As both science and art advance, new opportunities arise there arise new opportunities for these disciplines to coexist and to inform one another. In the work of contemporary artist, Eduardo Kac, we see two new opportunities for interdisciplinary work to emerge: i) an aestheticization of the interaction between a biological sample and its environment and ii) an intervention in the genetics of biological entities as both spectacle and sociopolitical implicator. In the former, we see science ascience becomes a medium by which the artwork propagates itself, naturally. The latter is more nuanced, as the artist becomes the propagator of science; there is a certain level of control over nature that is being leveled by the artist as a result of “life processes” being the medium (Osthoff 2008). In this investigation of the status of Bio Art, we also see the dangers of aestheticization through the controversy generated by such intervention.
I. AN AESTHETICIZATION OF THE INTERACTION BETWEEN A BIOLOGICAL SAMPLE AND ITS ENVIRONMENT
The natural world is characterized by infinitely many and infinitely beautiful processes that occur in perfect synchrony. Only recently though, did these processes become the new media by which contemporary new media artists like Eduardo Kac and Suzanne Anker create work. These interdisciplinary works are about the aestheticization of such processess, but also about capturing the interaction between biological samples and different environments. The variability of the interactions that can occur adds new dimensions of identity and intimacy. These ideas are present in Kac’s Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries. This piece consists of a series of “biotypes” which are self-sustaining ecological microenvironments containing microbial life. Kac regulates the metabolism and environmental conditions within the biotypes generating entirely unique and constantly evolving works of art (Kac 2000). The success of these pieces hinges on the responses of the microorganism to the microenvironment. Each of them is entirely unique, not only to each other, but to time; Kac describes each biotype to be “an individual with its own identity.” Kac also describes a certain level of intimacy that accompanies a piece of biological art. To exist—to live—in the same space in the same space as it is to “literally ‘live with it’” (Osthoff 2008). This personal quality is inherent in any work that is alive -; we are linked by the breath.
The aestheticization pursued by Suzanne Anker in her version of Bio Art hinges instead on the juxtaposition of microscopic and macroscopic worlds rather than this senseKac’s of intimacy. In her Remote Sensing series I[CG1] , Anker employs the Petri dish as a canvas where she creates three-dimensional replicates modeling the interactions of biological samples like fungi, bacteria, and embryos (Anker 2015). These cultures work effectively like taking a snapshot of an ever-changing microenvironment. Both the title and the nature of the work itself offer up themes of accessibility. It would be impossible to visit this environment as it is represented in the moment frozen in of time it was frozen and transformed into this artwork. That moment and those metabolic conditions are inaccessible to the viewer, which make this work such a successful representation of the interactivity of biological specimen and phenomena.
Suzanne Anker. Remote Sensing 38. 2016.
II. AN INTERVENTION IN THE GENETICS OF BIOLOGICAL ENTITIES AS BOTH SPECTACLE AND SOCIOPOLITICAL IMPLICATOR
Another classification of interdisciplinary work is much more interventionist and, at times, even controversial in nature. Some explorations of the possibilities of genetic engineering are purely propositional and imaginary, like in Patricia Piccinini’s work, particularly her artificially natural creatures like The Young Family.
Patricia Piccinini. The Young Family. 2002.
In these works, Piccinini imagines the consequences that the genetic manipulation of existing organisms could have. These fictional species blur the line between organic and synthetic, real, orand imaginary. In The Young Family, we see a confusion of human and various mammal figuration in such a convincing way that we must reminds us ourselves of the current barrier of impossibility. These bizarre creatures provoke questions of “where one thing starts and another ends” (Piccinini 2019). There is a sort of poetic beauty in this notion of perpetual connectedness. On the other hand, the dangers of technological advancement are clear. This piece raises questions of the genetic boundaries between the physical creatures that make upcreate these hybrid ones, but additionally, the ethical and technological boundaries between benefiting humanity with science and where we endanger ourselves with knowledge by going too far.
Bio Art goes farther than the imagined. Transgenic Art became realized in 2000 by the first Transgenic Artist, Eduardo Kac, with the birth of Alba, the infamous and quite controversial “GFP Bunny.” This project, as a part of The Creation Trilogy, involved three aspects: the creation of the rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the creation of the rabbit, and the social integration of the rabbit. The GFP Bunny was created by incorporating a synthetic mutation for an enhanced version of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the genome of an albino rabbit embryo (Osthoff 2008). The green fluorescent protein is found in Aequorea victoria, a species of jellyfish; when these protein molecules absorb light in the ultraviolet spectrum, they release light of a higher wavelength, producing bright green light. Alba was created using an enhanced version of this phenomena which yields fluorescence that is two magnitudes stronger in mammalian cells. This means that Alba, when exposed to ultraviolet light will glow bright green (Dierks 2000).
For this glowing rabbit, there exist many different critical lenses through which to analyze the work. First, it can be analyzed aesthetically and formally. Kac, in relation to Bio Art understands aesthetics in the context of transgenic art as creation, socialization, and domestic integration as one process. The creation of the GFP Bunny is successful in serving as a pure aestheticization of the biophysical phenomena of fluorescence and protein tagging at the genomic level. It is a visualization of something that typically occurs in a research lab, not only making it accessible in terms of appreciating science conceptually, but also for making these science concepts accessible to society. Formally, Kac takes the Cs[CG2] , Ts, As, and Gs of the DNA sequence to paint a genetic portrait of a chimerical realization, much like a painter would take titanium white, yellow ochre, raw umber, and ivory black to paint a portrait. The socialization and domestic integration of the project and animal is where the work becomes blurryconvoluted in terms of understanding its sociopolitical implications.
For a transgenic work—and really any work of art involving a living creature—it is ethically necessary to deepen the investigation beyond its formal relevance. Kac declares his goal for the project was to spur dialogue about the future of biotechnology, “prompting society to ask how it will prepare itself to welcome new citizens who will be, themselves, clones and transgenics” (Osthoff 2008). He claims that this field of transgenic art adds a new ethical dimension to his work because of its interventionist nature.
The GFP Bunny is more interventionist than any piece before it. Artistic intervention calls for a direct engagement with the forces that affect cultural and political change and production. We see this in Eleonora Aguiari’s Lord Napier in red tape where the historic equestrian statue of Lord Napier in West London was wrapped entirely with red duct tape.[CG3] [CG4] This served as a commentary on the military pasthistory and a new visualization of the topics of the past including an intrinsic history of imperialism (Oliver 2011). Kac’s GFP Bunny is a different, more extreme, kind of artistic intervention. For one, Aguiari’s work took months of paperwork and permissions to realize. Kac went through similar political maneuvering in his communication with the lab, but there was no way for him to acquire permissions of the creature he was turning into art. This is the qualm of many animal rights activists who strongly protested the work as it was largely exploitative. About Alba, Kac says, “she embodies the passage of the chimera from legend to life, from reverie to reality” (Osthoff 2008). He claims that because she was born, her only context being that of an artwork, her existence is pregnant with “semantic meaning” as a result of its lack of “external utility” (Osthoff 2008). Because of this, Alba was completely unique. For many people, this uniqueness was not enough, but thoroughly damaging.
This project was also widely controversial in the scientific community, with Kac being a provocateur, tearing away at the tenuous contract made between society and scientists which allows research with such dire potential to continue (Dierks 2000). This work makes visible the possibility of genetic manipulation with no scientific nor medical merit,, but makes invisible invisible the serious use of genetic engineering for positive advancement in scientific research. Many scientists saw this artistic experiment as delegitimizing of the current research and jeopardizing for future research in the field (Dierks 2000).
Kac defended his artwork, claiming that his platform as an artist (and the social and domestic integration of Alba as part of the project) serve to normalize these technologies for the public. This is related to Guy Debord’s ideas on the “Spectacle”, or Debord’s term for the manifestation of mass media and other capitalist-driven phenomena.[CG5] Effectively, media facilitated society’s relationship with and successive dialogue about the GFP Bunny[CG6] . The social integration and public dialogue, as well as the controversy surrounding the custody battle between the lab that created Alba and Eduardo Kac, were all perpetuated and commodified by the media. The “degradation” referenced by Debord is made explicit in the loss of importance for the entirely important and crucial, green fluorescent protein and all the related scientific advancements (Debord 1967).
The Bio Art Manifesto defines Bio Art as being, “art that literally works in the continuum of biomateriality, from DNA, proteins, and cells to full organisms. Bio Art manipulates, modifies, or creates life and living processes” (Kac et al. 2017). Through the work of contemporary new media and transgenic artists like Eduardo Kac, we see how interdisciplinary work is opening new classifications and dialogues about what art is and the future of not just art, but technology as well. We see how an increasingly popular way of blending the disciplines of science and art is to provide a platform for the aestheticization of the metabolic processes that are already happening. On the other hand, we see work like the controversial GFP Bunny which highlights the peak of intervention: manipulation of the DNA code, the very essence of all living creatures, the generation of life itself. This opens the door to the possibilities of future artwork that grows increasingly (and dangerously) close to lines society must decide whether it is willing cross.
"Culturing Life." Suzanne Anker. October 27, 2015. Accessed May 02, 2019.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Buchet-Chastel, 1967.
Dierks, Carrie. "Glowing Bunny Sparks International Controversy." Biology News. October
2000. Accessed May 02, 2019. http://www.ekac.org/bionews.html.
Kac, Eduardo, Marion Laval-Jeantet, Benoît Mangin, Marta De Menezes, George Gessert, and
Paul Vanouse. "What Bio Art Is: A Manifesto." Kac Web. 2017. Accessed May 02, 2019. http://www.ekac.org/manifesto_whatbioartis.html.
Kac, Eduardo. Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries. 2007.
Osthoff, Simone. "Eduardo Kac at IVAM : A Conversation with the Artist." Kac Web. Accessed
April 03, 2019. http://www.ekac.org/osthoff.interview.art.es.html.
"Some Thoughts about My Practice." Patricia Piccinini. Accessed May 02, 2019.
"The State of Art." The State of Art: Rethinking Arts Funding. July 2011. Accessed May 02,