Genes on Display
DNA becomes part of the artist's palette
By John Travis
A Time magazine cover featuring geneticists
Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter. The box for
an adult videocasette, entitled "Designer
Genes," showing a buxom blonde in a revealing
lab coat. A comic book called "The New
Mutants." One of James Watson's original
wire-and-metal models of the double-helical
DNA structure, which he and Francis Crick
discovered. This odd assortment of objects,
reflecting both genetics' history and its influence
on culture today, greeted visitors this fall at Exit
Art, a gallery in the heart of New York's Soho
The eclectic collection was part of the
introduction to an art exhibit called Paradise
Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution. The
show presented works by several dozen artists, all
reflecting on genetics or biotechnology. It
closed in October, but pieces from Paradise
Now will go on display at other sites next year,
and the exhibit remains on the Web
Much of the artwork expresses concern about the so-called genetic revolution. Several
works challenge the wisdom of using bioengineering to create foodsone painting depicts
square tomatoes and six-winged chickens. Other works, such as a satirical video advertising
a biotechnology mutual fund, question gene patents and biotech commerce.
"We barely knew what the genome was when we started [Paradise Now]. We did this show
to, in a sense, wake people up," says Carole Kismaric. She and Marvin Heiferman, both
New York curators, organized the exhibit.
Artists often comment on the issues of their times. A more curious trend, reflected in the
Paradise Now exhibit, is a small movement some people have dubbed genetic art. The
artists in this genre have turned the tools of molecular biology into their paint brushes or
Some use techniques of geneticists or collaborate with them to produce portraits
containing depictions of chromosomes or DNA sequences. Others have drawn upon living
organisms, including genetically modified bacteria and cloned trees, to express
Slightly more than a decade ago, veteran
photographer Kevin Clarke turned to DNA.
Inspired by a chat with a Boston geneticist,
Clarke began doing portraits that are made up
solely of a representation of a person's unique
DNA sequence and an object or scene that
captures his or her essence (available for
viewing at www.kevinclarke.com).
"I do not arrive at this image by putting the
person in front of the camera, rather, I allow the
genetic depiction to refer to their physicality.
This frees me to make the image with the person
in mind. The work becomes a visual elucidation
of my musings about the person," writes the
artist, who has a six-panel portrait in the
Paradise Now exhibit.
The depiction of a subject's DNA starts with a
blood sample, which Clarke sends off to a
genetics laboratory for sequencing. The lab
sends back a printout of the letters A, T, C, and
G, which scientists use to signify the four
building blocks of DNA.
Meanwhile, Clarke spends time with his subject
to develop a sense of the person and come up
with additional images for the portrait. In one
work, Clarke superimposed part of the genetic
sequence of a woman on images of floating
balloons. In another portrait, he merged the
genetic alphabet with a stylized photograph of
a slot machine.
The Clarke portrait series chosen by Paradise Now has an additional connection to
genetics. Its subject is James Watson, now president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in
New York. The series of pictures shows empty laboratory shelves, slowly collapsing, with
Watson's DNA sequence written on or above them.
Clarke says that his portraits "focus on the invisible" and "contradict notions of biological
determinism." He's now working on a Web site that would allow visitors to manipulate
images of their own DNA or chromosomes, which they would supply by plucking a few hairs
or swabbing a few cells from inside their cheek and then sending them to a laboratory.
Several other artists are also creating what some people call genetic portraits, though
Clarke personally doesn't like the term. Steve Miller in the early 1990s began using medical
imagesX rays, sonograms, and electrocardiograms, for examplein his portraiture. He
then tried genetic imagery in 1993, in a portrait of art collector Isabel Goldsmith. She had
asked Miller to do a traditional portrait, but he convinced her to let him depict her DNA
After receiving a sample of her blood, a geneticist used an electron microscope to
photograph and identify Goldsmith's chromosomes. Miller then created a colorful,
four-panel portrait of her DNA strands.
Some artists have gone beyond depictions of chromosomes and DNA to incorporate living
organisms into their works. Take Natalie Jeremijenko, a design engineer and artist at New
York University's Center for Advanced Technology, who has launched an ambitious project
she calls "One Tree" (http://www.cat.nyu.edu/natalie/).
To challenge popular fears about cloning and genetic determinism, Jeremijenko in 1998
worked with plant scientists to create thousands of genetically identical seedlings of the
paradox walnut tree. Derived from cell cultures of a single plant, the clones were initially
grown in the laboratory, where they would experience virtually the same environmental
Next spring, the artist intends to plant the trees in public sites throughout the San Francisco
Bay area. There, she says, features of local microenvironmentssuch as weather, lighting,
and pollutionwill shape each tree into a unique reflection of its surroundings.
Jeremijenko placed six saplings from the project on display in the Exit Art show. Visitors
could see that despite their genetic identity, the trees have already developed
distinguishing features. Brown leaves marred some but not all, for example.
"You can't help but see that they're different. They have different leaf numbers, branch
patterns, et cetera. There is a profound limit to genetic heritage," says Jeremijenko.
To her dismay, however, some art critics have missed or ignored those differences, viewing
her trees instead as a sign that cloning threatens to homogenize the world. She notes in
exasperation that a review of her piece in the Oct. 2 The New Yorker commented, "Clones
One of the most colorful figures in the genetic
art scene is Eduardo Kac of Chicago. In a
project he calls "GFP Bunny," Kac intends to
adopt an albino rabbit that French scientists
genetically engineered to glow green under
blue light. The project includes the animal's
creation, the public debate generated by it, and
the "social integration of the rabbit" into his
family household, says Kac.
The researchers created AlbaKac's name for
the animalby introducing into rabbit embryos
a jellyfish gene encoding a molecule called
green fluorescent protein (GFP). Kac, who
visited the rabbit in France when it was born this
spring, claims that the scientists created it at his
request. They, however, contend that it was
created for research purposes, and they have so
far declined to release the animal to the artist.
The genetic modification performed isn't novel.
Scientists have previously added the gene for
GFP to mice and fish in order to follow the fate
of cells during development (SN: 10/18/97, p.
Alba isn't Kac's first brush with genetically modified organisms. He has an elaborate work
called "Genesis" that has toured the country and will next appear in January at Woodstreet
Galleries in Pittsburgh. Kac describes it as a "transgenic artwork that explores the intricate
relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical
interaction, ethics, and the Internet."
As installed at Exit Art, "Genesis" focused the visitor's attention on a petri dish at the center
of a small, barren room. Growing in the dish were bacteria into which geneticists had
added a gene whose DNA sequence was determined by a line from the Bible's Genesis:
"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 had translated the text into Morse code and
then represented the code's dot, dash, letter space, and word space as C, T, G, and A,
The scientists assembled the resulting DNA sequence into a gene that they added to the
bacteria. The gene encodes a protein not normally made in nature, yet the bacteria
making that protein seem to grow normally.
Kac used a video microscope to display pictures of the living microbes on one of the walls
of the room in "Genesis." In the background, synthesized music generated from DNA
sequences serenaded the visitors with a New Age sound. An ultraviolet light, which can
mutate bacterial DNA, shined on the microbes whenever someone clicked a button on
Kac's Web site (www.ekac.org).
At the end of each showing of "Genesis," Kac has the added gene's DNA sequence
reanalyzed by scientists and he translates it back into Morse code and then English.
Mutations have usually altered the original Bible verse, creating gibberish or converting, for
example, fowl into foul. "The words of Genesis have changed," remarks Kismaric.
Kac isn't the only artist to employ bacteria in his craft. Paradise Now also contains a work
by David Kremers, a conceptual artist in the biology department at the California Institute
of Technology in Pasadena. Among his many projects concerning biology, Kremers has
created abstract paintings by growing bacteria on clear acrylic plates. The microbes are
genetically modified to produce enzymes of different colors.
Heiferman and Kismaric note that the response to the Soho showing of Paradise Now was
strong enough that they're forming a traveling exhibit. Pieces from 15 artists will go on
display this spring at the University of Michigan's Museum of Art in Ann Arbor, and the Tang
Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will host the full show next September.
Kismaric says, "This is the imagery of our times."
Criticism splatters genetic art
The Paradise Now exhibit in Soho offered
workssuch as food containers labeled "greed
beans," "made from bacterial genes," and
"randomly mutating food"that were critical of
genetically modified plants and animals.
Nevertheless, one of the artists in the exhibit was
still dismayed by what she contends was the
show's overly optimistic spin on biotechnology.
At a panel discussion at the gallery, Natalie
Jeremijenko presented her own version of the
show's advertising poster, one bearing the title
"Invest Now" and listing the corporate sponsors
instead of the artists
"We're not in the middle of a genetic
revolution. Transgenic animals are not
inevitable," she protested.
In "The Industry behind the Curtain," an online
commentary about the exhibit, political
scientist Jackie Stevens, a visiting professor at
Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., also
questions the corporate funding of genetic art.
Stevens writes: "Art about biotechnology, especially with a critical edge, serves to reassure
viewers that serious concerns are being addressed. Even more importantly, biotech-themed
art implicitly conveys the sense that gene manipulation is 'fact on the ground,' something
that serious artists are considering because it is here to stay. Grotesque and perverse visuals
only help to acclimate the public to this new reality."
Whether or not biotechnology is here to stay, genetic art presents a separate issue. Some
art critics have their doubts about its longevity. In his review of the Soho exhibit in the Oct.
2 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl contends that theme-based art "has the shelf
life of milk. If you wish it would go away, you'll be gratified anon. 'Paradise Now' typifies a
recurrent phenomenon, whereby denizens of the fragmented and generally aimless art
world jump on a breaking story in the culture at large."
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