GeneWatch, Volume 17 Number 2, March - April 2004
An Introduction to Genetic Art
Conflicts of Interest Jeopardize Scientific Integrity and Public Health
by George Gessert
Genetic art is art that involves DNA. Although this kind art has existed for some time Edward Steichen exhibited hybrid delphiniums at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 only in the last few years has it gained much attention. A few examples of recent work: Suzanne Ankers made sculptures of chromosomes, emphasizing their resemblance to hieroglyphics or letters of the alphabet basic units of cultural information-storage. Larry Miller copyrighted his DNA, and distributed copyright forms to anyone interested in legally owning their own genes. Alexis Rockman explores evolution’s beauty and horror in oil paintings that evoke 19th century landscapes, natural history tableaus, and science fiction films. And Karl Mihail and Tran Kim-Trang spoof our yearnings to be among the genetic ‘elect’ with The Creative Gene Harvest Archive (1999), a collection of hair samples supposedly taken from molecular biologists and celebrities, but actually taken from Kim-Trang’s students.
There is also live genetic art. Examples include Eduardo Kac’s transgenic works, my hybridized plants, and Dave Powell’s "artcats."
Any work of genetic art derives meanings from social context, including the history of art. For example, Kevin Clarke’s Portrait of James D. Watson, which shows grids, graphs and sequences of amino acids, presents Watson in terms of DNA and scientific data, common reductionist ways of seeing people today [Figures 2-3]. It is significant that Clark does not challenge the idea that human beings are central to the scheme of things, one of the underpinnings of Western portraiture. A challenge would have been easy to deliver for example, by juxtaposing Watson’s DNA sequences with those from a bonobo [a species of ape] in order to show how little they differed. Clark’s portrait of Watson is visually novel, but has a traditional premise: we’re number one. Live genetic art tends to undermine such assumptions.
So radically different from traditional art mediums are plants, animals, and bacteria that they require us to renegotiate our relationship with art, and sometimes redefine ourselves in the process. Brandon Ballengee’s Species Reclamation Via a Non-Linear Genetic Timeline begins this sort of journey with a project to recreate a species of African frog, Hymenochirus curtipes, that is probably extinct. The installation consists of live frogs and documentation of a breeding project, but shadowing the work is extinction. Whether or not human activities caused H. curtipes to disappear, Ballengee’s frogs may remind viewers of the human role in the ecological holocaust that is unfolding today. On the other hand, the attempt to reconstruct a vanished species, even if it fails, holds out the hope that we may not be altogether lost to the community of life.
Some live genetic art derives meanings as much from plant and animal breeding as from the traditional fine arts. My work with irises, for example, is informed by the history of iris breeding, and of ornamental plant breeding generally. Plant and animal selection for aesthetic qualities has probably gone on since the beginnings of domestication twelve thousand years ago.1 No comprehensive history of aesthetic selection has been written, but such a work could have a great deal to tell us about ourselves as agents of evolution, and about what we face today, not only in the arts and plant and animal breeding, but in biotechnology. When we look at ornamental plants we see organisms shaped by human desires, dreams, and what Margaret Atwood calls “structured ignorance” [Figure 1]. By every indication biotechnology will repeat the past.
Of the many kinds of genetic art, transgenic art has received the most attention. Transgenic art involves actual DNA sequences or lifeforms produced through genetic engineering. This kind of art came into being in 1985 when Joe Davis completed Microvenus, a strand of DNA that he configured into the Germanic rune for life. David Kremers, Adam Zaretsky, the husband-wife team Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, and others have made important contributions to transgenic art, but Eduardo Kac has received the lion’s share of attention in the art
world and from the media with GFP Bunny, a rabbit named Alba who contains a jellyfish gene and flouresces green under blue light. Alba is hardly unique: gfp (genetic fluorescence protein) rabbits have lived in laboratories for years.
However, the public did not know of their existence until Kac claimed one as art. Less publicized but just as important is Kac’s Genesis. This installation focuses on bacteria that contain DNA sequenced to carry the Biblical passage, “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Kac’s Genesis is the most powerful statement I know of about the cultural and psychological underpinnings of biotechnology today. Through his transgenic organisms and “art genes”, Kac has done as much as any artist to heighten public awareness of biotechnology.
All art has political dimensions, but purely political art rarely tells us anything that we don’t already know. Agitprop has social uses, but is rarely interesting as art. What genetic art can do best is what art has always done best: engage our minds and hearts through our senses, break down stereotypes, define hopes and fears, baffle and astonish, relieve our isolation.
All works of genetic art, whatever their political slant, validate public discussion about biotechnology and genetics. This has important political implications. Business, science, agriculture, and government control not only biotechnology, but most discourse about it. Almost everyone else, including artists, have stayed out or been held out of public discourse about genetics. Until very recently the few who spoke up in even small ways were often ridiculed, marginalized or attacked. This was, in part, presumably because eugenics was lurking in the wings, ready to pounce if people as allegedly emotional and irresponsible as artists got involved. (In the 1980s, when I first exhibited hybrid irises in galleries, I was questioned about eugenics, and heard nervous comments about Hitler and racism, during the course of every exhibition; to many people, even the mildest reference to genetics in the context of "culture" implied eugenics. Once in the gallery, hybrid irises weren't irises: they were stand-ins for people.)
Eugenics is a real danger, of course, but the healthiest response to this and other dangers is sustained, informed public discussion, along with room for venting, histrionics, and flights of fancy. Genetic art has fostered discussion, not only about biotechnology, but about bringing consciousness to evolution - our own evolution, that of other species, and of the biosphere. Understanding of the issues that surround these things is much greater today than it was just a few years ago, at least in the art world.
Art tools have political implications. Kac and other artists have been attacked for validating biotechnology by using its tools. However, when an artist uses biotechnology, he or she is only validating its use for that particular work. Use of a tool is not an endorsement of everything else that it can do, in art or elsewhere. What is a valid use? The answer will vary from artist to artist.
Limitations of Live Art
Artists who work with live organisms deal with a different kind of time than painters or writers a much slower kind of time, that of plant and animal generations. Live genetic art is the slowest of all the arts. It does not involve just one material, but rather uncounted hundreds or thousands of materials, all of them alive, but all distinctly different and separate (in spite of biotechnology.) Each breeding unit (that is, each group of organisms that can cross and produce fertile offspring) has its own possibilities and limitations. When we try to homogenize life, for example by breeding daylilies to look like roses, we debase them.
One of the strengths of traditional art mediums such as paint or clay is that a skillful artist can dominate them almost completely, and in the process bring inner life into public view. Living things do not lend themselves to this kind of expression. We can impose ourselves on them, but they powerfully resist. It is better to explore the relationship, the give and take. The authors of any living work are the artist and the organism itself. As Eduardo Kac puts it, we can make art in which the relationship between audience and work is the relationship of two subjects, not a subject and an object. What are the boundaries of a work of living art? Is all of it art, or only certain features, such as flowers or fluorescence? What kinds of interactions are possible with live art works? Under what circumstances, if any, can death or suffering become aspects of art? What responsibilities do artists, curators, audiences, and collectors have to live works of art? What are our responsibilities to nonhuman life? Live genetic art deals mostly with questions.
For a long time the tools of genetic engineering were too expensive for most artists to afford. By 1999, however, prices had dropped enough for Eduardo Kac to farm out portions of Genesis. Since 1999 prices have gone down further, and today many artists have access to this technology. Is garage genetic engineering just around the corner, with artists churning out everything from unbearably cute pets to hallucinogenic potatoes to monsters? I suppose this is possible, but just as likely we will see restrictive regulation to protect corporate profits and limit bioterrorism, and this regulation may limit what artists can do.
Some regulation will be necessary, which places a special burden of responsibility on the critics of biotechnology. We need to focus on what is truly important. An example of what not to do is the California’s Fish and Game Commission’s recent decision to ban sale of the GloFish. These zebrafish, which come in several new colors due to incorporation of genetic material from sea anemones, among other creatures, are the first genetically engineered pets. The Commission’s decision was not based on ecological orenvironmental hazards the fish cannot survive in California’s waters, according to the Commission staff but because of misgivings about “trivial” uses of genetic engineering. This raises a red flag for me as an artist. The same argument could be used to suppress many works of transgenic art. In art what is useless to one person may be meaningful to another; and a glory of art is that it can be entirely useless, a sabbath for our minds and senses. The joy of life resides in useless things. Will GloFish ease society’s trepidation and open the door to more disturbing uses of biotechnology? Hypothetically but the door opened long ago, and dangers far more immediate are already upon us. George Gessert was initially a painter and printmaker; since 1985 his work has focused on the overlap between art and genetics, and his work often involves plants that he has hybridized, or documentation of breeding projects. He has exhibited at, among other places, the Vasarely Museum in Budapest, the San Francisco Exploratorium, and the Smithsonian Institution. Among his awards is the Leonardo Award for Excellence.
If You’re Interested: The Molecular Gaze by Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004) surveys a wide range of genetic art. Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (Ian Berry, ed., Saratoga, New York: The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, 2001) is a catalog produced in connection with a major show that contained work by more than forty artists. Another catalog, this one of the first show of live genetic art, is L’Art Biotech (Jens Hauser, ed., Filigranes Editions, 2003.) Texts are in French. The Aesthetics of Care? (Oron Catts, ed., School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Australia, 2002) is the proceedings of a conference that explored the artistic, social, and ethical implications of using biological and medical technologies for artistic purposes. For essays on a variety of subjects relevant to genetic art, see LifeScience (Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schopf, eds. Vienna and New York: Springer, 1999). Most of these essays were delivered as lectures at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz. The Eighth Day (Sheilah Britton and Dan Collins, eds. Institute for Studies in the Arts, Herberger College of Fine Arts, Arizona State University, 2003) documents Eduardo Kac’s transgenic works.
GeneWatch is America’s first and only magazine dedicated to monitoring biotechnology’s social, ethical and environmental consequences. Since 1983, GeneWatch has covered a broad spectrum of issues, from genetically engineered foods to biological weapons, genetic privacy and discrimination, reproductive technologies, and human cloning
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