Art & Speculative Biology

Eduardo Kac, Alba, 2000. Alba is a memorable experiment that bio artist Eduardo Kac led on a bunny in 2000, in collaboration with genetist Louise-Marie Houdebine. They isolated the GFP gene present in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria, that fluoresces when exposed to blue light, and thus also modified Alba’s DNA, creating an animal otherwise non-existing in nature.

Is bio art moving towards speculative biology?
What is the blurred limit between poietic practice and mere mastering of scientific know-how?
How does the problematicity of the material shape the boundaries of bio art?
Whereas art has been often an ancillary discipline to biology, especially in matters of representation, bio art claims an inversion of roles where science becomes the material provider for art.
The disrupture with the ancient hierarchy and the will to put living material at the service of useless artifacts is infuriating to some, especially those who see in bio cultures not only moldable substances, but a full ecosystem of living beings that are being enslaved.
However, according to George Gessert, people tend to forget that boundaries are constantly crossed from business, agriculture, medicine and that crossing borders is essential to progress.
The audience itself is involved, through the gaze, in a process of manipulation and subjugation.
The impossibility to uncritically and fully accept bioart also comes from the fact that it questions the uniqueness and irreproducibility of human condition.
Biological protocols and scientific tools are to be kept into account, which partly already inhibits the outcomes of scientific labs being turned into art workshops.
Moreover, it is legitimate to assume that among the visitors of a bioart exhibition, no one would be able to point out where the pain threshold of a living organism has been trespassed.
In a general sense, there is a tease to anthropomorphize any living creature, imposing human categories of thought onto other organisms, such as pain, slavery, humiliation, which are exactly the questions the artists long to arise in their audience.
There are two opposed tendencies that contend for the ultimate scope of bioart: either unveiling the inconsistency of discourses around life, and refusing to stand by a definition of art that wants it to have the scope of conveying a message; or, quite the opposite, imagining a different version of life, possibly improved and spendable for the future.

Bioart that does not engage in pushing the borders of science forward is disregarded as the mere tantrum of a virtuoso. In this case, both the scientist and the artist are reduced to the figure of a Faust-in-disguise and suspiciously despised as if they were old-time alchemists, charlatans or swindlers.
The capricious playfulness with which the artist handles organic material is seen as a diabolic seizure of nature laws, at the end of the day, a provocation that leverages our primal fears, but does not bring any contribution to “veritable” science.
Yet, would we be prone to trust inventions such as vaccines or penicillin, if they had been first presented in an art gallery?
Questions like this leave one wondering whether we are investing art of a mission it should not have. Moreover, they show that bioart touches one of ours weak spots: it reminds us that we are totally capable of exploitation of organisms for the sole purpose of serving human needs.
Nevertheless, we are stuck in a continue humanization of the animal and microbiotic experience and project pain, pleasure and space awareness onto the cultivations employed in these artifacts, forgetting that their experiences are not necessarily comparable to ours.
Singer suggests that ethical bio art does not advocate equality of treatment, but equality of consideration.

Marta De Menezes underlines that science, like art, is a pure discipline. As such, it advances through research and experimentation and it contemplates the possibility of useless outcomes.

Marta de Menezes, Nature?, 1999. Live Heliconius Melpomene butterfly with modified wings pattern. Courtesy of Marta de Menezes

Her most famous piece, Nature?, in 1999 showcased modified wing patterns of living butterflies. Coherent with her beliefs, De Menezes aimed to show possibility rather than usefulness: laboratory techniques can serve the artist exactly as brushes or chisels, and paradoxically, they might have a lower long-term impact. Her butterflies are at the same time something already existing in nature and created by men, as the DNA modifications are not transmitted to the offspring, instead they die together with the exemplars that are carriers of the modification.

SymbioticA with its experiments proved that artists’ research is as valid as scientists’ research -this is why they encourage alive, durational art pieces.
Walking a much more controversial line between already existing and deliberately created, the Australian research lab delivered several artworks that left the audience in dismay, due to the provocative presence of living or semi-living material.
By shocking the visitors with the display of fully lab created forms of life, SymbioticA lets the audience question the ethics of their own life choices.
Such is the case of Victimless Leather, an experiment led by their sub-group Tissue Culture & Art Project. The artists-scientists created a polymer structure and enabled 3T3 mouse cells and human bone cells to grow on top of it, forming thus a 2×1,4 inches jacket, that would keep its look intact, thanks to the culture of cells having been separated from the hosts and being completely renewable.

SymbioticA – TC&A, Victimless Leather, 2006.
Courtesy of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr

The display of the jacket generated some hard to answer queries. Is it better to produce garment through the killing of living animals, or through the exploitation of semi-living beings?
The dilemma became evident on May 12, 2008, where an overgrowth of cells during the exhibition at the MoMA in New York, US forced the artists to unplug the bioreactor, leaving both the art and science communities puzzled, whether they had just witnessed the murder of a life and a work of art.
Another project of theirs, MEART, proposed a human and machine hybrid, featuring cultured human nerve cells interacting with a robotic arm, that was able to complete bidimensional drawings.
The use of cultured nerve cells as the thinking part of the system introduced the possibility of manufactured, yet independent and creative thinking bodies.
Quoting from its manifesto, these are the questions MEART addressed:

This work explores questions such as: What is creativity? What creates value in art? One way of looking at these issues might be by thinking about creativity along a spectrum, from a reductionist mechanical device, to an artistic genius. What is it that makes a person a genius? Perhaps it is the ability to link together diverse inputs. We hope that our cultured neurons will have the potential to show signs of very basic “learning” or “creativity”.

SymbioticA, MEART, rat neuron drawing machine, 2001-2004. Pictures courtesy of Reuben Hoggett.

But together with these questions, SymbioticA incurred several times into accusations of instrumentalisation of life and of turning semi-life into a new niche of exploitation.
Moreover, even among the supporters of their practice, there are many scientist who question their materials of choice -nerve tissue against, i.e. dull material such as cartilage-, careless of the implications that parts of a body able to, potentially, feel pain, bring with themselves.
It has been concluded that the thread that unites all the perplexities around SymbioticA’s art is the fact that they brought to light the continuity of life. Proving Leibniz’s adage, Natura non facit saltus, SymbioticA concentrated their research on the intermediary stages between life and death, testifying that our future will be studded with challenges thornier than the rights of nonhuman persons.

The continuity of life is a matter dear to another bio-artist, Thomas Feuerstein, whose practice is intertwined with philosophy, architecture and literature among others. He is interested in the bridges that connect disciplines with each other and that anchor cultures to history.
In 2018 his concept Metabolica was exhibited at Galerie Sexauer in Berlin.
One of Feuerstein’s leitmotiv is, indeed, the return of the same elements through their transformation: Feuerstein is interested in displaying pieces that interact with each other.

Thomas Feuerstein, Metabolica, exhibition at Sexauer Gallery, Berlin, Germany,
23 November 2018 – 23 February 2019.
Courtesy of Sexauer Gallery, Berlin

His Metabolica featured a reactor where the artist carbonized algae and from which he withdrew coal. The extracted charcoal served the purpose of manufacturing charcoal pencils, in order to create drawings and thus enrich the exhibition with a continuous addition of new pieces -until a complete consumption of the resources would interrupt the creative process.
In a second piece, Feuerstein casted a ray of ultraviolet light on a sample of Haematococcus Pluvialis (German name: “Blutregen Alge”, “blood-rain algae”), that had been previously woven on sculptural outlines. The irradiation produced a modification of the algae’s chemical properties and conferred to the plant an intense ruby color, that matched with the etymology intrinsic with the plant’s botanical name.
The exhibition’s title embraced a deeply layered bundle of meanings. Coming from the Greek word μεταβολή, “Mutation”, Metabolica points out the impossibility to trace a sharp discernment between two different stages of matter; on the other hand, it also encompasses the meaning we give nowadays to the word “metabolism”, namely the process of consuming resources to produce energy.
In this acceptation, Metabolica reminds us that, at the current state of humanity, an increase of unprocessed ingredients is everyday more and more voracious.
As for what concerns art, the fast metabolism of ideas reveals a well present struggle for living artists to produce anything that hasn’t been introduced in our collective consciousness before and that will be able to survive the erosion of time.

Thomas Feuerstein, Metabolica, exhibition at Sexauer Gallery, Berlin, Germany,
23 November 2018 – 23 February 2019.
Courtesy of Sexauer Gallery, Berlin

Feuerstein’s second piece in Metabolica added a reflection on the power of semantics. Words can condition our perception and be contextualized in order to determine a shift from a figurative to a literal meaning, shaping reality accordingly.
As for arts, this is the duty of curatorial writing: texts can frame a speechless artwork and deliver it a second time, wrapped up in a whole new meaningful packaging.
Thereon, the art market has to acknowledge a dimming line in the motivations that lead an artwork to be successfully acclaimed: is it the artist’s concept that is being sold, or (also) a meticulous building of wordy superstructures?
Thomas Feuerstein marked an apt parallelism between our hyper-connected society and art, whose discourse can be either over-individualistic or, at the contrary, a continuous and hence, anonymous, déjà vu.
Feuerstein translated into visual arts the phenomenon that Leon Jakobovits James described in 1962 as “semantic satiation”: repeating a word too many times makes it temporarily lose its meaning, creating a moment of dissociation between signifier and signified.
The intimacy of gaze can, at any expected time, either ensure a full intuition of the observed object or, at the contrary, produce a feeling of uncanny alienation.
The imprecision of gaze, which implies the hazard of trusting one’s opinion, was the ultimate scope of Feuerstein’s Metabolica. Feuerstein brought to scientific experimentation the impossibility of tracking down how different ideas are formed in time: thinking in itself is an uninterrupted and nuanced process, subject to evolution and duration, as much as Feuerstein’s art is.

But can bioart, besides being an ideal debating arena for philosophy in the era of biotech, also become the litmus test for the forecasts on our future?
Pınar Yoldaş, Turkish-American architect deeply influenced by Donna Haraway’s theories on cyborgs, devotes her “speculative biology” (which she sees as heir of the architectural experimentalism of 1990s) to conjecturing how organic life will look like in the future.
She lives by the certainty that human activity is a point of no-return and, somehow, a no longer negligible, determining factor in the process of evolution.
The toxicity of produce we release in the water and in the air, radioactive garbage, global warming and consequential meltings and floodings are phenomena with a footprint so huge, that other beings can’t but develope neoplasias to adapt to the new environment.
Quoting from the piece’s manifesto, here is reported the question that originated Yoldaş’s Ecosystems of Excess:

If life started today in our plastic debris filled oceans, what kinds of life forms would emerge out of this contemporary primordial ooze?

Pinar Yoldaş, Carboniferous, exposed in Zone2Source, Amsterdam, Netherlands, as part of the project Ecosystems of Excess, 9 July – 3 September 2017. Courtesy of Zone2Source

The results of her speculation are sublime: seducing, yet bloodcurdling stomachs, bladders, lungs fill transparent jars, attached to filaments that provide substitutes of blood and lymphatic liquids; muscular structures are conceived to chew microplastics; bumps onto the body surface of sea turtles and crustaceans encapsulate plastic chunks.
Resilience is the essential skill of Yoldaş’s creatures, who occasionally have to accept being discolored or, on the contrary, being dappled with poisonous shades of blue, orange, red, as a consequence of their nutritional habits.
Yoldaş has in other occasions showcased proposals of possible life forms of the future, holding onto a general sentiment of frailty, and not being afraid of including ugliness, that is the fruit of successive approximations in evolutionary processes.
Playing with the deceiving deviances of the faith in Evolutionism, which are Positivism and Finalism, Yoldaş invests the adaptability of bodies of the capacity of reshaping social conventions.
NeolabiumTM, Vulva CatervaTM, SuperMammalTM and PolyPhalliiTM are sculptures of futuristic genital organs that can be plugged in either male or female bodies.
The availability of multiple reproductive organs not only questions the binary vision of sexes, but at the same time points out that the opportunities of survival for the human species are to be found into more fluid behaviors, that recall the survival strategies of other animals, such as some types of worms.

Pinar Yoldaş, Vulva CatervaTM, 2013. Courtesy of Pinar Yoldaş

In order to perfect the sculpted organs, Yoldaş designed i.e. Vulva CatervaTM to have twelve vulvas and 8000 nerve terminations, an excess that is intended both to liberate female sexuality repressed by society, and to mock the hypertrophic exploitation of the female body perpetrated by the media to increase profit through consumerism.
Once again, Yoldaş nevertheless doesn’t have a fideistic approach to the passing of time in biological eras. Concerning subjects such as climate change, she denounces the attitude of carelessness thanks to which humankind is allowing a disaster with no precedents to happen.
Evolution does not always move towards the best of possible worlds, and in Global Warming Hot Yoga Studio (2016) Yoldaş makes a disturbing call to arms.
On a stage, where the scenery is enlightened by warmth-producing lightbulbs that compose the words “Global Warming”, a yogini leads the audience into a neutral, collective sweating experience.

Pinar Yoldaş, Global Warming Hot Yoga Studio, 2016. Courtesy of Pinar Yoldaş.

The trainer leads the public into a ritual of repetitive actions, that contribute to enhance the feeling of suffocation into a hot, humid room.
Whereas the performing athlete should worry about the consequences that the movements in a hot environment have on their body, the aloofness of the practice allows them instead to avoid states of consciousness and to insist in their fatigue-producing cycle.
The lightbulbs on the background unfold the obvious metaphor to those who are too self-absorbed to notice the meaning of their behaviors.
Pinar Yoldaş ultimately overturns the accusations directed to bioart. By shifting her main focus from the possible to the likely, the artist is no longer culpable of degenerated speculation: if anything, she gives us a realistic perspective on the life scenarios that not only artists, but every human is contributing to create.
Is the showcased bioma the direction towards which we want to move? Or are we still in time to take ownership of our power as evolutionary agents, and shape the look of the life that will be born after us? And if so, what are the boundaries we shall always have present, in order to avoid eugenics and strategically planned destruction?

In conclusion, bioart is a creative practice that has an endless potential not only for outstandingly engineered results, but especially for ethical and philosophical debate.
It would surely be worrying even for the artists themselves, if bioart was digested by the audience without the minimum debacle.
The themes and materials of bioart are supposed to be debatable and restlessly provoke a reaction of consciences. Arguably, there is to hope that we will not witness the birth of an aesthetic of bioart, as -regardless of whether it is a speculative discipline or not- the themes tackled by bioart are so urgent and relevant that an education to its taste not only is not a priority, but, for one, may not be one of its purposes.
The upshots of art opening to interactions with sciences are favorably unpredictable. The chances we can so far envision in this interdisciplinarity is that people with different cognitive schemes will be either way eventually drawn to reflect on topics that are essential to any forms of life, such as bioethics, climate change and evolution.

-Eduardo Kac, Signs of Life. Bio Art and Beyond, Cambridge, USA, The MIT Press, 2006
-Ingeborg Reichle, Speculative Biology, in Artlink, Vol 34, No 3, Adelaide, Australia, September 2014
-Hannah Star Rogers, Field_Notes: Expanding the Possibilities of Bioart, in Art Journal Open, New York, USA, 8 April 2019
Marta de Menezes
-Oron Catts, The Art of the Semi-Living
Pinar Yoldas


Leave a Reply