- Meta-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, Alife and the Arts ed. by Annick Bureaud, Roger F. Malina and Louise Whiteley
edited by Annick Bureaud, Roger F. Malina and Louise Whiteley. Leonardo/MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014. 691 pp., illus. eBook.
META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts is a fascinating book that will be of interest to many Leonardo readers and art-and-science enthusiasts. Most of them will find a large number of familiar essays that were important in the construction of a reflective thinking about the coupling of art, synthetic biotechnology and ALife. Even if this book doesn’t go far enough in the theoretical conception of meta-life, surprisingly, it creates an excellent theoretical field, gathering 45 articles that inspired a growing practice in the contemporary art of the last few decades.
Thus, this is a book that tries to outline not only a future for the couple of art-and-science but also the construction of a real bridge between the past, the present and the future of art and science collaborations. Consequently, META-Life establishes, simultaneously, several discourses that seem important to highlight: The theoretical and historical context of artistic actions that operate between biology and life; the combining of artificial life and artistic practices; bioart; the emergence of bio-fiction, biodesign and bioarchitecture; and, lastly, DIY Biology.
All of these are admirably discussed by authors from different fields who try to present new discussion—not [End Page 210] only confined to art but constituting a real approach to issues such as the risks of biotechnology and the ethics surrounding art practices. More important than these discussions, however, is the ability demonstrated by the coupling of art and science to bring ordinary people to the process of making in order to discover new ways of participation. These open contributions to art and science are precisely one of the most important reasons to provide new challenges to the power structures and to the process of decision-making in the creation and managing of life.
Most of this work seems to focus on the importance of and the need to create broader debates around the breaking of barriers between art and life. This breakdown is constantly demonstrated in this book through personal testimonies or across considerations of artists and scientists who at one point have decided to prove that nature is not an entity separate to humanity. Therefore, in this book we can value reflections and experiences from artists, researchers and art historians, among many others, trying to understand “life as it could be.”
There are a few examples that illustrate this approach among several experiences and reflections. But it seems more interesting to identify common threads among them. One such is the “policy of openness” and the idea that these new contributions at the intersection of art and life can enrich society. This is especially noticeable in Morgan Meyer’s essay, which reveals the phenomenon of democratization of biology at different levels: spatially, technically, socially and economically. However, this policy of intervention can be found transversely in almost all the testimonies given in this book. One practical example of the necessity of the creation of social platforms through art, of the compulsion of establishing new forms of social engagement, are artworks such as the Worry Dolls of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, artworks that operate with and for the audience.
Despite the importance of the whole book, which presents several important perspectives (historical, reflective and practical) due prominence must be given to the final section—primarily because this section was especially commissioned for this edition, but mainly because the DIY Bio “community” represents a recent phenomenon that pushes further the possibilities for true participation by citizens in discussions about life. This question is decidedly important to retain (even if this community is still somewhat limited and still too heterogeneous), because it may enable the possibility of new advances in educational and social goals in the establishment of a true science for citizens and, in terms of the market, a step forward to the empowerment and autonomy of the citizen in the...