Art and Biotechnology: When art looks into science

Art and Biotechnology: When art looks into science *

katerina gkoutziouli

What happens when biotechnology steps out of laboratories and becomes the subject of artistic practice? Recent examples in the arts highlight once again that art and science are two interconnected fields of study. The environmental crisis, the new technologies and classic DIY guides have provided artists with strategies for the realization of tactical projects which are activated at street level and inside the gallery space. Those strategies seek to explore the boundaries between science and art in order to underline the estrangement between cultural practice and scientific process. Ernst Fischer, in his book “The Neccessity of Art”(1959), suggests that, if we look back in history, we can see that both disciplines originated from rituals of everyday living.[1] The common ground between science and art can be characterized as: “an underlying will to enhance human understanding and extend our experience of the world”.[2] Again, what appears common to both disciplines is “a desire for the pleasure of understanding something new and of communicating this to others”.[3] To this extent, art and science share a dynamic of observation, experimentation and research.

Beyond this, artists also seek to examine the ethico-political and social dimensions of art and science as a means of communication and research. Yet, the distinction between art and science can be traced in the issue of accessibility. Whereas the scientific lab is a space for experts, the art space is potentially open to all. Whereas the scientific product is objective, the artwork is open to different interpretations. In this context, artistic practices strive for an understanding of the ways in which knowledge and information are distributed either by academic institutions or by corporations. Therefore, a question of epistemology emerges, that is, how we know what we know about the world.

During the last decades, biotechnology has been a matter of debate in the political sphere and many questions have emerged as regards its proper use in agricultural production, the food industry and biological warfare among others. The books “Our Posthuman Future” (2002) by Francis Fukuyama and “Redesigning Humans” (2002) by Gregory Stock show an incident of political contradiction in the public debate about biotechnology.[4] As Eugene Thacker claims “both authors present us with rudimentary examples of a new sociobiology: social problems, genetic solutions” in an attempt “to discover the connections between politics and biology which biotech makes possible”.[5] Biotechnology is a relatively new science and according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity is defined as: “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”.[6] Some of the applications of biotechnology can be activated in medicine, crop production, agriculture, and the food industry.

Another factor which shows that biotechnology has now become part of the everyday agenda is language. In everyday language, for example, new vocabulary has been introduced such as genetic manipulation, cloning and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In the case of biotechnology, artists seem to react against the “stereotypical” distinction between art and science by either challenging the tradition that celebrates “blind faith” in scientific facts [7], or responding to the fact that biotechnology is a privileged discipline exclusively evolving within the institutional and military framework and not outside of it[8], or believing that biotechnology presents opportunities for non violent social change[9]. The growing interest in biotechnology in the art world derives from the immediate effects of the use of biotechnology in everyday life, like the natural environment and food. Artists set out to question the proper use of biotechnology and prompt us to reflect on the ways we impact nature and the ways it affects us.

This kind of knowledge, usually restricted to scientific labs, becomes the prominent theme in many artistic practices. In 1999, English artist-activist Heath Bunting made an effort to highlight the effects of biotechnology on crop production and by extension on food. His project “Natural Reality SuperWeed Kit 1.0”[10] was a DIY kit that contained a mix of natural and genetically mutated seeds resistant to herbicides (e.g. Roundup) made by international corporations, like Monsanto. By creating a biological weapon, as he has claimed, capable of destroying genetically modified and conventional crops, if distributed and cross-pollinated, Bunting aims to disrupt the flow of the corporate biotech capital. At a time when the British government was making decisions about whether the advance of technology is beneficial to agricultural production, Bunting responds in an almost totalitarian way like that of the corporations favouring profit over quality. For Bunting, biotechnology “is not only the next battleground on which the control of life and land is fought, but also on which life itself is redefined… it is essential that the concepts of property and representation in this arena are seriously challenged”[11], an allusion to the dangers of dependence on biotechnology.

Heath Bunting, Natural Reality SuperWeed Kit 1.0 (1999)
Superweed workshop, plantation completed, Dortmund, Germany (2007)

At around the same time, Natalie Jeremijenko- an artist and engineer- with the help of experts, clones a walnut variety called “Paradox” a thousand times over in order to plant the cloned plantlets in different locations around Sans Francisco. The project One Tree(s) is a public experiment that will eventually show that every tree grows differently according to the environment it is planted. Jeremijenko has suggested that, “Because the trees are genetically identical, in the subsequent years they will render the social and environmental differences to which they are exposed. The tree(s) slow and consistent growth will record the experiences and contingencies that each public site provides. They will become a networked instrument that maps the micro climates of the Bay Area, connected not through the Internet, but through their biological material.” [12] The artist’s intervention in the public space of San Francisco aims to create a spectacle in order to trigger public dialogue about our impact on the natural environment and the climate change. It could perhaps be seen as the contemporary version of 7000 oaks (1982-1987), a project by Joseph Beuys, during which 7000 oaks were planted in the city of Kassel, Germany, in an attempt to raise ecological awareness.

In the above cases, the artists seem to intentionally blur the boundaries between art and biotechnology. On the one hand, a matter of a new ethics arises to the extent that biotechnology affects human life and the corporate domination mediates between the sciences and the natural environment. On the other hand, it is a matter of human accountability to reflect on the environmental crisis. The artists seek to generate a common ground of exchanging ideas between the two disciplines and they do not intend to appropriate the work of scientists. On the contrary, they suggest that non-experts can review some levels of study and research. The shift of artistic practices towards biotechnology is another example of the arts to introduce new discourses to its methodology.  If science seems inaccessible, confined to specialized labs, art seems to have the potential to activate participatory activities. Biotechnology has already become a cultural resource for “cultural workers” and it remains to be seen what will happen when biotechnology invades our daily lives in a more direct way.


* This short text is based on my talk “Art and Biotechnology: The Artist as Scientist?” and the following discussion with Utopians at the residency “Utopia and Nature”(2010), which took place at the ASFA Annex in Rethimno, Crete in July 2010.

[1] Cited in Charles R. Garoian and John D. Mathews “A Common Impulse in Art and Science”, Leonardo, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1996), p. 193

[2] Wright, Alexa and Linney, Alf (2008). “The Art and Science of a Long-term Collaboration” in www.ucl.ac.uk/conversation-piece/Wright_Linney%20N_Cpaper.pdf (accessed on 16/09/2010)

[3] Ibid.

[4] For a critical analysis see: Eugene Thacker (2002), “State Biophilosophy (or Why are state bureaucrats conducting the ‘public’ debate on biotechnology)” at http://www.metamute.org/en/state_biophilosophy_or_why_are_state_bureaucrats_conducting_the_public_debate_on_biotechnology (accessed on 15/09/2010)

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Biotechnology”, Article 2, Use of Terms in Convention on Biological Diversity at http://www.cbd.int/convention/articles.shtml?a=cbd-02 (accessed on 15/09/2010)

[7] Critical Art Ensemble (2002). Molecular Invasion. New York: Autonomedia. Also available at: http://www.critical-art.net/books/molecular/

[8] Bunting, Heath (2004). “Amateurs and Hobbyists” in Jeremijenko, Natalie and Eugene Thacker (Eds.), Creative Biotechnology. A User’s Manual. Locus+. Available online from www.locusplus.org.uk/biotech_hobbyist (accessed on 16/09/2010)

[9] See Natalie Jeremijenko at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/xdesign/ (accessed on 16/09/2010)

[10] See the project Natural Reality SuperWeed Kit 1.0 at: http://www.irational.org/cta/superweed/

[11] “Genetics Activists create Superweed. Launch of Natural Reality SuperWeed Kit 1.0”, Cultural Terrorist Agency, Press release, 24th January 1999 at: http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/www/Info/scary-weed.html (accessed on 16/09/2010)

[12] See Natalie Jeremijenko: “One Tree(s). An information Environment” at http://www.nyu.edu/projects/xdesign/onetrees/description/index.html (accessed on 16/09/2010)

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