Monstrosity, Spectacle, Wonder
Bioart is a hybrid discipline that aims to turn the technology of bioscience to artistic ends. Its most provocative works take as their medium actual organic materials manipulated using techniques drawn from the lab. These engineered creations become living exemplars of biotech’s unsettling capabilities, while the framing of these projects as “experiments” and the production of bioart within laboratory settings rhetorically stake a claim to its continuity with the scientific enterprise.
Art and science make for an unstable grafting, however, and rejection signs are readily visible. The appropriation of the concept of experiment is a case in point. Paradigmatic biological experiments involve framing hypotheses, establishing control conditions, calibrating instruments, crafting causal interventions, and analyzing quantifiable data. More importantly, experiments serve epistemic ends that are bound to their institutional contexts. Experimental systems are linked with disciplinary patterns of reasoning and methods of producing and analyzing phenomena. An fMRI image, an induced pluripotent stem cell population, a computational model of protein folding: these get their meanings from how they function within specific knowledge-producing social and technological matrices. Creating or modifying organisms is undertaken with the aim of sharpening our understanding of basic biological processes.
Within bioscience, then, making is a way of knowing. When laboratory processes are stripped of their epistemic aims and placed within a frame or on the walls of a gallery, the result is a kind of pastiche that replicates scientific forms and products emptied of their significance. This is nearly inevitable given that contemporary art’s signature move is to produce new contexts that denature the stuff of everyday life, transforming it into something new. Art corrodes, dissolves, and digests scientific content. Whatever scraps and vestiges might persist in the final work, the original theoretical subject matter is rarely recoverable from it.
The critical discourse around bioart bears further witness to this point. Little of its reception depends on a detailed grasp of the technical or theoretical background. It would be strangely inappropriate, for example, to criticize a bioart work for the unsuitability of the specific gene splicing technique used in its creation. The science frequently has to be radically simplified, systematically misused, or turned into metaphor for the work to have its intended effect.
Bioart works are readily absorbable by the art world because they evoke much older visual and narrative traditions that oscillate between the affective poles of wonder and horror. This makes them a natural fit with strategies familiar from the late 20th century avant-garde, notably its obsession with transgression, sensation, and shock. Works highlighting hybrid or chimeric beings evoke Gothic fears of technologically-spawned monstrosity. Others delve into Cronenbergian body horror, like the Tissue Culture & Art Project’s glistening Semi-Living Worry Dolls (2000) grown from mouse endothelial cells over a polymer mesh.
Bioart also revives the world of Enlightenment-era scientific spectacles. Devices like electrostatic generators, with their phantasmagoric glow, mesmerized 18th century audiences with displays of natural phenomena mastered (perhaps just barely) by technology. Similar affects arise from projects like SymbioticA’s Silent Barrage (2008-9), which allows audiences to interact with a culture of 30,000 neurons. As they wander among a series of columns, participants’ movements are recorded and fed back to the neural network, which responds by moving individual robots attached to the columns. The success of these demonstrations lies not in their contribution to theory, but in how they rouse the imagination of the audience. Other works, such as Brandon Ballengée’s Collapse (2012), recreate the vintage look of natural history illustration and dioramas, as well as medical museums and cabinets of anatomical curiosities.
Finally, bioart faces the challenge of rapid technological obsolescence. Artists like Christian Bök and Joe Davis have labored to encode poems and encyclopedias in the genomes of various organisms. But in 2017 a team of geneticists from Harvard Medical School did one better, inserting a blocky digitization of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 galloping horse film into the DNA of E. coli. Researchers have already squeezed the storage capacity of DNA to 215 petabytes per gram, and it stores this information with cool indifference to its artistic value for us.
Bioart’s aesthetic code is a triple helix woven from monstrosity, spectacle, and wonder. It has not yet escaped these influences to establish a distinctive critical discourse that does justice to its alleged scientific content. In its use of real life as a medium, and its self-presentation as part of scientific inquiry, bioart aims to reenact our anxious confrontations with the life sciences. But science itself appears as a kind of monster in these exchanges, an amorphous, protean symbol for our fear of ourselves and our uncertainty about our place in the natural world. That we are ever poised to restage this primal conflict suggests that its grip on us has little to do with the particulars of today’s latest technological advances.
is a professor of philosophy and arts writer based in Atlanta.