Photo: Courtesy of Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago
A stroll through an art museum can mirror a walk outdoors, as nature has inspired artists since people first used charcoal to draw on cave walls. Today, ambitious artists and accessible technologies have modernized the marriage of biology and art into bioart, coupling imagination and science to create animate, often interactive, works that put pretty paintings of flowers to shame.
"[Bioart's popularity] is similar to the video movement in the arts," says Ruth West, lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Before, you'd have to go into a television station for access to video equipment. Now you can walk into a Best Buy [store] and get an incredibly powerful camera." While most students will never have their own DNA sequencer, the recent biotechnology boom is providing a greater opportunity to incorporate science into art.
A new understanding of perspective gave Renaissance artists their inspiration, and the emerging science of optics informed the work of the Impressionists in the late 19th century. Today molecular biology techniques and tools allow a new generation of artists to transform the art world, once again. "I have an interest to use the tools of my time to tackle certain issues, which is something artists have always done," says artist Eduardo Kac.
As new as the technologies that make it possible, bioart first emerged as explorations by science students and practitioners. But it has moved into the mainstream as established galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have exhibited live works.
Last week, the Corcoran opened the exhibit, Molecular Invasion, by members of the Critical Art Ensemble, an interactive theater company, which plans to display the creation of a genetically modified plant as part of the exhibition. Such scientific capabilities create new moral problems--which have always been the purview of painters and sculptors. "Many people perceive themselves as separated from science because it's too complex," says Paul Brewer, director of college exhibitions for Corcoran College of Art. "Bioartists try to demystify the scientific process so they can engage with the ethical issues at stake."
TRANSCENDING CLICHÉ WITH TRANSGENICS Even though Kac lacks experience with the scientific process, he appears more comfortable with transgenics than with paintbrushes. Inspired by a passage from the Bible, in which God gives man control over earthly creatures, Kac's Genesis project bestows godlike power to humanity on a microscale. For Genesis, Kac translated a line of biblical text into Morse code, then encoded it into DNA and inserted it into bacteria, which are displayed on a microscopic slide in a darkened room.
This installation, which can also be accessed online,1 allows the click of a computer's mouse to focus ultraviolet light on the display, causing mutations in both the bacteria's genome and in the coded message. "The metaphor of art imitating life doesn't apply anymore," Kac says. This is a situation where art is creating life."
While Kac allows Genesis participants to play god across oceans, Joe Davis, research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is trying to apply his art over an even greater distance. Using the durable Escherichia coli as a vessel to weather the harsh climate of space, he coded an image of the Milky Way into a 3867-amino acid long sequence, inserted it into the bacteria's DNA, and hopes to launched it out in the cosmos. "It's true genomic art," Davis says. "I was able to write underneath an existing gene without changing the [mRNA] transcript. It doesn't interfere with the organism at all."
Quick to dismiss formal artistic landscapes as tedious and restrictive, Davis continues his unconventional craft; his fascination with both art and science has proven more beneficial to him than could a formal background in either discipline. "I have no classical credentials in science, and an appointment at MIT Biology that doesn't say anything about art," says Davis.
Davis' lack of background has not kept him from breaking ground where science meets art. He first showed that DNA could encode other types of information (not just genetic sequences) in 1986 with Microvenus, where DNA was first used as an artistic medium. Davis digitized the Microvenus icon, translated it into a 28-nucleotide chain, and inserted it into the genome of E. coli.
Microvenus, which looks like the letter Y superimposed upon the letter I, is a Germanic rune representing life and the outline of the external female genitalia. Davis created the icon as a way to show symbols of human intelligence to extraterrestrial beings.
The bacteria have since multiplied into billions of cells, and Davis reckons that Microvenus is more abundant than all artworks by all previous artists. Still, Microvenus has yet to be on display in the United States, because galleries are reluctant to display genetically engineered bacteria.
TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY Not all bioart is as conceptual as is Davis' work. Heather Acroyd and Dan Harvey of Dorking, Surrey, UK, take photographs and record the images through the production of chlorophyll in grass. The yellow and green shades of grass create the tonal range of a black-and-white photo. The idea emerged when the artists noticed an area of grass that produced the shadow of a ladder leaning against it. They projected a high intensity light through a photographic negative onto a canvas covered in clay and grass seedlings, and formed a yellowish image.
The problem for Acroyd and Harvey was that as the grass faded, so did their exhibits. The photographers contacted the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), in Aberystwyth, Wales, which had been working on a grass hybrid that doesn't lose its color. "Our 'Stay Green' grass can't break down its chlorophyll, so the images stay sharp," says Helen Ougham, principal research scientist at IGER. Despite the use of hybrid seeds and blades, the images are still vulnerable to oxidative bleaching, making them as transient as the living beings they record.
Bioartists sometimes require scientists to assist with technical procedures that enhance the creative process. Hunter O'Reilly, adjunct professor of biological sciences, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, received her introduction to art through sciences while taking the "wrong path on the road to discovery" during her graduate studies in genetics.2
A visit to Paris art museums inspired O'Reilly to escape her scientific studies through art. "But cellular forms started to evolve in my paintings," she says. Today O'Reilly uses deadly viruses like Ebola and AIDS to create pictures. She also teaches a class, "Biology Through Art," that integrates both disciplines. "The biology is pretty general, but I also teach how some of my contemporaries work biology into their art."
For her course, "Genetics and Culture," UCLA's West gathers students from all corners of the campus. "There is a certain phobia between art and science, because they've been separated for so long," West says. Her students critique the artwork, analyze the science, and evaluate the ethical and cultural implications of the new techniques.
An artist sometimes featured in West and O'Reilly's classes, Gunther Von Hagens has come under fire for his innovations. Von Hagens, director of the Plastination Centre at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, invented plastination, a preservation technique that replaces the water in cells with a polymer, rendering the corpse odorless, dry, and realistic looking. The displays give some viewers new respect for their bodies; a smoker's lung or cholesterol-clogged arteries can be viewed as they would appear inside the human body. The macabre exhibitions have led many others, however, to dismiss Von Hagens as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, according to The Guardian.3
Kac also has caused such a stir in both art and science spheres a few years earlier with his Alba project. Kac inserted genes for fluorescence into a rabbit, generating a green, glow-in-the-dark bunny when exposed to blue light at 488 nm. "There was a semantic tension," Kac says. "Bringing together a symbol of cuteness, like a rabbit, and transgenics, which resonates with fear and the unknown, is not a simple juxtaposition."
These artists don't try to be didactic; they simply want to present everyday objects in a new light. "In a way, art is like science," Davis asserts. "Art opens up little windows onto the world that nobody has ever seen before. I get a kick out of opening those windows."
Hal Cohen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The Genesis interface is available online at www.ekac.org/liveinfo.html.
2. H. Cohen, "Life posing as art," The Scientist, 16:8, Sept. 30, 2002.
3. S. Jeffries, "The naked and the dead," The Guardian, March 19, 2002, available online at www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,669775,00.html.