Originally published in Third Text, N. 49, Winter 1999, pp. 93-97.

Life Science: A Review of Ars Electronica '99

John Byrne

"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." This patriarchal statement, biblically sanctioning humanity's supremacy over nature, was taken by artist Eduardo Kac as the starting point for his most recent transgenic art installation "Genesis" (1). For Kac, Genesis "explores the intricate relationship between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics, and the Internet". (2) The installation itself centred on the production of a "synthetic artist's gene" by Kac himself. This was accomplished by converting the above biblical statement into Morse Code (the historical use of radiotelegraphy which, for Kac, represents the dawn of the information age) and the further conversion of this into the base pairs of a DNA code. From here, the "synthetic artist's gene" was cloned into plasmids and transformed into bacteria. Two kinds of bacteria were used in the installation. One type contained the new synthetic "genesis" gene in a plasmid which also coded for cyan fluorescence (Enhanced Cyan Fluorescent Protein, or ECFP). The other contained a plasmid that coded for yellow fluorescence (Enhanced Yellow Fluorescent Protein, or EYFP) and omitted the "Genesis" gene.

Within the installation, viewers were able to see a digitally enlarged video projection of the two kinds of microscopic bacteria growing and mutating in a Petri dish exposed intermittently to UV light. During bacterial reproduction, the plasmids also mutate naturally. As a result of this, the viewer was able to witness the development of cross-bacteria reproduction giving rise to new colour combinations including green bacteria (where yellow plasmids and blue plasmids had conjugated) and ochre coloured bacteria where cells had lost their colour plasmid altogether. Two computers were also present within the installation making the display available over the Web. One computer acted as a server, enabling participants to interact with the installation by requesting that the UV light be turned on, thus disrupting the DNA sequence in the plasmeids and accelerating their mutation rate. The other synthesised DNA music via a programme which transcribed the physiology of the Genesis DNA into musical parameters by responding directly to the growth rate of the bacteria on display. Requests to turn the UV on (and therefore mutate the bacteria) also changed sound parameters in real time.

This work summed up the main themes and issues under review at "Life Science", the twentieth "Ars Electronica symposium and exhibition held in Linz, Austria. For Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schopf, the Directors of Ars Electronica, the past twenty years have seen the development of artworks which represent "the effort to traverse boundaries by artists taking digital technologies as their implement, their medium, as well as their subject matter"(3). Both the exhibition of work and the "Life Science" symposium presented a breadth of work, ideas and critical interventions which are clearly beyond the scope of a review such as this. For those interested the Ars Electronica catalogue presents some four hundred and fifty pages of information regarding the event. In addition, the Ars Electronica 99 Web site and Web debate are still available at the time of writing (4).

The strength of Ars Electronica 99 was its symposium. Here, a range of speakers whose undoubted expertise in the field of Life Science, or the use of technologies to facilitate genetic research and engineering, presented a critical framework of debate which cut through more culturally mediated reception of this field available through documentary, television and tabloid news reportage. Amongst the first speakers, for example, was Robert Lanza whose company "Advanced Cell Technology" is developing transgenic cloned cells and tissues for application in cell and organ transplant therapy". The symposium raised a set of themes and issues which were, in themselves, quite ground breaking news. This enabled one to make a reading of the artworks available in Ars Electronica 99 within the context of these debates. Further to this, such readings of the work facilitated a critical consideration of the symposium's content to be made. This was undoubtedly the strength of A E 99.

In response to this, I would like to outline some of the themes and issues which emerged in the symposium itself and the effect which these may have had on the reception of the artwork presented for public view. I intend to do this by reviewing the debates developed by three of the symposium's speakers. Cultural polemicist Jeremy Rifkin, Lori B Andrews who is Professor of Law, at Chicago ­ Kent College of Law and R. V. Anuradha who is Darwin Fellow and a practising Lawyer in Delhi seem to present a political, legal and cultural cross section of the issues as steak within the future of global "Life Science" developments. In the light of this, I will examine the installation work of Gina Czarnecki, the generative installation "Sound Drifting" which was co-curated by Colin Fallows and Hedi Grundmann, and the public installation Ethnic Bleaching by Harwood and Mongrel. Finally, and in the context of this, I would like to return to the above mentioned work "Genesis" by Kac.

Life Science Symposium: Issues Raised.

For Jeremy Rifkin, founder and president of the Foundation of Economic Trends in Washington DC, the digital revolution is merely a herald of the age of genetic commerce, providing little more than the electronic capacity to process biological information on an unprecedented scale. However, this synthetic age, or "second Genesis" also raises a set of moral, ethical and political and legal questions which, for Rifkin, we can not simply ignore. Genetic changes which could be made to human foetuses in order to correct deadly diseases and disorders could, for example, be made to enhance mood, intelligence, physicality and behavioural traits. If Dr. Ian Wilmut, who was responsible for cloning Dolly the sheep, is granted the patent which Rifkin claims he has filled on all cloned animals including human embryos, then both he and his corporate partner PPL will be able to claim all cloned human embryos as their intellectual property right. As well as the Frankenstinian nightmare of human cloning, Rifkin claims that a battle is already raging between the technologically advanced nations of the North and the developing nations of the South over the shrinking global gene pool. Bioprospecting, whereby the genotypes of isolated indigenous peoples are being sampled and global copyrights sought over the "discovery" of unique and useful DNA strands, is increasing. For Rifkin, we risk both genetic pollution and irreversible damage to the biosphere if governments refuse to control or legislate against such practice. In the decade to come, he warns, "we night well barter ourselves away a gene at a time in exchange for some temporary well being"(5).

Such emotive polemics, it seems, are not unfounded. For Lori B. Andrews, increasing scientific expertise in reading the code of the human genome not only has implications for the individual who's genetic future could be read, but for interested third parties such as employers, schools, the military and courts. We are now all familiar with the use of DNA evidence to settle course cases. As Andrews pointed out, the use of such evidence in the O.J. Sympson trial was intended to link the accused with a past event. The difficulty now lies in the use or such evidence for "prospective" cases. Already it appears that many American women who have a strong family history of breast cancer, face the new dilemma of DNA testing. If a test were to establish that they have inherited the genetic mutation which poses an eighty per cent risk of the disease, they would then run the risk of loosing the health insurance they may need so much as future protection.

Further to this, Andrews pointed to the problematic use of DNA coding to allegedly identify individual and group traits such as intelligence, behaviour and race. As researches now claim that they can distinguish between Blacks and Whites on the basis of three genes out of the 100,000 in each human's DNA, the risk is that the legal application of "scientific precision" in identifying such borders will "potentially undermine conceptions of equality of opportunity and individual and social responsibility"(6). Alarmingly, Andrew's went on to site the recommendations by Texas Lawyer Margery Shaw that states adopt policies to prevent the birth of children with genetic diseases. Further to this, it seems that Shaw has already suggested that parents who do not terminate children with serious genetic defects could be criminally guilty of child abuse. Apparently "in the case of Curlender v. Bio-Science Laboratories 106 Cal. Appl 3d 811 (1980), a California appellate court stated in dicta that a child with a genetic defect could bring suit against her parents for not undergoing prenatal screening and aborting her"(7).

In response to such legal dilemmas, the immediate legal solutions to such problems, for Andrews, would necessitate the development of a three-point approach to combat infringement by interested third parties. First, granting individual control over the genetic information generated about them. Second, granting individuals control over the unique property of their DNA make up and, furthermore, that an individual's consent be required before any such information is accessed or used. Third, that any discrimination based on genetic information is prohibited.

Moving beyond the civil liberties of individuals in Europe and the USA, R.V.Anuradha examined the cultural, political and economic problems faced by agriculturally dependent nations in the face of companies developing genetically modified crops. In one example Anuradha cited the implications of using Bacillus Thrunginiensis or Bt (a naturally occurring soil bacteria used as a traditional pesticide) in the genetic makeup of crops themselves. Such genetic engineering encourages a rapid response from pests which lose "susceptibility" genes and develop "resistance" genes. Though the inevitable result of this would be further genetically modified Bt crops, the damage to the agricultural biosphere is evident, as is the loss of the bacteria's effectiveness as a traditional and harmless pesticide. For Anuradha, this would also present one more factor in the reduction of crop diversity in the Third World and the necessity for financially disadvantaged farmers to return to the Corporate seed market at regular, even seasonal, intervals. In the light of this, Anuradha raised several ethical objections to the "patenting" of life and the plundering of natural ecological systems as raw materials.

Although the Earth Summit of '92 passed resolutions that would suggest the assessment of biologically modified crops (and their potential environmental impact) be carried out before they can be marketed, laws dealing with biotechnology usually adopt a risk assessment approach. For Auradha, this leads inevitably to differences in opinions as to the risk involved in introducing such crops. Not surprisingly, many Western governments perceive little risk in introducing GM modified crops into the Eco systems of developing nations. Evidence of this was provided by another speaker, Zangliang Chen, Director of the National Laboratory of Protein Engineering and Member of the China National People's Congress. Faced with the problem of feeding twenty six per cent of the world's population with only ten per cent of the world's arable land available (a ratio which is increasing due to the rise in population and the subsequent need to develop land for housing) China, unsurprisingly, is embracing the technologies of genetically modified crops. Although there was a deep irony present in seeing such a speaker argue his case by showing slides of golden, genetically modified wheat fields, one was equally at a loss to suggest an alternative under the present conditions of corporate and political monopoly.

Life Science, the Exhibition.

In the light of this, making a reading of the various projects on display at Ars Electronica 99 seemed to necessitate a contextuallisation of the works within the parameters of debate outlined in the "Life Science" symposium. The majority of exhibits were displayed in three sites across the city of Linz; the Brucknerhaus, the O.K. Gallery and the Ars Electronica centre. The Bruknerhaus (which is primarily a concert venue) played host to both the Life Science symposium and a range of work which, though interesting, sat rather uncomfortably in this environment. This difficulty seemed less to do with the excellent organisation of Ars Electronica 99 and more to do with the assumption, on the part of both artists and audience, that installations, unless public or site specific, should be displayed and read in a gallery space. Because of this, a cyberport consisting of several artists groups, whose projects were primarily NET based, encouraged visitors to ask about artist's work and to literally be shown around their sites. This ironic use of virtual interactivity, primarily used for the connection and interaction of remote geographical sites, to enable an intimate audience-artist interaction worked well. Both members of the audience and artists tended to engage and respond to the themes and issues raised by the symposium in and through a critical debate regarding the nature of their work. This formed a highly successful model for the productive engagement between the "academic" section of a conference and the "practical" work of artists involved in the same field which, unfortunately, does not always seem to be the case at such events.

Of the more traditional installations available at this sight, the work of Gina Czarnecki stood out as a providing an absorbing and critical engagement with the problematic impact of the Life Sciences on our traditional notions of individuality. In her piece "Stages Elements Humans", seven life size figures confront the viewer and engage with their disarmingly quizzical stares. They seem both aware yet unmotivated by their nakedness. As the installation progresses, one begins to realise that they are not "real time" videos of individuals but digitally produced composites which grow, change and deteriorate as they confront you across the boundary of their world, the membrane of their projection screen. As such, Czarnecki's work plays with our responses to, and prejudices concerning, modern uses of life Science to promote cosmetic bodily modification, prosthetics and gender alteration. The abstract use of mixed tones in the accompanying soundtrack further developed the feeling of isolation and entrapment of these mutated specimens. As these figures become more aware of their surroundings, the viewer experiences a transition from a position of acknowledgement and engagement to the alienation of voyeurism.

The use of sound in Czarnecki's work points to a shift in the production of technologically facilitated artwork deploying sound as a primary artistic resource rather than a polite background supplement. In the ambitious project "Sound Drifting", a work co-curated by Colin Fallows and Heidi Grundman sounds and mixes from sixteen remote sites, including Liverpool, Australia, Vancouver and Belgrade, were streamed over the Internet and invited to join together and interact in the "Sound Drifter". This is a programme developed specifically for the piece which allows sounds to generatively interact and mix themselves within the constantly shifting parameters and boarders of the programme itself. The result, within the exhibition space of the O.K Gallery, was undoubtedly the best sculptural sound installation which I have experienced. That this work was also broadcast on Austrian radio and through giant speakers suspended over the Danube as part of Linz's OMV Klangpark (8) pays testimony to the enviable regard which new cutting edge cultural production is given in Europe. One of the radio broadcasts, which, like the seven day sound sculpture itself was also accessible over the NET, featured a live mix by Echo and the Bunymen's lead guitarist Will Seargent. This marked the welcome introduction of another talented musician into the developing world of sound art.

As part of the public exhibitions programme Harwood and Morngrel's piece "Ethnic Bleaching" used digital editing techniques to produce a range of images which sought to question both the reproducibility of digital imaging and the racial sanity of corporate imaging. A number of posters, displaying the cut, pasted and juxtaposed features of different racial and gender stereotypes were intended to question the "rationalisation and elitism of most art events" and to critique the "multi cultural lets ­ get ­ on ­ with ­ each ­ other ­ and ­ get happy number" which "has for a long time been one of the main tactics for hiding hard, difficult debates"(9). However, in comparison to other works on display in AE 99, this work failed to sustain a critical engagement which its catalogue explanation sought to initiate. The confrontational nature of this work seemed, on one hand, to run the risk of confirming such stereotypes whilst, on the other, the legitimate critical target of this work was made safe by the lack of engagement which it required of a public audience. This may be the result of the debates in and around "digitisation" which now appear to be quite dated. More interestingly, it could be a difficulty caused by the nature of audience participation with work in new media that professes to address such important issues. Once that decision to engage has been made by the artist, the work itself carries some responsibility to inform, question and communicate. The use of relevant media to facilitate this intention then becomes crucial. What emerges is the need for artwork using new technologies, and for a critical appraisal of such work, to be dialectical enough to comprehend as interaction the relationship between issues addressed and their physical distribution and reception. Within such an environment, the presentation of problematic difficulties as facts does not contribute to the development of understanding through debate.

In the light of these issues, I asked Eduardo Kac whether or not he saw a relationship between his intention, outlined above, to explore "relationships between biology, belief systems, information technology, dialogical interaction, ethics and the internet" and equivalent shifts in the role and function of new audiences. The question of individuality, subjectivity or collective participation through a distributed public realm is, for Kac, subordinate to the nature of this participation. As we now often regard our interaction with technologies, such as the Internet, as having little or no consequence then the production of a "transgenic" work such as "Genesis" has, for Kac, more to do with "creating an ethical shift, an acute sense of consequence and responsibility"(10). On reflection, Kac's work does just this. I found myself able to make a reading of the work which developed, in tandem with participation in the "Life Science" symposium, as a debate between myself, other members of the audience, and the work on display. Not only did I come to regard Kac's work in a different light during this time, I became very aware that my own ideological outlook had been tested and changed as a result. In tandem with this, the genetic mutations which developed in the "Genesis" gene were translated back into English at the end of the week long Ars Electronica 99 Exhibition. The final text read:



1) Full information on this and other projects by Eduardo Kac are available on http://www.ekac.org/transgenicindex.html

2) Eduardo Kac in the Ars Electronica 99 Catalogue, "Life Science" eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria, p. 310. Further information is available from the Ars Electronica Centre's Web Site http://www.aec.at

3) Ars Electronica 99 press release pack, p.3.

4) http://www.aec.at/lifescience

5) Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century, Genetic Commerce and the Dawn of a New Era" in Life Science, eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria, p. 50.

6) Lori B. Andrews "Genetic Predictions and Social Responses" in Life Science, eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria, p.91.

7) Lori B. Andrews "Genetic Predictions and Social Responses" in Life Science, eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria, p.92.

8) This is a an anual international project whcih aims to explore and push the boundaries of "art in public spaces" which this year featured Michel Nyman and the Recombatant 99 project. The OMV Klangpark's opening also co-incided with the civic openning of Linz's international "Burcknerfest" which was very well attended by both Ars Electronica delegates and members of the public.

9) Harwood and Mongrel, "Ethnic Bleaching", in Life Science, eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria, p.325.

10) email conversation with Eduardo Kac.

11) From Eduardo Kac's Web site op.cit.

Further Information.

Ars Electronica '99 Catalogue, "Life Science" eds. Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schopf, Springer Wien New York, Austria. Further information is available from the Ars Electronica Centre's Web Site http://www.aec.at Also, an excellent guide to the twenty year history of Ars Electronica has been released in conjunction with MIT Press - "Ars Electronica Facing the Future" edited by Timothy Druckrey with Ars Electronica, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999.

Back to Kac Web