At the intersection of biology and art lies BioArt, a new art practice where tissue, bacteria, and other biological components are artistically manipulated to produce something of creative value. The “mainstream” idea of BioArt includes fluorescent proteins arranged on a petri dish (like the one shown top right) but BioArt takes infinite shapes and sizes, from pieces like a petri dish rendition of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night to bioengineering Van Gogh’s ear using Van Gogh’s own DNA[i]. Using genetic engineering, cloning, tissue culture, and other biotechnology, BioArt is constructed in laboratories and art studios, and is displayed in spaces ranging from art galleries to science symposiums.
BioArt is outrageous.
Many works of BioArt aim to be outrageous, jaw dropping, and spectacular in order to promote social awareness and personal introspection. Emily Voigt of the literary journal Isotope characterizes BioArt as “ludicrous… lumpy, gross, unsanitary, sometimes invisible, and tricky to keep still on the auction block. But at the same time, it does …draw attention to the beautiful and grotesque details of nature that we might otherwise never see.”[ii]
For the most part, BioArt works to deliver a message on the absurdities of human-nature interaction and the complexity of the scientific world we manipulate. For instance, BioArtist Stelarc works to redefine what is considered artificial in regards to human bodily attachments. In his work “Ear on Arm,” Stelarc bioengineered a prosthetic ear and implanted the piece on his arm (shown right). As you can see, the end result of Stelarc’s body performance art is quite unsettling. The disturbing quality of the piece is what conveys Stelarc’s message– Stelarc comments on society’s obsession with what makes a human body “right”, an obsession felt by the viewer upon looking at Stelarc’s absurd third ear.[iii] Like Stelarc, most serious BioArtists work to break the boundaries of “normal” to show various elements of the living world in a different perspective.
The History & Controversy of BioArt
Since BioArt is a relatively new concept, its history is short– however, despite its short history, BioArt has managed to lead an ongoing debate on bioethics, connect social responsibility with biological consciousness, and redefine what the world considers “art”.
BioArt had its official beginnings in the late twentieth century, but wasn’t brought to the public eye until the year 2000 when artist Eduardo Kac genetically engineered a fluorescent rabbit. He called his biologically beefed-up bunny “transgenic artwork.”[iv] Since then, BioArtists from all over the world have taken their grasp of biology in one hand and their artistic talents in another to create stimulating work.
However, it wasn’t long before pieces like Kac’s rabbit raised an important bioethics issue: what is and isn’t ethically right when it comes to using the cells of living organisms? According to Alka Chandna, senior PETA researcher in Norfolk, Va. the ethical implications of BioArt far outweigh any artistic value it may have. ” Transgenic manipulation of animals is just a continuum of using animals for human end,” argues Chanda in a USAToday article. ” We’re all in support of creativity, but we’re opposed to all suffering.”[v]
The response from BioArtists to such opposition has varied. Some turn a blind eye to controversy and continue using live animals in their work.[vi] Others, like SymbioticA, turn the controversy on its head and create art whose direct message is animal welfare. Victimless Leather by SymbioticA, for example, is a prototype leather jacket made of lab-grown leather, meant to inspire conversation about the moral implications of using leather for aesthetics and fashion.[vii]
BIOME and BioArt
The topic of BioArt is popular among BIOME members. BIOME hopes that one day the club will be able to hold BioArt workshops, where people of all backgrounds and experiences can come in and make simple petri dish BioArt, or one day print 3-D art made of manufactured bones and flesh.
Now I turn the subject back to you, reader and biological pioneer – what do you think? What BioArt would you make with BIOME? What do you think of bioethics in regards to BioArt? Do you think some petri dish BioArt plates look like those old Glow Art toy sets (because I totally do)?
Soraya Karimi is an undergraduate sophomore majoring in Undecided, but leaning towards Bioengineering or Management Science and Engineering. Soraya’s interest in the biological sciences began with her high school bio class, where she discovered that her curiosity for life and its processes can never be satiated. A major passion of Soraya’s is community service, and through BIOME Soraya aspires to create and tackle projects that address the needs of the community. Moreover, Soraya hopes that through BIOME’s blog, people from all backgrounds will be able to learn about bioengineering and discover just how exciting the field is. When she has down time, Soraya likes to read, explore nature, play video games, and jam out to music.