Biotechnology on display

A gallery-turned-laboratory fuses art and science

Mar 9, 2007
Kirsten Weir
Who knew bacteria could draw? But here I stand, staring at a series of black-and-blue line drawings of a rooster, rabbit, and spiraling helix of DNA, all by the bioluminescent bacteria Photobacterium phosphoreum. The drawings are part of It's Alive! A Laboratory of Biotech Art, a new exhibit at the gallery at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts.
The photographs, taken in total darkness by Hunter O'Reilly, a geneticist and artist at Loyola University in Chicago, capture the bacteria glowing blue in their petri dishes. In the first of every pair of photographs, the healthy bacteria are glowing brightly; in the second, the organisms have begun to die and fade. O'Reilly creates the pieces by coaxing the bacteria to grow into shapes and patterns, but she doesn't pretend to have full control over her living creations. As they expire, the bacteria alter the images in unexpected ways, O'Reilly tells me in a phone interview. "The bacteria become collaborators in the drawing," she says. While artists like O'Reilly use science to create art, others use art to comment on science. One example is Adam Brandejs's Genpets installation -- the most popular piece in the gallery (according to assistant curator Shana Dumont), and the source of heart monitors that fill the gallery with a rhythmic beep, keeping time like an ominous metronome.
Plastic packages hang from the wall on metal hooks, like a rack of dolls at a toy store. Small creatures, tethered to heart monitors and feeding tubes, appear to sleep inside the packages. "Ages 4+" the boxes read. "Unpackage your Genpet to wake it from hibernation!" The Genpets are created from latex, but look creepily lifelike -- part human, part simian, and perhaps a bit canine. The pet called "Yellow" seems to breathe, its chest heaving, while "Spiritual" has inflamed red areas on its wrists and ankles, as though it's been struggling against its plastic restraints.A nearby computer links viewers to the Genpets Web site. Although it's just a parody, the detailed site extends the illusion that the genetically engineered pets are available for purchase -- and gets over a million hits a day, Dumont says. Many of the artworks have moving parts that interact with passing visitors. In Acupuncture for Temporal Fruit, Jennifer Hall and Blyth Hazen have displayed an overripe tomato inside a clear box. When I lean in to take a closer look, I trigger a motion sensor, causing a slim acupuncture needle to plunge into the skin of the fruit. Mold is beginning to bloom at the edges of the hole, and I realize that simply by observing, I'm hastening the tomato's demise.While the Genpets and Acupuncture pieces seem to make cautionary statements about biotechnology, others cast science in a gentler light. Tucked into a corner, without beeping sounds or mechanical parts, Steve Hollinger's Heart consists of broken shards of paper-thin glass that have been pieced together, creating a vessel that resembles the chambers of a heart. Inside the structure, blue liquid rises and falls through a tangle of tiny tubes, powered only by the heat energy from a nearby light bulb. Nestled within a wooden, 1950s-era dynamite container, the glass heart is implausibly delicate, mysterious, and lovely.
The show is the brainchild of gallery curator Leonie Bradbury, who says its purpose is to explore, through art, the field of biotechnology, an issue that affects all of us but too few people understand. "I hope that anyone who visits the exhibit," Bradbury says, "walks away from it having seen both art and science in a new light."It's Alive! A Laboratory of Biotech Art is on display through April 7.Kirsten Weir mail@the-scientist.comImages (in order of appearance): JHunter O'Reilly, Plant Embryo 2005, bioluminescent bacterial photo (20" x 14"), image courtesy of the artist; Adam Brandejs, Genpets 2005-6, mixed media, image courtesy of the artist; Jennifer Hall/Blyth Hazen, 1999 (2007), Acupuncture for Temporal Fruit, metal, Plexiglass, electronics, ultrasonic sensors, MIDI interface, acupuncture needles, tomato, 6x1x1 feet, photo by Sam Ogden.Links within this article:Montserrat Gallery ' O'Reilly http://www.hunteroreilly.comH. Cohen: "Bioscience moves into galleries as bioart," The Scientist, November 11, 2002. Brandejs Grens: "Felis enigmaticus," The Scientist, January 1, 2007. Hall Hazen Wenner, "Animals as art," The Scientist, February 23, 2007. Hollinger