The Scientist, Volume 16 | Issue 22 | 57 | Nov. 11, 2002
Bioscience Moves into Galleries as Bioart
COVER STORY |
Artists use scientific techniques to create new forms
| By Hal Cohen
Photo: Courtesy of Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago
ART CREATING LIFE: Eduardo Kac's Genesis project enables
viewers to create bacteria mutations.
A stroll through an art museum can mirror a walk outdoors, as nature
has inspired artists since people first used charcoal to draw on cave
walls. Today, ambitious artists and accessible technologies have
modernized the marriage of biology and art into bioart, coupling
imagination and science to create animate, often interactive, works
that put pretty paintings of flowers to shame.
"[Bioart's popularity] is similar to the video movement in the arts,"
says Ruth West, lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Before, you'd have to go into a television station for access to video
equipment. Now you can walk into a Best Buy [store] and get an
incredibly powerful camera." While most students will never have
their own DNA sequencer, the recent biotechnology boom is
providing a greater opportunity to incorporate science into art.
A new understanding of perspective gave Renaissance artists their
inspiration, and the emerging science of optics informed the work of
the Impressionists in the late 19th century. Today molecular biology
techniques and tools allow a new generation of artists to transform
the art world, once again. "I have an interest to use the tools of my
time to tackle certain issues, which is something artists have always
done," says artist Eduardo Kac.
As new as the technologies that make it possible, bioart first
emerged as explorations by science students and practitioners. But it
has moved into the mainstream as established galleries such as the
Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery of
Art in Washington, DC, have exhibited live works.
Last week, the Corcoran opened the exhibit, Molecular Invasion, by
members of the Critical Art Ensemble, an interactive theater
company, which plans to display the creation of a genetically
modified plant as part of the exhibition. Such scientific capabilities
create new moral problems--which have always been the purview of
painters and sculptors. "Many people perceive themselves as
separated from science because it's too complex," says Paul
Brewer, director of college exhibitions for Corcoran College of Art.
"Bioartists try to demystify the scientific process so they can engage
with the ethical issues at stake."
TRANSCENDING CLICHÉ WITH TRANSGENICS Even though Kac
lacks experience with the scientific process, he appears more
comfortable with transgenics than with paintbrushes. Inspired by a
passage from the Bible, in which God gives man control over earthly
creatures, Kac's Genesis project bestows godlike power to
humanity on a microscale. For Genesis, Kac translated a line of
biblical text into Morse code, then encoded it into DNA and inserted it
into bacteria, which are displayed on a microscopic slide in a
This installation, which can also be accessed online,1 allows the click
of a computer's mouse to focus ultraviolet light on the display,
causing mutations in both the bacteria's genome and in the coded
message. "The metaphor of art imitating life doesn't apply anymore,"
Kac says. This is a situation where art is creating life."
While Kac allows Genesis participants to play god across oceans,
Joe Davis, research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) is trying to apply his art over an even greater
distance. Using the durable Escherichia coli as a vessel to weather
the harsh climate of space, he coded an image of the Milky Way into
a 3867-amino acid long sequence, inserted it into the bacteria's DNA,
and hopes to launched it out in the cosmos. "It's true genomic art,"
Davis says. "I was able to write underneath an existing gene
without changing the [mRNA] transcript. It doesn't interfere with the
organism at all."
Quick to dismiss formal artistic landscapes as tedious and restrictive,
Davis continues his unconventional craft; his fascination with both art
and science has proven more beneficial to him than could a formal
background in either discipline. "I have no classical credentials in
science, and an appointment at MIT Biology that doesn't say
anything about art," says Davis.
Davis' lack of background has not kept him from breaking ground
where science meets art. He first showed that DNA could encode
other types of information (not just genetic sequences) in 1986 with
Microvenus, where DNA was first used as an artistic medium. Davis
digitized the Microvenus icon, translated it into a 28-nucleotide
chain, and inserted it into the genome of E. coli.
Microvenus, which looks like the letter Y superimposed upon the
letter I, is a Germanic rune representing life and the outline of the
external female genitalia. Davis created the icon as a way to show
symbols of human intelligence to extraterrestrial beings.
The bacteria have since multiplied into billions of cells, and Davis
reckons that Microvenus is more abundant than all artworks by all
previous artists. Still, Microvenus has yet to be on display in the
United States, because galleries are reluctant to display genetically
TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY Not all bioart is as conceptual as is
Davis' work. Heather Acroyd and Dan Harvey of Dorking, Surrey,
UK, take photographs and record the images through the production
of chlorophyll in grass. The yellow and green shades of grass create
the tonal range of a black-and-white photo. The idea emerged when
the artists noticed an area of grass that produced the shadow of a
ladder leaning against it. They projected a high intensity light
through a photographic negative onto a canvas covered in clay and
grass seedlings, and formed a yellowish image.
The problem for Acroyd and Harvey was that as the grass faded, so
did their exhibits. The photographers contacted the Institute of
Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), in Aberystwyth,
Wales, which had been working on a grass hybrid that doesn't lose
its color. "Our 'Stay Green' grass can't break down its chlorophyll, so
the images stay sharp," says Helen Ougham, principal research
scientist at IGER. Despite the use of hybrid seeds and blades, the
images are still vulnerable to oxidative bleaching, making them as
transient as the living beings they record.
Bioartists sometimes require scientists to assist with technical
procedures that enhance the creative process. Hunter O'Reilly,
adjunct professor of biological sciences, University of Wisconsin,
Milwaukee, received her introduction to art through sciences while
taking the "wrong path on the road to discovery" during her
graduate studies in genetics.2
A visit to Paris art museums inspired O'Reilly to escape her scientific
studies through art. "But cellular forms started to evolve in my
paintings," she says. Today O'Reilly uses deadly viruses like Ebola
and AIDS to create pictures. She also teaches a class, "Biology
Through Art," that integrates both disciplines. "The biology is pretty
general, but I also teach how some of my contemporaries work
biology into their art."
For her course, "Genetics and Culture," UCLA's West gathers
students from all corners of the campus. "There is a certain phobia
between art and science, because they've been separated for so
long," West says. Her students critique the artwork, analyze the
science, and evaluate the ethical and cultural implications of the new
An artist sometimes featured in West and O'Reilly's classes, Gunther
Von Hagens has come under fire for his innovations. Von Hagens,
director of the Plastination Centre at the State Medical Academy in
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, invented plastination, a preservation technique
that replaces the water in cells with a polymer, rendering the corpse
odorless, dry, and realistic looking. The displays give some viewers
new respect for their bodies; a smoker's lung or cholesterol-clogged
arteries can be viewed as they would appear inside the human body.
The macabre exhibitions have led many others, however, to dismiss
Von Hagens as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, according to The
Kac also has caused such a stir in both art and science spheres a
few years earlier with his Alba project. Kac inserted genes for
fluorescence into a rabbit, generating a green, glow-in-the-dark
bunny when exposed to blue light at 488 nm. "There was a semantic
tension," Kac says. "Bringing together a symbol of cuteness, like a
rabbit, and transgenics, which resonates with fear and the unknown,
is not a simple juxtaposition."
These artists don't try to be didactic; they simply want to present
everyday objects in a new light. "In a way, art is like science," Davis
asserts. "Art opens up little windows onto the world that nobody has
ever seen before. I get a kick out of opening those windows."
Hal Cohen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The Genesis interface is available online at www.ekac.org/liveinfo.html.
2. H. Cohen, "Life posing as art," The Scientist, 16:8, Sept. 30, 2002.
3. S. Jeffries, "The naked and the dead," The Guardian, March 19, 2002,
available online at www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,669775,00.html.
©2002, The Scientist Inc.
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