Bioart: its beginning and its present

Crushing of artistic canons has probably reached its point of no return with bioart. According to Robert Mitchell, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, bioart arises from the hybridization of two artistic traditions: ready-made and performance; nevertheless its accomplishments are not attributable to specific peculiarities and already known art forms. With the artistic productions of digital art, for example, life is simulated, the concepts are represented in a world made of steel, plastic and silicon; this is not true and real life, it is semblance created in a virtual dimension. On the other hand, bioartists operate in the real world, and they use living biological materials, peculiar biotechnological instruments and procedures, in a creative process that transforms scientific techniques and methodologies in artistic means (media) of expression and produces living or semi-living beings.
The bioartistic creation uses the living matter to present concepts and thoughts, and it is prepared in cooperation with scientists and researchers, such as in the case of portraits made with bacterial cultures, molds and fungi, and realized by means of the same procedures routinely used for producing drugs. In this way bioart marks the fundamental shift from the artistic object to the creation of living beings as art itself. The artists are no longer working in their studio, totally inadequate to the demands imposed by the use of biotechnology; neither they work en plein air, as there’s not (yet) any purpose in that, and it could even be dangerous. They work in actual research facilities in which, for example, the rules on biosafety for the manipulation of microorganisms and of recombinant DNA are imposed and enforced in order to avoid the dangers of unintended release of biological hazardous agents, maybe dangerous for public health.
The very first products of bioart, though a “modern” activity, go back in time and refer to two famous names: Alexander Fleming and Edward Steichen. The name of Fleming is associated mainly to the discovery of penicillin and the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945. More rarely he is mentioned for an artistic experience that in 1933 led him to create the so-called germ paintings, images obtained using a culture medium and bacteria with different natural pigmentation, incubated in a petri dish and distributed according to a sketch prepared by the scientist.
Steichen was a photographer, painter, gallery and museum curator: in 1936 the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a collection of flowers which he obtained with experiments in genetic mutation induced in seeds of different species of Delphinium exposed to chemical agents. These experiments generated products that could be considered beautiful, following the traditional aesthetic sense and experience.
The latest achievements of bioart, however, rarely reflect the aesthetic canons of beauty: today bioartistic creation have very little in common with those “first hour” experiences, if not just the idea of making use of the living matter. The extension field of technical applications is now technically much wider than at the time of Fleming and Steichen, and allows a direct action on the genetic code with targeted manipulation and exchanges of DNA between different species. The bioartists are distinguished by their achievements and artistic production, installation and performances in general, and have a common language of “art-science” that have developed to communicate their thoughts on political and social issues, as well as ethical and philosophical underpinning to the use of biotechnology.
Is bioart a posthuman artistic expression? The answer is not easy to find. Stelarc’s or Orlan’s performances, Kac’s bioartworks are aiming to criticize (respectively) traditional understanding of human body, feminine beauty ideals, dominant position of human beings in the world. With their activity, they confer the power of scientists over artists; in other words the artists’ dependence on scientists, bioartists are forced to ask a helping hand to scientists and researchers. Does it mean that our posthuman future will be heavily designed by scientists?
The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin has called attention to a fact: bioartists and scientists could be easy targets for multinational companies, which are able to leverage their skills to create the right conditions to influence public opinion. The bioartists could be used as a sort of “occult agents” to let some inventions and innovation pass or even skip the scrutiny of public opinion and maybe well funded objections. The danger here is to make controversial techniques and procedures acceptable and in facts widely accepted, without having to go through the mechanisms of indepth public debate and well thought democratic choice.
Maybe the bioart will be transformed by corporations in something helping customs clearance for biotechnological techniques and practices at issue. The ability of DNA manipulation could take the scientists to direct the process of evolution of living species, without being able to predict where this path will lead and with what effect on the existence of all living species, including humans.

References: P.
H. MACNEILL, B. FERRAN, Art and Bioethics: Shifts in Understanding Across Genres, in «Bioethical Inquiry», 8, 2011, pp. 71-85
R. MITCHELL, Bioart and the Vitality of Media, Washington University Press, Seattle (WA) 2010
J. RIFKIN, Dazzled by the science, in «The Guardian», 14/01/2003,

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2 Comments on "Bioart: its beginning and its present"

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Rosemary Lee

The connection between bioart and the readymade is a question I’ve struggled with as an artist, as I sometimes include living things (plants) in my work. Sometimes I find that bioart takes too much credit for the presentation of life forms and assumes a problematic authorship over them. And at other times there exists the danger of art/science artists relying too heavily on aestheticising novel scientific techniques.

Leon Human

Dear Rosangela. Very interesting thoughts about bioart, which also interests me greatly, more so when the body of the art involves another animal as in Kac’s case. I think its important to highlight the asymmetrical dependence of artist on scientist, as you state. Critiques like Peter Singer’s of scientific animal research works on the basis of decontextualizing the activity so that scientists are drawn back into the ordinary to answer for their actions, but this might be harder in the artistic case given its avant garde funtions.