Saturday, July 16, 2016

Week 4 (Unit 6): BioTech + Art

The combination of biology and art has been the source of controversy in recent years as new technologies have made this culture possible. The concept that interested me the most in this week's lectures about biotechnology and art is how the human curiosity has physically altered the natural world.

Bioart, a term introduced by artist Eduardo Kac, is the "use of living tissues, bacteria and organisms in creating intriguing –- and often shocking -– works of art" (Walden). One of Kac's most infamous works of art is the GFP Bunny, with GFP representing green fluorescent protein normally found in jellyfish that was injected into a rabbit zygote cell. From this marriage of science and art emerged Alba, the glowing rabbit. A seemingly typical albino rabbit, Alba glowed a bright green when illuminated by a specific blue light. Though this fluorescent method has been used for scientific purposes, this transgenic art was the first of its kind in the artistic direction.

One of Kac's goals in this experiment was the "expansion of the present practical and conceptual boundaries of artmaking to incorporate life invention" (Kac). Indeed, since 2000, several glowing animals, including sheep, dogs, and monkeys, have been produced, inspired by the success of GFP Bunny. In addition, genetic engineering has become more common in the art world, the results described as 'living art'. While the displays may prompt awe and amazement, this movement begs the question, is genetic engineering of other living things ethical? And if so, to what extent?

A cat genetically modified to glow a green fluorescent color, as with the GFP Bunny

In the years following 1985, George Gessert, a former painter and bioart pioneer, began breeding combinations of wild plant species. Though the study of genetics was discovered through Gregor Mendel's cross-breeding of flowers, Gessert's displays represent a venture more focused on aesthetic than science. Reactions to his displays were relatively positive, and he was able to present his work at several exhibits. The hybridized flowers are an example of how human eye for aesthetic has manipulated the evolution of living species, specifically plants in this case. We pick the flowers that look the most visually appealing and discard those that do not fit our standards. As a result, flowers are naturally selected or genetically altered to certain appearances.

An image from George Gessert's "The Iris Project"

The controversy becomes more outspoken when animals or insects are involved. In 2000, Portuguese artist Marta de Menezes started a project in which she altered the wing patterns of live butterflies while they were still developing. People were taken aback by the manipulation of a living thing for artistic purposes. In response to the outrage, de Menezes stated that "biotechnology [is] ethically challenging and interesting, not necessarily a dilemma" (de Menezes). Some argue that de Menezes is viewing the butterflies as merely "collateral damage" in her pursuit of art (Sweet). This introduces another aspect of the ethical argument, one that questions humans' power to manipulate other living things.

An example of Marta de Menezes's art, a live Bicyclus anynana butterfly with modified wing patterns

Personally, I agree that such experimentation pushes the limits of modern thinking, but I admit that choosing a side is difficult. Genetic engineering can create beautiful aesthetic in a living, breathing organism. However, the ethical aspect continues to concern me. How is this transgenic art different from scientific testing on animals, a practice that many consider inhumane?

A rabbit prepares to be injected, an example of animal testing and what many areas of the world consider animal cruelty



"Bioart through Evolution: George Gessert." Revolution Bioengineering. Wordpress, n.d. Web. Accessed 13 July 2016.

Hansen, Lauren. "7 Genetically Modified Animals That Glow in the Dark." THE WEEK. The Week Publications, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. Accessed 13 July 2016.

Kac, Eduardo. "GFP BUNNY." KAC. N.p., 2000. Web. Accessed 13 July 2016.

Silva, Luis. "Interview with Marta De Menezes." Rhizome. N.p., 20 Aug. 2008. Web. Accessed 13 July 2016.

Sweet, Bridget Elizabeth. "Marta De Menezes: Art and Science." Animal Vegetable Digital. Wordpress, 24 Aug. 2014. Web. Accessed 12 July 2016.

Vesna, Victoria. DESMA 9 Lectures on MedTech + Art. 2016. Video. Accessed 01 July 2016.

Walden, Stephanie. "BioArt: Is It Art? Is It Science? Is It the Future?" Mashable. Mashable, Inc., 29 Oct. 2013. Web. Accessed 11 July 2016.


Chitrakorn, Kati. "Is the Global Cosmetics Market Moving Towards a Cruelty-Free Future?" The Business of Fashion. The Business of Fashion, 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 July 2016. <>.

De Menezes, Marta. "Nature?" Marta De Menezes. MOSHI MOSHI, 2000. Web. 13 July 2016. <>.

"QUOTE UNQUOTE." Is This Bioart? Wordpress, 08 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 July 2016. <>.


  1. Hi Emily! I enjoyed reading your post! I completely agree with you. Genetic engineering can enable us to modify living organisms and create artificially created beings. I believe that there is so much potential behind genetic engineering in regards to learning more about life. However, the ethical questions and concerns do come with genetic engineering and in all honesty, I am not sure which side I would choose myself. Overall, I found your post very interesting and thoughtful!

  2. Genetic modification is an extremely controversial topic. I agree with you that it is tought to pick a side. The applications for future human development to make lives better are infinite, but there will always be those scientists that push the limits too far into the boundaries of unethical. What is there was a scientist taht will do the GFP experiment on humans, society would go crazy if they found out. No doubtedly there will be scientists in the future who will go a little too far and cause a backlash.