Making ‘BioArt’ a cultural practice

by Verena Dauerer

At this year’s Society for Social Studies Conference at the University of Tokyo, Aug. 25-29, there will be a session on “BioArt,” which begs the question: What would that be?

BioArt describes the variety of art forms emerging in the last two decades that use biotechnology or genetics to manipulate living things, altering food, plants, even livestock. In best do-it- yourself tradition, artists have started to swap their studios for laboratories and are using molecular biology to deliberately create hybrids, clones or mutations as artistic expressions.

So is science the new art? A question posed by author Ingeborg Reichle in the newly published and thorough compendium about biotechnology and art “Art in the Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art.”

The influence of science and technology into the art realm is not actually new. In the early 20th century, Ukrainian painter Kasimir Malevich had already utilized bacteria for his Suprematist visualizations. In our increasingly tech-reliant civilization, however, mankind might now be forced to rethink the definition of “human” when facing scientific innovations such as cloning, bio warfare or genetically engineered designer babies.

Notably enthusiastic about the development of Bio Art are the artists, such as Brazilian Eduardo Kac. In 1999, for his biotech work “Genesis,” he created a synthetic gene by translating a sentence from the Bible into Morse Code. He then incorporated the code into bacteria that, when exposed to ultraviolet light, started to mutate. A newer work of Kac is “Edunia,” a genetically engineered flower that, as a hybrid of Kac himself and a petunia, expresses the artist’s DNA through the flower’s red veins.

At the recent art and technology Interferenze Festival at Vakant space in the Harajuku area of Tokyo, artistic duo BCL displayed other genetic flower manipulations. Tokyo-based Shiho Fukuhara and Austrian Georg Tremmel have been engaging in “biohacking:” For their “Common Flowers” project, they reverse engineered an already genetically engineered carnation. Suntory Flowers, a subsidiary of Japanese brewing company Suntory, genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. As a response, BCL bought the blue flower and started to clone it, literally in their kitchen, using do-it-yourself biotech means. Afterward, they released their cloned flowers into nature in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright. The name “Common Flowers” relates to the Creative Commons open-source movement, which promotes collaboration on and the sharing of texts and images, and BCL published a how-to-clone manual on their Web site.

Shiho Fukuhara of BCL explains, Suntory Flowers and the Moondust carnation represent the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that is intended purely for aesthetic consumption: “The media outcry wasn’t that huge since it was neither food nor developed from animals.”

Fukuhara found it strange how relaxed the Japanese are about genetic engineering, the business behind it and the lack of a public dialogue about the topic.

“Creating genetically manipulated plants for merely aesthetic purposes is a nice marketing strategy from somebody who wants to introduce the genetic engineering industry without being regarded as irresponsible,” Fukuhara says. “A product like flowers can slowly change our perception of genetically altered products. If it’s nice and beautiful with ‘Dream come true’ as a tag line, who cares how it’s made?”

By biohacking the blue carnation, BCL wants to raise awareness of a development in science that doesn’t just concern flowers. Fukuhara explains, “As a cultural practice, we believe it is important to gain an understanding of biotechnology. As the 20th century was the century of the computer, the 21st century will be about biotechnology.”

She compares the current state of biotechnology with the state of the computer industry in the 1960s and ’70s, when only a handful of universities and companies could afford computer labs, the equipment occupied large spaces and it was difficult to learn and understand. It was only when PCs became affordable did users begin to explore their potential playfully and start building their own. “We believe the same is happening to biotechnology now,” she says.

BCL’s process of cloning Suntory’s blue flower doesn’t sound that difficult. They buy the modified flowers and then bring them back to life using plant tissue culture techniques, a way of propagating plants in sterile conditions.

“Basically, once a flower is cut, it is slowly dying. With plant tissue culture, plants are grown on a growth medium with the necessary nutrition. If the flower is reasonably fresh it will start growing again. This is what we mean by ‘reverse-engineering’ the plant,” says Fukuhara.

To do this, ordinary kitchen utensils and materials from drugstores and supermarkets are sufficient. For glassware, BCL use baby-food jars; their sterile room is an empty plastic box and the growth medium is made with agar agar and multivitamin tablets.

As a next step, BCL want to remove the foreign genes from the blue carnation and restore the plant to its original white color. If successful it would serve as a tactical statement, since they theoretically could also restore genetically altered rice, soy or corn. Shiho Fukuhara says, “We as citizens are not only consumers, we can actively participate in the biotech revolution.”

The Society for Social Studies Conference, Aug. 25-29, is at the University of Tokyo, Komaba I Campus, Meguro-ku. For more information, visit 4sonline.org