Originally published in Nature Biotecnology, October 1999, Volume 17, Number 10, p 933.

A green light for debate

John Hodgson

If you want to move forward the debates surrounding genetic modification, consider sponsoring art. Novartis, the Basel-based agriculture and pharmaceutical multinational did - by supporting a life sciences theme that ran through this year’s Ars Electronica. Ars Electronica is well-established and highly regarded week-long festival held every year in Linz, Austria. It usually explores the intersection of information technology, electronics and robotics with the arts. This year, its 20th, its attention turned to the life sciences.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the life science-themed installations at Ars Electronica was their ability to preserve ambiguity. That has proved a terribly difficult thing to do in biotechnology. Public discussions about genetically modification -- whether of crops, animals, or humans - seems to hold little scope for uncertainty. One has to be either for it or against it. No number of shared platforms, discussion meetings, public information campaigns, or citizen’s juries can dispel the fact that the tenor of interchanges is fundamentally adversarial. Biotechnology has sunk into a political process. It is not seriously debated. It is not something about which one can securely hold delicately nuanced opinions. It has become a catch-all manifesto. And it has become something to be voted in or rejected.

Compare that polarisation and ossification with the impact of just one of the installations at Ars Electronica, Eduardo Kac’s work-in-progress, GFP-K9 -- a dog expressing the gene for green fluorescent protein in its coat. GFP-K9 challenges people’s current perceptions of transgenic animals. A scientific view might be that a glow-in-the-dark green dog is not, in intellectual terms, very different from a GFP mouse or a GFP human cell. GFP-K9 may trivialize transgenesis. But trivialization, in this instance, at least, creates room for discussion.

With man no longer a hunter in most societies, dogs are companions. GFP-K9 presents transgenic animal as more than just utilitarian objects of experiment or productivity. Why would people not cherish these creatures just as they have cherished generations of specially-bred cats and dogs? Could they countenance confining GFP-K9 to a P3 kennel in perpetuity? Would they accept full liability for damage to carpets, postmen, and lamp-posts that their pet might cause if released into the open environment? (The animal would, after all, be fairly easy to identify.)

Kac’s work, even in its unrealised state, helps deconstruct issues that accrete around talismanic genetically modified seeds. GFP-K9 is a product of genetic modification that is not horribly utilitarian: thus any discussion of it may avoid, for instance, having to balance a benefit to humans against the indignities or sufferings of animals. (Measuring such entities have, in any case, proved largely beyond human efforts.) Neither is GFP-K9 ludicrously monstrous: so any discussion can be stripped of visceral repugnance. This particular transgenic is also unencumbered by connections to a particular part of the techno-industrial complex: distortions from corporate loyalties and profit motives can be removed from the discussion.

Kac’s work shows some empathy with life science and biotechnology. Others artists exploring life science themes may be less charitable. But their work, too, will offer freedom for discussion. Art enters the debate as a third party. It is neither a moderator, nor an arbitrator, but a provider of a fresh perspective. It is capable of presenting with clarity that which entrenched parties find difficult to articulate.

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