This is an excerpt of an essay of the same name first published in CIAC’s Electronic Magazine no 23 : BIO + ART, Fall 2005. Full text is here.
Is our ecosphere being altered by Genetically Modified Organisms built for profit margins without authentic oversight or risk assessment? If the technology for genome sculpting of new style humans is a possibility, what, if any, effect will imagination play in our future kindred? What can we know about animal sentience and non-human awareness? How are artists taking these factors into account as they try to express themselves through living collage? As New Biological comprehension sprouts new technological processes, what are the overt and covert roles of creativity on the decisions of which traits get embedded into whose new bodies? These are today’s major issues emanating from the intersection of Art and Biology.
As one considers the range of technics addressed in many of these projects there is a modicum of ethical evaluation that needs to be addressed by and for many of these artists. Depending on the artist, these issues are either implicitly or explicitly addressed in their projects. Ethical evaluation is not a simple task when evaluating an artwork. Neither is ‘goodness’ or ‘humanity’ usually a requirement for an enjoyable artistic reception. Art is not bound to any certain moral code. In fact, from Gilgamesh to Rambo, much celebrated art production is tragic, lascivious, violent and in a moral state of disrepair. Is art thought of as a physically inconsequential abstraction even to those who herald the psychic continuum of creative outpourings?
The strange attraction/repulsion of the Bioartistic process is the inclusion of non-conceptual life pulse. In the Vivoarts, the élan vital has been incorporated into the art spectator’s otherwise sterile field. Often the question comes down to whether one’s intent is to work with the organisms embedded in the artworks as entities or as material alone. Consider how and too whom a sacrificial gift from the Bioarts is due to be returned. The ‘use’ of organisms simultaneously as both beings and metaphor has raised shackles in various portions of our global beehive. Bioart is alive and thus both preparation and display can be considered nuanced and metaphorical while constituting concrete action. The question remains, is this specter of action what many of our prized intellectual communities were built to repress?
MUTAGENIC DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY ARTS
Developmental Biology is the study of body formation. Organisms develop through a process called morphogenesis from embryos to fully-grown entities. The study of these processes helps us understand evolution, inherited disease, environmental toxicology and the wonder of living shape. With the use of a variety of technologies, the path of development can be altered. By ‘pushing’ the process of fruiting bodies, we can sometimes glean portions of the puzzle of where and how life unfolds. The artists who practice Mutagenic Developmental Biology Arts tend to fall under these three headings, Physical Manipulation Artists, Teratogenic Artists and Transgenic Artists. Transgenic Art is a subset of Teratogenic Art, which is just a kind of Physical Manipulation Art, as we shall see.
PHYSICAL MANIPULATION EMBRYOLOGY ARTS
Early on in the science of Embryology, some amazing physical manipulation/deformation of embryos was carried out on developing Xenopus Frog embryos. Hans Spemann received the Nobel Prize for his embryonic transplant works, which aid us today in understanding the relationships between placement and future shape in fleshy formation. When an artist uses physical manipulation on a developing organism, an embryo or a metamorphosing organism (i.e. adolescent molting pupae.) This type of scoping and poking I dub Physical Manipulation DevBio Art. And, the artists who practice this type of Embryology Brut do so for as many reasons as there are artists in this field.
As for the hidden motives for any artist’s delving into Physical Manipulation DevBio Arts, Its sometimes best if we take a long hard look in the mirror. I will now review and critique motives for my own dabbling into the world of Physical Manipulation Embryology Art by explaining my botched project, “Initial Attempts at Embryonic Transplant Surgery.” My plan was to cut the head off of one growing zebrafish embryo and transplant (paste) that head onto another ‘whole’ zebrafish embryo. Done correctly, this might develop into a two-headed, fleshy and fashionable, ‘Mosaic Brut’ designer zebrafish. I used handmade glass microsurgical tools and a microscope to decapitate one embryo. The disembodied yet still living head was then gently applied to a full embryo but it did not did not graft/stick. After a few tries I decided it was either a lack of luck, patience or skill on my part. It was only later that I learned that micropins are often used in embryology collages such as these.
As far as my motives, I am not too proud to admit a simple, carnivalesque sadism was involved in my inquisitive and acquisitive embryological slicing. I am a ‘peeping tom’ in quandary’s boudoir. For me, the fear and attraction of voyeuristic dementia are real signs of personal, perceptual proximity to the timeless mysteries that lie beyond more copacetic conceptions of the everyday. The urge to scope and poke, force evolution and morphologically sculpt is a bridge that joins the Arts and the Sciences. But, I will say this once because it is quite clear and concise, I think this process is cruel. Physical Manipulation DevBio Arts as a way towards knowing or sculpting Development is non-intuitive, intriguing, curious and lovely but there is no doubt that the process is meddlesome, violent, surgical and often gratuitously so.
A subset of the Physical techniques for the alteration of future architectures of the developing lifeform is through the application of teratogens. Teratogens are those chemicals, viruses or radiations which can cause defects in a developing lifeform. Teratology is the real science of monsters. Once again, the artists are late on the scene. The history of teratology is a terrific and fascinating area of research. A great deal is already known and documented about the variety of aberration in form and function of developing embryos due to various teratogenic effects. By using chemicals, viruses or other mutagens (like utlraviolet light, x-rays or gamma-rays) on the unborn, an artist can alter the body plans of developing living organisms. The effects are quite random and often lead to a pained existence (when they are not lethal.) Sometimes a trait for some sort of high weirdness can randomly occur. This art-form subcategory of the Physical Manipulative Developmental Biology Arts falls under the rubric… Teratogenic Arts. If these teratological agents reach the germ cells (the eggs or sperm) of the experimental art organisms, this can affect their progeny. This might even result in a permanent and inheritable alteration of this organism. But we will save an analysis of the effects and artistic feats of germline alterity for the Transgenic Arts section, the multigenerational subset of the Teratogenic Arts
Though much of our planetary diversity is based on random mutation, very few artists have taken to using teratogens as an organismic paintbrush. So far, the artistic use of radioactive, photonic and chemical teratogens to create a living mutagenic artwork has been directed towards bacteria, flowers and chickens. It is important to note that the artist’s trajectory seems to be heading towards a sort of macho, daredevil’s tempestuous approach towards crossing ‘the fur barrier.’ The fur barrier is a cultural complex based on sympathy biases that people tend to have for warm blooded, cute, big eyed, bilaterally symmetrical and fuzzy life. The random results of the Teratogenic Arts are too often painful and lethal for the human-ish animal arts. Many of the failures may make insistent trans-species comprehensible calls for a speedy, humane euthanasia. But, if you don’t mind statistically successful after massive waves of annihilation, if you don’t mind being catcalled with neologisms like, ‘The Stillborn Artist’, then the field of Teratological Mutagenic Arts is wide open for you…
Perhaps, since there are so few Teratological Mutagenic Artists to speak of in the art world, we can widen our horizons to include Teratological Mutagenic Performances by Military SciArtists. Often, artists are behind the curve when it comes to creative technological innovation. For instance, the depleted uranium spread throughout Iraq from U.S. Military tank buster shells is a potent teratogenic agent with a lengthy half-life. Perhaps the creative, multigenerational effect perpetrated on the populous of our world’s only fertile crescent should be considered Live Art? The first annual DevBio Teratological Mutagenic Theatre of Cruelty Award goes to the USA… for a permanent tweaking of the human genome, much cancer and deformation and the ‘open-lab approach’ without containment or controls!
If you want a supposedly more accurate, benign, targeted and genetically stable Devbio Artwork, then a genetic edit should be inserted with the protocols and methods of Transgenic Arts. Recently (since the 1970’s) modern molecular biology has found more and more ways to direct mutation through a process called transfection or Transgenic Infection. For those incorporating the controversial technologies of Modern Molecular Biology into their living artworks, various names have been applied to their process, Flesh Hacking, Genesthetics, GMOArts, Transgenic Arts, Novelty Eugenics and Genetic Art Therapy (when applied to humans.) Transgenesis is another kind of Physical Manipulation Art. Though it appears bloodless, it is not minimally invasive. It is a surgical and teratogenic process. But it is a specialization with both elegance and novel enigmatics. As with many Biotechnological artworks, the technology itself sometimes needs defining. A brief introduction to transgenic science and industry defined follows:
WHAT IS A TRANSGENIC ORGANISM?
Transgenic organisms are different than wild type organism. Transgenic organisms are organisms that have foreign DNA inserted into their genome. This means one or more genes from a different organism (i.e. animal, bacteria, plant, fungus or virus) has been added, through some tricks of modern molecular biology, into the nucleus every one of the organism’s cells. Transgenic organisms are walking around with non-spontaneous expressible molecules in their bodies, minds (if they have minds) and the genetic material that goes on to make their children. Sometimes referred to as hybrids, cyborgs or chimeras, transgenic organisms are an interspecies mix of DNA, a targeted collage of two or more organisms. The most important thing to remember is that their alteration is permanent and inheritable. That means that their kids and their grandkids with have the same difference that they do.
WHY DO NON-ARTIST MAKE TRANSGENIC ORGANISMS?
Genetically manipulated organisms, are considered promising tools to decode physiological processes and cure diseased metabolisms. Sometimes non-human models are not the best mirrors of human health. Sometimes sickly humans will volunteer to become human subjects. Humans are similar to all living organisms in some ways but if we can make organisms more similar to humans then we can increase predictability. So, in the name of progress and a faster drug development pipeline, molecular biologists in the medical field are creating human-other hybrids as disease models.
Specialists in agriculture and animal husbandry have other goals than human health. Some want more yield for more profit, others want disease resistant organisms to erase fears of chaotic loss. There are even some pet producers who are using transgenic techniques to create aesthetic differences as a way to make newer, more seductive, cuter or stranger companion organisms. And, some animals are used as industrial factories for producing rare metabolites. After ornate molecular tweaking organisms known as workhorses are bred to transgenically produce products as an excreted fluid, products like pharmaceuticals or other expensive goo. These products are hard to make in a chemistry lab but can be produced in large enough amounts inside a body that a company can live off these special transgenic bodies and their body fluids. These animals are considered to be alive only as appliances or production facilities solely for manufacturing.
It is the medical applications that carry the bulk of the reasoning for the application of these technologies. Although medical science is a ‘for profit’ venture worldwide, there is a certain amount of awe for doctors and scientists who dedicate their life work and somewhat cryptic brainpower to advances in curing human ills. Although far from a panacea, modern medical science has helped many people live longer and better lives. Nonetheless, It is important to realize the other uses and forces driving novel transgenesis as a breeding process for commercially engineered or, some would say, force-evolved processing units to manufacture proteins for the global market.
Already, I can sense some of our reader’s shackles rising. Mutaphobia is a tendency that can be both wise and xenophobic. One of the most contentious issues surrounding the application of Genetic Modification is who gets to decide which safety levels are imposed for this potentially dangerous technology that can live freely and reproduce itself ad infinitum. When scientists first developed gene-splicing technology, these same worries were discussed at the historic meeting : Asilomar. As scientists realized the power of cutting and pasting genes, they entered into a voluntary moratorium, levels of danger were debated, risk assessments were made and levels of containment were though out. But, scientists don’t decide policy for whole technologies. Scientists are often only able to shore up how to rule themselves in the lab. This academic ‘freedom’ and ‘respect’ for research is traded for ‘value-free,’ objective, technologies, which are then applied in the cash intensive world outside the lab.
RESPONSIBLE LIVING ARTS?
Is there is a lack of truism beyond this point that calls into question the basis of ethics, the end goal of aesthetics and the supposed humanity of the project-hive of culture itself? It may be that things are this undefined but, unless we want to regress to “intelligent design” levels of Bioawareness, we must plod and bandy about painting with broad strokes, scoping and poking while critically assessing the overlap and enigmas of the Developmental Biology Arts. As a fledgling on the stage, these Bioartistic issues would benefit from comparisons and criticisms from the other Vivoarts: Tissue Culture Arts, Ecology Arts, Interspecies Communication Arts, Gastronomy Arts and Transhuman/Posthuman Body in Performance Arts. If the space provided, I would try to incongruously synthesize these seemingly disparate avenues of expression for the sake of more confusion.
It is the concatenation of the novelty, living as both metaphor and the twitching distinct entity of desire’s birthing, which intuits ‘the rearing of an ugly head,’ as this movement continues. And this intuition is only cogent with multiple heads, (artistic, scientific and roaming) to contend with. Most important to remember is that the hydra of living quizzicality doesn’t go away if you close your eyes. We are here and immersed in the pond-lab of our planetary saddle. All of these arts and the process of science have questions, sometimes more questions than answers. They also have applications and effects. Almost mystifying the issue now, the portal between imagination and actuation, the kabalistic or alchemical transubstantiation station is now open for business. But we, as organisms, and the earth, as stage, are only so plastic. One question that draws and redraws us is, How Plastic? Another question is, what do we do with the failures, the broken and stultified, the fuckups and bad trips, the awful mistakes and the barely alive but still spasming art-lab things?
When it comes to cultural tropes, I believe in the slurry effect. In any and all explorations, biology, art, body, lifeworld and beyond a broad canvassing of multiple works should lead to a sort of messy unnamable as we wrap up. I will leave it to the reader to define, modify, refine and extrapolate from this lengthy diatribe. Suffice to say, there is much creative and morphological ground left untrodden. I make a call to artists and biological researchers to join in a most difficult research project which is neither science nor art but just a Vital Corporeal Splay. Real difference comes from outside the disciplines in the blurry slurry of complexity. I have pointed to the arenas that need chaote styled explorations and collaborations to be synthesized. And, these suggestions come with many warnings. But, the truth is just a tiny portion of the real. Bullshit detecting is still punished by the status quo (in both the arts and the sciences.) Organismic life feels pain, tries to evade death, feels pleasure and may have evolved motility just to get closer to hedonism’s sources and further from the horror. Biology and Art both have their separate and conjoined effects but often enough, we know not what we do.