Ear-mouse from MIT

Art has intersected biology for thousands of years, but now science has handed artists a big new box of sparkly toys. The fields of genetics, nanobionics, artificial life, cloning and many more new sciences have proved to be fruitful ground for the arts, but only if the terms “art” and “artist” receive a bit of tweaking.

Artists armed with only paintbrush and canvas are old school in the brave, new frontiers. Dazzled by science and sometimes quite educated in newer technologies and theories, these cross-discipline artists create something analogous to traditional art in some form of expression, but yet to be codified.

The results are fascinating, mind-bending and occasionally silly. Out of almost every form of scientific endeavor in recent times, some artist is doing more than just illustrating it.

Stepping out where no artist has gone before, bio-artists work with scientists as a co-creator or innovator using the newest materials and technologies available. These materials includes plasma, bodily fluids, fruit flies, skin grafts, plants and living organisms of all types. Artistic manipulations of said stuff is myriad but often involves computers, video, electronics, genetic coding, light, lasers and more. The results are an emerging field where artists are interdisciplinary hybrids themselves.

A 1995 experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology resulted in a mouse with an attached human ear, created for medical purposes. Yet the resulting “Ear-mouse” captured the imagination of a generation, with courses and entire institutions now dedicated to merging art with living tissue.

In the strange world of biotech-art, students learn robotics, DNA extraction and genetic engineering. Part of the rationale for crashing the science party into previously forbidden territory is to “democratize science” and make it less formidable to artists, writers and other disciplines.

Of course the logical end of this type of open-ended experimentation could be terrifying (re: Frankenstein with the artist as aesthetician or “The Fly”). But the artists I’m aware of haven’t actually engaged in human experimentation, whether from respect for human life or lack of the technical ability. Many artists ironically use this platform to lodge protests against anything from genetically modified food to animal cruelty.

This is hot stuff right now, but is it kosher?

While artists and scientists experiment with living tissue, the rest of world weighs in on the ethics.

One of the issues is patenting natural processes, or “biopiracy,” which many of these artists disapprove of. In 1995, representatives of 80 religious faiths and denominations, including Christians, formally announced opposition to patenting human and animal genes.

“We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patented as human inventions,” they agreed.

Bio-artists often gather advice from experts or are scientists themselves. In Australia the artistic lab Symbiotica allows them to experiment among scientists in several new technologies and has won many awards. Their work questions the requirements of life and its ethical quandaries.

In the exhibit “Silent Barrage” by group Neurotica, plastic pipes and electronics created a monstrous Petri dish where enlarged simulation of neuronal activity of cells are provoked to create an “epileptic seizure.”

“Silent Barrage,” Symbiotica Artistic Lab & Neurotica

Other exhibits include growing “meat,” which is eventually eaten by the artist, and the creation of a living piece of clothing using a hybrid of human and mouse cells.

“Farm Fountain,” Ken Rinaldo and Amy Youngs

Currently the National Art Museum of China is hosting the mega-tech exhibit “Trans-Life,” where many of these artists congregate. It hosts 53 artworks by over 80 artists and artist collectives exploring biodiversity, sensory manipulation and “emerging concepts of life.”

America’s contribution is a type of aquaponics, which manages to be somewhat attractive and productive. “Farm Fountain” by Americans Ken Rinaldo and Amy Youngs incorporates bacteria, fish, plants and water, clay and electronics to create small ornamental ecosystems. Plastic bottles (recycled) hoist plants that branch over an aquarium, cleansing the water for the fish, which in turn supply nutrients for plants. Trickling water creates an aural dimension so Koi and Tilapia are raised in a nice, contemplative state.

Also residing in Beijing at the moment is Mexican artist Gilberto Esparza’s Nomadic Plant (“Plantas Nómadas”), a group of organisms “living in symbiosis in order to survive in habitats” around humans. A small robot hosting plant life, which moves toward water when it is necessary, is a “metaphor for the alienated human condition” and our effects on nature.

“Nomadic Plant,” by artist Gilberto Esparza

Although these new genres of art may be confusing, the concepts behind them are things we wrestle with daily in the developing world. We eat engineered food, water is chemically treated or untreated, air is monitored or poisoned and medicine makes hybrid creatures and endlessly analyzes us for supposedly good ends.

Artists have traditionally worked at the point of change and with disturbing contemporary issues, such as genetic identity and determinism. With the advent of high tech humanity, medical patents, the Human Genome Project and bio-politics, it was inevitable that this type of art appear.

Where will this all end? God only knows, but from now on it may be necessary to get a pre-med degree before going to art school. That should thin down the ranks.

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