(This article originally appeared in the Techonomy print and online magazine.)
As it becomes more and more evident that manipulating DNA and intervening in other sophisticated ways in biology’s processes will play a significant role in the human future, artists are taking notice. “BioArt” is a growing movement that involves either literally using living organisms as part of a work of art or imitating life processes and biological research to create art that critiques or embraces life sciences. Artists have created glowing bunnies, sculptures that breathe, and even encoded sexual drawings in living cells. That last triumphant project is, believe it or not, the piece that got the whole movement started.
These projects seldom resemble real science. They are more often instead what one might call science inspired. BioArt generally aims to encourage us to consider more carefully how people build and alter environments and the impact that has on living things. It harnesses science to spur curiosity and imagination, and to introduce to us new ways of thinking about the future. It can be educational, political, conceptual, or reflective. When it’s good, it evokes a strange beauty, sometimes even playfulness, and something we may find lacking in many legitimate scientific pursuits: a sense of humor.
While it has recently gained significant momentum, BioArt began near the end of the 20th century. Joe Davis is considered the kooky granddaddy of BioArt. In 1988, his “Microvenus” encoded a crude sketch of a female reproductive body part in DNA base pairs (which function something like the 1’s and 0’s of binary computer code) and transferred it into live e. coli bacteria. More recently, in 2012 Davis won the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica, a significant prize in the tech art world, with his “bacterial radio,” which employed circuitry made out of conductive bacteria. Davis has been loosely affiliated with a synthetic biology lab at Harvard Medical School and the MIT Department of Biology.
Davis’s work is related to that of the Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac, now Professor of Art and Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1997, in a performance broadcast on live TV, Kac microchipped and registered himself as both pet and owner in an online registry designed for the recovery of lost animals. A 1999 work, Genesis, involved creating a synthetic gene by converting a sentence from the Bible into Morse code, and then converting the Morse code into DNA base pairs based on a principle developed for this specific purpose. (The sentence: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”) Kac incorporated the gene into bacteria which subsequently mutated, changing the encoded sentence and ironically muddling its anthropocentric presumption.
Kac is credited with coining the term “BioArt” and is one of its bestknown practitioners. He famously implanted a live white rabbit with a jellyfish gene for green fluorescence in 2000. The so-called “GFP bunny” glowed green when positioned under blue light. His experiment was repeated in 2013 by a team of actual scientists in Istanbul. In 2009, Kac won the Golden Nica for his transgenic work “Edunia,” a genetically engineered petunia flower that expresses his own DNA in its petals.
Although she’s not manipulating DNA in a synbio lab, artist Natalie Jeremijenko, associate professor in the Visual Art Department at NYU, has been creating art incorporating plants and animals in her processes for more than 20 years. Its “bio” character manifests more as environmentalism. As part of her “Mussel Choir” in 2013 she outfitted live mussels with sensors to measure their filtering effect on water pollutants, converting the data into sound to make public art. Jeremijenko’s recent “Butterfly Bridge” project hung a hammock of flowers across a road in Long Island City, Queens, in a symbolic, optimistic effort to squeeze in a rest stop for butterflies in a diminishing habitat.
Forensic shows on TV have made commonplace the notion of collecting the DNA left behind at a crime scene. But have you ever paused to think about what we leave behind when we haven’t committed a crime? Heather Dewey-Hagborg has. Her “Stranger Visions” project in 2013 collected human genetic material from public places with things like hair, cigarettes, and gum. Then, using contemporary scientific techniques, she attempted to reconstruct the facial features, skin tone, and appearance of the unwitting DNA “donors” to arrive at their possible portrait. As she did, she realized how much was left open to her interpretation as an artist – in other words, how unscientific the scientific technique was. Building on her learnings from that project, she wrote a 2015 exposé explaining that today’s state-of-the-art forensic techniques in DNA phenotyping rely on stereotypes and averages, making them less likely to be accurate and opening up the door to racial profiling.
While Dewey-Hagborg explores which biotechnologies might be divisive, Rachel Wingfield creates environments that bring people together. Co-founder of Loop.ph, Wingfield runs what she likes to call a spatial laboratory, exploring health and well-being in urban settings. For a “Horticultural Spa,” Wingfield and her team filled a large plastic inflatable structure with water vapor scented with essential oils to make a soothing gathering place for plants and people. The arched entrance to the dome-like, foggy room is a wooden lattice covered with potted plants to resemble a cathedral entrance. Some people spent hours breathing in the mist in a temporary installation of the spa on the Thames River Path in London’s South Bank. As Wingfield describes it, the community embraced the artwork, which was commissioned to bring together a divided neighborhood undergoing the process of gentrification.
Wingfield creates “biomimetic” art, that is, projects inspired by biological models. She works with light-emitting fibers that imitate bioluminescence, and uses as models microscopic carbon nanostructures which she reproduces at macro scale to build lightweight building-like structures. For a site-specific installation called “Arborescence,” commissioned for a festival in Amsterdam, Loop.ph made a 9m tall sculpture that floated in the Amstel river and resembled a bioluminescent plant form. When Loop.ph recently made a sculpture out of inflatable plastic that recalls a living organism, Wingfield described it as “breathing in and out” based on the data it receives from local sensors that measure the presence of ultraviolet light, heat, and carbon dioxide (see photo).
In a flight of fancy in 2014, Wingfield and collaborator Lucy McRae invented what they call a “biological bakery” as part of a music video for the pop group Architecture in Helsinki. Their “entirely edible DIY bio fab lab,” as they describe it, imagines “cloned body parts that are dipped and rotated en masse in huge vats of bacterial skin” and “hints at how synthetic biology could develop in the home.” Wingfield’s installations are based more on an appreciation for science than its actual practice, and yet the art resonates with viewers, perhaps because of that accessibility.
Techonomy featured BioArtist Suzanne Anker, chairperson of the fine art department at New York’s School of Visual Art, in the early 2014 issue of this magazine. Her interest is “the way in which visual art and the biological sciences intersect because of technology.” At SVA she has created a real lab where artists work alongside scientists doing research. Anker’s own work ranges from living plant sculptures grown in the gallery to petri-dish-like 3D printed objects that suggest a scientific experiment gone haywire.
Life science innovation will be increasingly evident in society going forward. Some will be shocking, some amazingly useful, and some will be foreshadowed by today’s BioArt. This will provoke greater discourse, and, in turn, more BioArt. That crude silly sketch on a bacterium back in 1988 pointedly poked fun, but it foretold a new era in science.
Isabel Walcott Draves is founder of Leaders in Software and Art, a community of artists who work with technology. She is currently organizing Creative Tech Week, a citywide celebration of the intersection of technology with creativity, scheduled for the first week of May 2016 in New York.