What is Bio Art?

Only art and science make us suspect the existence of life to a higher level, and maybe also instill hope thereof. – Ludwig van Beethoven

One might think that art and science are incompatible. Indeed, they seem to be on the opposing ends of a scale – art is born out of creativity and abstract thoughts and seemingly open set of rules, and science is a practice rooted in laws of logic, facts, and structure.

However, they have more in common than what meets the eye. A new era of art may be upon us, as one that finds beauty and aesthetics in biotechnology that ventures into the world of self-expression (and self-modification) like never before.

(Micro)Biology in Art

A large scale study of genomics at the J. Craig Venter Institute has recently discovered that biology, or rather microbial organisms, could be responsible for the decay of old paintings, sculptures, and other art forms. These microbes feast on compounds found in the artworks – paints, glue, paper, canvas, and wood – and slowly erode the priceless possessions.

A finding such as this one holds invaluable potential in terms of preserving artworks for museums and collectors, and perhaps even successfully identifying them. Microbes on the surface of artwork may have a key role in uncovering the geographic origin of the art and confirming its authenticity. Further studies are required in this field to establish the significance of colonies of microbes living on art.

Eduardo Kac’s ‘GFP Bunny’ [bottom left] normalising genetic modification even as they raise critical questions about dystopian futures. | Source: alluvium-journal.org

The Definition of BioArt

Microbes eating away at old paintings is a concept we aren’t too surprised by. However, what follows is a new art movement that is not only profoundly fascinating but also shocking, jarring, and perhaps even disturbing in its boldness.

The term ‘bioart’ was first used in 1997, when Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian – American artist – performed a revolutionary piece on live TV called Time Capsule. Kac’s performance consisted of implanting a microchip in his left ankle and then registering himself in a pet database for the implant as both the owner and the pet, officially becoming the first human to do so.

BioArt is defined as a bridge between art and science – a marriage between art and biohacking – where the body is an “impersonal, revolutionary, objective structure,” according to Stelarc, a performance artist focused on bioart. BioArt includes medicine, genetics, and extensions to the body, and it encourages discussion on the relationship between living and nonliving organisms. “Genes, cells or animals” become the new media of art, as the artist and writer Frances Stracey described.

Stelarc is an internationally renowned performance artist who works across disciplines and sees the body as a melding of meat, metal and code | YouTube by The Feed SBS

BioArt and the Human Body

One of the best – and most rattling – examples of bioart is Stelarc’s body-altering project. Since 1996, he’s been working on an idea of implanting an ear (a cell-cultivated ear, grown in a lab) into his forearm. It took him roughly a decade to find surgeons willing to perform such a Frankenstein-esque operation. In 2007, Stelarc finally got his ear inserted into his left forearm.

When asked about the reasoning behind his transhuman art installations, Stelarc said, “General curiosity about what’s possible, what’s plausible, what pushes the boundaries. Determining, for example, the psychological and physiological parameters of the body or how one can augment the physical body – biological body – with prosthetic attachments or robotic extensions or using instruments that enhance your sensory apparatus.” He sees the body as a combination of meat, metal, and code.

This inherent regard for the body as a means to an end – yet another art canvas – is likely what motivates bio-artists in their daring feats, regardless of the apparent health risks involved. After all, makeup, hair styling, piercings and tattoos, and similar alterations, can also be viewed as a form of bioart, only a lot less extreme than what Stelarc and his peers are doing.

Stelarc with a sculpture of his left arm and his ear implant. | Source: news.curtin.edu.au

BioArt vs. Biohacking

Biohacking is a broad term. Some take it to mean using dietary supplements and practicing yoga to improve health, but most people consider it something far more clinical and science-fiction-like. Examples of biohacking include injecting the blood of younger individuals to prevent aging, implanting microchips under the skin (a nod to Eduardo Kac), injecting specific types of DNA to resolve health problems, and more.

Also known as DIY biology, biohacking is not necessarily based on science. Some biohacks are supported by scientific evidence, but others can be either ineffective or harmful. The purpose of biohacking is twofold: curing diseases and coming as close to immortality as possible, and elevating the human body, enhancing its strength, speed, sensory perception, or any other feature through the use of drugs and implants.

You can understand how biohacking is mostly frowned upon in society. Bioethicists debate the morality of DIY-biology – whether it is right or wrong to engage in such human alterations and experimentations that push the boundaries of medicine and biology. They usually fall on the side of rejecting biohacking entirely.

Interestingly enough, such morality debates don’t exist in the world of bioart. While biohacking can be interpreted as playing God, bioart serves a different purpose – it combines living organisms with aesthetics, forces the audience to engage with the strange merger of science and creativity, and elicits visceral emotional reactions that sometimes have a cathartic quality to them.

Biohacking may be impersonal and scary, but bioart brings biological modification and enhancement closer to the people, extending the limits of self-expression and broadening the public’s perception of science.

Artist Suzanne Anker’s installation “Astroculture” at the Everson Museum of Art exhibition: “Suzanne Anker: 1.5° Celsius” (February 9 – April 21, 2019), which was inspired by terrariums, cabinets of curiosities, and the International Space Station (ISS), exploring the possibilities of future food growth in space. Using a combination of red and blue LED lights to produce photosynthesis, the process of transforming light energy into chemical energy. | Source: cfileonline.org

BioArt and the Future

Is bioart the exciting future of art? Is it the future of science?

The truth is that many are quick to accuse technology and biohacking of degrading culture and artistic value, turning us into mindless machines and separating us from emotion. They envision a future not unlike the Matrix, where code is the center of everything.

Bio-artists are challenging that future. They play with the same elements as biohacking – body parts, genes, biology, technology – but they are doing it in a way that inspires thought. In its core, bioart reaffirms life. It brings us closer to science, and yet it retains the innate ability of art to make us feel, motivate us, and encourage us to take action. BioArt may just be the start of not only a thought-provoking art movement but a biotechnology revolution as we’ve never seen before.

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