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  • Genetic Art and the Aesthetics of Biology
  • Steve Tomasula (bio)

The creation of Alba, the first mammal genetically engineered to be a work of art, accents the increasing number of artists who take as their medium plants, cells, genes and other biological materials. Like traditional artists, these bio-artists raise traditional art issues; but since their work collapses the gap between art and science, representation and biological form, they also marry the rich tradition of manipulating nature for aesthetic reasons, the ethical complexities created by today's biotech revolution and the historical ramifications of applying aesthetic judgment to humans.

Things keep getting curiouser and curiouser.

-Alice, after chasing a rabbit down its hole and finding herself in Wonderland

Art Expo, Sometime Soon: Gallery dealers yawn as the usual assortment of people with tattoos (artists), face-lifts (collectors) and natural bodies (tourists) move about the usual assortment of looping video, modernist antiques and mice that chirp bird songs. Sound far fetched? It may not be, given the birth of Alba, a rabbit genetically engineered to glow green. Created by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac, Alba, the first mammal genetically altered to be a work of art, was to have been part of a performed social event entitled GFP Bunny. In it, Kac and the rabbit were to live together first in a faux living room within the Grenier à Sel in Avignon, France, then with Kac's real family in his real home in Chicago. What happened instead was that Alba was confiscated by the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, the research lab in which Kac's biologist collaborators worked; the lead biologist himself was reprimanded. The public debate Kac hoped to generate did ensue, however, with some members of the French and German press equating Alba's confiscation with artistic censorship and others characterizing Alba as a work of decadent art, citing the fact that the rabbit was given the ability to glow by infusing its cells with the protein that allows jellyfish to glow under the sea.

The lab now has a new director, so Alba may yet come to Chicago. But in any case, the discussion is sure to widen, as Kac is at the leading edge of a growing number of artists who work in genes, cells and other biological materials as a sculptor might work in bronze [1]. Manipulating a medium that ranges from bacteria and molds to plants to animals, artists such as Joe Davis, David Kremers, George Gessert, Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, Brandon Ballengée, Andrea Zittel, Laurie Stein, Natalie Jeremijenko and Antero Kare fashion biological objets d'art, memento mori or living artworks like Alba-animals or other organisms whose bodies serve as sites of artistic performance [2]. As did early photographers, these artists work close to the development of the techniques they use, often collaborating with biologists. Also similar to early photography, the practice is spreading partly because increasing familiarity with lab technique allows it to, but also because it speaks to its cultural moment, specifically the widespread belief that because of the breathtaking pace of biotechnology, "our way of life," as culture critic Jeremy Rifkin puts it, "is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous one thousand years" [3].

By stripping bio-science of its pragmatic function and recontextualizing it as aesthetics, gene artists reanimate issues Duchamp would have appreciated, especially those of authorship and originality, and the nature and purpose of art (Fig. 1). But since these traditional art concerns are figured within the context of our very biology, genetic

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Fig. 1.

Stratagene ad in Nature (14 March 1996). (© Stratagene) While Duchamp may have dismissed tradition by painting a mustache onto a copy of the Mona Lisa, today the avant-garde seems to have relocated to the biotech lab, ushering in an age where science will be able not only to copy the actual model, but also to modify her genes so that she could grow an actual mustache.

[End Page 137]

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Fig. 2.

Hugo De Vries, one of the rediscoverers of Mendel's theory of trait propagation...


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pp. 137-144
Launched on MUSE
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