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Dr Sue Broadhurst,
Reader in Drama and Technology,
Subject Leader,
Drama Studies,
School of Arts
Brunel University,
West London,
Direct Line: 01895 266588
Extension: 66588
Fax: 01895 269780


       Transgenic art, recombinant theatre, butterflies, FISH and
                           functional portraits

     Bioart centres on the artistic investigation of biotechnology and raises complex
     ethical issues, such as, those relating to the patenting and sale of genes. At the
     same time genetic engineering is transforming forever our notions of and
     relationships to life forms including our own. Moreover, the discipline of
     biological studies is increasingly changing from a life science into an
     information science. For instance, ‘biosemiotics’ is an interdisciplinary science
     that studies communication and signification in living systems. Contemporary
     artists have responded to these changes by working with transgenics, cloning,
     inter and intraspecies communication, reproductive technologies, genotype and
     phenotype reprogramming, tissue culture engineering and hybridization
     techniques that reconfigure the borders of artwork and life.

     One such artwork is Alba the GFP (green fluorescent protein) Bunny (2000), a
     genetically engineered rabbit that glows green when illuminated with the correct
     light. For Eduardo Kac, ‘transgenic art … is a new art form based on the use of
     genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to
     transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique
     living beings’ (1998). Kac concentrates on exploring the ‘fluidity of subject
     positions in the post-digital age’, by means of a combination of ‘robotics and
     networking’, ‘telepresence’, ‘biotelematics’ and ‘transgenics’ (Kac 2005).

     Critical Art Ensemble (C.A.E.) are bioartists, who through their ‘recombinant
     theatre’, have made technology, wetware,1 and transgenics,2 the focus of their
     work. Originally they worked with multi-media but since 1996, they have
     concentrated on responding to the debates surrounding biotechnology. As
     tactical mediaists the group have presented various interactive performance
     projects. These projects are underpinned by their concerns with the
representation, development and deployment of social policies regarding this
technology. One of their works, Flesh Machine (1997-8) focuses on eugenics in
the discourse and practice of current reproductive technologies, featuring the
genetic screening of audience members and the diary of a couple going through
in vitro fertilization. Another work, Society for Reproductive Anachronisms
(1999), engages the audience in dialogue about the problems of medical
intervention in reproduction. Their more recent performances, GenTerra (2001-
5) and Free Grain Rice (2004) have attempted to critically evaluate and respond
to concerns regarding genetic engineering and the creation and release of new
life forms into the ecosystem.

Another artist who works with biotechnology is Marta de Menezes who has for
her project Nature? (1999) reprogrammed patterns on butterfly wings by
injecting the pupa in development. These pattern transformations relate only to
the phenotype and not genotype, thus disappearing at the end of the life cycle. In
her work Functional Portraits (2002), she utilizes Functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to visualize in real time the operation of the brain.
In doing so de Menezes attempts to demonstrate the correlation between
neuronal activity and the related sensation, thought or action.

As with all digital artworks, bioart both reflects and is an experimental extension
of our contemporary culture and times. As De Menezes claims, ‘people need to
react to artworks that represent what they hope or fear … The great danger, as
with any other technology, comes from people that are not informed: these are
the ones more prone to misuse technology or ban altogether some harmless and
beneficial uses.’

  A term relating to the interface of digital technology and living biological
systems. The origins of the term are unclear but gained widespread usage
following Rudy Rucker’s novel of the same name (1989).
  A transgenic is a person, plant or animal whose genetic structure has been
altered through introducing other-specie DNA into its genome.

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