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Bio-art's hybrid lives

Kirsty Darlaston

Eduardo Kac, Move 36, transgenic installation, 2004 (detail) Eduardo Kac, Move 36, transgenic installation, 2004 (detail)
courtesy Julia Friedman Gallery
Controversial creator of an “artist’s gene” (Genesis, 1999) and a fluorescent rabbit (Alba, 2000), Eduardo Kac is a new media arts visionary. Working and speculating in the areas of interactivity, telepresence and transgenic art, he exhibits internationally and lectures and conducts workshops on his own and other artists’ works and the issues arising from them. Documentation of his work can be found at Eds.

Eduardo Kac’s Art and Biotechnology Workshop at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation brought together bio-art practitioners, writers and theorists to “discuss the complex and fascinating relationship between biology and art in the larger context of related social, political and ethical issues” (press release). Kacs opened the workshops by recontextualising and demystifying bio-art, placing it in a continuum of works by artists who have used living beings in many different ways. Kacs explains biotechnology as an understanding of life such as to be able to harness its processes—to take a simple example, as in the making of yoghurt or plant grafting. In 1644 grafting was already ‘naturalised’, as seen in paintings showing farmers grafting orange twigs onto lemon trees, joining discrete elements to produce new viable life forms. Analogously bio-art is medium specific; only certain strains will survive the grafting process.

The American photographer Edward Steichen is cited by Kacs as one of the first artists to create a new life form and present it as art. Steichen bred delphiniums and exhibited them at MOMA as artistic works in the 1930s and 40s. He also wrote scientific articles about his findings, thus straddling the worlds of art and science. Steichen used cross-pollination and often deliberately employed chemicals to cause ‘unnatural’ mutations. You can still own a Steichen; the seeds are available on the internet, distributed through a seed supplier, begging the question—is the buyer then committed to keeping the artwork alive? A question that must also inform the work of contemporary bio-artists.

Steichen was part of a larger movement in the 1930s to appropriate life as art, where art moved from representations of the body to the body itself and its processes. The 1960s saw the culmination of this engagement, evident in works such as Manzoni’s infamous signed collection of his canned shit. Around the same time Kournelis exhibited 12 live horses, unadorned, nothing but the living objects in the gallery. Here the focus turns to the smells, sounds and sights of life, away from the discourse of art. These works highlight the issue of distribution, another concern of bio-art. The residue of the Kournelis horses resides in the photographs, oral histories, conceptual discussions and media records that are materially connected to the event. The artefact of bio-art is the record, the history-making aspect of the work which acts as evidence. How does this artefact become part of an artistic economy? How can funding bodies be persuaded to support projects with a predetermined life span or invest in artworks that, like Kacs’ own, live for up to 2 years, surviving only in photographic records and written documentation.
Eduardo Kac Eduardo Kac
Photo: Carlos Fadon, Courtesy Galerie J. Rabouan Moussion
On day 2 of the workshop, Kacs focused on the 60s, the 70s and ecology. During this time both scientists and artists focused on the effects of organisms on each other, and how living beings interact with their environment. A classic artwork of this time was Alan Sonfist’s colony of soldier ants trapped in a terrarium with a mound of fruit. Here the agency of the artwork is left to the life forms inside it, with the uncontrolled outcome of ants arranging and rearranging the fruit as they use it. These self-regulating systems were often ephemeral, such as Sonfist’s Mould Paintings, where the bacteria eventually destroyed the canvas, reconciling art with natural processes when conventionally its focus is preservation.

The ecological artworks also served to highlight processes that are usually hidden, such as Helen and Newton Harrison’s Survival Units, in particular the fish bred for the purposes of the exhibition, killed for the same purpose, and eaten. The public protested against the method of electrocution originally chosen by the artists as the most humane way of killing. Traditional methods of killing fish were then used. Bio-art has provoked many such protests from the public because it makes visible processes that are usually hidden.

Day 3 of the workshop focused on art and genetics. Paralleling the earlier work of Steichen, George Gessert bred irises in the 1970s, taking notes on each breed and photos for exhibition. He counter-bred against the mainstream, trying to retain characteristics that were usually bred out in a kind of imaginative resistance to homogenisation by large companies and breeding associations. Contributing to a greater state of biodiversity, Gessert also penetrated the seed market. But his work also highlights the hostility of the gallery environment for living artworks. Gessert knocked holes in gallery walls and, in Japan, delivered light from the roof via optic fibre cables to the gallery space to keep an iris alive for the duration of the exhibition.

David Kramer’s bacterial paintings of the early 90s also call into question the traditional system of collecting artworks. Agar, ecoli and nutrients are sealed into their containers once growth has produced an aesthetically pleasing form. But the bacteria are still alive and growth may continue after the seal is broken. One of Manzoni’s cans, kept for too long under hot gallery lights, exploded! How does bioart change the custodial role of curator or collector? Will collectors purchase works that will fade, destroy themselves, die?

A more common concern in a time of hysteria about outbreaks of disease asks if the work is safe? Eduardo Kacs sees part of this as paranoia stemming from a lack of familiarity with a molecular vocabulary. We deal with bacteria every day when we clean our homes, but ‘Ecoli’ are more worrying even though involved in our digestion. However, Kac believes that at the moment we do not have enough awareness of biological processes to be able to foresee consequences of manipulating them.

Day 4 of the workshop targeted an inevitable issue in bio-art—consciousness. Kacs reported communication between bacteria ennabled by the growth of protrusions for connecting and communicating with each other and exchanging genetic information. He sees “the field of biological studies...changing from a life science into an information science.”

The project for bio-artists at the moment is to open up the art establishment to new methods of distribution for living artworks, outside of the hostile gallery environment. As bio-artists navigate the cellular world, it seems they must also navigate the unfamiliar territories of collaborations with scientists, the grey areas of the art-science nexus and an artistic economy that exists beyond the artefact.

Art and Biotechnology Workshop with Eduardo Kacs, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, May 18-21

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 36

© Kristy Darlaston; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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