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Re: <nettime> Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science
Dan Wang on Mon, 27 Jan 2003 19:50:34 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science)

Hello folks, I like much of what has been said on this topic, but offer the
following account for consideration. I think it may help broaden the way in
which we think about bioart:

The most (and maybe only) profound thing I saw in a gallery last fall was a
convergence of two notable projects, which together demonstrated to me what
the art world can contribute to the discussion about biotech.

The gallery was the Renaissance Society. The exhibition was of a selection
of large photographic prints by artist Julie Moos of downstate Illinois
farmers standing in their fields of engineered crops, and was titled the
Monsanto Project. The evening's speaker was Wes Jackson of The Land

Using compositions and subjects that recalled Walker Evans and Grant Wood,
but photographically detailing the reality of monocultural crops and the now
ubiquitous petrochemical railroading of agriculture, Moos's prints present a
serious challenge to the way Americans like to think about their
relationship to the land, and specifically to agriculture. The farmers in
these photographs, looking straight into the camera, embody the
contradictions of their work: genuine Americans who still present a picture
of this nation as racially white and morally good, but by their very product
define themselves as laborers bound to other laborers around the world by an
economy dominated by transnational capital and extractive industries. These
photographs record the twilight of a nation's dearest myth, and document a
deeply entrenched worm in the very heart of America's heartland.

Admittedly, in some environmental circles Jackson himself has become
something of a mythic figure. But standing there in the sterility of an art
gallery--a space as foreign to him as would be for any non-artist--his
aw-shucks personality was left in high relief. He laid out the basic
analysis to which The Land Institute now devotes its research: that
humanity's fundamental wrong turn-- the one that every environmental
critique hints at, the one that every critic of technology dances around,
the one that no one is willing to talk about because it's just too awesome
for most people to entertain, the one that sums it all up but just leaves
you on the edge of despair-- happened about 10,000 years ago. In a nutshell,
that problem is the cultivation of annuals for food versus the cultivation
of perennials. And that's what The Land Institute is trying to do now: breed
food-worthy perennials.

It was a fairly long and involved talk, with a sprinkling of technical
explanations at both micro and macro levels. What caught my attention
especially, and what seems particularly relevant to this thread, were his
many asides to comment on transgenic projects and why they are fundamentally
unwise. The phrase he used when explaining why The Land Institute wouldn't
go the way of transgenic engineering in trying to produce a food-worthy
perennial wheat was that "it's not smart to create situations at either the
molecular or environmental level with which an organism has no evolutionary
experience." I thought that was a pretty elegant and versatile way of making
a judgment about the appropriateness of transgenic experimentation. That
statement seems just slippery enough to avoid falling into arguments for
either a purism, or an effiency, or an aestheticism.

Interestingly, neither project alone could be considered "bioart." Moos's
work was certainly art and not science, and The Land Institute works in the
field of biological science without giving a damn about issues of
representation. But coming together as they did, if only for a couple hours,
made for a nearly complete accounting of the complexity of issues
surrounding biotech, bioengineering, and what art can say about it all. I
think the Renaissance Society had it right on this one--they could have just
as easily commissioned the making of another glow in the dark whatever, but
chose instead to recombine not genetic material, but "the evolutionary
experience" of the two fields themselves. Recognizing that Alba the bunny
would never be so articulate no matter how brightly he glowed, and that the
manner in which some artists are trying so hard to bridge art and biological
science, ie combining genetic material, is a quite obvious and predictable
idea, the Renaissance Society presented an effective critique of what passes
for "bioart" and offered what I thought was a pretty successful model for a
different way of approaching the problem of combining art and biotech.

Dan w.

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