For this exhibit, we invited artists, scientists, designers, and makers at all career stages to submit proposals responding to the question: How do artists and designers contribute materially, rhetorically, and conceptually to modern biotechnology?
Human engagement with biotechnology through art and culture has a long history: from Popol Vuh creation stories and Mayan representations of agriculture to contemporary artists’ ethical takes on the genomic age. Art’s Work/Genetic Futures extends this history through works that prompt new ways of thinking while emphasizing the historical context of biotechnological innovation, medical practice, and genomic science. By bringing art and modern biotechnology together, we aim to reach toward new understandings about the human condition, our bodies, the environment, and the other species that share the planet.
These artworks were selected with the intent to engage viewers in examining how genomic sciences could shape the future of our society. This includes projects that question and challenge current biotechnology tropes, as well as those that embrace the transformative potential of biotechnology and biomedicine.
We solicited a broad range of work that:
- engage viewers in a complex understanding of biotechnology, genomics, and society, and encourage the exchange of nuanced ideas on these topics
- offer a multifaceted visitor experience which challenge and complicate visitors’ views on genomics
- offer critique that allows for interpretive flexibility
- comment on the social implications of genomic technologies
- influence the shaping of designs of future genomic technologies
- imagine the implications of modern biotechnology practices
- reflect on historical and contemporary methods of genetically modifying organisms, and
- implicate viewers in the ethics and social practices of genomics
EMILIA TIKKA (FI) is an artist working in the intersection of Speculative Storytelling and Synthetic Biology. Her interdisciplinary practice explores philosophical dimensions and cultural implications of novel biotechnologies such as genome editing technology CRISPR. Her methods of research vary from designing objects, constellations and fictions to hands-on experiments in a laboratory. She has been recently selected as the artist in residence at Max-Delbrück-Centre for Molecular Medicine and State Festival, the first European artistic residency on CRISPR. Her art works has been exhibited in Ars Electronica in AU, NYU Arts Center in UAE and EMMA Contemporary Art Museum in FI to mention few. Her work has been recently featured in publications such as Nature and Süddeutsche Zeitung.
EUDAIMONIA – Biotechnologization of the Soul?
Eudaimonia is a philosophical-speculative future scenario where human psyche and character has become a matter of molecular biology and can be altered with personalized genome editing device. Today scientists claim to have found that specific genes fundamentally determinate human behaviour. Explicit features of character and psychological qualities, such as empathy and creativity, are traced even to a single allele of a gene. These claims open up the question of whether the “optimization” of the human psyche would become an issue of genome editing and biotechnology. The work raises questions about possible impacts of the novel genome editing technology CRISPR through a critical near future scenario. The art work is realized as a fictional genome editing device, as a desirable consumer product and as a short film imagining the possible societal impacts of the technology: a dark poetic story of three individuals seeking help from mysterious gene editing technology in their quest to find happiness in contemporary western capitalistic world. The near future scenario thematizes the phantasmatic drive towards happiness as the ultimate goal of human existence.
EMEKA IKEBUDE’s work interrogates the themes of dislocation and fragmentation from a biopolitical perspective, and locates at the liminal intersections of tradition and modernity, art and technology/biotechnology. A winner of several awards, his techniques include transforming everyday materials like wood, fabric, and metal into a distinctly characterized aesthetic. In much of his work, Emeka employs the techniques of contouring, layering, mapping, digital visualization, welding, cutting, fraying, dyeing, gluing, and stitching. He uses these techniques to synthesize diverse and, often, minute forms into massive, variegated compositions because he is allured by the beauty and balance inherent in unity, and the force that forms when people unite.
In ‘Fragments’, I have used hundreds of thousands of re-purposed toothpicks which I collected from mainly restaurants where they were used for picking teeth and discarded. I then dyed them with organic dyes that are harmless to the environment.
Essentially, they still retain human DNAs and microbiomes through the saliva, blood, and food particles on the toothpicks, that imbue them with a life of their own. Thus, the current condition of the toothpicks as microbial forms raises questions about the sanitary conditions of the food we eat and the environments in which they are processed. All these locate ‘Fragments’ at an intersection of art and biotechnology, where our understanding of the complex relationship with the microbial community would help inform a better understanding of the human body, better health and improved well-being.
Collecting the toothpicks raised critical questions about the unsanitary condition of the food we eat and the conditions in which they are prepared. Thus, each toothpick in this composition represents a human being – a contributor and unwitting participant in this project of rethinking the bacterial and viral genomes of the human body.
Dr. JENNIFER WILLET is a Canada Research Chair in Art, Science, and Ecology and an Associate Professor in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Windsor (Canada.) Willet is Director of INCUBATOR Lab a BSL2 bioart research facility and INCUBATOR Studio a BSL1 artist studio in Downtown Windsor. She is an internationally successful artist and curator in the emerging field of bioart.
Baroque Biology (Paper Theatre)
Baroque Biology (Paper Theatre) is a series of large (25 cm x 25 cm square) LB Agar petri dishes containing imaginary biological vignettes where non-human organisms teach humans complex biotechnological processes within the context of a paper theatre show. Reminiscent of William Hogarth’s serial engravings or fairy tales from a biotech future – each allegory focuses on a fox, or a microbe, a plant or fungi, who tries to communicate with humans in a helpful manner about the biological processes they employ for survival, for reproduction, and/or aesthetic pleasure.
Sometimes the human characters are open to receiving the communicated information, and sometimes they are hostile, or ignorant to the messages they are receiving across species. Each petri dish contains paper cut outs, gold leaf, temporary tattoos, and 3D sculptural agar forms seeded with genetically modified rainbow-colored bacteria. This is a durational artwork where the Petri dishes slowly become confluent with microbes interacting with the collage elements in the dish.
CHARLOTTE JARVIS is an artist and lecturer working at the intersection of art and science. She approaches bodies as liminal spaces – sites for transformation, hybridization and magic. Charlotte uses stem cell technology, personalized medicine, transplantation and augmentation to ask what is a human body? Can we define it? Should we try?
Charlotte has been exhibited in ten international solo shows and over a hundred group exhibitions at venues including the Wellcome Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, Kapelica Gallery, the Guangzhou Triennale and the Venice Biennale. Charlotte has been resident artist at the European Bioinformatics Institute, The Netherlands Proteomics Centre and the Hubrecht Institute. She lectures at the Royal College of Art, Goldsmiths University, Central Academy of Fine Art Beijing and Imperial College.
website | cjarvis.com
Throughout history, semen has been revered as a magical substance – a totem of literal and symbolic potency. Patriarchal societies have described semen as life force, a drop of the brain, and that which sows the seeds of virtue in the female soul. In Posse aims to rewrite this cultural narrative; to use art and science to disrupt the hierarchy.
Artist Charlotte Jarvis is collaborating with Prof Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes and Kapelica Gallery / Kersnikova Institute to make semen from her (“female”) stem cells. To do this they are using stem cells derived from Charlotte’s blood, altering their gender and differentiating them into the sperm producing cells found in male testicles.
The project is presented as part of a contemporary reenactment of the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria – a women-only fertility ceremony in honor of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Charlotte has used her female sperm as a starting point for reimagining Thesmophoria: for populating a history without patriarchy and a future in which the gender/genital power balance is redressed.
MARIA MCKINNEY (b. 1982) is an Irish visual artist and is currently a member of Temple Bar Studios, Dublin.
She works across a range of media and has made a number of solo exhibitions, including at the Wellcome Collection, London UK (2018), RHA, Dublin, Ireland (2016), Lokaal 01, Antwerp, Belgium (2016) and the MAC, Belfast, UK (2012). Her work was shortlisted for the MAC International Prize 2014, selected by Hugh Mulholland, Judith Nesbitt and Francesco Bonami. She has taken part in a number of artist residencies including Skowhegan 2017.
In 2019 she will realise a project about the Jersey cattle breed on the island of their origin and namesake.
website | cargocollective.com/mariamckinney
In pre-Christian Europe, people annually performed customs in relation to the reaping and sewing of the harvest. These rituals have since been popularly interpreted as an attempt to influence the future behaviour of nature.
Part of this practice involved making a corn dolly, an object made through the intricate handcraft of binding straw with the final sheaf of that year’s crop. This doll has since become a symbol of fertility, both of the land and the living creatures that feed off it. In contemporary society however, the branch of knowledge known as genomics has given humans the ability to truly influence how nature behaves in future generations of animal and plant species.
Having gained an understanding of the complex structure of genes and their functionality, the emergence of bioinformatics has allowed scientists to direct breeding strategies with the objective of achieving more physically healthy and commercially productive animals. The body of work Sire is proposed as a rephrasing of what was once intangible. Now we not only understand these formerly mysterious processes of propagation, but also manipulate them to our own ends.
KERASYNTH is a collaboration among fiber artists DIANA EUSEBIO, ERIN KIRCHNER, GRACE KWON, RACHEL RUSK, and SYDNEY SIEH-TAKATA concerned with the intersections among tissue engineering, sustainably sourced materials, and accessibility.
Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Biodesign Challenge’s Animal Free Wool Prize and overall competition, received press coverage from Medium: Neo.Life, Smithsonian.com, and Forbes, and presented to a major wool company at the 2018 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. They are currently brainstorming ways for this major wool company to assist them in pushing the project forward while each pursue their creative interests and professional goals.
Kerasynth is a synthetically grown biological material that can replace all keratin-based animal fibers. It takes the approach of using tissue engineering to grow wool Hair Follicle Germ (HFG) cells on microfluidic devices designed to provide the cells with nutrients and to remove waste. The subsequent wool could then be harvested and further processed or remain attached to the microfluidic device.
Eventually, using non-animal derived growth media for cell culturing and more biodegradable alternatives for the PDMS used to make the microfluidic devices could make creating a completely vegan wool from a biodegradable support possible in the near future.
Another component of our project is to propose ways for making tissue engineering a more accessible technology through community-based educational models in schools and vocational training programs. In order to realize this goal, we have created a speculative company named DermaWool that would develop and patent this method of production before licensing other companies to use their technology in other ventures. By democratizing the knowledge and resources used in creating Kerasynth, we hope to provide a material solution that not only addresses human consumer needs and protects animal welfare, but is also inclusive in its production.
CIARA REDMOND is an emerging contemporary artist working in mixed media, installation and bioart. Redmond’s work explores themes of identity, genetic destiny, gender and the relationship between science and culture. Redmond trained in materials conservation and works with artists and galleries to find innovative solutions for displaying unusual works and materials. Redmond is from Melbourne, Australia and currently based in Tokyo, Japan. You can find more of their work at:
We Make Our Own Luck Here
We Make Our Own Luck Here investigates the relationship between biotechnology and culture using four leaf clovers, a symbol for luck. Using traditional selective breeding methods (mating two plants with desirable traits and planting the seeds) I have created white clover (Trifolium repens) plants with high numbers of four-leaf clovers. These specially created clover plants are shown along with notes explaining the science of the four-leaf trait. Are lucky four-leaf clovers still lucky if we use science to make them common? Scientists use biotechnology to transform our societies but we can quickly take these innovations for granted. Even antibiotics have gone from being the saviour of humanity to being overused to the point of creating new problems in less than a century. Can we that find joy from biotechnology outside of traditional research? Or should we be critical of how humanity might frivolously use its power?
This project is developed with support from Waseda University.
Aaron M Ellison + David Buckley Borden
The creative team of DAVID BUCKLEY BORDEN and AARON M ELLISON unites art, design, and environmental science in place-based projects. Their art installations illustrate novel ecological systems (“ecosystems”) that people create by changing the environment. In their creative practice, David and Aaron engage with local communities to learn about their lives, practices, cultures, and customs, and create visual art that often uses vernacular tropes to envision our changing world. David and Aaron’s research-driven creations communicate abstract, often technical ecological concepts. Their installations provide spaces for thoughtful consideration and provocative discussions about how humans are altering the environment and the opportunities available to collectively rethink all our actions, for better or worse.
Novel Ecosystem Generator
The Novel Ecosystem Generator is a playful kinetic public art installation designed to represent a process engine that takes in existing genes, organisms, or entire ecosystems, restructures and rearranges them, and outputs new biological systems. Before and after conditions represented in the artwork challenge viewers to consider profound examples of this Anthropocene phenomena.
People are disassembling, rearranging, and restructuring genes, organisms, ecosystems, and the environment that supports them and us. This process of creating novel ecosystems occurs both deliberately and unintentionally. For example, deliberate cross-breeding, production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), introduction of “gene-drives” for mosquito control, or gene splicing using CRISPR-CAS9 result in the introduction of new kinds of plants and animals. These intentional introductions engender new interactions in ecosystems that have been in place for millennia. Similarly, people transport species from state to state and between countries, leading to the arrival and spread of “invasive” species in new places. These movements of species and their interaction with “native” ones, coupled with ongoing, human-caused changes to the land, sea, and climate, together lead to unexpected and unintended consequences. Such “unintentional genetic engineering” is happening continuously and, like its intentional counterpart, has great potential to cause dramatic environmental change.
JOEL ONG is Assistant Professor in Computational Arts at York University. His research explores emergent ways of interfacing with the natural elements through the lens of digital and moist-media technologies. He is an alumni of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in BioArts and is also an artist with the UCLA ArtSci Collective. Ong’s individual and collaborative works in spatial sound, data aesthetics and interactive media have been presented in festivals and conferences across Canada, USA, UK, Australia, Mexico and Singapore.
website | arkfrequencies.com
Terra Et Venti
Terra Et Venti is a research-creation project that explores the role synthetic biology may play in planetary scale geoengineering and weather modification practices in the near future. The work exists in a triptych of forms – in vivo, in vitro and in silico, providing a microbial mise-en-scene within which multi-scalar and multi-dimensional activities can be composed. Shown in the gallery are visual documentations of laboratory and field work, a simulation of cloud formation and a generative spatial sound composition.
The main research focus of the project is the transgenic modification of P.syringae with genetic poetry. In speculating future laboratory practices in synthetic biology that enhance or modify our atmosphere, the non-utilitarian nature of this mutation is poignant because it presents a genetic future beyond the function/dysfunction polemic of genetic modification by beginning with an aesthetic catalyst.
The computational system presented in the gallery generates text for insertion into the bacteria’s genome. It then predicts the new molecule’s 3D morphology and ice nucleation ability and generates a digital cloud in real time. Extending this experientially is an array of parametric speakers that punctuate the space with short bursts of noise, providing the metaphor of disruption in an otherwise buoyant and atmospheric soundscape.