Art and Genomics: Living fiction
The first allotted Designers and Artists 4 Genomics Award offers new approaches of revealing the art to the public and brings ordinary people closer to science, to the biotechnological procedures used in laboratories. Here, art is not only inspired by science, as in numerous past and present examples, but directly blends with it. For example, speaking of distant past, we can recall the Greek myth about Phaeton (the son of the god Helios) who drove his father’s chariot across the sky. In the myth the creation of the Earth’s surface, of the African people’s skin colour, the creation of amber etc., is explained at the metaphorical level… We could say that then, when science and its biotechnological procedures were not developed, the humans explained the world to themselves more with a myth and metaphor. Unlike today, they didn’t have a lot of various choices to choose from. Many years later, in 1632, about 150 years after the discovery of America and the starting point of the globalization, painter Rembrandt van Rijn painted his Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp.
The painting depicts the anatomy lesson – medical professionals study the corpse lying before of them on the table. Rembrandt was only 26 years old when he painted this artwork and medical experts were amazed by the skill of his paintbrush in painting muscles and tendons so accurately. Of course, he gained the knowledge of anatomy at Leiden University where he attended anatomy classes where cadavers were dissected on stage…We can see that Rembrandt was also under the influence of science, but without completely intertwining with it, with his paintbrush skill he tried to research the skillfulness and knowledge of medical professionals. Rembrandt had his own painting technique to research other professions’ techniques and we could also call his approach interdisciplinary, or open minded Rennaisance approach which continued in Baroque when he lived. But that was before ready made, conceptual art and biotechnological procedures which all together resulted in bio-art at the turn of the 20th in the 21st century, and we can only assume what Rembrandt would think of this new art movement which has definitely taken over the biotechnological techniques with the purpose of creating living artworks.
Three works to which the first Designers and Artists 4 Genomics Award was allotted are definitely using living materials, microorganisms or nematodes and some of them have already used or intend to use biotechnological procedures, so they are extremely close to the mentioned approach which is like a new interdisciplinary version of what Rembrandt was doing.
But we should start in turns, by explaining and researching into these, for the wider art scene still unusual, artworks. It is interesting to mention that only the press from the scientific world and not the one from the art-world attended the opening of the exhibition at the Naturalis museum at Leiden which is the fact that should be considered.
Each of the three awarded artworks has its own specificities, they differ from each other not only in their own unique artistic features, but also in the artists’ choice of scientific processes in creating their artwork.
One of the awarded artworks, Matthijs Munnik’s Microscopic Opera, was created with the help of Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. Microscopic Opera is an installation where a testing animal C. Elegans is used to produce sounds. C. Elegans worms are microscopic creatures situated under five microscopes which are situated under the big, rounded glass. The microscopes are connected to the screens where one can see the enlarged versions of the worms. Also, their movement triggers samples of the sounds – one worm triggers only one voice and for the two or more there is the whole chorus. The relation between invisibility and visibility is interesting in this installation. We cannot see with naked eyes the materiality of the C. Elegans (and we cannot look under the microscopes because they are closed in the glass) and when we transform it into digital, non-palpable form, it becomes visible. We can see on the screens how the worms intertwine with each other, how their paths blend and set apart. Since these creatures are transparent, owing to the reflection of the light, the projections have the colour of the rainbow, so in fact these creatures greatly remind of water, drops of water dripping and disappearing, all the time changing like a painting made with invisible paint. Action painting caused by nature is happening before us! And since we can also compare humans to these weak creatures which are not aware of the world around them, the triggering of the sound of the human voices while worms move is effective. Music as a metaphor of the divine in humans is ironically opposed to the worms as a metaphor of our mortal, non-divine side. Furthermore, it could be said that this artwork between three, is the closest to the generally accepted concept of artwork because the actual, material “product” is more important than the process of creating it, and when we talk about bio-art, often the process of the project and research part is more important than the actual artwork. That is the reason why, according to some definitions, this artwork is not considered to be bio-art. It would depend on the chosen interpretation of bio-art. Some would say that bio-art is only when artists experiment with scientific processes such as biotechnology, so according to that definition this work wouldn’t be bio-art because artist didn’t experiment with gene manipulation and biological processes of C. Elegans, but only nature did. The artist only connected the worms to technology, made them dependant on it so they can produce sounds. In fact, he made some kind of post-worms of them, worms connected to technology, just like we, the humans, according to N. Katherine Hayles have become post-humans (symbiosis of humans and artificial intelligence), so in this sense we can also read this work in a metaphoric way even though that was probably not the artist’s intention. In addition, when art and science fuse in this way, meaning that they are not completely intertwined (nature wasn’t manipulated), even though we look at them as united parts which constitute art, it is also difficult not to observe the natural or scientific part separately, like we see it somewhere in the laboratory or in nature, out of the museum context. We observe C. Elegans as an extraordinary creature which moves really beautifully and it is interesting that they are usually hermaphrodites, only rarely males occur and females never.
The next awarded artwork is Jalila Essaidi’s 2.6g 329m/s which is interesting because it balances precisely at the border between art and science and in this case one cannot separate one from another because the creation of an artwork became possible only owing to Science. With the help of a molecular biologist Randy Lewis and his laboratory located in Utah, Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands and Dermatology Department at Leiden University Medical Center, the artist succeeded in creating the bulletproof skin, which is made of human cells and spiders’ proteins because the protein which a spider extracts to make a net is stronger than steel and therefore extremely suitable for making bulletproof vests or bulletproof skin! The name of the artwork is 2.6g 329m/s which is the maximum weight and velocity of a traveling bullet from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect a person, but in fact the artist wanted to emphasize the relativity of safety. Maybe one day it is going to be strange for people to walk without this kind of skin, maybe they would feel insecure and unprotected in the street only with our normal, human skin?
This little piece of skin, reared in the special incubator is in fact a hybrid between human, spider, and to make things more complicated – transgenic silkworm! It is impossible to extract a lot of spiders’ protein from spiders because they are carnivores so the artist had to use transgenic silkworm in order to get enough spiders’ silk. Hence, in this case we have a transgenic artwork which was already created with the help of a transgenic animal which doesn’t exist in nature. Probably the most precise definition of this hybrid would be human-spider-transgenic silkworm hybrid, a terrifying being which is just a bulletproof product and it wouldn’t have specific skills which we attribute to beings which helped in its creation. It is interesting to compare this hybrid with the ones from mythology and to emphasize the difference between the imaginary and this technological myth – in mythology hybrids usually have the possibility of using specific skills of their blended parts. For example – the horse Pegasus can indeed fly while human-spider-transgenic silkworm couldn’t produce spiders’ silk. But, that is in fact not important for this artwork because that characteristics makes it more passive, more design like, or we could say – even more artistic. We could call it a silent, statuary performance, a real liminal artwork, a hybrid between some kind of sculpture and performance. Also, in this artwork human cells seem more like the medium, some kind of new version of linen, where the spiders’ protein grows the invisible pattern of impenetrability.
It is important to mention more layers of this artwork. The artist herself had only an idea about what she wanted to invent but she didn’t know in advance how exactly the process of designing that kind of skin would actually look like. She was the creator of an idea and everybody else worked for her, as some kind of her tools while her hands were also busy with organizing things. For her a lot of things during the creative process were a surprise and she didn’t know if the skin would be bulletproof in the end, and finally it was not important for the artwork itself, it was more important from the scientific perspective. But, to understand both perspectives more precisely we will finally have to mention what the artist put on display at the exhibition. When we enter, we can first see the model of the stretched skin, but the real skin is growing in the incubator and you can see it only through the transparent little window on the incubator door because it has to be grown in special conditions. This fact completely changes the art support of the exhibition and the artwork becomes closer to an installation. It is also interesting to notice and to compare it to the traditional media – as paintings need walls, as sculptures need pedestals, bio-art artworks need bioreactors or incubators. The only difference is that this skin is an extremely small artwork created in a Petri-dish and the incubator is huge, so it seems that the accessory took up this sensitive artwork which can be seen as a metaphor also for our, human sensitivity. The third thing on display at the exhibition is the slow motion movie which the artist made while she was testing the bullet. In the movie, the artwork which stopped the bullet and the one which didn’t, transforms itself into some kind of minimal abstraction.
The last awarded artwork, which is more close to design, is Maurizio Montalti’s System Synthetics. The designer cooperated with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of industrial Fermentation in order to study the possibilities of producing bio-fuel from the degradation process of plastic waste. In this scenario one of the two fungi (filamentous fungus) would break down plastic waste and the other fungus (yeast) would produce bio-ethanol from it and the humanity would solve two of its ecological issues – the problem of plastic waste and the problem of fossil fuels, and the pollution would definitely decrease. But, unfortunately, for some time it will not be possible to fuse these two organisms, because the procedure is quite complicated, at this moment synthetic biology is still not ready to produce this kind of man-made endosymbiosis. Endosymbiosis is a natural, a million years long process in which one microbe takes over another microbe and they get fused together, but now synthetic biology is able to accelerate it by designing the new life forms. So, maybe the Montalti’s vision is still a vision, but definitely with mediation of a man it can faster become a reality. That is also the reason why Montalti’s installation is closer to design and to science, because it is actually extremely important that this beautiful vision one day becomes a reality, the sooner the better, while for Jalila Essaidi’s artwork the outcome of the testing is not important for artwork.
At the exhibition Montalti showed the small laboratory model which explains the procedure of the degradation of plastics with a joined forces of these mixed culture, the visionary model which presents how these organism would look like and the movie where System Synthetics project is explained.
The model of the small laboratory shows the whole process of the degradation which in the end results in the production of alcohol. There is a simple, profound aesthetics present in this installation, it brings the little, designed laboratory into museum context, in fact the only laboratory genuinely aesthetic parts which refer to bioreactor and to different models of transparent bottles, Erlenmeyer’s flasks, round-bottom flasks through which we can see the colours of different liquids, different plastic materials and of course two organisms. Within this simple aesthetic design mixed culture should occur one day for whose efficiency aesthetics will not be the least important. On the other hand, this useful, man-made design will, of course, bring the question of ethics. Is it ethical to accelerate the evolution in order to solve the problems which the humans created themselves?
Finally, we have to repeat that for bio-art works usually the process itself is also extremely important but it is not easy to understand it without being close to the laboratory or a bio-artist. That is the feature which brings bio-art really close to literature. Because, when we listen about these artworks, they seem more like a (fiction) story than actual existing visual artwork. There are a lot of people who claim that reality has become so crazy that art can’t anymore surpass it. Is that the reason why art also decided to be real??? It is indeed an interesting fact that in our, largely virtual time, art itself, which has always been virtual, has become alive and palpable. Formulated like this, it sounds like an alarming situation. Art that has always been based solely on fantasy, suddenly becomes alive and real, and the world that should be real, the world where we spend much of our real time, the world of computers and Facebook – is entirely virtual.. We should reassess that, to observe it as a new version of metaphore and myth. And Designers and Artists 4 Genomics Award is the great chance to initiate thinking – thinking about past, present and of course- the future. In couple of hundreds years what will the words natural or real mean? Something quite the opposite than what they mean today?, that is the question to pose.
Neva Lukic, art historian