Is There Life in Bioart?

By Betti Marenko, 30 November 2007

Signs of Life offers one of the first surveys of the emerging field of ‘bioart’. But, writes Betti Marenko, this book often reveals an art genre in danger of providing biotech with its ultimate PR tool, instead of the critique its production of new economically driven life forms so urgently requires

Bioart and biomedia broadly concern the manipulation of life and life evolution for artistic purposes. Thus, the near impossibility of circumscribing the issue within either the realm of scientific discourse or the field of art practice must be acknowledged. Rather, we have to locate it within the realm of biopolitics. Scientific research takes place socially, possesses a cultural specificity inscribed in its paradigms and a situatedness to its ethos that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, this is what most of the essays contained in Signs of Life. Bio Art and Beyond seem to do.


Certainly the need to articulate a new artistic vocabulary able to reflect the impact of biotech has been widely acknowledged – from its rewriting of notions of personal identity, manufacture of new products, redefinition of markets, to the creation of new ontological, ethical and legal problems around the concept and creation of life. In other words, a vocabulary able to reflect the impact of biotech on social relations and the constitution of new subjectivities. For this very reason, on reading the book’s introduction, I could not help wondering why its editor, Eduoardo Kac, tries so adamantly to define precisely and incontrovertibly what is, and what is not, bioart. Is he afraid of impostors? Any art development that is willing to engage with the wider social, cultural and political issues raised by biotechnologies, that is, willing to engage with biopolitics, can do without being labelled when still in its infancy.


To his credit, Kac knows that whatever bioart may be it has to do not only with the creation of new objects, but with the creation of new subjects. This idea is echoed by Nikolas Rose (director of the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society, LSE) who, in his latest book The Politics of Life Itself, writes that we are ‘inhabiting an emergent form of life’, reconfigured at a ‘molecular informational level’ and defined by a new type of interconnection between biopolitics and bioeconomy. Life itself is being decomposed and fragmented into a series of isolated objects, masses that can be ‘delimited, stored, accumulated, mobilized, and exchanged, accorded a discrete value, traded across time, space, species, contexts, enterprises’.


Image: Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000

Rose talks about a ‘change in scale’ that broadly characterises the biomedical knowledges and techniques currently available. They all entail an increased molecularisation. Indeed, it is at a molecular level now that life is understood, envisioned, represented and imagined. How much this increased molecularisation has to do with Deleuze and Guattari’s politics of molecularity remains to be seen. It will come as no surprise to observe that as Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical oeuvre has been reduced to appetising tit bits fed to the omnivorous military apparatus at its most advanced (i.e. IDF) as well as being eviscerated by human resources management lingo, so too has it filtered very un-subversively into the biotechnical consciousness that at present permeates us all.


If we consider this molecularisation and the narratives it sustains as our entry point into any discussion of the links between art and biotech, the first question to emerge will be: what are the implications of these narratives of nano-culture? What type of worlds do they envision? Which opportunities, and threats, do they present? And, more to the point, how is the art world registering the phenomenon?


Eduardo Kac has no doubt. As he says in the introduction to this ponderous and fundamentally inconsistent tome, the spectre of genocracy is upon us. The concept and image of the gene has taken the centre stage as if ‘genes alone determine matters of life and death’. Several artists use DNA to interrogate issues of bodily boundaries of human identity and their approach may vary enormously. Inigo Manglano-Ovalle uses DNA extracted from clients’ hair to produce portraits. These are DNA prints arranged in triptychs, reminiscent of 19th century Spanish caste paintings meant to illustrate the degree of kinship and the intermingling of Indian, Spanish and African blood. His DNA portraits use genes to show social connections – friendship instead of blood. Here the DNA becomes the real repository of one’s own identity, making other indexes such as blood and skin colour totally meaningless. Appropriately, Dorothy Nelkin discusses the symbolic associations of blood, one of the most valuable commodities in the world (when petroleum is 40 dollars/barrel, an equivalent quantity of blood is worth $67,000). She obligingly mentions a handful of blood-based artworks, such as Mark Quinn’s head, Jana Sterbak’s pen, and Eduardo Kac’s biobot. Still, today it is the gene that owns the near mythical association that once belonged to blood as the significant ground of life itself. Artist Paul Vanouse shows how the unconditional faith in DNA testing is ultimately engendering a new type of gene-based discrimination (e.g. by insurers, employers). And one can only imagine the commercial viability of a project like the genetic self-portrait proposed by photographer Gary Schneider. The dystopian world envisioned by many artists (e.g. Aziz & Cucher) is one of increasing genetic homogeneity and of course aggressive commodification (as well as copyrighting and patenting) of genetic choice. The Gene Genies Worldwide genes boutique that opened in Pasadena, California in 1998, selling genes as personality enhancers, mined this exact dystopia. The boutique, advertising products not yet available on the market was, it turns out, the project/installation/prank of artists Karl Mihail and Tran Kin-Trang.

Image: Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, 'Jim, Calvin & Lisa', from The Garden of Delights, 1998

Bioinformatics, biogenetics, bioscience etc. all promote a dangerously reductive analogy between discrete binary data and the more complex fields of genetics. The result is the emergence of a more and more simplified understanding of life processes treated as quantifiable/quantified data. At stake here is not merely an increasing objectification of life. Rather, as Barbara Maria Stafford argues in her essay ‘From Genetic Perspective to Biohistory: the Ambiguities of Looking Down, Across, and Beyond’, we assist in a shift in the notion of life from matter to form. Underlying this increasingly microscopic representation of ‘life’ is the idea that life in itself is an analogue to information processing systems.


Certainly, one of the main reasons we now talk of an increasing molecularisation of life has less to do with Deleuze and Guattari’s molecular radicalism and more with the development of nanotechnologies of visualisation. Not only do they allow us to see, gaze upon, scan and observe previously unknown realities, they also generate new scopic structures through which to index the observed. It is not therefore simply a matter of seeing deeper, of probing further. Lab practices of working with the ‘nano’ or, at least, the ‘micro’ dimension ‒ the same dimensions that concerns bioart ‒ are a component of the systems of representation engendered by every technoscientific apparatus at the crossover between matter and metaphor. Thus, they should be appraised as such: non innocent procedures that create and reinforce a vision of the world. It seems problematic that Signs of Life does not devote enough reflection to this issue.


Understanding life at a molecular level means, for instance, the fact that clinical diagnoses are being reshaped on the basis of molecularisation; or that a new generation of molecularly crafted antidepressants aims at and claims to target specific areas in neurotransmitters, bypassing the affinities that molecules, tissues or drugs have with a body, an organ, an individual, a species. In other words, molecularisation frees living matter (organs, bodies, tissues) from their organicistic linkages, while simultaneously rendering them ‘manipulable and transferable elements’. Increased fragmentation means increased delocalisation, increased mobility of units – indeed we talk of gene, blood, tissue, and cell transfers. For Rose, it is a matter of the molecularisation of vitality, as if life itself was being increasingly mobilised. This is not new – see the history of breeding. The difference now is that this mobility produces previously non-existent encounters between previously non-existent entities.


Ours is a society of biological control which employs technologies – defined as assemblages of human and non-human elements, social and technical, knowledges, instruments, ideas, paradigms etc. – which ‘engender certain ways of thinking, certain routines and rituals, techniques of testing and practices of visualisation’ (Rose). In other words new sets of social relations. Think how female reproduction has been dramatically changed by reprotech, its sphere of affects redirected. This is the new territory of molecular biopolitics, molecular surveillance, molecular optimisation. Not simply about curing or enhancing, but transforming what it means to be a bioorganism.


The manipulation of life, biotechnologies as we know it, certainly has a long history. Since the Neolithic age, humans have affected species around them via breeding, hybridisation, domestication etc. Thus, contemporary biotech differs from past technologies not because of life manipulation which is old as humans themselves, but insofar as it calls upon complex technical knowledge practices, and rhetorics, within the framework of postindustrial production. Furthermore, Rose argues, we are witnessing a shift from a biology of depth, exemplified by the epistemological trajectory from dissection and the search for the laws behind organic systems, to a biology of surfaces, operating in a ‘flattened’ field of open circuits, whose aim is no longer to find underlying laws but to produce simulations of dynamic, complex, open systems.


This is both an ontological and epistemological issue that art has the power to confront and elaborate on. Providing a commentary on the status of emergent forms of life, raising the debate, instigating controversy, suggesting and provoking ideas about what human beings are, could or should be, can hope for and be frightened of, could be the task of artists working at the intersection of biology and art. Still, as Eugene Thacker perceptively remarks, bioart is at risk of becoming a sleek public relations exercise for corporate science and biotech companies looking to create the allure of culture around their names. Technophilia is dangerously seductive and myopic. It may turn, if embraced acritically, into a formal apparatus for the rebranding of newtechworld.


Bioart may need to find a way to concern itself with new subjectivities, new forms of life, new identities without becoming their promotional tool, but rather by commenting upon and giving shape to the multiple uncertainties of the present, the culture of risk, anxiety and instability colliding with the advance of biotech and its accessibility.


It seems telling that Signs of Life’s concluding essay, by philosopher Yves Michaud, articulates a distinction between the real use of science and its staging which at the present, for Michaud, is plagued by ambiguity. This ambiguity is often expressed by the fact that artists’ appropriation and use of technologies, far from questioning them, become an implicit validation of their role in the neocapitalist lab, as well as a trivialisation of their complexity. Thus, missing an opportunity to use art for critical purposes. This is not to say that all art has to be critical, but bioart should remind itself that no technology is innocent and act accordingly. Barbara Maria Stafford argues that transgenic art is, to say the least, equivocal, precariously perched as it is between nude, brutal life and a ‘profound challenge to Darwinian adaptionism’. Clearly here there is a danger of succumbing to the romantic lure of the artist as demiurge, re-creator of life. Some biblical overtones found in the work of Kac himself seem to point in this direction. Bioartists more than any other breed of artist in fact cannot omit to engage profoundly with the means of production of the technologies they appropriate. Anything short than this and bioart would be, despite itself, at the mercy of corporate biotech industry.


What remains to be assessed is whether it is acceptable to alter living organisms through biotech for aesthetic reasons. This is the dilemma raised by philosopher Dominique Lestel who suggests we repose the question to ask not whether we manipulate living organisms per se, but who should be allowed to do so. The issue is legitimacy. Not ethics then, but politics. For artist Louis Bec, ‘life art’ is art that uses living matter for artistic purposes. Modes of representation are literally exploding, new levels of hybridity become possible, become thinkable, raising issues of identity. Working on matter marks the emergence of new modes of subjectivity, as in the case of chimeric bodies. What is unquestionable is how biotech has redesigned the way in which artists can employ life matter and ultimately their own bodies. Bodies are becoming Cartesian, to use Ian Hacking’s words, and individuals are increasingly describing themselves in terms of their soma.


Image: George Gessert, Natural Selection

Because much of the book is actually made of artists‘ own accounts and descriptions of their work, the rhythm of the book tends to swerve in style and consistency. This seemingly unedited approach admits needless repetition of certain topics. Also at times, artists seem to delight in stating the obvious. Paul Perry is an artist whose project called ‘hybridoma’ is created by fusing one of his lymphocytes (white cells) with the cancer cell of a mouse, an unlikely combination if there ever was one. Perry and his team had a couple of successes out of approximately ten million attempts. He mentions how ‘he was struck by how invisible molecular biology actually is’, a statement as odd as it possibly could be. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear why the selective breeding of ornamental plants, such as the project pursued by George Gessert differs substantially from any selective breeding process conducted in a laboratory. Is it because the outcome of the former ends up in a gallery space rather than in the local florist shop? If so, it is tempting to ask that we look again at what constitutes bioart as such. Nevertheless my suspicion, that this book neither dispels nor clarifies but rather compounds, is that the field of bioart is not in need of a better definition as Kac seems very keen to advocate, but instead of a more developed contextualisation, as well as an agenda of contestability.


In other words, it is simply not sufficient to take life manipulation, tissue modification and cell splitting techniques out of the laboratory and into the gallery space to turn biology into bioart, as some of the artists enlisted here seem to assume. This could generate a potential quandary: art’s refusal or omission to engage with the very issues it purports to be about.


The work of artist Marta de Menezes exemplifies this attitude. De Menezes has produced genetically modified butterflies; a synthetic protein whose aminoacid sequence corresponds to her own name; MRI scan based portraits; and DNA paintings. It is not entirely clear what this type of production should tell us about biotechnologies. Is it a commentary abut the use of techniques? The danger here is an acritical deployment of technologies, a solipsistic exercise which implicitly adheres to its own self fulfilling biocapitalist rethorics.


Bioart must approach critically the appropriation of technological means, the powerful rhetoric they imbue, the promise of choice and free-for-all access, which is yet another neocapitalist masquerade. It needs to offer tools for unpacking the mythologies surrounding biotech rather than upholding them in order to question the relationship between science and its public perception as a new religion. See for instance the totally different approach of art activists Critical Art Ensemble and their contestational biology.


With his trademark lapidary style, Vilem Flusser’s two-page piece ‘On Science’ delivers a formidable and thought provoking account of what the encounter of science and art could really prompt. He writes: ‘We can now make artificial living beings, living artworks. If we chose, these developments could be brought together, and farming could be transferred from peasants, a class almost defunct anyway, to artists, who breed like rabbits, and don’t get enough to eat’. Flusser envisions a near future in which the artist/molecular biologist (‘the Disney of the future’) would happily paint the landscape in a myriad of new colours to soothe the incipient boredom of hyper-techno beings.



Betti Marenko <> is a freelance writer and a lecturer at Central St Martins. She is currently researching the production of subjectivity in the visual discourse of antidepressants






Signs of Life. Bio Art and Beyond (E. Kac ed., MIT Press, 2007)