Pink Mice and Petri Dishes

Artists contemplate biotechnology


The genetic revolution is upon us, and artists are manning the barricades. But which side are they on: the one that views biotechnology as a horrifying new development or the one that sees it as a tool of liberation? On the evidence of Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution, a recent exhibition of 39 artists at the downtown Manhattan gallery Exit Art, the creative community itself isn't quite sure.

Some of the show's contributors are still invoking the hoary image of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster. Surprisingly, though, the majority seems ready to celebrate the revolution. Paradise Now arguably marks a significant shift in sentiment within the art community from opposing and resisting progress in genetic manipulation to embracing and exploring its aesthetic possibilities.

On the fearful side are pieces such as Christa Rupp's New Labels for Genetically Engineered Food. Rupp displays 30 plastic salad bar containers with stenciled bogus health warning labels like "Original DNA Product." In Genomic License No. 5, conceptual artist Larry Miller offers official- looking certificates to gallery goers so that they can "copyright" their personal genetic codes, declaring themselves "Original Humans." Miller claims that over 2,000 people have used his forms to declare themselves exclusive owners of their unique genetic code. I turned down the offer to sign a certificate. Anyone who wants to reproduce my genetic code may do so; I'm still the original.

The "subversive" anonymous art cooperative ®TMark produced a spoof Powerpoint presentation called Bio Taylorism, supposedly showing the "benefits" of biotechnology for corporations, complete with charts and graphs, that are supposed to gloss over the purported risks to human life posed by biotech. It's an exercise in clever, if routine, corporation bashing.

Far more fascinating than such predictable protests are pieces that use and celebrate biotechnology as a new medium for artistic expression. Take the installation Genesis, by Brazilian-born, Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac. Upon walking into a darkened room, viewers see a large circle of light on the far wall-the projected image from a micro-video camera of a bacteria-laden petri dish in the center of the room. On the other walls glow various texts, including a verse from Genesis: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves over the earth." On a different wall, Kac has translated the Bible verse into the dots and dashes of the first electronic language, Morse code. He then translates the Morse code into the ACGTs of the genetic code, assigning word spaces to adenine, dots to cytosine, letter spaces to guanine, and dashes to thymine. The "art gene" version of Genesis is actually produced by stringing these DNA bases together. Then the DNA bases are inserted into the living E. coli bacteria in the petri dish that viewers see projected before them. By activating an ultraviolet light over the petri dish, viewers can cause the bacteria to mutate, thus becoming co-creators with Kac.

Earlier this year, Kac, working with scientists at France's National Institute of Agronomic Research, created a transgenic female rabbit, named Alba, that glows green under ultraviolet light. Alba glows green because the EGFG (enhanced green fluorescent gene) taken from a species of jellyfish was inserted into her genome when she was an embryo. So now she produces the glowing protein in her fur.

HeLa, by Christine Borland, also uses video technology and a petri dish to raise questions of ownership related to cells and tissues. Her video camera magnifies HeLa cells and displays them on a flat panel screen. HeLa cells come from a 31-year-old black woman named Henrietta Lack, who died of cervical cancer in 1951; her cells have survived her for nearly 50 years as the first and most famous "cell line" used in biomedical research. Lack's family didn't find out about the cells until the 1970s, and even today there is no settled legal principle that says who owns tissues and cells once they're taken from a patient: Do they belong to the patient, or are they common property that can be appropriated by researchers? Borland's treatment leaves the question open for viewers to contemplate.

Other artists explore how biotech might shift our definitions of identity. Kevin Clarke's Portrait of James D. Watson is a large-scale piece that juxtaposes metal lab shelving reminiscent of the three-dimensional structure of DNA with giant photographic panels of an actual DNA sequence taken from Watson's own genome. (The Nobel Prize-winning Watson, of course, is the co-discoverer of DNA's double helix structure, which marks the beginning of the genetic revolution.) In a similar vein, Portrait of Isabel Goldsmith, by Steve Miller, starts with cultured chromosomes taken from Goldsmith's white blood cells. He photographed them under an electron microscope and then numbered and classified them by size. Both of these works underscore the fact that our DNA is not our identity—thus correcting the confusion at the heart of Larry Miller's Genomic License No. 5.

There's another neat riposte to Miller: One Tree, by Natalie Jeremijenko, stations cloned trees in the gallery to make the point that, while genetically identical, "they are not the same." Clones are nothing new (indeed, every Granny Smith apple is clonal) and each clone's response to its environment makes it different from the others. Contemplating these leafy clones, the fear of cloning stoked by hysterical headlines about Dolly the Scottish sheep drains out of viewers.

Sculpted by Bryan Crockett, Monument to Man is a seven-foot-high, heroic pink-marble statue of the famous Oncomouse, the first transgenic animal ever patented. The Oncomouse has tumor-causing genes inserted in its genome so that it can be used for cancer research. The actual Oncomouse is hairless (thus pink-skinned) and only a few inches long. The statue is startlingly lifelike, and its dynamic posing recalls classical works like the Laocoön. On one level an absurd statue of a giant mouse, Monument to Man also wryly honors humanity's growing biological ingenuity and would be the perfect complement to the lobby of some brash, self-confident biotech laboratory that wants a work of art to symbolize its creative activities.

Another artist, Brandon Ballengée, is testing the line between science and art. His installation of photos, gurgling tanks, and texts looks very much like the science fair project of a precocious high school student. Ballengée is trying to recover an extinct species of African frog through a controlled breeding experiment. By cross-breeding closely related frogs, he hopes to recreate the phenotype, or physical appearance, of the extinct variety, which featured shortened limbs and snout. While some may feel momentarily woozy over Alba the glowing green bunny, surely many will applaud Ballengée's aesthetic attempt to revive a species. In the hands of humanity, biotech may restore creatures long gone, save those now here, and create novel ones for us to enjoy.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Mary Shelley memorably and fearfully imagined that science would beget monsters. Two hundred years later, artists are taming those monsters and, in the process, turning them into works of art.