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science stuff : bioart – making a killing

Scientists and artists are often portrayed at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with rational thought at one end and creativity at the other. In many ways this is in itself a modern construct as the great thinkers of the past were often both. Now, in the 21st century we are heading back to a world where science and art fuse anew in “BioArt.”

The field of science has always produced many stunning images. Early discoverers travelled with talented artists who sketched a plethora of new plant and animal species to document their existence to the scientific community back home. The great minds of the past were likely to combine both artistic and scientific talents; Leonardo da Vinci was famously both scientist and artist and Charles Darwin wrote with an eye for literary as well as scientific truth. It seems that the past leant itself well to the existence of great thinkers, rather than pigeonholed disciplines.

Whilst not recognised as artists perse, many scientists continue to work with techniques that make new worlds visible. Few people can fail to be amazed at the clarity of electron microscope images of everyday objects and become fascinated by a world where a flea becomes a horrific monster and salt crystals become skyscrapers. Diffraction patterns, x-rays and ultrasounds all expose hidden truths in much the same way that art strives to do. Many of science’s images are considered to have artistic merit even though they were created for other purposes.

Scientific research and discovery often drive the development of new technologies, which are consequently embraced by artists, and then the general public. Photography, video and the internet have all been adopted by the artistically minded and now a small group of artists are moving on to the newer scientific technologies – cell culture and genetic manipulation.

BioArt is the manipulation of living matter to create art. The artists are often seconded within an actual scientific laboratory and work with the researchers to learn new techniques. They then use this scientific skill set to create works of art that are unusual and more importantly, alive. It is a Frankenstein field where the best bits of both worlds are brought together in such a way as to provoke some very dark reflections on the nature of life. In BioArt the medium is life itself.

Possibly the most famous example of BioArt to date is Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny. Kac commissioned a laboratory to create a rabbit that would glow green when exposed to ultraviolet light – a glow bunny. The rabbit, called Alba, was genetically altered so that its skin and fur carried the “Green Fluorescent Protein” more naturally found in jellyfish. Alba was intended for exhibition but ended up being the centre of a ownership dispute and the laboratory refused to release her.

Arguably though, Alba served her purpose. Despite the fact that she never made it to a gallery, she prompted people to begin thinking about life as art, and perhaps to think more deeply about the very existence of life and human attempts to control it. Should we create a rabbit that glows? Should it be considered art or does it only belong in a research institution?

Many examples of BioArt are less explicit than a glowing bunny. Some involve drawing on Petri dishes in bacteria or moulds to create an art that grows hour by hour. A well-known example of this was the BioArt billboard for the movie “Contagion.”

Some BioArt looks towards a brave new world where technology finds new ways to create living products – for example, a bioreactor that grew a tiny “victimless leather” jacket. Using a laboratory cell strain the artists set up a tiny jacket to grow in a glass bioreactor. It was drip fed by nutrients and observed by patrons of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But like most lifeforms, the victimless leather proved somewhat surprising and didn’t behave exactly as planned. As a result, the curator had to make the decision to pull the plug, turning the piece into a victim of its own success.

BioArt can be seen as an interesting take on science outreach. It makes procedures and techniques that are commonplace in laboratories visible, both demystifying them and making their inherent beauty more appreciable. It positions science as not just a discipline confined to a distant intellectual realm, but one that operates within the range of our everyday thought. Great art should always provoke discussion and the visceral nature of BioArt certainly does that. Perhaps the greatest success of BioArt is that it brings two different worlds back together. It circumvents the artificial split between the rationals and creatives and lets them join forces once more.

By Joee Kelk

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