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ThemesCyborg BodiesTransgenic Bodies
Transgenic Bodies
Where Art and Science Meet: Genetic Engineering in Contemporary Art1 Art and science [1]
Ingeborg Reichle

In the twentieth century, there was probably no more popular scientific term than «gene» and no other scientific discipline’s images and visual metaphors achieved the status of all-pervasive cultural icons like those of molecular biology. [2] The significance ascribed to genes, in anticipation of mapping and marketing them, extends far beyond their immediate role in heredity and development processes. The form of pictorial representation of the human genome in the shape of a double helix and images of the twenty-three pairs of human chromosomes are today no longer neutral descriptions of human genetic processes but rather have advanced to the status of ornaments and vehicles of a mythological and religious meaning of «life itself.» [3] Already around 1900, early representatives of the young discipline of genetics exhibited a tendency to indulge in utopian rhetoric, conjuring up visions of a «biological art of engineering» or a «technology of living organisms,» which did not confine itself to the shaping of plants and animals but aspired to setting new yardsticks for human coexistence and the organisation of human society. [4] Then, as now, the heralds of this «biological revolution» were predictingnothing less than a second creation; this time, however, it would be an artificially created bio-industrial nature, which would replace the original concept of evolution.

In contemporary art, many exhibitions [5] in recent years have taken as their theme the effects of this «biological revolution» on people’s self-image and on the multi-layered interrelations between art and genetics. [6] However, in contrast to the first encounters between art and genetics, which began in the early twentieth century with art’s visual and affirmative engagement with genetics, today these «scientific» images are decoded through the linking of art and the images of the life sciences and a new way of reading them results. Artists take the terminology of the sphere of art and apply it to the technically generated images of molecular biology or other life sciences, question their claim to «objectivity» and «truth,» and render them recognisable as a space where other fields of knowledge and cultural areas are also inscribed. With the aid of an iconography of images from science, the attempt is made to decipher the cultural codes that these images transport additionally.

Biology and image form

Long before the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or the formulation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution [7] , artists rejected the—often postulated—division between art and science, not least on the grounds that scientists were often guided by aesthetic aspects in their research. [8] Darwin’s publications, «On the Origin of Species» (1859) [9] and «The Descent of Man» (1871), [10] are based on skilfully applied photographic strategies, thus it was only natural that, in turn, they elicited artistic responses and reflections. The German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, for example, promoted Darwin’s theories very successfully in the period 1899–1904 with his beautiful lithographs of radiolarians, marine protozoans. [11] In several of his works, Paul Klee derived his inspiration from the 1theory of evolution [12] and D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book, «On Growth and Form» (1917), [13] aroused the interest of several abstract expressionist artists. [14]

The term gene was introduced in the literature inthe early years of the twentieth century, although it would take another fifty years before genes began to take on contours. In 1900, three articles appeared which cited the work of a hitherto unknown monk named Gregor Johann Mendel. The authors were Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich von Tschermak [15] and the articles concerned Mendel’s careful investigations on hybridisation of garden pea plants in the grounds of his monastery. Allegedly independently of one another, de Vries, Correns and Tschermak had «rediscovered» Mendel’s ideas on heredity, which he had formulated in the second half of the nineteenth century. [16] Mendel’s own published findings [17] were largely ignored during his lifetime; unlike the three papers published in 1900, the same year that Max Planck discovered the quantum effect. The three papers laid the foundations of a new scientific discipline that, in 1906, was given the name «genetics» [18] and less than a century later, rose to become the leading science in Western society.

For nineteenth-century biologists, the concept of heredity comprised both the «transmission of developmental properties through reproduction as well as the development of properties into specific adult traits.» [19] However, at the turn of the twentieth century a fundamental change was underway whereby the study of the heredity and variation of organisms began to separate off from the study of embryos and their development to form two separate branches of biology. [20] Henceforth, genetics and embryology went their separate ways, each developing their own specific terminology and spawning their own specialist journals and literature. To begin with, genetic research concentrated on investigating the transmission of traits to offspring but soon came to the conclusion that this process must depend on the existence of elements inside the cell. However, when the U.S. American embryologist Thomas Hunt Morgan [21] claimed in 1933 that «There is no consensus opinion amongst geneticists as to what the genes are — whether they are real or purely fictitious» [22] , 1 for the majority of his geneticist colleagues genes were already «real, material entities — the biological analogue of the molecules and atoms of physical science.» [23] In the early 1940s, geneticists established the chemical identity of genes and proved that thesemolecules are constituted of DNA. Nearly ten years later, DNA was identified as the material carrying specific biological traits in bacteria. From this point, it was but a short step to an optical representation, which gave DNA a «face»: in 1953, James D. Watson and Frances Crick published their model of the molecular structure of DNA in the form of a double helix. The model proved that genes are the units of inheritance and this is encoded in sequences of base pairs of chromosomes arranged linearly along the strands of DNA. It became clear that this nucleic acid, that is, real molecules, carries the genetic information of an organism and not, as previously thought, proteins. Today the model of the double helix is found in every text book on genetics and functions as a socalled «black box.» [24] Prised out of the historic and social context of its development, in the following years the double helix became the most fundamental scientific fact of genetics and a symbol of «the stuff that life is made of» in popular culture.

However, the model of DNA’s molecular structure in the form of a double helix is not capable of explaining which chemical process is responsible for separating the strands nor where the energy comes from that triggers this process. Shortly after Watson and Crick published their model, it was criticised by prominent scientists. The British geneticist Rosalind Franklin was among the first to raise objections. Since 1947, Franklin had been working on the structure of DNA and her continual refinement of x-ray crystallography led in 1951 to the first revealing technical images of the structure of DNA. In the 1970s, the development of alternative models of the structure of DNA was pursued at the periphery of the scientific discourse; however, these efforts received scant attention. [25] When Watson and Crick formulated their DNA model in the form of a double helix, they were not driven by a striving for «scientific exactitude» alone. [26] They were perfectly aware of the fact that the credibility of a scientific model does not depend exclusively on its scientific exactness but also on its power to convince and its usefulness, both for research and the discourse of the discipline within which it is formulated. Its power to convince is produced within a social and historical context and depends in part on aesthetic features of the model, [27]which, in turn, are subject to differing criteria according to discipline and epoch. [28] However, these are often no longer in evidence after a model has been formulated so that its social and historical construction and conditionality are not obvious. [29]

Art and genetics

Here, art’s field of action ranges from the virtual images of the Human Genome Project, [30] computer-generated visualizations of models in molecular biology and bioinformatics, to real applications of advanced genetics, and attempts by artists to simulate evolutionary processes. The interactive network installation «[ACTG]enome» by the Swiss artists Franziska Kempf and Christina von Rotz, for instance, is directed against the reductionism of life as a pure code, which biotechnology as well as the artists, who conduct themselves as biotechnologists, drive forward. Visitors to »[ACTG]enome« can manipulate genes on a terminal. They are representations of DNA and their scientific discourses out of the Internet. Thus the installation repeats the tinkerer and manipulator gesture, which dominates the discourse in art and biotechnology, but it constantly eludes the audience's control and posits the autopoietic regulation of the systems. The influence exercised by the users, however, can be seen on four screen projections, if only in the form of abstract, incomprehensible signs and codes—metaphors that visualize the abstraction, the modellike quality and complexes of the DNA discourse. These projections symbolically represent societies, and because the projections vacillate back and forth between the genetic and the societal discourse, it may well happen that the audience unintentionally manipulates societies instead of genes. In addition, after a certain point in the process the users are blocked from access to the interface until the system has swung in again.

»[ACTG]enome« makes explicit that manipulation in the laboratory does not take place outside of society, but rather in the midst of society, and that it is not as harmless as many of the artists and institutions who work with genes would like to have us think. Whereas artists, such as Franziska Kempf and Christina von Rotz address in their work the representations of scientific models of molecular biology and the act oftransforming objects that were formerly in the science domain into vehicles of meaning in quite different areas of knowledge, other artists, such as Eduardo Kac and Joe Davis, take an entirely different direction in their engagement with art and science. Their works use real transgenic organisms to address the perpetuation of evolution by humans through creating novel organisms according to aesthetic criteria, which the advent of recombinant DNA technology has now made possible.

Transgenic Art - Eduardo Kac

The Brazilian media artist and theorist, Eduardo Kac, assistant professor of art and technology at the Art and Technology Department of the Art Institute of Chicago, operates at the interface of art and genetic engineering in his projects «GFP K-9» (1998), a bioluminescent dog, «GFP Bunny» (2000), a green-glowing rabbit, the installation «Genesis» (1998–1999), and the transgenic Netinstallation «The Eighth Day.» With these works, Kac puts up a new art form for debate: the concept of Transgenic Art. [31] Kac’s early work focussed primarily on telecommunication and telepresence and, specifically, the question of the perception of reality and the communication of presence.

By creating transgenic animals and integrating them domestically and socially, it is Kac’s declared intention to draw attention to the cultural effects and implications of a technology that is not accessible visually and bring these to the public’s attention for debate. Using biotechnology, Kac transfers synthetic genes to organisms and natural genes from one species to another. [32] Projected is the creation of originals, unique organisms. In his installation «Genesis,» Kac attempts to make biological processes and technological procedures visible, which for years now have been standard practice in research laboratories. In a dark room, a brightly illuminated petri dish stands on a pedestal. A video camera, [33] which is positioned above it, projects an oversize image of the dish onto the wall. Ultraviolet light falls onto the petri dish and the intensity of the light can be controlled by the visitor via a computer. This can be done either in the gallery or via the Internet. In this way the users can influence the processes of replication and interaction of the bacteria in the petri dish and observe thesein the magnified projection on the wall or on the Internet — processes, which normally can only be seen under a microscope. Thus the role of the observer is enhanced to that of active participant, who is able to intervene in the processes and influence the course of the work’s presentation.

The focus of the installation is a synthetic gene created by Kac, a so-called «artist’s gene.» First, he translated a sentence from the biblical Book of Genesis, the First Book of Moses, into Morse code and then converted it into DNA base pairs according to principles of conversion developed especially for this work. Kac chose the Morse code because it was first used in radiotelegraphy at the beginning of the information age and, thus, stands at the genesis of global communication. [34] The synthetic gene was cloned into plasmids and then transferred to bacteria, where it synthesises a new protein molecule. Two mutations of green fluorescent protein create two different bacteria with different spectral properties. This process, which would normally take place only within a laboratory, Kac has transferred to an art gallery. With his Transgenic Art, Kac wishes to draw attention to the cultural implications of biotechnology and its possibilities for transforming and manipulating life. However, the aesthetics of this artistic presentation overwhelm the demonstration of the laboratory’s function as the place where knowledge is produced. Transgenic organisms have been produced in laboratories now for over twenty years and the first bioluminescent mice were bred in 1995. When, in 2000, Kac created his second transgenic artwork, «Bunny 2000,» a bioluminescent rabbit named Alba, researchers had already created the first primate carrying a green fluorescent protein, a monkey named Andi. Kac may use advanced biotechnology in his work, yet the metaphors surrounding this technology and the interplay between cultural norms and technical development remain unaddressed. [35]

Joe Davis: Bridge between Two Cultures

Under the title «‹Genetic art› Builds Cryptic Bridge between Two Cultures,» in November 1995 the science journal Nature reported on an exhibition held at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Joe Davis, artist in residence at the Massachusetts Instituteof Technology (M.I.T.), intended to exhibit a strain of Escherichia coli bacteria, which he had developed in the period December 1993 to January 1994 in collaboration with the Laboratory of Molecular Structure at M.I.T. Biology and the Burghardt Wittig Laboratory of the Free University of Berlin. Davis wanted to present these deep-frozen recombinant E. coli bacteria on the premises of the university. The university’s security department, however, regarded this plan as constituting a serious safety risk and demanded that the artist treat the genetically manipulated organisms with formaldehyde and chloroform. Although an artist may make use of state of the art genetic engineering techniques, ultimately, it is not the artist who decides on the form of their presentation; in this case, it was the security department of the university. Seemingly this exhibition suspended the boundaries between art and science; bridged the gap between the sharply bipolar cultures for the time being. However, the intervention of the university’s security department brought into sharp focus just where the dividing line between these two cultural levels lies. A few years before, in his projects , «Poetica Vaginal» (1985) and «Microvenus» (1986) Joe Davis had focussed on DNA as the carrier of non-biological information. [36] In collaboration with genetic engineers, Davis designed a molecule and transferred it to an organism, live E. coli bacteria. Thus «Microvenus» is a recombinant organism that contains many copies of a molecule created by an artist. As the starting point for his work, Davis chose an old Germanic symbol for life and the female earth. A special conversion programme translated the symbol into DNA bases. Once these artistically engineered elements of DNA are incorporated into bacteria, they can be expressed unchanged over a long period of time and are resilient enough, even under extreme conditions (for example, in space), to replicate a very great number of times. Because of the possibilities offered by bacteria as a long-term storage medium, Davis envisaged using the DNA of «Microvenus» as an interstellar medium of communication. Also Davis' following projects «Riddle of Life» (1994) and «Milky Way DNA« were about the issue of coding and conversion of genetic Codes. One also finds the practice of the close linking of art andlaboratory science in works by younger artists such as Adam Zaretsky, Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, whose art is created exclusively in a laboratory. In the spirit of Joe Davis, with their art projects «Fish & Chips, » «The Tissue Culture & Art(ificial) Wombs» (1996) as well as «Pig Wings» (1997) the artists Catts and Zurr created ‹living› sculptures out of biological material.

Third Culture

The aestheticisation of genetic engineering, as practiced by these artists in their bio-artworks, however, appears to lead to a playing down of the risks and acceptance of biotechnology rather than critical reflection for neither an assessment of this technology’s impact nor a discussion of the risks involved take place. By availing themselves of the latest biotechnological innovations and their industrial exploitation, an art trend like Transgenic Art has pretensions to constituting a force for innovation and social relevance and, at the same time, valorises a socially controversial technology. Many artists who operate at the interface of art, science, and new technologies understand their artistic practice as building a bridge between two cultures, which are considered as diametrically opposed, and they appear to move comfortably in this «in between» or «Third Culture.» [37] The notion of a «Third Culture» was proposed by C.P. Snow in 1963 in the second, revised edition of his book «The Two Cultures», [38] first published in 1959, in an additional essay entitled «The Two Cultures: A Second Look.» [39] With this concept, he attempted to delineate the interface between the natural sciences and the arts and humanities, which might serve to close the yawning gap between these two cultures. Today, there are artists who consider themselves «as researchers» [40] and whose work finds recognition in scientific circles and, moreover, the question as to what extent the images produced by science should be considered as art is a subject for serious debate. [41] In the meantime, both science and art are attributed with performing the function of a bridge, which is supposed to promote a dialogue between the two cultures. [42] However, the question is: who enters into a dialogue with whom here? In the natural sciences, the idea has long since gainedcommon currency that aesthetic considerations, which play a necessary part in the visualisation of scientific findings, by no means detract from interest in the science presented. Today, aesthetic considerations no longer represent a contradiction to the findings presented but rather are an integral part of science, for today’s scientist is not a «coldly registering thinking apparatus» any more, the target of Friedrich Nietzsche’s polemic. [43]

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