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<nettime> frazzled bio art digest [thacker, crowley]
nettime's_infernal_machinist on Sat, 18 Jan 2003 18:21:35 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> frazzled bio art digest [thacker, crowley]

RE: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science)
     "Eugene Thacker" <eugene.thacker {AT} lcc.gatech.edu>
Re: <nettime> FW: [CSL]: Jeremy Rifkin: Dazzled by the science
     Amanda McDonald Crowley <amc {AT} autonomous.org>

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Subject: RE: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science)
Date: Fri, 17 Jan 2003 13:45:37 -0500
From: "Eugene Thacker" <eugene.thacker {AT} lcc.gatech.edu>

Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art=20
(In response to Jeremy Rifkin=92s article in The Guardian, 1/14/03)

Eugene Thacker


Reading over Jeremy Rifkin=92s article =93Dazzled by the Science,=94 one is=
 struck by a paradox. On the one hand there is the litany of controversial =
examples pertaining to biotechnology and art. You would expect a cohesive a=
rgument to emerge from this. But it doesn=92t. There=92s a position, howeve=
r, and it=92s very clear: biotech is bad. Or, if we were to be more generou=
s, we would say that Rifkin=92s position is that biotech is an infringement=
 upon nature, and as such is morally reprehensible, not least because it is=
 driven by economic imperatives. But this, to my mind, verges on being reac=
tionary. Why does it matter? It matters because Rifkin=92s article is exemp=
lary of the level of the current public discourse surrounding biotech. This=
 so-called public discourse mostly consists of poll-like perspectives on ho=
t topics such as cloning, GM foods, and stem cells. Are you for or against =
human cloning? You can vote now on a corporate-owned news media website nea=
r you.

The fault is of course not Rifkin=92s. Indeed, as a long-time author and ac=
tivist, Rifkin=92s work with the Foundation on Economic Trends has done muc=
h to influence public policy and to increase public awareness of very real =
and pertinent issues such as genetic patenting, cloning, and environmentali=
sm. So, in a sense, it is disappointing to see someone who has authored sev=
eral books critical of biotech take such as reductive position. But then ag=
ain, The Biotech Century followed a similar pattern: a litany of controvers=
ial examples from the biotech industry, accompanied by condemnations of bio=
tech=92s market-driven infringement upon nature. The end of Rifkin=92s arti=
cle in The Guardian states: =93Now that we can begin re-engineering ourselv=
es, we mistakenly think of the new technological manipulation as a creative=
 act, when in reality it is merely a set of choices created in a laboratory=
 and purchased in the marketplace. The biotech revolution is the ultimate c=
onsumer playground=85the new genetic technologies grant us a godlike power =
to select the biological futures of the many beings who come after us.=94

Rifkin=92s =93biotech-is-bad=94 position is actually twofold. First, it is =
bad because it transgresses the sacred boundaries between the natural and a=
rtificial worlds, between biology and technology, between =93godlike=94 cre=
ation and instrumental artifact. Second, biotech is bad because it is motiv=
ated by predominantly economic concerns (find a gene, make a pill, sell it =
to you). Now the question: does one position necessarily imply the other? I=
n other words, can we develop a political-economic critique of biotechnolog=
y, without having to adopt the moralizing of the first position? Again: why=
 does this matter? It matters because too often, in the public discourse on=
 biotech, political critique slides into moral conservatism. Rifkin does no=
t =96 or cannot =96 distinguish these two positions. For him, saying that b=
iotech is bad is also saying that something mysterious called =93nature=94 =
is good, and that the latter should by all means be protected from the inva=
sion by the former.=20

But we might ask =96 what is the =93opposite=94 of biotechnology? Indeed, w=
hat is biotechnology? Sure, there are definitions in molecular genetics tex=
tbooks, as well as pop science books on the genome, but definitions vary. I=
s the selective breeding of animals or selection of seeds biotech? If so, b=
iotech is a very old practice indeed, extending back to antiquity. Or is it=
 only techniques developed after genetic engineering in the 1970s? If so, t=
hen =93technology=94 is equivalent to lab gadgets. Historians like Robert B=
ud have adopted one approach often taken: biotechnology is a set of practic=
es, in which biological =93life=94 is appropriated for human use in a range=
 of industries (chemical, biomedical, agricultural). Recent work in science=
 studies and sociology has been more specific: biotechnology is a discourse=
 in which what is legitimately recognized as =93life=94 is reformulated alo=
ngside emerging scientific, cultural, and political paradigms (molecular bi=
ology=92s genetic =93code=94 =96 see the work of Lily Kay, Richard Doyle, H=
ans-Jorg Rheinberger, Donna Haraway, Vandana Shiva, Catherine Waldby). Crit=
ical Art Ensemble =96 one of the groups condemned by Rifkin =96 have been m=
ore specific on biotech. Biotechnology is first and foremost an industry, a=
nd as such it functions as a =93flesh machine,=94 generating new products a=
nd services, and thereby creating new niche markets, in the process transfo=
rming public understandings of what counts as nature, the body, and health.

None of this should be new or surprising to anyone who has followed the new=
s headlines concerning the genome project, stem cell debates, or the latest=
 genetic chimeras. The point here is that, when positing a critique of biot=
ech, we would do well to assess our own position as well. What are we prote=
cting when we condemn biotechnology? Is it a mythical, pre-technological st=
ate of nature? Is it the last remnants of our faith in the uniqueness of =
=93the human=94? Is it theology (if not religion)? Is it the dream of a pos=
t-capitalist society? In a sense, critiquing biotech is easy. Finding =93ba=
d guys=94 to point at is easy. The hard part is figuring out what the criti=
que is defending.

Actually, finding the bad guy in biotech is not so easy. Corporations are a=
lways easy targets, and, in a sense, convenient straw men. (Literally.) Is =
the problem only economic? We are mistaken if we think that an extraction o=
f the economic aspects of biotech will solve any problems. Supposing that w=
e could somehow separate economics from bioscience research, we would still=
 be left with a series of epistemological and ontological issues. But we sh=
ould also be clear. Yes, there have been and are now injustices which have =
occurred in relation to the biotech industry, and which raise issues concer=
ning human rights, environmentalism, bioterrorism, and cross-cultural negot=
iations concerning sustainability. And yes, in such cases accountability sh=
ould be an issue, no matter how monolithic a government agency or pharmaceu=
tical corporation may seem.

All of this is to suggest something quite simple: that Rifkin=92s article, =
exemplary of the public discourse on biotechnology, is as reductive as the =
science and art he denounces.


Now part two. Rifkin may be reductive, but saying so is not a round-about w=
ay of defending the scientists and artists he critiques. Rifkin is mis-info=
rmed =96 or un-informed =96 about biotech research and bioart. But his basi=
c points are well worth considering, if in a more articulated manner.

In short, Rifkin is mostly right about bioart. Much bioart is just bad art,=
 =93bio-=93 or no =93bio-=93. But to lump together scientist-entrepreneurs =
like Venter (of Celera), and artists like Eduardo Kac into one group is rid=
iculous. Clearly Rifkin has not done his homework (and no, visiting website=
s does not count). And there are not only numerous exceptions to the rule, =
but differences between artists. Critical Art Ensemble=92s work is very, ve=
ry different form the work of Kac. Different approaches, different methods,=
 different media, different positions (indeed, one may guess that CAE would=
 eschew the very notion of =93bioart=94). Anyone who has taken even a surfa=
ce interest in the current intersections of art and biology knows that ther=
e is a great deal of diverse work out there, being produced in a range of c=
ontexts. Which, again, doesn=92t mean it=92s all good art. But it is both a=
n emerging and a diverse field.=20

That being said, we can refine some of Rifkin=92s comments concerning bioar=

- Bioart usually benefits the artists more than the scientist collaborators=
 While there are a great many examples of scientists collaborating with ar=
tists on projects, there are a few asymmetries worth noting. First, the wor=
k itself is usually shown in an art context. Second, if publication occurs,=
 it is more likely to be in an art journal than a scientific one. Third, wh=
en instances of professional recognition arise (e.g., tenure & promotion), =
the artist gets recognition, while the scientist often does not. Fourth, ar=
tists and scientists work with very different funding budgets. Very differe=

- The context for bioart is often the site of the gallery. This may not be =
problematic in itself, but when bioart claims to be speaking about biotech =
in terms of education and public awareness, then we have to wonder about th=
e site of this engagement. The art gallery is itself a specialized site, qu=
ite alienating for many people. How can art claim to reach a public about s=
cience, when it still has not resolved its inability to reach a public abou=
t art?

- In bioart, =93gee-whiz=94 science often overwhelms critical engagement. T=
hat is, bioart often eschews ethical considerations in favor of technical o=
nes. Anyone will admit that learning how to work the automatic sequencing m=
achine is cool, but it is worthwhile to reflect on it a little. The old que=
stion =93can I do this=94 versus =93should I do this=94 is worth reconsider=
ing in the context of bioart practices =96 as art practices.

- Bioart can sometimes become PR for the biotech industry. In some cases th=
e aestheticization in bioart can feed into the =93rhetoric of wonder=94 abu=
ndant in popular discussions of the genetic understanding of life. It is fa=
scinating that your DNA stretched out is five feet long (or whatever it is)=

- But not all bioart is formalist. In fact, a number of artists enjoy and c=
ultivate the =93outsider-artist=94 persona, which indicates that bioart may=
 be attempting to fashion itself as the new avant-garde (oh no, not again=
=85). By pitching itself as transgressive, bioart risks replaying the tired=
 narrative of mainstream recuperation. Except that recuperation will this t=
ime be activated by government research institutions and biotech companies =
with programs titled =93a celebration of art and science.=94 (Might we some=
day see artists as spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies?)

It should be clear that an overall attempt to carefully differentiate the t=
opics under discussion is needed. Again, Rifkin=92s article and position is=
 symptomatic. While it may be tempting to demonize =93biotech industry=94 a=
s a whole, we need to pay attention to the way in which biotechnology is be=
coming more and more diversified. Take genomics. It=92s not just =93the=94 =
human genome project, it=92s human genome projects, plural. It=92s also tie=
d to structural genomics, proteomics, pharmacogenomics, population genomics=
, studies of polymorphisms, haplotypes, SNPs, and of course all that junk D=
NA. Each of these are sub-industries and sub-disciplines in themselves. The=
 more one learns about the rabid specialization in biotech, the more it bec=
omes difficult to say that the biotech industry does this or that. Again, t=
he question is not whether this is good or bad (though diversification is a=
lways good for revitalizing the flows of capital). The question is that we =
have not yet learned how to ask adequate questions.

The same can be said for the loose grouping of art-science collaborations c=
alled =93bioart.=94 The work of bioartists such as Critical Art Ensemble, J=
oe Davis, Natalie Jeremijenko, Kac, SymbioticA, and Adam Zaretsky is anythi=
ng but a homogenous group of tech-geeks doing it =93just because.=94 I won=
=92t say that every bioart project is unproblematic, but I will say that th=
e issues and methods employed are incredibly diverse, from performance, to =
sculpture, to robotics, to tissue engineering, to activism. The more one le=
arns about the manifold intersections between art and science (and their pr=
oblematics), the more ridiculous it seems to imply an equivalence between b=
ioart and entrepreneurial biotech.


This has already been too long just to make a few points. What to do. Why n=
ot be prescriptive?

First, we need to, once and for all, dispense with the easy opposition betw=
een pro- and anti-biotech positions. Again, while there are very serious is=
sues regarding biotech that need to be directly addressed =96 biopiracy, pa=
tenting, globalized health care, informatization =96 simply condemning a mo=
nolithic =93thing=94 called the biotech industry helps no one. To simply de=
monize biotech is to miss the point. The problem is not just economics in b=
usiness, not just reductionism in science, not just moralizing in the human=
ities. It is all of these together. What is needed is not a persecutional s=
earch for the bad guy; what is needed is the ability to develop a critical =
engagement with biotech. The theorists and artists mentioned so far all sup=
port this basic position.

Second, there is a need to reconsider our views of technology in light of t=
he ongoing advances in biotechnology. Over 30 years ago, Marshall McLuhan f=
amously declared that the =93medium is the message=94 =96 and thirty years =
before that Walter Benjamin warned against the =93aestheticization of polit=
ics=94 he saw in avant-garde art such as Futurism. Unlike computer technolo=
gies, bio-technologies take life itself as the means and the medium. Life b=
ecomes indissociable from technological instrumentalization. A medium is no=
 longer a =93machine=94 (in the literal sense of the term), be it a TV, VCR=
, or computer. A medium is above all a process, a transformation, and an ob=
jective. What do we see with biotech? A process of steadily reiterating a n=
ew central dogma: genetics is code and code is both immaterial (in the comp=
uter, in silico) and material (affecting a patient, in vivo). We also see t=
hat process (encoding, recoding, decoding) affecting transformations: gene =
discovery, genetically-designed drugs, stem cell therapies, GM foods, etc. =
Finally, that process and its resultant transformation occur within a set o=
f objectives (and this is where it gets sticky): for the pharmaceutical ind=
ustry, that objective is making pills; for the biotech industry, that objec=
tive is raising capital and demonstrating effective clinical trials; for th=
e IT industry, that objective is feeding high-tech into biotech; for the he=
alth care sector, that objective is assessing whether or not genetic medici=
ne will become a part of routine health care; and so on. What do we have wh=
en biology is a technology? What do we have when our notions of technology =
are no longer decisively separate from our biologies? We have something tha=
t can only be called =93biomedia.=94

Third, as public discussions over biotech continue, those of us involved ne=
ed to be aware of the moment when political activism turns into moral conse=
rvatism. Positioning oneself against the patenting of living beings is one =
thing; but offering a view of an untainted, pure nature against invasive bi=
o-technologies is quite another. We do not need religious or moral fundamen=
talism in order to counteract and intervene in the biotech industry.=20

Rifkin=92s overall anxiety is strangely expressed - as if the real threat i=
s that publicly available biotechnologies will spawn a new fashion movement=
 (bioPrada?). While Rifkin cites a number of controversial examples, it app=
ears that the primary reason for their being condemned is that they infring=
e upon nature (human biology included). Rifkin=92s comments are noteworthy =
when they raise the question of ethics. But it is not clear to me how, in t=
his day and age, we can still make an argument for a pure nature beyond the=
 reach of technology or artifice. According to Rifkin=92s exceedingly broad=
 terms, we=92ve had human =93bio-technologies=94 for sometime. It=92s calle=
d the institution of marriage. Again and again, the position being expresse=
d by Rifkin appears to simply be that biotech transgresses the sacred domai=
n of nature. Crossing genes, goat + sheep, fish + plant, human genes in mic=
e, spider genes in goats, genetically-engineered super-spiders?... The arit=
hmetic of this position is straightforward. And incredibly reductive. And w=
hat is the true definition of art for Rifkin, in this context? Art is an =
=93expression of love.=94 No comment. If art has a definition, it certainly=
 isn=92t as formulaic as that (or so one would hope). Rifkin=92s understand=
ing of art is no more sophisticated than the scientists he criticizes.

All the same, Rifkin=92s point concerning non-scientists doing science pose=
s a thought experiment: will the PC happen to biotech? Is the human genome =
project the equivalent of the ENIAC? In other words, if the tools, techniqu=
es, and knowledge of molecular genetics and biotechnology are opened to the=
 public, will this be a moment of liberation or of enslavement? Likely neit=
her. But it does beg the question: if we condemn renegade scientists and av=
ant-garde artists, different as they are, then who holds the privilege to m=
ake decisions about who can have access, about how knowledge is disseminate=
d? Not so long ago the same question was posed in relation to computers. Bu=
t, you say, computers are just machines, just a bunch of bits, totally diff=
erent from the =93real stuff=94 of biology. Perhaps. But have computers not=
 been as materially effective in transforming our lives as any biotechnolog=
y? Recall the U.S. government=92s ongoing paranoia surrounding hacking and =
computer terrorism. Computers have also affected modes of production, and n=
ot only in Third World microchip factories. Work is no longer an activity t=
hat takes place at an office; labor is immanent, biopolitical.=20

The anxieties surrounding biotechnology are no different, and certainly not=
 new. (Brave New World, yes. But also Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, The Golem, =
even Ovid=92s Metaphorphoses.) The double-bind expressed by Rifkin is the f=
ollowing: on the one hand, there is a deep anxiety about and mistrust of bi=
otechnologies. But on the other hand, there is an even deeper anxiety about=
 such technologies becoming accessible to the general public (=93let into t=
he wild,=94 as it were). So the question pertains to the policing of discip=
lines as much as policy decisions or economics. And we police our own disci=
plines, meaning that we police our own set of knowledges as well, and the w=
ays in which those knowledges are instrumentalized. The solution is clearly=
 not to just open the gates and give every citizen their own PCR machine. W=
e need to complexify our understanding of the issues beyond the ballot-ment=
ality (are you for human cloning or against? Are you for or against bioarti=
sts? How about that on the next ballot?=85). Recognizing that this stalemat=
e must be overcome is an important step.

Eugene Thacker, PhD
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology
eugene.thacker {AT} lcc.gatech.edu

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Date: Sat, 18 Jan 2003 14:27:47 +0530
Subject: Re: <nettime> FW: [CSL]: Jeremy Rifkin: Dazzled by the science
From: Amanda McDonald Crowley <amc {AT} autonomous.org>

> Dazzled by the science
> Biologists who dress up hi-tech eugenics as a new art form are dangerously
> deluded
> Jeremy Rifkin
> Tuesday January 14, 2003
> The Guardian

I was worried in this article by Rivkin's statement that it is specifically
"Other scientists [who] worry that Venter's creation could wreak havoc on
natural ecosystems or be used to create new kinds of biological weapons."

Surely such concerns are not just the domain of scientists: whether they are
opportunities or threats, discussion about such scientific Œdiscoveries¹ and
research must be open for public debate.

Perhaps I am too much of an optimist, but it seems to me that the space that
artists can provide for an interrogation of a creative (public) imaginary
has the potential for opening up possibilities for informing technological
innovation and scientific enquiry; indeed art might provide a forum in which
to examine scientific and intellectual inquiry in very real social and
cultural contexts.

Pinpointing science as an artistic medium in and of itself, as opposed to an
integral part of human endeavour up for critical artistic reflection like
all other aspects of our existence, is undoubtedly a circuitous deadend.

On the same day that I saw this article on nettime, I also saw the obituary
for the untimely death of Rich Gold, a person who will be remembered as a
visionary in the establishment and support of creative cross disciplinary
engagements.  I was reminded of the poignant words he wrote in the recent
publication of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, 'scientific

³Designers and engineers often think of what they do as solving problems,
but that¹s not how artists and scientists think of what they do.  They
create objects and ideas that bend the very fabric of our lives, pushing out
the envelope in which innovation can occur.  Combining the aesthetic with
the physical the artist with the scientist, produces not just more art and
science (which is does); or better artists and scientists (which it does);
but it might also transform the matrix of innovation here to create a
spectacular and productive six billion-seat space ship that we want to live


On 15/1/03 3:11 PM, "David Wood" <D.F.J.Wood {AT} newcastle.ac.uk> wrote:

> http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,874312,00.html
> Recently, J Craig Venter, the gene scientist whose company, Celera Genomics,
> led the race to map the human genome, announced a plan to create the first
> artificial life form in a laboratory dish. Venter, who has teamed up with

Amanda McDonald Crowley
tel: +61 (0)419 829 313
e:  amc {AT} autonomous.org  /  amc {AT} va.com.au

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