Week 6 _ BioArt _ Sarah Van Cleve

After reading many of the previous blogs I think it’s quite clear that there is a lot of controversy surrounding many forms of biotechnology like genetically modified organisms. Instead of reviewing once more the ethical questions that arise from the practice I’d like to highlight some works of biotechnology that I found especially interesting in both a scientific and artist sense.

Two artists whose work I found fascinating were mentioned in our reading “Genetic Technologies and Animals.” Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr work focuses on semi-living collections of tissue which they use to create images of other objects. Below is an image of a spearhead which Catts and Zurr made from muscle cells of mice and rabbits, along with nerve cells from goldfish.


Another artist named Adam Brandejs works more with the idea of biotechnology rather than the science itself. In 2005 Brandejs created a website advertising “Genpets,” small genetically engineered pets that come in a variety of personalities and are kept in a “hibernation state” with a “fully functional” heart-rate monitor (see image below). No, Genpets are not real and unfortunately they don’t work as advertised. Brandejs created Genpets as a parody to sharply comment on today’s world of increasing addiction to technology. The quite funny Genpets website can be found at http://www.genpets.com/index.php.genpets

There is one man in particular whose work I think fully embodies the general premise of our class. Joe Davis has been a research affiliate at the biology department of MIT since 1982. Some consider him one of the founding fathers of bioart. He works with bioinformatics which he uses in the creation of genetic databases and innovative biological art forms.

One of Davis’s most famous pieces is called “Microvenus.” The microvenus project was produced in the late 1980’s and was the first work of art created using recombinant-DNA technology. With molecular geneticist Dana Boyd, Davis took an image of the female reproductive system and encoded it as a sequence of DNA. This means they interpreted the image as a grid of light and dark pixels, or zeros and ones, and assigned these a series of DNA bases. They then inserted this sequence into the genome of E. coli bacteria and grew a colony of the newly created bacteria. While the bacteria itself wasn’t much to look at the project was ground-breaking in that it showed DNA being used in a very poetic sense. Soon after the creation of Microvenus Davis started a new work of art, this time recording the vaginal contractions of ballet dancers and, with the help of engineers and astronomers from both MIT and Harvard, he broadcasted them into space.

Another project Joe Davis has become well known for is his “audiomicroscope.” The audiomicroscope allows viewers to listen to microscopic organisms like nematodes or bacteria. The device bounces red laser light off the tiny creatures and translates the responses into sound. Though most of Davis’s work does not seem to have practical applications his work inspires people showing them that exploring science can be exciting in many different ways. A journalist for the Washington Post wrote, “Davis eschews the art versus science argument, insisting that he speaks both languages and could not possibly tear the two disciplines apart in his own mind.” I cannot think of a man whose work better epitomizes the topic of Desma 9: Art, Science, and Technology.

By: Sarah Van Cleve

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