Biology and art

Biology and art

Eduardo kac, gfp bunny, 2000, transgenic artwork. Alba, the fluorescent rabbit.

Artificial haute, living artworks and biohacking for burgers

In the age of biotechnologies, the boundaries between the natural and the artificial are shifting; technological achievements continuously and persistently offer new possibilities for genetically manipulating living beings and designing them according to human ideas. In this context, it is interesting to take a look at what trends there are in contemporary art on the subject of biotechnology and how artists make use of life-science technologies for themselves. Last but not least, there are also efforts to make life-science methods in the form of a "do-it-yourself" biology for citizens to experience and use.

The skin

The skin is something that is always there. No human being can exist without them. It literally surrounds us and protects us from harmful influences from the environment. The skin is our coarsest and heaviest organ. As an organ of perception, it makes an essential contribution to our sensory experience and, often underestimated in its importance, constantly provides us with impressions of our surroundings, of the current climatic conditions and of pleasant or unpleasant emotions.

Tactile perception gives us the ability to touch and understand things. The skin perceives when we ourselves are touched. The skin is also very present in language. Who has not occasionally liked to "go off the deep end" or has not heard of someone "saving their skin" or "going off the deep end"?.

Image: valleymag. The image is licensed under cc-by-sa 2.0 license

Naked, exposed skin can be a source of public pride, as can the demand for its full covering. The skin as a body surface is subject to multiple social interpretations and conventions. It is also subject to socially shared standards, such as what is a beautiful, an old or a loaded skin. The skin is the object of decoration, ornamentation and presentation, as well as covering and covering. Cover. At the same time, the skin is already "by nature" a carrier of special markers; the relative uniqueness of the fingerprint is used to establish the identity of its carriers, as is the presence of birthmarks, fire marks, or scars.

The designation of skin marks as birthmarks indicates a non-gender-neutral treatment of the skin: until the 18. In the nineteenth century, the idea was widespread that skin changes were due to bad influences during pregnancy. The sole responsibility for the blemishes of the offspring was attributed to the woman, how could it be otherwise?. The different colors and tones of the skin are also the subject of social practices that can contribute to discrimination, preference and the formation and reformation of identities.

In language, countless idioms, expressions and terms (sic!) refer to the skin itself and the tactile perceptions associated with it 1. On the one hand, it can be used as a demarcation or. Separation of a self lying in the skin from the "auben", its environment, can be understood. In this interpretation, the skin takes the form of an inhabited shell, as is evident, for example, in the phrase that someone "feels quite comfortable in his skin". The skin is understood here as a dividing border metaphor.

On the other hand, the skin can be understood as a weighty part of the self. Formulations such as "to be an honest skin" or "to save one’s skin" point to an equation of the skin with the entire person. This interpretation is also visible in the particularly cruel execution by flaying, the flaying of the skin alive. Here the victims are deprived of their identity along with their lives, the de-skinning also erases the person along with the skin 2.

The skin as a sensory organ provides information about temperature, as well as perceived pain on the surface of the body. In the function of the sense of touch there is a special connection between the hands and the skin. The skin, as a passive sensory organ that conveys impressions of temperature and pain, extends over the entire surface of the body. The tactile component of the sense of touch is actively localized in the hands, which, unlike the rest of the skin, are equipped with their own motor activity.

Hand and skin

It is the hand that grasps at things, the skin, on the other hand, can only be touched. In a hierarchy of the senses, the skin senses were already identified by aristotle together with the sense of taste as the lower animal senses – in contrast to sight, hearing and smell, which were regarded as the higher human senses. In linguistic expressions that refer to tactile experience (e.G., the skin), the skin is used as a symbol. Feeling, tracing, being moved, sensing, being touched), a high emotional content becomes visible. The same applies to sensory-spatial qualities of the skin senses.

The skin has different meanings and functions in different contexts and situations, which go far beyond its purely organic functions. Like the body itself, it can be part of nature or society, artistic as well as a means of expression of the individuality of its wearer. The philosopher michel serres 3 therefore describes the skin as a supple multiplicity that adapts and remains stable at the same time, that reaches for things and grasps them at the same time. For serres is the skin that the most important sensory organ, as the different shapes of the skin (auricle, nose, and nose…) form the basis for every sensual impression.

And last but not least, the skin is associated with the artificial and the technical, when it is treated and processed dermatologically or cosmetically, or when it is treated and processed in a way that is not only artificial, but also technical. Is artfully reproduced when it is faithfully recreated or an attempt is made to artfully imitate the sense of touch that is at home in it. For prosthetics and robotics, the question also arises as to how the body surfaces of artificial limbs and living beings should be designed so that they can optimally preserve themselves in the most diverse environments.

Here, too, the model is based on the human skin. Some dermatologists are interested in the skin and its different manifestations not only from a medical point of view. Film buff and san francisco-based dermatologist dr. Vail reese, for example, runs the website skinema, where he scrutinizes and interprets all possible films from the point of view of the skin states of the protagonists and actors.

Skin as a comment on "america’s ethics and morals"

Again and again one gets to hear and read horror stories, in which it is reported that artfully tattooed humans were hewn, in order to secure thereby a continuance of the works of art pierced into the skin for instance in the form of lamp shades.

In response to reports like this, american artist andrew krasnow has actually used the skin of deceased people who donated their bodies to medical research to make lampshades, flags, maps, and even boots. Krasnow sees his work as a commentary on human cruelty and america’s ethics and morals. In addition, the procedure of embedding books in human skin is still used today in english under the technical term anthropodermic bibliopegy.

The new ear

The designers of the french skinbag team make a mockery out of developing artificial materials that look very similar to human skin in order to tailor sometimes bizarre fashion objects from them. The website of human leather, on which the makers promise to deliver belts, money corsages and shoes made of human skin, is not to be taken entirely seriously.

Much more serious, however, is the sk-interfaces exhibition curated by jens hauser in liverpool in 2008, which aimed to address skin as a given where art, technology, science, philosophy and culture can meet. The separation and convergence of artificial and natural membranes, also and especially through the use of biotechnological processes and the artificial creation of new skins and membranes that merge with and overlap the existing natural ones.

Here, for instance, the bio- and body artist orlan presented her harlequin coat, a life-size patchwork coat made of skin cells from different cultures and species grown in a test tube to symbolize the fusion of different cultural entities. The prosthetic artist stelarc had an artificial ear implanted on his forearm, which, equipped with a microphone and a bluetooth transmitter, is supposed to represent a kind of internet organ of the body. Sterlac wanted to address the miniaturization and biocompatibility of future communication technologies, which, in his opinion, will penetrate the current boundaries of our skin organ.

Image: stelarc

Cultivated designer virgin skin cells

The french artist duo art oriente has created living biotechnological portraits from their own skin cells as well as from the skin of pigs, by loving to tattoo the newly created artificial skin with motifs of endangered species. This work is aimed at the possibility that in the future art lovers will be able to incorporate and transplant biotechnical hybrid artworks, making them actually part of their own body and thus always carrying them with them.

Julia reodica, an artist who specializes in medical and life science ies, has grown artificial designer virgin skins from her own vaginal cells and imprinted them with specific motifs. She is concerned here with the thematization of the value of virginity as a sign of purity in the age of its technical reproduction and the possibility of having oneself made a virgin again medically or technically after losing virginity.

Grown leather jackets

Bio-artists oron catts and ionat zurr, who are behind the buzzing australian lab project symbiotica, which explores the intersection of the life sciences and art, were at the forefront of the tie culture and art project victimless leather represent. In this work, the aim was to grow artificial skin in the form of a seamless leather jacket from a mixture of human cells and cells from mice.

As in the previous project disembodied cuisine, from the cells of a frog in a bioreactor and ate it in a performance ritual without killing the frog (the researcher who "donated" the cells is normally only active in the blood)" was present at the consumption of the art product), the question is whether, thanks to modern biotechnologies, there could be a society in which non-human life forms do not become victims of the human lifestyle.

Meat based on the body’s own cells

The raising and feeding and keeping alive of the biological works of art, as well as the killing of the viable objects presented in a ritual, are staged here as part of the performance and are part of the total work of art. The transience of this biological art also poses new questions for the art world, such as whether such artworks can be commercialized and bewitched or archived and exhibited.

Still open is the project proposed by vegan animal rights activist ingrid newkirk to breed meat on the basis of her own cells and then eat it in public in a performance. She has already patented the name for the "newkirk nuggests" that are to be created in this project.

These projects are just a few examples of countless other approaches in art, science and engineering in which the living and the technical merge and in which the boundaries between the artificial and the natural are becoming increasingly blurred.

Glowing bunnies, ants and happy meals

The artist elizabeth demaray, for example, asks what will happen if other life forms are provided with the highly industrialized food that we humans consume. To this end, together with an ocologist from the american museum of natural history, she has built a gigantic anthill in a gallery and, inspired by morgan spurlock’s cinematic self-experiment supersize me, feeds the ants living in it exclusively with happy meals from mcdonalds. Otherwise, she places listening stations for birds in the forest, on which human music is played, designs new dwellings for hermit crabs, knits clothes for trees and stones or tailors nuclear warheads in velvet.

Worth mentioning in this context is also one of the most famous bioartists: eduardo kac. Kac has worked, among other things, with alba in the year 2000, the german government created one of the first so-called transgenic living artworks; it is a rabbit (gfp bunny) that glows in the dark because the corresponding genes of jellyfish were inserted into its genetic blueprint.

Manipulation possibilities in the biotechnical age

Since 2004, the u.S. Under the name of glofish a genetically engineered zebra cichlid, which glows red under ultraviolet or black light, is available from a commercial supplier for just $5 a piece. In his latest work natural history of the enigma kac has produced a genetically engineered plant into whose dna he wanted to insert some of his own genes. As a result, kac’s dna can now be detected in the petunia, making it a new crop called "edunia", which is part plant, part man. Among other awards, kac and his fellow scientists were honored by the university of minnesota with the golden nica award at this year’s ars electronica.

Biology and Art

Eduardo kac, natural history of the enigma, transgenic work, 2003/08. Edunia, a plantimal with the artist’s dna expressed only in the red veins of the flower.

Bioartists such as eduardo kac or the founders of symbiotica want to address the significance of life and the technical manipulation of it in the biotechnical age by working with biotechnical processes and the processing of life-sustaining material, and to encourage the public to take a stand on this complex of topics. With their artworks they want to demonstrate, among other things, what is already technically possible.

Provocations are calculated in transgenic and other biotechnological artworks, as they were in many body-related artworks before – just think of the photographs by joel-peter witkin, the bloody slaughter by herman nitsch, or the sculptures made from corpses by gunther von hagens, which, among other things, depict two people engaged in sexual intercourse and are sold by him as anatomical teaching objects – are calculated, and of course it did not take long for vehement opponents of bioart to appear on the scene with their criticism of art’s treatment of living things.

It is also worth mentioning in this context that there have already been various commercially interested inquiries about this, aiming, for example, to produce laboratory-produced "sacrifice-free" meat or leather in industrial mabstabs, but this has not yet been put into practice.

Jewelry made from human bone tie

Tobie kerridge and nikki stott, design researchers from the royal college of art, and ian thompson, a bioengineer at kings college in london, aim in their project biojewellery to bring medical and technical processes from the field of bioengineering out of the laboratory and into the wider public sphere, thus stimulating a broad social discussion. The project, which involved the creation of jewelry objects from human bone tie, sought to involve interested members of the public by using their body material to make rings for their partners, for example.

While in the projects of symbiotica the exhibition public is involved and entrusted with responsibility in the form of deciding whether or not to keep the "semi-living works of art" alive and to feed them, the public participation in the biojewellery project is limited to the "donation" of bone material, for example through the extraction of wisdom teeth (note the uninviting photo series "donating cells through surgery" on the project’s homepage).

The biojewellery makers were then able to use material extracted from the teeth to "grow" rings on a specially made miniature device. The participants in this project were allowed to enjoy, after they had got over the loss of their wisdom teeth, finally on individually manufactured rings, which developed from the body material of their partners. However, the question of the extent to which such actions can serve to openly discuss society’s approach to biotechnological processes and involve citizens in the decision-making processes remains unanswered, at least in this project.

The colors of viruses

The scientific-artistic cooperation split + splice at the medical museum of the university of copenhagen has set itself the same rough goal. The point here should be to understand the complexities introduced by the use of biotechnological and biomedical processes in the 21. The aim of the project was to shed light on the plot of the twentieth century and to make it accessible to the general public. Instead of addressing the myriad of serious social, ethical, and economic ies and decisions involved in the use of high technology biomedicine, however, the consensus here seems to be to simply fetishize the objects and technologies of the labs in the form of museum exhibits – once again leaving the impression that these complicated technical matters and devices are best left to the experts in charge of them.

Didactically more interesting are the contributions of luke jerram to the illustration and understanding of viruses. As an artist, jerram has long been concerned with questions of perception. In his research on viruses, he has found that the images we have of viruses are often artificially colored – that is, the colors given to viruses in scientific imaging techniques do not correspond to their actual appearance, which in turn affects the interpretation and perception of the image of viruses.

Jerram considered how complex microorganisms such as viruses could be more appropriately and realistically represented from the perspective of the artificer. Since many viruses are transparent in reality, he chose glass as a material to create three-dimensional images of viruses. On the one hand, it was essential to cooperate with virologists; on the other hand, his idea meant that master glassblowers had to go to great lengths to convert the filigree microbiological structures into glass form. What emerged, however, were unique three-dimensional representations of microbiological pathogens, the likes of which had never been available before.

Biology and art

Luke jerram: smallpox, untitled future mutation, hiv. Image: luke jerram


Also on the theme of viruses and infections was the interactive exhibition infectious: stay away at trinity college, dublin. This exhibition was conceived and created by immunologists cliona o’farrelly and luke o’neill. The exhibition organizers were not only interested in illustrating and explaining the technical and scientific background of infections.

The exhibition also focused on the social conditions and consequences of infections. For example, all visitors to the exhibition were provided with an electronic appendix which, after a while, blinked to simulate whether or not one had already been infected in the context of the exhibition simulation. Whoever was in the vicinity of infected persons was also marked as infected. Thus, in real experiments, infection and propagation pathways could be demonstrated because of.

However, the exhibition also deliberately played with the psychological, social and informational consequences of infections and the knowledge about them. Infected people were urged to immediately visit the disinfection stations, where they were met by staff in protective suits with face masks and goggles on their faces.

The role of knowledge, ignorance and stigmatization in the course of infections is also played with here. In this way, the exhibition organizers also wanted to address the role of rumors and the media and their sometimes rather dubious reporting on topics such as sars or swine flu, but also to compare the spread of information with the spread of infection. For the visitors, their inclusion in the exhibition was certainly a stirring and moving experience.

The berlin production collective lunatiks proved with their play toxoplasma that the topic of scientific research into infections can also be translated into exciting theater. The piece follows parasitologists at charles university in prague as they research a toxoplasmosis epidemic that broke out in a small czech town in the 1990s. This is an authentic case reconstructed on the basis of original material.

The parasite toxoplasma has the ability to manipulate the brains of rats and mice so that they lose their shyness towards cats. For the pathogen this has the advantage that it can get into cats, which are the final hosts of the parasite. The czech parasite researchers have found out that infections with toxoplasma can also cause behavioral changes in humans. The affected burgers behaved more impulsively, risk-taking, emotionally and sexually disinhibited than before – celebrated orgies and one burger fell out of an airplane without a parachute. This case raises the question of what happens when the usual rules of social interaction no longer apply, and what impact this can have on local communities.

Biology and art

Toxoplasma. Photo: jelka plate/lunatiks produktion

Spab with powerpoint

That the path of the biologist can in some cases also lead to the stage of the solo entertainer, proves the case of tim lee. Lee studied and received his doctorate in ocology and evolutionary biology. After years of strenuous research, lee increasingly lost interest in an uncertain scientific career and decided to use his years of research experience to engage with science in an ironic and comedic way as a solo entertainer.

The main tool he uses for this purpose is powerpoint, a program known to all scientists as a presentation medium, through which he makes his speeches with scientific charts and graphs. And although his intention is to entertain rather than educate the audience, it is emphasized that all concepts that appear in his shows are scientifically correct.

Biology does not always have to be complicated and boring. A group of biology students with professor russel d. Fernald at stanford proves that even a beat of the wu-tang clan and the insignia of hip hop can be used to explain the processes of neurotransmission in an entertaining way.

However, it is not only the case that professional biologists and life scientists are adopting new media and dissemination channels to confront the lay public with their subject of knowledge. Previously, in fields such as astronomy or the development of open source software, untrained enthusiasts were able to engage in the subject matter out of personal enthusiasm to the extent that they could keep up with and cooperate with the academic experts in the respective fields and, in some cases, even teach them something.


Something similar can now be observed in biology. In the meantime, the movement of "do-it-yourself" biology diybio has found offshoots all over the world. The goal of this movement is to bring biological research to interested amateurs by conducting their own experiments at home in pie or basement labs with the simplest of tools; tracking the spread of microorganisms, disassembling bacteria or extracting dna from strawberries.

The next step refers to the manipulation of existing organisms. For the protagonists of the so-called biohacking, it is about the development of affordable and functional devices in a do-it-yourself process, in order to ultimately be able to lay their own hands on the genome. For many biohackers, genetic information is first and foremost a code that needs to be cracked and reprogrammed in the same way as computer and machine languages, for example to manipulate bacteria or cells and impose different functions on them.

This could also include, for example, reprogramming industrially cloned and genetically manipulated plants to their original state with cake utensils or reprogramming and releasing them in other directions.

Biology and art

Strange culture. Image: l5 productions

All this sounds somehow scary, forbidden and dangerous to many people. Especially in the u.S., the terrorist attacks of 11 september have left many in a state of fear. In the wake of the events of september 2001, the word bioterrorism quickly came to mind, for example, when one thought of the stories involving mail contaminated with anthrax and the like 4. The fact that this climate of fear is not to be spared was experienced, for example, by the performance artist steve kurtz, who also deals with the subject of biotechnology in his work.

Kurtz had obtained some laboratory equipment and harmless bacteria for an exhibition project, which he kept in his apartment. Eventually, the f.B.I. From the home lab, and kurtz spent the next four years of his life trying to disprove charges of possible intent to commit bioterrorism: kurtz was acquitted in the end. Meanwhile, there is a separate documentary about how kurtz came to be accused of being a bioterrorist and the struggle he had to endure to free himself from the charges. The title of the film: strange culture.

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