Incredible advances are being made in genetics and biotechnology. Crops are altered to be easier for farmers to grow; bacteria are altered to produce specific substances or break down others; and animals are beginning to be custom-tailored to yield more meat or aid in disease research. These are fascinating fields and they certainly spark the imagination when the potential is considered. But they might not be without their dangers. DNA manipulation is tapping into the very core of life, the thing that makes everything work. And as humans are prone to making mistakes, many groups fear what disaster might result from improper tampering with genes.
Artists often serve as cultural educators and societal watchdogs. So, of course, a few have latched on to the field of genetic manipulation. They examine it with a curious eye and proceed to raise important questions about the field through their art. How do artists reconcile the clinical world of genetic engineering with their own role as artists? How do they navigate these scientific topics while retaining their own artistic subjectivity?
“Genetic modification is an important topic for everyone to understand, so that everyone can make decisions for themselves. Genetic manipulation is not some terrifying myth or miracle answer.”
The Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE) is a group of five artists committed to the examination of politics and science through installations and performances. One of their most recent projects, in concert with Beatriz da Costa and Shyh-shiun Shyu, is Free Range Grain. The performative exhibit sets up a portable genetics lab. Originally displayed in Frankfurt, people were able to bring in food to the exhibition to be tested over a 72 hour period. There the artists would analyze the food, looking for common genetic markers of man-made alterations. They were addressing the lack of transparency in food production processes and agricultural techniques, claiming that American corporations have no motive to differentiate between regular crops and genetically-modified crops. The CAE demonstrated that the food distribution pipeline extends over oceans into Europe.
The CAE’s works might be misinterpreted as fear-mongering, but that’s not what they’re getting at. While they do have reservations, they don’t seem to be against science or genetic engineering. Instead, their concern lies in making sure consumers and taxpayers are aware of the decisions being made at higher levels regarding biology and genetics. They write about wanting “to bring the routinized processes of science to the public–let them see them and act within them.” Their goal is to illuminate these realities and empower people to choose what they put into their bodies, and choose where their tax money is spent. The CAE aims to dispel myth and uninformed fear, as well as complacency and indifference about genetically modified food.*
Another artist, Alexis Rockman, paints large vistas depicting futuristic visions of gen-engineered animals in his series Wonderful World. In his painting The Farm, rows of plants extend toward the horizon. In the top left are animals we recognize: cow, pig, chicken, and mouse. As your eye moves toward the right, new animals appear. A pig becomes obese with images of a heart, lungs, and liver imposed on its side. A tiny hairless mouse scavenges while a human ear grows out of its back. A rooster sits upon a fence pole, its six wings pressed against its side.
In his painting Sea World, we sea an aquatic arena, the bleachers filled with delighted spectators, watching a myriad of monstrous sea life perform. They jump for fish, let trainers ride their backs, or crawl up onto a performance platform. These monsters seem to be either extinct sea life, likely brought back through cloning, or modified animals, like a seal with heads at each end of its body or a polar bear shaped like a sphere to roll through water slide tubes.
The paintings are thoroughly researched and incredibly realistic. Rockman’s art background is as a naturalist illustrator. He takes scientific fact or well-informed speculation regarding biological engineering and displays them in a way for everyone to see and digest. They are funny and scary at the same time. Does the artist feel that scientific progress is a negative thing?
“My position is one of ambivalence as the horse is already out of the barn so to speak,” said Rockman in an interview with Greenpeace; “it is not biotechnology that is the problem but corporate America or globalism or colonialism. The implications of using this technology are far more devastating because of the unknowable effects. This is something that is very disturbing and visually compelling to me.”
A third source of genetically oriented art comes from artist Patricia Piccinini. She creates disturbingly lifelike silicone sculptures of slightly human-like animals, complete with naturalistic wrinkles, hair, and shiny wet eyes. Recently she’s been designing them to have a fictional purpose, whether they are to befriend and care for children or defend Australia’s wombat from extinction. Being from Australia, she is keenly aware of the mistakes humans have made in introducing alien species to the environment (the cane toad, sheep, rabbits, etc.) which then proceed to decimate local ecosystems. She feels that when people create something, there’s always a very big chance the results will end up leaving the control of the creators. With such an attitude, it would seem that she’s opposed to humans developing our biotechnology. Yet in an artist statement, Piccinini explains, “I have seen the same work used to illustrate both sides of an argument, which I see as a valuable independence from my own opinions. I like this, even though it is and not always in ways that I would prefer.”
“When dealing with science in art, adopting the objective stance of the scientist is critical. Without objectivity, a work may not get through the defenses of viewers, which would prohibit them from analyzing the art.”
Like the CEA and Rockman, Piccinini sees the value in maintaining some level of neutrality in her work. To take a stance too far in either direction would contaminate the art. When dealing with science in art, adopting the objective stance of the scientist is critical. Without objectivity, a work may not get through the defenses of viewers, which would prohibit them from analyzing the art. However, for their works to remain art and not become experiments or science lessons, artists must maintain some level of subjectivity, of individual style or content. The artists’ styles and sometimes shocking imagery draw people in as no diagram or journal article would, while the objectivity of their topics enables viewers to consider things for themselves. Genetic modification is an important topic for everyone to understand, so that everyone can make decisions for themselves. Genetic manipulation is not some terrifying myth or miracle answer. It is a tool for a society and its citizens to apply as they see fit.
“Free Range Grain.” Critical Art Ensemble. Critical Art Ensemble. 13 Apr 2008 (http://www.critical-art.net/biotech/free/index.html).
“Alexis Rockman: Our True Nature.” Greenpeace News. 06 May 2004. Greenpeace International. 12 Apr 2008 (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/alexis-rockman-our-true-natur).
Piccinini, Patricia. In Another Life. Exhibition Catalogue. Wellington, NZ: Wellington City Gallery, 2006.