Novel Artistic Expression Through Biotechnology

GFP_hiir“Bio art” is a term coined in 1997 by Eduardo Kac, one of its earliest artists and pioneers. He used the term to describe Time Capsule, a performance piece where Kac surgically inserted a tracking microchip into his ankle in front of a live audience [1]. In the late 90s, this work was a timely interrogation of the growing relationship between humans and technology. Eduardo Kac and his peers have since used biotechnology to address futuristic technological developments and age old cultural concepts alike.

Bio art extrapolates from current technologies to reflect on the relationship between society and the myriad of biotechnological advancements. In particular, the growing sophistication of genetic technologies has paralleled their growing prevalence in bio art. Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an electronic artist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, showcased Stranger Visions at various cities in the U.S. in the summer of 2013. Her project involved collecting stray hairs and cigarette butts around New York City, and analyzing the DNA to determine their owners’ gender, hair color, likelihood for obesity, and other characteristics. She went on to model and 3D print portrait sculptures based on the genetic information acquired. The aim of this work, like many of its kind, was to “highlight questions of genetic privacy, and also point to questions of how technology like this might be used in the future” [2].

Bio art does more than question the role and purpose of a growing body of complex and untested technology. It also uses technology to critically assess older concepts of the human form in society and culture. For example, the French artist Orlan applied radical surgery to her own face in The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan to give her the facial features of famous women in art history, including the chin of Botticelli’s Venus and the forehead of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa [3]. The piece has been interpreted as a feminist critique of women’s beauty ideals historically set by European men. In this case, as in others, technology is not the focus of bio art, but a medium that facilitates questioning of the body and self through the tools that morph them.

Another common idea tackled by bio art is the relationship between humans and nature, be it through critiques of animal testing or more ethereal questions of humanity’s place in nature. Another of Eduardo Kac’s early works is Genesis, a piece where he translated the Bible verse, “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” into DNA base pairs. The verse was then encoded into the DNA of bacteria. The audience could mutate the bacteria genome by turning on an ultraviolet light, confronting themselves with a more complete dominion over animal than could possibly have been imagined before bioengineering [4].

Using technology to ask ethical and philosophical questions on biology and biotechnology is a uniting idea among bio artists. Consequently, official collaborations between laboratories and artists have become more prevalent in recent years, with the rise of programs like SymbioticA, a bio art research lab at the University of Western Australia. This institute is most famous for the work Victimless Leather, a project where a jacket was grown from mouse fibroblasts and human bone cells [5]. In the U.S., the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has the Bio Art Initiative, a program that pairs its Arts Department with its Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. Its statement of purpose is the “synthesis of emerging biotechnological research and media art practice” to foster “a mutually supportive and critically engaged culture between art, engineering and science” [6]. This goal has already been embraced by the artistic community, and is being increasingly accepted by the scientific one.

5187524941_369e812771_oThe fusion of art with science comes not without controversies already familiar to scientific research. Kac’s famous (or infamous) performance piece Alba, a genetically engineered rabbit that expressed GFP (green fluorescent protein) and glowed under ultraviolet light, received criticism from PETA and other animal rights activists for the exploitation and undue suffering of animals [7]. Laura Cinti, a bio artist who engineered cacti to grow human hair instead of spines, noted that many reacted by calling her work, “highly irresponsible, immoral, provoking, and ethically disturbing” [8].

However, the lens of art raises these technologies to a public consciousness in ways that are high in profile but low in serious repercussions. Kac’s Alba considers the morality of manipulating the genome of animals, and asks hard questions of how far human control ought to go in genetic engineering. Art is often culturally reflective in this way; to some concern, GFP-modified GloFish became commercially available pets in 2003, five years after Alba [9]. The questions that Kac’s work poses are now questions of palpable consequences to society.

Furthermore, bio art is a reflection of how technology changes people and society, an idea that has recently emerged in the 2012 Paralympics. South Africa’s Oscar Pistorious, after losing a 200-meter sprint, accused Brazil’s Alan Oliviera of having the unfair advantage of newer, better-designed prosthetic legs [10]. Some experts predict that Paralympic-level prosthetic blades are likely to outperform organic legs in the near future [11]. This reality echoes ideas forwarded by the Australian artist Stelarc. In his work Third Arm, muscle contractions in the artist’s legs and abdomen control a robotic third arm to move and write alongside its natural counterparts. Stelarc’s performances were one of bio art’s earliest illustrations of how the human body could supersede its natural state. Over thirty years later, technology is catching up to Stelarc’s ideas, with interesting and contentious repercussions.

Research scientists justify their treatment of animals and other methods as necessities in the pursuit of the greater good of society. It can be easily argued that bio artists, who induce self-reflection and critical thought in a way specific to our increasingly technological society, do the same.


1. Kac, Eduardo. 2009. “Time Capsule.” Last modified December 23.
2. Chow, Denise. 2013. “Artist Puts A Human Face On DNA.” LiveScience, June 6. Accessed August 17, 2013.
3. Frieling, Rudolph. 2013. “Orlan ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’”. MediaArtNet. Accessed August 18.
4. Kac, Eduardo. 2013. “Genesis.” Last modified June 13.
5. Symbiotica. 2013. “Semipermeable(+).” Last modified June 23.
6. BioArt Initiative. 2008. “BioArt Initiative At Rensselaer.” Last modified February 3.
7. Onion, Amanda. “Artist’s Glowing, Live Rabbit Creation Causes Fuss.” ABCNews, September 13. Accessed August 14, 2013.
8. Quintero, Esther. 2007. “Laura Cinti: The Cactus Project.” Les Mutants, March 5.
9. Glofish. 2013. “Glofish FAQ.” Accessed August 18.
10. Bull, Andy. 2012. “Oscar Pistorius angry at shock Paralympic 200m loss.” The Guardian, September 2. Accessed August 15, 2013.
11. Gillespie, James. 2012. “Paralympians could soon beat the able-bodied, say scientists.” The Sunday Times, September 2. Accessed August 18, 2013.

Lucia Lu is a second-year at the University of Chicago. She is fascinated by the oft-overlooked philosophical and social consequences inherent in science, especially biology. She thrives in the intersection of art and science, be it in bio art, science fiction, or something else entirely. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.