BioArt: Between Art and Science

by paradoxig

What were the influences and intersections between art, science, and technology?
At a first glance, it seems that art relies on creativity, imagines the unimaginable, and making (i)logical ‘speculations’, when science relies on facts, on demonstrations, and everything that can be proved… A stereotype, most people agree to. But nothing can be more wrong, as science relies also on creativity to raise uncomfortable and unpredictable questions about the future, while art relies on techniques to perfect and transpose into a concrete reality what imagination is telling to the artist.
Art and science collaborated quite well during the history and continues up till today. We will look at BioArt as a specific and growing field, where biologists and artists collaborate, analysing the growing ecosystem around it, the usual or unusual practices, the blurred borders between art and science; or the ethical questions that surround collaborations between science, artists, and companies that work at the intersection of science, tech, and financial systems.
BioTech is here to stay and is a growing field, so we assume that BioArt is just at the beginning of writing its chapters. Let’s follow it.

Intersection between Science and Art

Science and Art are two fields that one would say have nothing to do with each other. Quite wrong. Across history, both scientists and artists were interested in each other’s work, and there were cross-disciplinary collaborations.

The physician and microbiologist who discovered penicillin in 1928, Alexandre Fleming, was not only an admirer of fine arts but was passionate about painting himself. He used to culture various microorganisms and arranged them into patterns to create paintings on petri dishes.
György Kepes was influenced by the Bauhaus movement, even before he started a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was during his stay at MIT, that he was convinced that artists and scientists should work in a closer communion. As such, he stated, artists would work out new visual images that could inspire scientists in their search for new visual models. He clearly saw the parallel between the scientific concerns with the invisible micro-world in terms of energy or dynamic organization instead of measurable, and tangible objects could be compared to the changes in the visual arts – more artists at that time, using ’ technologies of light, video or laser.
Another prominent figure was Maurits Cornelis Escher, combining mathematics and art, even though he many times stated that he had no mathematical skills.
Acclaimed by mathematicians like George Pólya, Roger Penrose, Harold Coxeter, he was completely ignored by the art world, including the one from his native Netherlands. His only art exhibition was made when he was 70 years old. The hippy movement declared him the father of psychedelic art, printed his works, and distributed them illegally, but he refused to be associated with Mick Jagger or Stanley Kubrick. It was the mathematician community that he enjoyed. And mathematicians were inspired by his work featuring impossible objects, explorations of infinity, reflection, symmetry, perspective. World-leading cosmologist Professor Sir Roger Penrose, a close friend of MC Escher, accepted to take a personal journey through the work of artists in the documentary “The Art of Impossible: MC Escher and Me”. He showed how the artist’s work has served as a starting point for his own explorations of new ideas. While at the same time, Escher’s images have their origin in Penrose’s mathematical sketches.

The Born of BioArt

Sporadic interest of artists toward biology existed always, but BioArt as a systematic exploration and practice is quite recent.
The discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule proposed by James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 led to advancement such as gene duplication and transcription. A huge project, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was set up, with the intent to chart the entire human genome. And more recently, maybe the biggest discovery is the CRISPR gene editing, a genetic engineering technique in molecular biology by which the genomes of living organisms may be modified. The two researchers, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.
Alongside these discoveries, artists noticed the potential in biotech, and since the 1980s started to experiment with it. The first pioneers were George Gessert, Joe Davis, Larry Miller, who took specialized training. Joe Davis’s work Microvenus is considered the first artwork created with techniques of molecular biology. The artist collaborated with molecular geneticist Dana Boyd at Harvard University to insert a coded visual icon into the DNA sequence of a bacterial strain, E. coli. The coded visual icon representing the external female genitalia and by coincidence, an ancient Germanic rune representing the female Earth.
But, only in 1997 artist Eduardo Kac coined the term “bio art” in his performance work, Time Capsule. After that, theorists and critics started to use it to refer to practices in which artists work with “live tissues, bacteria, living organisms, and life processes.” Afterward, as science and BioArt developed, more artists used the term BioArt also to address ethical and political issues surrounding bioengineering.
Other artists tried to link biology with music, and research the sound of bacteria’s. Andrew Zaretsk tried to understand the effect of different frequency sound waves on E. coli. Sometimes, he even plays jazz for them. He discovered that if the sound waves prove stressful to the bacteria, the stress might result in increased production of antibiotics. More info you on MIT.
Fashion artists entered the field of research, too, and a new term was coined: BioCouture – artists and biologists are working together to bring materials into existence. Suzanne Lee raised questions about where fashion comes from and makes clothes from the same microbes used to ferment green tea. By throwing yeast, sweetened tea, and bacteria into bathtubs, she had produced sheets of cellulose that can be molded into something you might actually want to wear. The works are not meant to be worn, being mainly exposed in museums.
But Eduardo Kac, wished to expand the BioArt, and proposed the term BioPoetry, defining a group of writing practices that contained at least 20 genres, including:
•Atomic writing,
•Transgenic poetry,
•Amoebal scripting,
•Dynamic bichromatic composition,
•Bacterial poetics,
•Tissuetext, and so forth.

And after 20 year the term BioArt was coined, BioArt Manifesto was born.
The Manifesto was created in 2017 by artists such as Eduardo Kac, Marion Laval-Jeantet, Benoît Mangin, Marta de Menezes, George Gessert, Paul Vanouse.

• Bio Art is art that literally works in the continuum of bio-materiality, from DNA, proteins, and cells to full organisms. Bio Art manipulates, modifies or creates life and living processes.
• In manipulating biological processes, Bio Art intervenes directly in the networks of the living.
• Life has a material specificity that is not reducible to other media.
• Without direct biological intervention, art made solely of acrylics, paper, pixels, plastic, steel, or any other kind of nonliving matter is not Bio Art.
• All art materials have ethical implications, but they are most pressing when the media are alive. We advocate for an ethical Bio Art: ethical with respect to humans and nonhumans.
• Some bio-artists use living media to express human concerns, while other bio-artists celebrate nonhuman organisms and our connections with them.
• Bio Art has no obligation to thematize topics that relate to biology or the living.
• We trust art audiences to recognize that because Bio Art is alive, all Bio Art has political, social, cultural, and ethical implications, whether or not these are made explicit by the artist.
• Bio Art challenges the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, the living and the nonliving, the natural and the artificial.
• This manifesto recapitulates and restates issues addressed in our work from the beginning.

To Be Continued

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