English 165LB: Literature & Biotechnology (W11)

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Bioart discussion

Posted by rraley on February 26, 2011

Discussion questions:

(1) What can we make of the use of living beings as a medium for art?
(2) What is the significance of duplicating the tools, techniques, and materials of the biological sciences?
(3) What are your overall thoughts about transgenic art?

19 Responses to “Bioart discussion”

  1. Marthine said

    Interestingly, this NYT article about DIY biotech was in the Fashion and Style section under the title “Turning Geek into Chic” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/fashion/19amateur.html

    • Kelsey McClurg said

      The accessibility of biotech never ceases to shock me. I am a Biology major and am in awe about the simplicity of biological experiments. Even though, I have been trained in numerous lab settings, I keep expecting the labs to be dark sinister places full of complicated machines and stern looking gentlemen in white coats. Although some labs do have complicated machines and or stern looking gentlemen, many labs explore basic principles of life using tools that could be cousins of your kitchen utensils. Social perception of science as an esoteric field limits the understanding of biotech’s influence in popular culture especially regarding genetically modified food and tissue donations. Opening DIY labs, allows anyone to access science thus making biotech less creepy and mysterious. Even if people do not personally become involved in DIY biology, the option to be involved in biotech will take biotech control away from corporations and into the democratic population.

      • Nader Heidari said

        I agree, I think one of the problems with scientific fields is the perceived inaccessibility of the materials and knowledge by the general public. Chemistry and biology do not only occur in a lab, chemistry occurs anywhere with atoms and biology occurs wherever there is life. When a bartender produces a layered drink, he is separating liquids by their polarity and density. When someone puts a piece of bread in their mouths, amylase breaks down the starch into sugar, which results in a sweet taste. The ability to learn and practice science has never been restricted to men and women in lab coats (although they do complete the ensemble if you are doing DIY biotech, don’t forget lab goggles). It is actually very unfortunate, because the view of science as overly complicated leads to unnecessary fear. For example:


        Yes, I am aware that it is satire, but there are many cases in which the prank drew real responses.


        While I do not condone keeping a jar of 18M H2SO4 around, DIY chemistry and biotech can be considered helpful tools for improving science literacy and bringing the nature of biotech to the general public.

  2. Bridget Cundelan said


    I was looking around on the internet under bioart and I found another piece by Eduardo Kac entitled, “Cypher.” The exhibition is in the form of a book that opens up to become a “D.Y.I Transgenic Kit.” It contains a strand of synthetic DNA whose nucleotide sequence translates into the poem, “A tagged cat will attack GATTACA”, as well as petri dishes, test tubes, and a strain of bacteria. In doing so, he invites the reader/viewer to insert the DNA code into the bacteria to decode the poem, which turns the bacteria a glowing red color and gives it life. I found this exhibit very clever and noticed some connections to material we have been discussing in class.

    First is the connection between the poetic and the biological. Kac’s piece is in the form of a book, but the medium he uses to tell its story is the DNA containing his poem. In the same way, VAS uses his vasectomy, his body, as his mode of narration. This evokes the idea of “Data made flesh” and the question as to whether we are the sum of our genetic makeup, or whether there is some kind of “ghost in the machine.” I think Kac’s fusion of art, his poem, with the scientific, DNA, suggests that we are more than a series of chemical reactions and information. Rather, art is at the core of our genetic makeup.

    Another feature is Kac’s removal of the scientific from the laboratory. His work is an interactive “Do it yourself” experience where he injects the reader into the process of transgenic creation. He forces the audience to “get to know” this new technology, rather than remaining passive bystanders. He fosters a kind of empowerment to the layperson from being helpless in the face of this new technology. In addition, he breaks down the barriers between professional and participatory knowledge. He turns science into a hobby-a kind of game to decode his riddle (the poem), echoing the playful theme of “Science Rocks!” But while this kind of hands-on engagement can give the non-scientist a sense of empowerment through experiential knowledge, I think it also presents a double edged sword. The sentiment of science as a “game” can lead to unforeseen consequences, as well as a de-sensitivity to the ethical implications of biotechnology.

    Overall, his exhibit raises many questions. While the scientist may use biotechnology in order to find cures and benefit humanity, what exactly is the hobbyist, or even the artist doing? Can this be seen as the natural evolution of the artist as creative, to create tangible life? Can we ever manipulate life without devaluing it? And should we ever mess with the creation of life, being largely unaware of its long term consequences (think the biotech apocalypse of Orxy and Crake). After all, once the viewer creates the first copy of the poem, Kac notes that it will continue to multiply on its own. So it seems that in reality, the biotechnician is never fully in control of his experiment and its potential mutations.

    • Shain Lafazan said

      Before responding, I looked at “Cypher” through the link you provided before stumbling around the rest of Kac’s website. His artwork is clever! I don’t enjoy it in the same way I enjoy other forms of art, but the methods he chooses to incorporate into his artwork serve it well.

      The DNA sequence is translated into artistic text in such a way that, according to Kac, “the code is absolutely integral to the poem.” I agree that Kac’s message in “Cypher” is one of precision and dimension in reference to what is human. The concept is that the material of a human being has substance, and that even it can be embodied in code, but that there is something more to the thing. The arrangement of code in a comprehensible context, such as the poem, gives the code a meaning.

      Therefore, there is another immediate interpretation of “Cypher” where purpose is centered. What is the purpose of a code?

      Codes can be written laws or functions, such as laws of mathematics. Languages are codes. One common trait of all codes is that they are man-made. There are no natural codes unless human beings impart meaning on them. So in “Cypher”, the purpose of the code is to perpetuate the poem, just as the purpose of DNA is to perpetuate human beings.

      Another question is: What is the purpose of “Cypher”? Thankfully, Kac provides the answer in writing, that “Cypher” is “an invitation; it is a call to engage with a set of procedures that merge art and poetry, biological life and technology, reading/viewing and kinesthetic participation.”

      (Quotes pulled from Kac’s website, at http://www.ekac.org/cypher.text.html)

  3. Kara said

    The premise of bio art is pretty interesting because of the way it gets the viewer involved, by inviting you to look through a mircoscope or press buttons on strange machines or whatever. At very least bio art makes you really think about/figure out what is going on in the piece. When we were looking at different examples of bio art I couldn’t help but think about the strange relationship humans have with non humans. We eat other animals, we use them for experimentation, we have messed with evolution by breeding them deliberatly for certain traits for centuries. So I supose dabbeling with their genetics for our own entertainment or thought envoking effects is just the next step. Does it matter? I mean obviously PETA thinks so, do I think so? Me being a non vegan who enjoys leather products and pets and feather earrings. It feels like we are playing god, I guess thats what we have been doing all along anyway, but unlike him we are not all knowing, we can’t see the future.
    I supose when it comes down to it I find it facinating, useing technology for art instead of pure cold science is a refreshing concept but simultaneously I feel uneasy..

  4. Stephanie Bell said

    I was wondering during the class whether there was any real ‘use’ for inserting the glowing jellyfish gene into the bunny rabbit, whether it helped scientists in anyway and I found this article which talks about putting the glowing gene into a chicken and that it has scientific benefits. It says “You can take a sample of cells from a green embryo and then put them into a normal embryo. You can then watch and see what organ that group of cells develops into because that tissue will have a green fluorescence. For example, if this part of the chick embryo develops into stem cells, that tells us whether other animals, including humans, have stem cells in that part of their embryos and will therefore provide us with important basic biological insights.” Although the glowing gene and what the artist did with the butterfly patterns didn’t harm the animals in anyway I do feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that animals are being subjected to this for simply an aesthetic reason. Of course there are other merits that we discussed, that it provides insight into gene modification and gets people involved, but I do think its also important that we are advancing scientifically from this technology as on the surface, making something glow doesn’t seem to have any use.

    This article also mentions featherless chickens, saying it has not yet been produced. It is elements of gene modification research which in my opinion do the whole sector harm, as the article states this is “often held up as the ultimate GM horror”. Having featherless chickens can of course be framed as being useful, it is just to make assembly line production that bit easier.

    The third point the article makes is that we have an obsession with genetic influences in diseases and less environmental reasons, particularly for obesity and cancer; that we believe that it is genetics which cause these diseases. The article points out however that the more we do know about the genetic influence, the more we will have to work with in relation to environmental causes.

    Although I can understand art for arts sake, and I can understand how this bio-art has uses for culture and simply knowledge, I would feel uneasy about it if it didn’t have any basis scientific merits.
    The whole article is interesting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/08/genetic-modification-robin-mckie?intcmp=239

    • Kara said

      Yeah exactly! I feel like there is some essential difference between art for art sake (its beautiful, creative and thought provoking qualities and functionally uselessness) and the tampering of living, feeling, powerless creatures who have no say/vote in the matter and who’s lives are being altered because of bio art.

    • Natalie said

      I thought this exact thing when I was reading about Alba, I just kept wondering what the point of all this was. I know transgenic art wants us to recognize the fear and anxiety that we have about biotechnology so we can look at it critically, but I just feel like making a glow-in-the-dark bunny wasn’t really the way to do that. I understand that it’s supposed to be showing the possibilities of gene splicing, yet I felt as though this was just a manipulation of life purely for the sake of “art”. I’m not saying I am against what Bioart is attempting to do, I find much of it very informative and I think many piece actually do show the more worrisome aspects of biotechnology. Yet in the case of Alba I couldn’t stop and recognize what was trying to be done without thinking it was unnecessary to alter that animals genome. Although there are many aspects of scientific experimentation on animals that I don’t agree with, it almost upsets me more that these experiments are done without any scientific merit.

  5. Eric Merenstein said

    Have people always told you that you have ears to die for. Something so sexy and irresistible people cannot resist commenting on them? Ears that are so perfectly proportioned that they rest gently at the side of your head as if placed there and not protruding out at all. Some might say they remind them of rose petals, so delicate and intricate. Or maybe you have the perfectly curved penis? You don’t know why or how you were blessed like Apollo, but each time you enter your partner with your perfectly contortioned member you can’t help, but hit the g- spot, the clit, and the pc muscle all at once. Bingo! Don’t be bashful! We pay top dollar for everything!
    Have your genes patented today, come on down to our brand new build-a-you- workshop where we will take a look at your prized genetic manifestation and pay you on the spot!
    (THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FINE PRINT: Insert really important information like they own your genes and now you can’t reproduce that gene-so if your kid ends up with that penis then they own him- without buying your own gene back from them. Or other such things usually inserted in fine print like 1 2 3 no take backs.)

    Please excuse the prurient humor towards the end there. I suppose I could have gotten my point across without it, but where is the fun in that? That to some extent is my point. The lunacy of the copyrighting of genes has gone to new levels. If anyone would have told a farmer fifty years ago that you wouldn’t be able to use the seeds their plants (which they paid for already) grew, they would think you are crazy and probably run after you with a pitchfork when you came for them. Yet, here we are with good old Monsanto and their magical soybeans.
    I’m not sure what exactly I feel I am getting at in this post. I think it is interesting to ponder about whether we would pay to have her cheekbones or his abs… literally. They would have virtually every eye color on shelf and we really would just build a baby from scratch. Celebrities would be paid even more for looking so good.
    I also note an interesting similarity between the genetically modified butterfly wings and the idea of genetically patenting your genes. Would you pay to have a rainbow dog? Or a Bengali Tiger looking cat?

    • Elizabeth Rogers said

      Actually, people already pay for the stupidest things… Like tiger cats.


      With animals, at least, it’s become a cottage industry of trying to get something tamed to look like something wild. People seem to want that taste of the wild side, and they want that beautiful animal that almost seems to me to be a piece of bioart. They’re breeding to get this striped orange cat, or a cat that likes like an ocelot, or like a serval. So, somewhat related- people breed animals for sheer appearance alone. Can that be considered a form of bio art? Sort of interesting to consider. I mean, it doesn’t really show off the process, but it seems to follow that same basic manipulation to produce something you find ‘pretty’.

  6. Joanne Cock said

    Just found an interesting video on Youtube from a documentary called Bioteknica, where Shawn Bailey and Jennifer Willet genetically engineer sculptures from living cells.

    I think a lot of the language used within this video is something to note. The phrase “sculpture specimen” comes up early on, adding to the mix of art and science. Also, just as genetically engineered foods are listed as “frankenfoods” the documentary labels this as “frankenart”. This video also shows more to the idea of science becoming a hobby for anyone, in the ease in which Willet attains bone marrow in order to create her art. There’s no special ordering or forms to fill out, she just visits her local butcher for a fresh cow bone.

    The phrase “scientists playing god” is used, which is interesting in its use of describing what Willet and others are doing. Is it just to describe the act of creating genetically engineered art, or the ultimate, physical result that they call art? I think what Willet and Bailey are doing only emphasises the amount of genetically engineered products there are in the world and how easy they are to create. The creation becomes something no longer rare or complicated, as it is made by amateurs and left in an art gallery; it’s nothing special now.

    There was another interesting example of genetically engineered art created called “The Cult of the New Eve”, where beer and wafers were created containing human DNA. Visitors to their exhibition were allowed to eat them, allowing their symbolism to become almost literal. This documentary also brought up Steve Kurtz and his “bioterror blunder” and Alba and florescent rabbit, linking them all together.

    The video is here for those interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36FxOJwNwLE

  7. Amber Estes said

    Ever since we discussed the controversy surrounding biotech hobbyists I have been more aware of the presence of the “at home tinkerers”. These DIY scientists are prevalent on the FOX television show, Fringe. Every episode follows a team of government officials whose job it is to clean up the mess of a citizen who experiments on biology as a leisure activity. This past week’s episode was about a scientist who wanted to restore function in his son’s legs. He experimented on human subjects in this personal lab.

    The main theme that runs throughout the show is public safety versus privacy. The same dialogue that was discussed in class appears repeatedly in the script. I know that Fringe is a dramatization of the evil perils of biotech hobbyists but I think Fringe makes a great case for why public safety should always be favored. In class some people agreed with the man who had a lab in his house and believed it was his right to work on a non-lethal strain of E. Coli at home. I have to completely disagree with his choices. Because he was not in a sanctioned laboratory, any number of things could have gone wrong and in doing so he could have endangered his wife’s life as well as neighboring families. There are regulations that are put into practice in laboratories that decrease the risk of harm for all and I truly believe that is where the tinkering should be kept. There needs to be a checks and balance system that is put in place for these hobbyists. When it comes to biotechnology ever precaution needs to be established so that moral, ethical and safety concerns are not breached.

  8. Calvin Shayer said

    After discussing Orlan in lecture I took the time to go back to her website and more carefully explore her repertoire of works and must say that I was truly intrigued by what she has accomplished. It is clear that Orlan is not just operating under the guise of “shock value” in order to get her ideas across the the viewer. The discussion that arose in class after watching the video of Orlan’s surgeries surprised me, as many people seemed quick to reject her performance as less than artistic. It is clear that the use of the human body as both the medium and subject of art is a cultural taboo, one that Orlan seems intent to break.

    Orlan uses her body to various degrees in her artwork, surgery being the most extreme. Her choice to modify her body seems to be an affront to feminism, but when considered more carefully, especially in conjunction with her other works, it becomes clear that her artwork is an inherently feminist critique of society. In a short interview with Beauty Streams, Orlan discusses the core values of her choice to continually go under the knife.


    Like many other bioartists, Orlan is utilizing the modern technologies available to her in order to create original works of art, one that just happen to change her physical appearance. Orlan makes it clear that she is in no way denouncing the use of plastic surgery, but instead wants to avoid conforming to predetermined models of feminine beauty. This can be seen most clearly by the designer Walter van Beirendonck’s use of Orlan-like forehead bumps on the models in his fashion shows. It is clear that Orlan’s work does not go unnoticed and permeates throughout the various mediums of art.

    I find Orlan to be particularly fascinating as an artist, in both terms of her “traditional” art and her more radical procedural “carnal art.” She raises questions about the portrayal of feminine beauty and how the male perspective shapes societies idealized view of the female form. While some may regard her art as being outlandish and even gruesome, it is clear that she has a strong, feminist message.


    To get a better understanding of the way in which Orlan views herself and her own works, one must read the way in which she defines Carnal Art. Her manifesto is both enlightening and full of wit.

    • Nicole Cordone said

      I too thought Orlan was particularly interesting in regards to her feminist viewpoints. At first glance, it does seem rather anti-feminist to distort your body surgically in the hopes of attaining some elusive beauty ideal. However, to think of Orlan in that way would be looking at her art on a very superficial level. She is obviously extremely aware of the pressures our society puts on women in terms of beauty. She is interesting in that she is willing to use her own body as art to get her message across, something not many other artists are willing to do to the same degree. The fact that she recognizes that the portrayal of beauty in our culture causes women to feel “always at fault and humiliated for what they are,” demonstrates how she must be viewed as a pro-feminism artist. I like her work because it is a rather visceral, even gory representation of how damaging our culture’s beauty ideal can be to young people.

    • Jennifer S. Lopez said

      I feel the same way about how quickly others were able to dismiss Orlan’s work as little more than a a shocking and superficial display of gore. I did not see that, I saw one artist’s intense dedication to her work and her message. A message that brings into question the value that our society has placed on physical beauty and the extent to which many are willing to go to fulfill physical ideals, that are in many cases unrealistic. One comment was made about the relief that was felt that there weren’t hundreds of “crazy” people trying to recreate this kind of act. I thought it was a little ironic that a comment would be made in regards to Orlan’s very public, and yes a little gruesome procedures. The truth is there are thousands of people going under the knife for cosmetic procedures every year. It is however a taboo subject, in most cases the more natural and secret a procedure can be kept the better. Why is it that Orlan’s very public display and invitation to experience her procedure actively, as opposed to passively and unconscious makes it more grotesque?

  9. Nicole Cordone said

    When we first began discussing bio art, I immediately thought of Tera Galanti, an artist who also happens to be my friend’s mother. She combines sculpture as well as biological science to create her pieces. Marta de Menezes’s butterflies especially made me think of Tera, who does a lot of work with silk worms and moths. However, her “wings” project in particular seems pretty contrary to the transgenic art we discussed in lecture. Instead of altering the genes of these moths, she is instead returning them to their natural state, i.e. how they were before humans intervened.

    She notes that silkworms (who become moths after metamorphosis) were bred for thousands of years by humans not to fly. Their ability to fly was inconsequential to humans, who only needed them for their silk production. Thus, these moths became solely domesticated for human use, and are not found in the wild as they thrive solely in captivity due to the selective breeding they were subjected to.

    Her art is interesting because by favoring flight during her own selective breeding of these moths, she works to return the moths to their natural state. While I don’t mean to condemn other transgenic artists, I just found it interesting that she seemed to be trying to benefit the species in some way, rather than just attempting to alter their genetic makeup because it looks cool, or is a work of art. Some students above discussed whether there was any real “use” for some of the genetic changes certain bio artists have subjected animals to. While I see how their work can be viewed as art, it is a little unsettling to alter an animal when that alteration doesn’t really seem to benefit them in any way. By attempting to return her moths to their natural state, Tera is, in a small way, reversing animal domestication and returning these moths to a state which is beneficial to them, not to humans.


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