The swiftness with which the fields of bioscience, biotechnology, genomics, genetic engineering etc, have developed over the past few decades, has urged artists, cultural theorists and critics, historians and theorists of science, as well as activists, and a range of other professions, to respond to its development. This immense need for cultural and artistic response towards the development of emerging disciplines such as biotechnology and genetics indicates that these fields are extremely potent with social, ethical, philosophical, and cultural implications. Even more, this indicates the need for them to become a part of the cultural discourse.
Cultural theorists and theorists of science have attempted to analyse the complex relationship between science and culture, attempting to overcome the apparent contradictions between art and science.
Activists have attempted to investigate the wider political context, social circumstances, and ethical factors, in the process very often questioning the politics of the discipline of biotechnology.
Cultural critics have attempted to analyse the essence, spectacle and background surrounding the processes of art and biotechnology, as well as issues of appropriation and representation within biotechnology.
Artists have been responding to such challenges and trying to develop relevant bio-art projects that redefine the connections between the artwork and living organisms by working with genetic engineering techniques and modified bacteria. However, as biotech artists have expanded their practice, it has become very difficult for art critics to define this newly produced work, let alone find a consensus or common ground regarding it. How do we define a new art form that utilises the merging of genetics, art and information technologies, when it is augmented and accented through the interaction of these fields and in the process replaces bio-textuality and bio-imagery with a wide ranging 'moist visualisation'? But in determining this let us start from the current 'phenomena' appearing in biotech art. What is it that we are witnessing or not witnessing in the art practice of this new generation of artists that deals with biotechnology.
Their work is not image-based, even though they use the image as such: they have engaged in a process by which the artworks outgrow the concept of images. (Though in fact the experience of the image is increased...)
Their work, although utilising text, cannot be considered as text-based. Similarly, neither is the web itself text-based, though it is textually overloaded. Their work, even though they use biomaterial in it, cannot be treated as based simply on live or dead cells, because it has a conceptual content beyond its corporeality.
Their work, even though coding is used in it (in program languages or in the genetic information of organisms), cannot be treated solely as software action, because the aspects of life in the production of moist art give a much greater rigour to the creative processes of the new work.
At a technical level, we may say that such work represents a vibrant collection of moist interaction between bio-data stacks that moves from the representation of the manipulation of bio-matter through to its actual manipulation. We would not be wrong in saying that artists utilise integrated media communications where the 'space' becomes the space to be augmented, accented through a process of wide-ranging visualisation - across text, imagery, bio-matter and coding.
Additionally, in order for artists today to develop relevant bio-art projects, they must pass through the following basic segments:
provision of a context
compilation of data (bio, genetic, electronic or other)
the establishment of a relation between artists, producers/conceptualists, and biologists/geneticists
As soon as the relation is established, an apparatus satisfying various parameters has to be implemented. This involves:
adaptation to technical requests
consideration of as many as possible effects and side effects of the projects
generating of various bio-contents and bio-forms, creation of a set of connections within simple or complex bio-systems networking (in some of the projects)
immersion in the processes of bio and genetic exploration, virtuality and interactivity
superior representation (through graphic programs, etc)
In this process the selected artists are engaged in discovering the constraints of biotechnology and genetic engineering while bringing the viewer to an increased awareness of the artwork - represented by samples which may be experienced or interfaced by the viewers as they are absorbed in intrinsic or hidden possibilities of interaction with the bio-artwork.
Further, these biotech artists, engaged in the process of altering the concept of personal and community bio-space, are attempting to organize it along the lines of a relationship between biotechnology, genetics, real space and a personal (or collective) view point.
In this context the Experimental Art Foundation undertook to stimulate the work of artists and cultural theorists dealing with this theme, with the idea that it will come to reflect on quite pressing issues. Especially because current research within the broad fields of biotechnology and into aspects of genetic engineering (GM food, Human Genome Project, etc) may, in a cultural and a social sense, assist us in analysing not just our present situation but also the visualising of our future.
The project Art of the Biotech Era - incorporating an exhibition, symposium and workshop, taking place between February 26 and April 3 at the Experimental Art Foundation - investigates cross-issues of Art, Culture and Biotechnology. Leading national and international artists and theorists exhibit works exploring biotechnology and genomics and discuss the influence of this techno-scientific change in society, the ethical implications of genetic engineering, and the concept of aesthetics in biotech arts.
The speakers at the Symposium are addressing, among other things, issues of the politics of the discipline of biotechnology, the ethical implications of genetic engineering, the relationship between ethics/aesthetics/bio-technology.
The 5 day intensive Biotech Art Workshop will provide hands-on exploration of biological technologies and experience of the issues stemming from their use, which will include DNA extraction, lab safety, ethics in biological research, bacteria plating from body and environment, breeding/plant manipulations, plant tissue culture, and tissue engineering and stem cells.
The EAF plans to produce the projects initiated in the workshop during the course of 2004 and in the years following.
I hope that the dialogue which the artists and theoreticians establish will be continued in the future and that this interaction will result in new and successful projects and enhanced treatment and understanding of the theme 'Art of the Biotech Era'.
Experimental Art Foundation
Adelaide, February 2004
Foam (Maja Kuzmanovic & Nik Gaffney)
The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr in collaboration with Stelarc)
Adam Zaretsky (in collaboration with Tanya Visosevic)