dr chloe warren is a science writer, writer writer, mc, occasional comedian, and guinea pig appreciator.

Reframing biology: How bioart takes science public

Reframing biology: How bioart takes science public

This article was published in Lateral magazine in September 2015. It was inspired by a wonderful Skype conversation with the artist JJ Hastings.


Bioartists are passionate about the creation of thought provoking artwork that interrogates our modern relationship with science, particularly biology. Accordingly, living things and life processes are incorporated into their works.

The types of artwork bioartists create are diverse. With a series of stacked soil ingots surrounding a living wormery, artist Claire Pentecost invites us to consider the ongoing erosion of soils and the impact it will ultimately have on food availability. Joe Davis’ Audio Microscope allows the listener to hear acoustic signatures of living cells, facilitating witness of microbial diversity, a normally undetectable natural phenomena. In On the Subjugation of Nature, Jaden ‘JJ’ Hastings creates “a visual manifestation and expression of our contemporary relationship with nature”. A cluster of trees stands loosely wrapped together with a wide ribbon of blue fabric, upon which is printed their sequenced genome. 

Originally trained as a scientist, Hastings views herself and her contemporaries as any other fine artist. “We just happen to be working in science spaces and using different techniques and materials,” she says. Indeed, as art evolves to reflect modern culture, it’s arguable that the emergence of bioart was inevitable. The impact of bioscience, on our food sources to our health care, is constantly expanding.

Many bioart works have been facilitated by the citizen science orbiohacking movement. Citizen science requires the repositioning of science practice outside of traditional academic and industrial boundaries into a commonly accessible space, such as an abandoned warehouse or your own backyard. Hastings, for example, has had her own lab since 2009, and describes the practice of science within the public domain as nothing new: “The idea that science is something that’s done behind walls by a select group of people is actually a weird concept.” Indeed, before the availability of government and corporate science funding increased in the early 20th century, many independent or ‘gentlemen’ scientists operated without current (or any) affiliation to an academic institution.

This practice of science in public space demonstrates one of the common themes reflected across modern bioart: the issue of access. As bioscience continues to develop, it becomes increasingly interwoven with our daily experience. Yet for most people, their understanding of bioscience remains basic at least. As Hastings puts it, “people have no sense of agency or engagement with what’s happening”. Bioart then, could help to shrink this gap between science and the public. “It’s tragic that science gets seen as a power structure rather than a process,” says Hastings. She believes her role as an artist is to prompt a critical discourse regarding the current state of science as a discipline.

An example of bioart providing an opportunity for visual engagement with bioscience is found in Hastings’ artwork, On the Subjugation of Nature. In this piece, Hastings reflects upon the Anthropocene– an era in which human activity started to have a significant impact on nature. This concept is confronting to some: that human intervention with nature may be beyond reparation and perhaps out of control. Yet scientific research can aid our understanding of evolution and biodiversity, and therefore facilitate our attempts to protect our delicate ecosystems. Of course, research can also lead to less welcome outcomes, such as seed monopolies or loss of biodiversity. However, whichever way scientific research is applied, it’s already out there: like that which was used in Hastings’ work, most sequenced genomes are freely available online. It’s not necessarily the science we should be wary of, so much as the way it is used.

The artwork of Paul Vanouse considers this 'usage' of science, as well as the manner in which it is conducted. His site-specific artistic experiment, Deep Woods PCR, took place in 2011 as part of Jennifer Willet’s BioARTCAMP, in conjunction with the Banff Center. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is used to amplify DNA, and was originally developed in the 1980s. Today, this reaction remains the one of the most important processes in the study of genetics and molecular biology. In his performance, Vanouse replaced the traditional thermocycler (necessary as the separate stages of the reaction occur at different temperatures) with water buckets heated by camp fire. PCRs usually run for 40 cycles, so Vanouse shifted his reaction tubes between buckets 120 times, all while maintaining the water’s temperature by shifting the bucket’s position and managing the wood on the fire.

By re-enacting a traditionally lab-based protocol without using conventional equipment, Vanouse explores another dimension of the citizen science movement. Performing the experiment in the picturesque Canadian wilderness, and replacing black box technology (the thermocycler) with a camp fire and man power invokes a romantic notion of discovery and exploration. These romantic notions do technically remain at the heart of scientific research, but they are so frequently obscured during modern practise.

Simply bringing bioscience to the art stage can prove a useful tool in adjusting its perception. In Kathy High’s Embracing Animal, the artist explores our somewhat anxious attitude towards the ethics of animal-based research. Three genetically modified rats (Matilda, Tara and Star) were kept and maintained in special housing made available for viewing by the public. The three rats had been originally bred for research into autoimmune disease illnesses, similar to those suffered by the artist herself. High has written of the value of medical research which can depend on these creatures, but also of the risk of transgenic animals being exploited purely for commercial gain.

The question of ethics regarding the use of transgenic animals is undoubtedly a controversial one – but High does not preach an answer, or even an opinion. She merely invites the public to observe and consider.  She describes our relationship with transgenic animals as one of kinship and we are asked to question what we can do to improve the quality of life for these animals, these “forgotten workers”. By inviting the community into a debate surrounding the way science is conducted in restrictive academic spheres, bioartists are assisting with the reassertion of the true definition of science.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s piece Stranger Visions touches upon similar themes. The artist extracted DNA from an assortment of cigarette butts, human hair and discarded chewing gum found on the streets of New York City. The DNA was then analysed in order to generate a 3D portrait of the DNA’s original owner. Although the technology to accurately predict a person’s appearance based on their DNA does not yet exist, it is possible to estimate some aspects of facial structure, as well as likelihood of eye colour, skin tone and obesity. With these works, Dewey-Hagborg intended to initiate a debate around the misuse of genetic information, and she succeeded. Her work received some negative press, as laws surrounding the use of genetic information in academic research, industry and law enforcement vary from country to country. Concerns were aired regarding ethical and legal boundaries, and because of Dewey-Hagborg’s work, these concerns were reflected in current scientific practise too. Subsequently, the public were made aware of a potential threat to their privacy that may never have occurred to them. 

Science is an ever-evolving collection of ideas and evidence, constantly being constructed and deconstructed. Yes, there are strict systems in place to prevent the performance of non-ethical or sub-par science, but this system, the academic system, can never be perfect. It is of our own best interest to ensure that the academic system is forever evolving to maintain and improve the quality, safety and ethics of the science it supports and produces. While few would openly admit to being ‘anti-science,’ there are plenty who are openly critical of science in academia and industry. Frankly, scientists – and everyone – should be open to criticism on the ways and means in which science is conducted. Bioart then, is an essential tool for critiquing the way we do science.

“What we’re really doing is throwing up a mirror to academic research,” says Hastings. True scientists should welcome this; after all, we have nothing to hide.

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