than with scientists.


Kathy High with a transgenic rat

To me, the overarching message when it comes to bio-art is to question what we consider life, and I think this is a very important message to communicate about with the science world. Mirroring Ellen Levy’s conclusion in her paper on defining life in art, this question will likely become more important as the technology grows [4]. It seems like only a matter of time before the genetic technology used on animals to maximize their utility will become a norm for humans.

Other forms of bio-art, like Edward Steichen’s genetically modified flowers [5], also raise similar questions about life, but their processes and outcomes are much less controversial. Perhaps that raises more questions about life, such as why humans are much more protective over organisms that move over those that don’t.

Edward Steichen with delphiniums (c. 1938)

Ending on my primary note of genetically modified animals, I recently read a dystopian novel by Kat Falls called Inhuman [6]. Its premise is that an overzealous zoo owner started created hybrid animals, and after some unfortunate raids by animal activists, these hybrids became loose and started infecting humans, resulting in human hybrid species. It’s an interesting concept (and perhaps not that bizarre given what I’ve learned this unit), and the book itself dealt with some themes about the disparity between human and animal treatment. I’m looking forward to the sequel!


[1] Wilson, Stephen D. “Myths and Confusions in Thinking about Art/Science/Technology.” College Art Association Meetings. New York, New York, 2000. Print.

Kac, Eduardo. "GFP BUNNY." KAC. N.p., 2000. Web. 16 July 2016.


[3] High, Kathy. "How Did Matilda, Tara and Star Barbie Become Transgenic Rats?" Embracing Animal. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2016.

[4] Levy, Ellen. “Defining Life: Artists Challenge Conventional Classifications.”Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts. Eds. Margot Lovejoy, Christiane Paul, and Victoria Vesna. University of Chicago Press: 2011.

Hartmann, Celia. "Edward Steichen Archive: Delphiniums Blue (and White and Pink, Too)." InsideOut. MoMA, 8 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 July 2016.


[6] Falls, Kat. Inhuman. Toulouse: Milan, 2015. Print.

1 comment:

  1. You do a great job of making your stance on animal treatment and testing really clear. Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on cloning animals and/or growing individual organs from stem cells? Do these "living" organisms have rights and freedoms as regular humans and should they be treated as such?