28 02 2009


We grew up in an era of nuclear fear and nuclear promise. On one hand, specters of mushroom clouds, the blinding white light of an explosive flash, and civil defense drills haunted the psyche of the late twentieth century. On the other hand, politicians and scientists promised the benefits of the peaceful atom, where atomic power could be safely harnessed, and new imaging techniques would stimulate biomedical research.1 Humans had found a way to tap into the awesome power of the atom; anything seemed possible except to continue as we once had.

One of the outcomes of atomic war was the increased threat of mutation of all living beings. It was widely accepted that atomic radiation could damage chromosomes, which comprised the scaffolding for and tissue of the genes, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that many in the medical field came to accept the role of mutation in some diseases.2 Many scientists looked upon mutation as a risky promise, much like atomic power itself, where the power dormant in the gene could be utilized if properly managed. Mutations could lead to beneficial organic change, but only under rare circumstances. One could easily unlock these mutated futures, but unless one could learn to explore the unimaginable, most of the futures one would unlock were bleak, if not apocalyptic.

We would like to explore the idea of the mutagen in its broad cultural significance as a mechanism of uncontrollable biological change in order to help understand the role of Bio Art in thinking about the future. For us, the concept of mutation is especially important as it provides a way of thinking about non-determined, embodied futures. Mutagens disrupt genetic expectations. As such, they point to an understanding of the ways that our bodies realize unforeseen futures through the exploration of chemical combinations–a source of chemical affect, if you will. Mutagens, then, force us to confront how the power of the inorganic world, in this case changes in specific molecules, disrupt the usual ways that bodies organize themselves, thus allowing for novel possibilities of biological organization and novel ways of inhabiting the world. For instance, in rare cases a single change in a base pair of a gene can change the amino acid content of a protein molecule. This change in a protein, according to prominent stories about sickle cell anemia, can change the morphology of red blood cells and lead to loss of blood flow, tissue death, and an average lifespan in the mid-40s. It is also suggested that this change in red blood cell morphology can confer greater resistance to malaria.3 Studying the cultural resonances of mutation, then, provides a way to contemplate how the twentieth century has changed what we think of as our bodies, our bodies relationship to the inorganic world, and how this relationship opens up new possibilities for existence. Although not all Bio Art projects directly utilize mutations (many use recombination or the disruption of developmental sequences), and most mutations are physiologically silent (where there is a chemical change that seems to make no difference physiologically), contemplating mutation remains a powerful way to understand how Bio Art choreographs the relationship between chemical and biological scales to reorganize our conceptions of life, politics, and art.

Most specifically, we will concentrate on the lessons that mutations teach us about change. What Bio Art brings home is that art itself can be a mutagen. Bio Art can stimulate us to explore biological consequences that aren’t easily foreshadowed or projected by scientific applications of biotechnology. Because of this, thinking in terms of art as a mutagen opens up new moral understandings for bio political engagements. For instance, most responses to genetic manipulation have been channeled through the ethical considerations of institutional demands or the uncritical adoption of genetic technologies. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, organize their WWW based discussion of bioethics through questions such as the following: Should human stem cells be used in biomedical research? What are the ethical codes and standards of human subjects research? Should genes be patentable? If so, under what circumstances?4 Each of these questions probe pressing problems. These probes, however, often take for granted the institutional context that makes these problems pressing in the first place. Only under certain ways of conceiving of the institution of property, for instance, does the patentability of genes make sense. Many ethical engagements deal with the issues at hand and thus lose the creative potential for change that can occur by questioning the institutional basis that allow for the emergence of one set of issues at the expense of another. Our hope is that Bio Art can act as a mutagen and open up whole new ways of conceiving of ethical engagements, new categories for decision-making, and new futures for inhabiting the world.

Bio Art though explores futures at a cost. If Bio Art doesn’t help us reorganize our thinking about the political possibilities of life and if it doesn’t offer new possibilities to change how we think about biotechnology and power, then it just strengthens currently held assumptions and normalizes biotechnical practice. Strangely enough, this applies as much to the projects that overtly criticize biotechnology as those that celebrate it. In fact, critical stances often camouflage a poverty of mutagenic potential, of the creative potential to rethink the role of biological technology in the world. Much like how once a mutation has already occurred it can’t be erased, Bio Art may help catalyze the biological futures it purports to criticize.

What we argue for is a rethinking of Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative, much like Alphonso Lingis has done in his book The Imperative, in order to locate ways of inhabiting the world that generate more fruitful, more creative, and less oppressive futures. The key word here is “generate”. Concentrating on the generative capacity of institutions will help enlarge the focus of our moral enquiry beyond the immediate bio political needs of these institutions toward an exploration of the types of issues that specific institutional contexts will generate. We offer the word “mutation” as a way to think about the generative potential of these institutional contexts. A mutation, almost by definition, has no predetermined outcome. One doesn’t know if a mutation will occur, and if it does occur, one often doesn’t know exactly how a specific mutation will physiologically express itself. This is not a claim that one can’t know what mutations are or how they operate in bodies. This claim is obviously false. Rather, our claim is that mutations work stochastically and not mechanically causal. Researchers need to screen large populations in order to locate mutations with desired outcomes. Consequently, appealing to situational ethics misses how inhabiting the world in specific ways generates potential futures from which different choices can be made.

Although the word “mutation” was originally introduced by Dutch botanist Hugo De Vries, most historians of genetics locate Thomas Hunt Morgan’s 1910 identification of a white eyed drosophila mutant, instead of the usual red eyed fly, as the introduction of what is now known as classical genetics, including the beginning of the modern conception of mutation. The mutation that T. H. Morgan had identified was a discrete change of a single physiological character: changes in eye color or wing shape, for instance. De Vries, on the other hand, had been looking at much larger changes in plant morphology, most likely the result of an act of hybridization of two different species. The mutations that Morgan identified allowed him to create maps of relative distances between specific genes (known as “linkage maps”).5

In 1909, the Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen introduced the phenotype/genotype distinction.6 Although building on concepts that were already in discussion, this distinction helped to make sense of variance within populations. According to Johannsen organisms displayed variance from two different types of sources, the variance due to the interaction of an organism with its environment were due to variance in its phenotype and the variance due to fluctuations within the material basis of the gene (what we would now consider to include mutations) were due to variance in its genotype. These two types of variance were registered through different aspects of the organism. The phenotype was the part of an organism that interacted with its environment, while the genotype was the part of an organism made up of genes. Understanding heritable change involved understanding how these two aspects of the organism interacted. Although the phenotype/genotype distinction has been vitally important for understanding the role of genes in a wide variety of biological processes, we would like to concentrate here on only one implication of this distinction, how does a mutation in the gene actually express itself as a change in phenotype if it happens at the level of the genotype. For many researchers in genetics it implied two things. The first was that most heritable changes in phenotypes would have a genetic component and that the causative relationship between the change in the gene and the change in the phenotype would not be straightforward. For instance, many observed characters might be the combination of a number of different genes. A change to one of these genes might change an expressed character but it would do so through the interaction of the gene products and not through a straightforward expression of a single gene. The second implication was that all mutations might not be visible. Although some mutations would be passed on from generation to generation, they might not be expressed in the phenotype of the individual who carried that gene in his genotype. Perhaps the controversial geneticist Herman Muller is most responsible for fleshing out a modern conception of the gene. Muller learned Drosophila genetics in Morgan’s laboratory and later won the Nobel Prize for his work inducing mutations through ionizing radiation, Muller recognized the indirect nature of gene action, and for him, it suggested a threat lurking beneath phenotypic surface of organisms:

It is a poor elementary course in genetics which does not bring out the fact that each bodily process and part is the resultant of the activity of multiple genes, every one of which is subject to its varied mutations, some with smaller, others with larger effects. That is, every one of the thousands of genes that resulted from successful mutations is liable to further change, and its next mutation will most probably be a harmful one7

Although one might possess a mutation for a specific character, this mutation may not be phenotypically recognized until future mutations to other genes making up that character led to an overall harmful change. Although a single mutation did possess a small chance of being beneficial, the chances that two or more mutations would lead to a beneficial change were astronomically small. Muller feared that because the phenotypic masking of “our load of mutations” hid from view the health threat of mutations, society would not adequately respond to the threat that mutations posed to human biological futures.

With the introduction of atomic power as a tool of war and with its remaking into a tool for research in the life sciences, mutations became part of the cultural and physiological landscape of the late twentieth century.8 In fact, throughout the mid-century a significant quantity of books, movies, and comic books were produced which imaginatively explored the transformative power of atomic radiation through mutation. Nuclear science fiction movies (over 500 of which were produced between 1948 and 19629), such as Them!, Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Attack of the Crab Monsters, explored the biological ramifications, and thus, the ethical implications, of the bomb and exposure to radioactive fallout. Insects and animals are transmuted into larger than life monsters that threaten human life and civilization. Throughout these films, the unfathomable destructive power of the atom bomb is embodied through the literal transformation of physical scale. Mutated creatures become amplified, larger and more powerful.

In comic books the use of mutation ranges from the Golden Age superhero, Hour Man, who gains super strength for a single hour by taking a radioactive pill; to the Silver Age heroes Spider Man, who gains spider-like powers when he is bit by a radioactive spider; the Incredible Hulk, a large green monster who is the Mr. Hyde of nuclear scientist Bruce Banner’s Dr. Jekyll; to the group most closely tied to the promises of mutations, the Uncanny X-Men, who receive their power through low level radiation mutation of the X gene, a gene that allows for the expression of a variety of specific powers. Significantly, the leader of the X Men is Charles Xavier, himself a telepathic and telekinetic mutant who is also a world-renowned geneticist.

For our purposes, radiation transformed superheroes are most interesting biologically because they seem to have no phenotype/genotype distinction and thus transparently illuminate cultural attitudes on the ways that our chemical relationships with the world effect our biological relationships. Take Spider Man, for instance. In the original story, Spider Man receives a bite from a radioactive spider allowing him to utilize powers that a spider possesses (web making, the ability to walk on walls, etc.) All the complicated physiological interactions involved in the expression of a gene product are effectively ignored. The genotype and the phenotype have effectively collapsed into a pre-genetic way of thinking—where single mutations unproblematically lead to large physiological changes that reflect the source of the mutation, in the case of Spiderman, even a change that reflects the source of origin of the atomic power.10 Even the most genetically sophisticated of the mutants, the X-Men, whose powers derive from a gene that causes the mutation of other genes, still only need single mutations to express a whole host of large scale physiological changes (the ability to use the power of animals, telekinesis and telepathy, wings and the power of flight, the ability to cool room temperature objects and environments, and the ability to use one’s eyes as powerful lasers). Superheroes tend to wear their genotypes directly on their phenotypes.

It’s instructive to apply lessons learned from comic book mutants to the growing (and mutating) field of Bio Art. There are many types of Bio Art and these types gain their artistic relevance through a number of different mechanisms. Although the threat and promise of mutation haunts most of these works, it would be a mistake to assume that mutations are the only agent of biologically based art. In fact, the use of recombinant DNA technology (pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s) looms even larger because of its ability to catalyze specific changes.

Marta de Menezez’s nature? (1999) comments on the relationship between technical and natural processes through the manipulation of wing pattern in butterflies. By interrupting the normal development of butterfly wings, new visual patterns were created. The visual result of such intervention is striking and brings the work into conversation with Darwinian concepts of adaptation and mutation as an evolutionary process of natural selection and design. Through visual means the work suggests a mutation in the regulatory genes responsible for butterfly development although the butterflies remain un-modified at the DNA level.

The Tissue Culture and Art Project, by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, develop semi-living beings by employing tissue engineering and stem cell technologies. The array of tissue engineered projects include Extra Ear ¼ Scale, Victimless Leather, Disembodied Cuisine. Catts and Zurr aim to evoke and provoke discourse about bioethics and the implications of bio-science upon our collective future. Most recently in NoArk (2007) TC&A cultivate a living mass comprised of cells from various different organisms. “It contains a chimerical ‘blob’ made out of modified living fragments of different organisms, which are living together in a techno-scientific body.”11 By fusing the cells from various organisms the work envisages for the viewer “a non-species” differentiated monstrous body. The project suggests monstrosity because it defies easy phylogenetic categorization. By their use of the classical reference of “chimera,” Catts and Zurr seek to highlight the continuity of thinking in terms of monstrosity. A mixture of different tissues, however, their monster isn’t just a combination of physiological traits from different organisms, it is a creature so biologically (categorically) mixed up that it can’t develop physiological traits.

Both of these projects use living media to suggest the fear of unanticipated consequences that comes from the technological manipulation of living subjects. What is life if it isn’t unpredictable? What makes these projects especially interesting from our point of view is how they speak to alternative organizations of life. In nature?, the developing butterfly is stimulated to reorganize its appearance, while in NoArk, it is the monstrosity of the disorganized or undifferentiated future that is on trial.

For us, the problem with many of these works is not the art itself, but how the ethical packaging of the art precludes a similar “mutagenic” effect in the sphere of bio politics. For instance, in Eduardo Kac’s Genesis, Kac and collaborators have translated a phrase from the bible into a genetic sequence, “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,” that is then inserted into a bacterial plasmid, that is then mutated as viewers bathe the bacterial plate containing the organism with ultra violet light. The genesis gene is then extracted and sequenced. Although fascinating in construction, the project loses a bit in the over all packaging when Kac describes what happens to the sequence:

“The mutation that took place in the DNA had changed the original sentence form the Bible. The mutated sequence was posted on the Genesis Web site. In the context of the work, the ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: It means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it.”12

What Kac does not mention, however, is that as described, the treatment with ultra violet light effects a whole population of bacterium that begins as a clonal population (identical) but will not be identically effected by the UV treatment. Thus, taken as a whole, there will be no single message; rather, there will be as many messages as bacteria that contain the initial sequence and in many of those bacteria the message will remain unchanged. In his desire to make an ethical statement about the unpredictability of life, Eduardo Kac has unfortunately collapsed life’s unpredictability into an easy to understand comment upon a biblical heritage that promotes human dominion over animals.

It is unfair to single out the work of Eduardo Kac since most work contains similar gestures. In fact, the ethical discourse that accompanies many Bio Art projects tends to operate in the very same way that biomedical ethics discourse does for biomedical ethics. It eventually promotes future experimentation on biological beings by defining a social consensus on what is acceptable experimentation. This rhetorical strategy should be familiar by now. This is also the same rhetorical strategy used by those supporting the peaceful atom, where working with atomic power was acceptable in specific circumstances. It also works in the same ways as the superheroes we covered before, where mutation is used to maintain the status quo. Spider man fixes fights the villains that threaten to disorganize and then reorganize society as we know it. In much the same way, Bio Art can enable the future that it purports to criticize.

Let us be clear, we are not saying that Bio Art is inherently unethical or that discussions about ethics shouldn’t take place within the domain of art; rather, we are suggesting that ethical discussions are not sufficient by themselves and may even lead to undesired consequences when not tempered with a focus on the generative potential of life.13 One useful model for a way out of this dilemma is Alphonso Lingis’s notion of an embodied imperative that rejects the Immanuel Kant’s distinction between hypothetical and the categorical imperatives. According to Lingis the juridical cast of much ethical reasoning “argues from cases and precedents, with a normative reasoning which is not simply that of empirical generalization.”14 Consequently, these judgments end up being inherently conservative since they keep referring to precedent. Consequently, the directives that we feel as we navigate the world tend to be under stressed; the imperative then is to open one’s self to the universe, to listen to the world. In regards to symbolic message delivered by Kac’s Genesis, for instance, it is the difference between conceiving of “man’s dominion” as a purely instrumental reasoning that needs to either be embraced or rejected, or as an imperative and a responsibility to understand how nature works. The moral issue isn’t just about the dangers of instrumental reasoning derived from the use of high technology,15 nor is it about “pointing out gaps in regulation;”16 rather, it is about inhabiting the world in a way that lessons the suffering of others, and this will always involve inhabiting the world in a way that maintains a universe alive with potential. The imperative is to use all of our faculties to deepen our search for a moral way to inhabit the universe.

Art emerges in importance in this view of morality, but it is now an art of restless experimentation. The virtuoso artist is not an artist who attractively packages an ethical treatment of life for pubic consumption; rather, the virtuoso artist is a mutagen that allows the disorganizing tendencies of mutation act through them as they open up new possibilities for inhabiting the world.

There is more to morally inhabiting the world than making ethical choices. If Bio Artists see themselves as engaged in ethical debates, then they have already lost the political battle over our biological future. An effective biopolitics isn’t just about having an opinion or taking an action, it’s also about generating new possibilities for change. These possibilities literally make the world larger, more creative, and less oppressive for those who inherit it.


1 Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender, and Science, 1992

2 Herman Muller, “Our Load of Mutations”, The American Journal of Human Genetics, June 1950

3 Please see the WWW site for the Sickle Cell Anemia Society, (last accessed, 18 October 2007). It is important to point out that very few diseases have such a straightforward genetic component.

4 See for instance, the “topic” section of NIH’s WWW page on “Bioethics Resources on the WWW”,, last accessed, 21 Aug, 2007.

5 Garland Allen and Robert Kohler have treated the role of mutation in the development of classical genetics. Please see Garland E. Allan, Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Man and His Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) and Robert E. Kohler, Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

6 The English version of this distinction came out in 1911 as Wilhelm Johannsen, “The Genotype Conception of Heredity”, American Naturalist, 45:129-159.

7 Herman Muller, “Our Load of Mutations”, The American Journal of Human Genetics, June 1950, p. 112

8 These two developments are so culturally linked that our current threat of mutation from all sources of ionizing radiation is now greatest from medical procedures.

9 Joyce A. Evans, Celluloid Mushroom Clouds, 1998, p. 75

10 In 1901 the nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Frederick Soddy proclaim ‘transmutation’ as the transformation of one atom into a different kind of atom through radiation. “At first Soddy and Rutherford could not quite say why transmutation seemed to be so special, but during 1902 they found one of the reasons: energy. Any radioactive substance was, of course, radiating energy.” [Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, 1988, p.6] We can utilize this model as a means toward understanding superhero powers as embodied atomic energy in radioactively bio-hybridized comic book characters.

11 Artist statement from “Still, Living” exhibition, 15 – 23 September, 2007,

12 See the recent discussion of Genesis in Eduardo Kac, “Life Transformation—Art Mutation” found in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007). The quotation is from p. 164.

13 See also Cary Wolfe, “Bioethics and the Posthuman Imperative,” ibid

14 Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998) 209.

15 Eugene Thacker

16 Lori B. Andrews, “Art as Public Policy Medium”, ibid, p. 142



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