George Gessert ::: Biography


Genetic art, or art that involves DNA, includes a wide range of works from paintings of chromosomes, and installations about genetically engineered foods, to land restoration projects, transgenic organisms, and breeding projects to recreate extinct species. Such art is often associated with biotechnology, but genetic art existed long before the biological revolution began, or for that matter before the science of genetics existed. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, defends "streakt gillyvors," that is, highly domesticated dianthuses, as "an art which does mend nature - change it rather - but the art itself is nature." [1] Shakespeare expressed what was a radical idea for his time, that living, reproducing things could be art, and yet domesticated ornamental plants had already existed for thousands of years. We might begin then by asking: why has it taken so long for nonhuman life forms to be recognized as art mediums?

Plant and animal domestication, which began more than 10,000 years ago, initially may have involved aesthetics more than utility. Contrary to popular belief, humans almost certainly did not domesticate plants and animals to alleviate hunger. Hungry people would not have had the time or energy to undertake longterm, uncertain experiments in selection. Consequently domestication probably began among people who were well-fed. Among the organisms that co-evolved with us into domestication may have been animals kept as pets or used in religious ceremonies, and plants that yielded magical substances, dyes, musical instruments, or accessories to ritual. [2] The geographer Carl Sauer drew particular attention to tumeric, a tropical plant in the ginger family. Tumeric grows only in association with humans. Its origins are unknown, although Southeast Asia may have been its original home. Sauer suggests that tumeric was domesticated in the remote past to provide coloring for bodies, clothing, and food. Its use as a spice came later. In Southern Asia many people still believe that tumeric has the power to enhance fertility. This power arises from its intense yellow color, the color of the sun. [3] Color may have played a role in the domestication of animals as well. Sauer suggests, for example, that the first domesticated chickens were rare black varients used in magic.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In many non-Western cultures art was considered part of nature, but this did not lead to recognition of highly bred plants or animals as art, even in China and Japan, where selection produced extraordinarily refined expressions. Just as in Europe, ignorance about heredity and about the human role in evolution, made claims to art almost unthinkable. Just as in Europe, human impacts on evolution and aesthetics were attributed not to human choice or effort, but to divine forces or to nonhuman nature.

Plants and Animals as Components of Art
The first animals analogous to ornamental plants, that is creatures kept solely for their aesthetic qualities, were probably birds, such as peacocks, or menagerie animals. Such creatures existed in classical times, and also in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. However, to the best of my knowledge no one wrote of these creatures as art until the 20th century. The live animals used in theater and circuses rarely rose above grotesque caricatures of themselves, and served art primarily as examples of what not to do.
The idea that landscape gardens are fine art was well-developed by the 18th century, most famously in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Two obvious implications flow from Kant's idea. First, live plants can be components of art, and second, works of art can consist largely or entirely of living things. However, Kant stopped short of recognizing individual plants as fine art. To do so would have been dangerously radical, even heretical, in spite of Shakespeare's gillyvor. Kant maintained that nature was one thing, and art quite another. This view was deeply rooted in Western culture. We find it, for example, in the book of Genesis, in which god creates humans separately from "the beasts," and in his own image, while all other creatures exist only in their own, earthbound images. The message is clear: an unbridgeable chasm separates human beings from the rest of life.
Humankind's unique and divinely privileged place in the scheme of things became a key Christian tenet, reinforced by borrowings from Greek philosophy. Until well into the 19th century most aesthetic theory echoed church doctrine by arguing that art arose from the human mind or spirit and was therefore outside of and superior to nature. [6]

Darwin's Contribution to Art
Challenge to this deeply entrenched dualism came not from philosophy or art, but from science. The Origin of Species begins with descriptions of fanciers' pigeons - Jacobins, tumblers bred to resemble finches, and pouters with inflatable crops which "excite astonishment and even laughter." [7] From highly domesticated pigeons kept for aesthetic pleasure, Darwin confirmed evolutionary processes that affect all life.
Darwin does not divide creatures into those with souls and those without, nor does he claim special dispensation for human beings. Domesticated and wild creatures are parts of a single whole that is dynamic, orderly, and intricate. Darwin's reaction to wild nature was much the same as his reaction to fanciers' pigeons. He viewed both with a mixture of intense wonder and disciplined curiosity. He described nature as if it were an authorless and boundaryless work of art symbolizing nothing and manifesting sublime order.
Darwin's main interests appear to have been science and aesthetic pleasure. The word "art" occurs only two times in Origin of Species [8], but the words "beautiful," "wondrous," and "astonishing" occur repeatedly. In his most famous passage, he describes a tangled bank in the English countryside. "From famine and death the most exalted objects which we are capable of conceiving ... directly follow ... From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being evolved." [9] Joy and suffering, beauty and terror flow in and out of one another in a vision of evolution that is classically sublime.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

Scientific developments added credibility to his claim. In 1900 three investigators independently rediscovered Mendel's laws of inheritance, which elevated genetics to a science, and undermined the strongest post-Darwinian argument against recognizing ornamental plants and fanciers' animals as fine art, the claim that their aesthetic attributes did not sufficiently reflect human choice.

Edward Steichen. Edward Steichen's Delphiniums, 1936, Installation view of the exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. June 24, 1936 through July 1, 1936. Digital image © 2002, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Permission of Joanna T. Steichen.

Ornamental Plant Breeding as Fine Art
On the whole artists and writers were slow to take up Darwin's ideas. The first full-length book about plants as fine art did not appear until 1939. Sacheverell Sitwell's Old Fashioned Flowers has a forgettable title, but is brilliant and perverse, asserting that highly bred ornamental plants are fine art because they "represent a direct and conscious attack
upon Nature." Some ages and individuals prefer ornamental plants that evoke wild nature. Sitwell preferred artifice, which he saw as fidelity to an indisputably conscious, human order. "It is better to be ugly," he wrote, "than only to be wild." [12] Like Huysmans and Thomas Huxley, Sitwell recognized ornamentals as art but left unchallenged most preDarwinian distinctions between art and nature.
Sitwell argued that some garden flowers reflect not only the tastes of their hybridizers but also specific times and places. For example, he saw in smooth-edged laced pinks the lives of the early 19th century English weavers who bred them. These weavers, who were famous for shawls, lived in the town of Paisley and were bound by a strict Prebysterianism that forbade almost all pleasures. Gardening, however, was allowed. According to Sitwell, the weavers lived "in an exotic trance, fortified by the desire for all those things from which their religious prejudices excluded them." The flowers that they hybridized expressed everything illicit. [13]
The first artist to claim plant breeding as a fine art was the photographer Edward Steichen, who, from the 1920s until the outbreak of World War II, hybridized delphiniums, cleomes, nicotianas, poppies, and sunflowers at his country home in Connecticut. In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of his delphiniums, an event that he believed confirmed plant breeding as an art. [14] Steichen compared plant hybrids to poetry, and named delphiniums for poets, but the process of plant breeding reminded him more of photography, because both arts involve working with variations on a theme, and both are potentially democratic. He dreamed for selling the seeds of his finest delphiniums for twenty-five cents a packet.

Top: Michael Heizer. Water Strider of the Effigy Tumuli Sculptures, 1983-85. Compacted earth, 685 x 80 x 14 ft. Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa, IL. Photo by D. Gorton, 1985.
Bottom: Mel Chin. Revival Field II. First planted 1992, photographed 1995. Palmerton, PA. Photo by author.

The End of the First Culture of Genetics
During the twentieth century, the Western art world embraced one new or previously unaccepted form of expression after another, so Steichen's belief that his show of delphiniums had confirmed plant breeding as a fine art was not unreasonable, especially considering the Museum of Modern Art's prestige. However, in the seven decades since the show, the Museum of Modern Art has not held another exhibition of hybrid plants. Nor has any other major art museum. [15]
The primary reason was the Holocaust, which destroyed connections between genetics and art. Before World War II public opinion, especially in the United States, held that the new science of genetics was destined to play an extremely important role in human affairs, and consequently was everybody's business, including artists. After World War II, genetics was cordoned off from the larger culture, and became the de facto property of scientists and business people. To understand this change, it may help to look in some detail at the work of the most visionary spokesman for genetic art from the period before World War II, Olaf Stapledon. In his work plant and animal breeding mingle with eugenics.
Stapledon took the implications of Darwinism much farther than Steichen. When Steichen brought delphiniums into the Museum of Modern Art, he realized a fairly obvious implication of The Origin of Species: domesticated creatures that had been selected for their aesthetic appeal could be fine art. However, Steichen did not question whether an art museum was the best setting for his hybrids, and he did not attempt to explore the more radical cultural possibilities of Darwinism. Stapledon's 1930 novel, Last and First Men, looks at some of these. Last and First Men is simultaneously an epic, a masterpiece of science fiction, and a meditation on human destiny. The book is a history of the next two billion years, during which time some 18 different human species rise and fall. Evolutionary dramas so pervade Last and First Men that it can be read as an exploration of how Darwinism affects perceptions of humankind and the future.
Sometimes art plays a role in these evolutionary dramas, sometimes not, but nowhere does it play a greater role than with the third human species, which appears 40 million years from now. The third men are smaller than ourselves, lithe and covered with red-gold hair. They have golden eyes, "more enigmatic than profound," [16] cat-like faces, and a mental life characterized by sensuality, religiousness, love of music, and sympathy with all kinds of plants and animals, but darkened with latent cruelty. Over eons their civilizations come and go, but all revolve around plant and animal breeding. The culminating and most brilliant culture develops "plastic vital art," which rejects every kind of utilitarian breeding, and aims to "evoke the full potentiality of each natural type."

Helen and Newton Harrison. The Lagoon Cycle, Second Lagoon, Panel 3: 8' x 9'9''. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

The ultimate aim of vital art is to heighten (or, in its negative expressions, to undermine) all life. In this culture almost everyone is an artist. Most seek beauty and natural order, and produce expressions such as ants with novel instincts, supremely intelligent dogs, and new species to occupy empty ecological niches. But some breeders deliberately produce monsters. A few artists combine the two modes to create beautiful creatures with flaws. These might express tragic visions, or merely reflect the vanity or cruelty of individual artists. Vital art eventually encompasses entire ecosystems, until earth is organised as an intricate system of zoos, botanical gardens, and wild parks.

Helen and Newton Harrison. The Lagoon Cycle, Second Lagoon, Panel 4: 8' x 7'5''. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Stapledon's account reads like imaginative contemporary speculation about the biological revolution's possibilities. However, his treatment of eugenics clearly identifies his vision with the period before World War II. Throughout their existence, the third men practice eugenics, usually emphasizing "improvements about which there could be no two opinions" such as eliminating hereditary diseases. However, some societies breed for physical beauty, others seek cat-like agility, or exceptional perception in vital art. Occasionally manias burst forth. One society breeds for human mediums to enter into contact with divine forces. Another carries breeding for musical ability to such an extreme that persons hearing music not to their taste might run amok and kill the performers. Each of these manias runs its course and leaves no permanent effects on the species. But one genetic experiment proves disasterous. In secret, a group sets out to craft a super-intelligent being. The final result is a limbless, sexless superbrain. It is the first of the fourth men, a new human species. Initially this living computer brings great benefits to the cat-like people, but soon it enslaves, and then exterminates them.
The story of the third men is a vision of civilization based on genetics. The story is also cautionary. Stapledon was aware that eugenics was being used to further racist and class-biased programs, which he abhorred, however, he did not believe that eugenics had no merits. In this he was not alone. Men and women as diverse as Winston Churchill, Julian Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, and Emma Goldman supported eugenics. Their reasons were diverse. Luther Burbank, for example, defended immigration on eugenic grounds, arguing that race mixing would produce hybrid vigor. David Starr Jordan opposed war as a biological evil that killed the fit and preserved the unsound. Opposition to indiscriminate use of x-rays in medicine and elsewhere began as a eugenic struggle, led by H. J. Muller. Stapledon, like many people of his time, associated eugenics with a range of possibilities, many bad, but some good. He hoped that the new science of genetics would be used to lessen suffering, and perhaps to improve humankind physically and intellectually. Many people today hope that genetics will eliminate hereditary diseases, but few identify this with eugenics. More important, today no informed person can assume that there might be no two opinions about even a single genetic "improvement" in the human species.
With the death camps, a period of naive and profoundly flawed but fluid genetic imagination came to an end. Genetic imagination received another blow from Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics as bourgeois, and revived Lamarckianism, which held that inheritance is always subject to modification by environment. While this view had almost no scientific merit, it was in tune with utopian programs of the time. Stalin lent his support to Lysenko, and many Mendelian geneticists, including Vavilov, died in the Gulag. Soviet genetics was set back a generation. [17]
Meanwhile in the West, atomic testing drew public attention away from the benefits of genetics, to the dangers of mutation. From 1945 to 1960 genetic monsters overran science fiction, and the idea of genetic art was forgotten, except as an absurd joke. In Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, for example, an extraterrestrial robot named Salo is marooned on a moon of Saturn, where he takes up plant breeding to while away the time. "When Salo arrived on Titan in 203, 117 B.C., the blooms of Titanic daisies were tiny, star-like, yellow flowers barely a qurter of an inch across. [Now] [...] the typical Titanic daisy had a stalk four feet in diameter, and a lavender bloom shot with pin, and having a mass in excess of a ton." [18] Salo is an ingenious artist, but his intervention in evolution only highlights evolution's utter pointlessness - and the futility of art as well.

Earth Art and Ecological Art
Plants and animals returned to art in round-about ways in the late 1960s with earth art. Many earthworks were so large that they provided habitats for small organisms. No one explored the implications of this, but a few artists used living things as the central components of their works. For example, Alan Sonfist's Time Landscape: Greenwich Village, first articulated in 1969, but not planted until 1978, recreates natural landscapes from New York City's past. In a series of sites dotting the city, he reintroduced plants that had grown in Manhattan prior to European settlement. As long as these reconstructed fragments of the ecological past survive, the plants and animals that comprise them will undergo selective pressures from the city and from larger environmental forces such as weather, as well as from interactions among organisms that make up the work itself.
Helen and Newton Harrison's life chain proposals - most of them not realized except on paper - encompass biological systems that would be preserved, or in some cases created through art. Trummerflora on the Topography of Terrors is typical of their approach. This work was to consist of rubble from two large piles that already existed on a site in Berlin near the Gropius-Bau, at the bureaucratic center for the death camps of the Third Reich. Along with the rubble were trummerflora, or plants that spring up in disturbed places. The rubble was to be dispersed over sites used by the Gestapo to plan the concentration camps. Trummerflora would from then on inhabit those sites, and compose a living memorial to those who had suffered in the camps. The Harrisons designed this work to maintain an already existing biological process with genetic elements that would be destroyed unless sanctioned by art.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

The final version of The Lagoon Cycle includes panels with maps, written texts, and photo-based images, all informed by an ethic favoring sustainable agricultural, economic, and social systems, and long-term biological diversity. In addition this work explores differences between masculine and feminine consciousness of the environment, and offers a tentative synthesis of personal, aesthetic, and environmental concerns.

Joseph Beuys. Seven Thousand Oaks, 1982. Documenta 7, Kassel. Photos by Guenter Beer, 1982.

Following in the footsteps of the earth artists and the Harrisons, many artists produced projects to purify water, restore degraded sites, build community gardens, establish urban forests, and create habitat for wildlife. Works such as Seven Thousand Oaks by Joseph Beuys, Leonhardt Lagoon by Patricia Johanson, Herbert Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, Ocean Landmark Project by Betty Beaumont, Isla de Umunnum by Heather McGill and John Roloff, and Revival Field by Mel Chin have genetic dimensions. However, genetics in these works is implict, not the focus.

Alexis Rockman. The Farm, 2000.

The 1980s
By 1980 the trauma of World War II had diminished and the biological revolution was underway. Art that explicitly engaged genetics became necessary - and possible - again. To the best of my knowledge, the artists who arrived at genetics during this time did so independently. They worked in unrelated styles and mediums to rediscover the lost continent of genetic art.
Alexis Rockman developed a style of painting that drew on such diverse sources as Dutch flower painting, nineteenth century landscape painting, science fiction movies, and natural history dioramas. Nature in Rockman's work is a Hobbesian spectacle in which ants devour butterflies, flowers drip sinister nectars, and human creations proliferate amid feces, traps, and evolutionary cul-de-sacs. An atmosphere of luxurious decay pervades not only Rockman's subject matter, but his color and use of materials. He favors sickly greens, lurid reds and golds, and deep shadows. His glazes are so heavy that some canvases glisten like hams. Rockman's most blackly humorous works synthesize genetic engineering and pornography. In The Trough a pig mounts a duck; Barnyard Scene shows a racoon sodomizing a rooster; and in Jungle Fever a preying mantis mates with a chipmunk. [20]
In the "Biosphere" paintings horror overwhelms humor. Biosphere: Laboratory shows a laboratory orbiting Saturn. The laboratory contains two-headed cows, a goat-cow-pig hybrid, and a dog with a puppy's head grafted onto its neck. The scene recalls The Island of Dr Moreau. Both Wells and Rockman explore secret worlds, where under the rule of science, pathologies play themselves out. The most striking difference between Rockman's vision and Wells's is that while Dr. Moreau had to leave civilization to pursue his experiments, Rockman mirrors civilization. True, his space station is modelled after the rebel station in the movie Silent Running, but Biosphere: Laboratory is not about rebellion. Space stations embody dominant forces of contemporary civilization, and some of Rockman's most shocking imagery comes directly from government-sponsored research. Although much of Rockman's imagery comes directly from contemporary culture, his 19th century style, along with parallels of the "Biosphere" paintings to The Island of Dr. Moreau, suggest that popular imagination about biology may have changed much less in the last century than we like to assume.
In 1987 Dennis Ashbaugh began making paintings of banded segments of DNA. These "DNA paintings" as Ashbaugh calls them read simultaneously as representations of DNA, and as painterly works concerned with color, composition, paint application, and the picture plane. Meditative painterliness encourages meditation on how biotechnology affects our view of life. Ronald Jones employed a somewhat similar postmodern mix of nonrepresentational and representational modes in sculptures of chromosome fragments and viruses. His works recall Brancusi and Arp, but where those artists are comic or transcendent, Jones's work seems chiseled by crushing gravity. For example, an elegant 1989 sculpture that on first glance suggests one of Arp's floating blobs, bears the title: Untitled (DNA Fragment from Human Chromosome 13 carrying Mutant Rb Genes also known as Malignant Oncogenes that trigger rapid Cancer Tumorigenesis).
Kevin Clarke also explored imagery of DNA and chromosomes to produce commentaries on the biological revolution, and how it encourages us to see one another in terms of genetic information. He painted portraits in which base sequences serve as key aspects of individual identity.
In the U.S., there has never been sustained public debate about biotechnology. Instead, the biological revolution has insinuated itself into daily life through consumer choices. By the end of the Reagan era, during which biotech stocks helped fuel market euphoria, anyone who purchased a rosebush was likely to find it patented. Larry Miller, a veteran Fluxus performance artist, responded with a public action in 1989 to copyright his DNA. During the next decade he widely distributed copyright forms to anyone interested in legally owning their own genes.
Also during the 1980s, at least three artists began working with living things on the genetic level. In 1984-5 Joe Davis created the first transgenic artwork with Microvenus, a strand of DNA configured like the Germanic rune for life. [21] He then inserted this DNA fragment into E. coli bacteria. Since bacteria and DNA are invisible under ordinary circumstances, Microvenus functions largely as a conceptual work. However, DNA (to say nothing of E. coli) is much more than an idea, so Microvenus also highlights the power of invisible information and the faith that we invest in unseen worlds. In 1987 Peter Gerwin Hoffmann exhibited Mikroben bei Kandinsky in Animal Art, a show involving live animals and microorganisms. Mikroben bei Kandinsky consisted of cultures of bacteria scraped from the surface of a Kandinsky painting. In the catalog to the exhibition, Hoffmann wrote that "gene technology has put ... and end [to] [...] the polarity nature-art. It is of great social import for our future to analyze and criticize works of art (a cow or a gene-manipulated bacterium) by the views and criteria of art. The living organisms [...] that surround us [...] can only be understood and interpreted as works of art." [22]
In 1981 I decided to give up art. My responsibilities as a father seemed to demand it, and furthermore I felt ambivalent about painting, at least my own. As a farewell to art I systematically destroyed my art materials. I poured inks onto sheets of unsized Japanese papers, which absorb liquids like blotting paper. As I watched ink spread through the papers, I suddenly realized how profoundly I had misconceived art. I had assumed that artists created art, but seeing inkspots grow all by themselves, I saw the obvious, that paper and ink can make their own paintings. Every aspect of the universe is filled with creative potential. After that I did not paint paintings, I helped paintings create themselves.

Daffodils. Top left: Narcissus Asturiensis (wild). Top right: modern cultivated daffodil King Alfred. Bottom left: Rosy Cloud. Bottom right: Aloha.

It was a small step from paint to plants. I began breeding irises in 1982, and first exhibited them as art in 1985. The same year I published Sky, an artist's book that consisted of a series of conceptual works about nuclear devices. One of the proposals was for a site-specific strain of irises to mark the Bangor Naval Submarine Base, where U.S. submarines are outfitted with nuclear warheads. In 1988 I exhibited Iris Project, an installation of iris hybrids, at New Langton Arts in San Francisco. The next year I began breeding oriental and opium poppies, and later I experimented with steptocarpuses, bearded irises, California poppies, corn poppies, and other plants.

Top: George Gessert. Hybrid 768. Pacifica iris, 1994. Flower 3.9" diameter.

Bottom: George Gessert. Hybrid 703. Pacifica iris, 1992. Flower 4.00" diameter.

Vilem Flusser, writing in Art Forum in 1988, predicted that artists might someday create wheat with the power of sight, photosynthetic horses, and "an enormous color symphony [...] in which the color of every living organism will complement the colors of every other organism." In what seems like a distant echo of Stapledon, Flusser also wrote that the new artists would lay the "foundations of mental processes that have never before existed." [23] Although he had seen Hoffman's bacteria in Graz, Flusser seems not to have known about other genetic artists, including Steichen.

Gary Schneider. Genetic Self-Portrait Hands, 1997. B/w photo toned Gelatin Silver, 94 x 73.7''.

By 1989 genetic art as we know it had taken shape. Most artists used traditional media such as painting or sculpture to explore the imagery of DNA and chromosomes, and to comment on the biological revolution. DNA portraits, cancer genes, and AIDS imagery updated the traditional Western focus on the human body. However, a few artists took nonhuman life as their medium, or explored effects of human consciousness on evolution.

1990 to the Present
Genetic art proliferated after 1990. I have neither time nor space to discuss everything that has been done, and must limit myself to what I know best. David Kremers's Somite series, begun in 1992, consisted of genetically-altered bacteria painted on agar-covered acrylic plates. There the bacteria interacted with dyes to produce complex stains. Kremers then sealed out moisture to arrest growth, and the works became stable, but remained alive. Kremers wrote that "the sale of any living artifact requires an approach to benefit that artifact. We must ask, What does this artifact want? Where does it want to live?" [24]
Eduardo Kac's best-known transgenic work is Genesis, which was first exhibited during Ars Electronica in Linz in 1999. He translated into the four-letter alphabet of DNA the Biblical passage, "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all creatures that crawl upon the land." He then ordered a strand of DNA containing the sequence from a scientific supply house, and with the help of other technicians had the DNA inserted into a bacterium.
During Ars Electronica Genesis occupied a dimly lit space in which the Biblical passage in white letters occupied one wall, the DNA sequence a facing wall, and a projection of a petri dish of genetically altered bacteria on a third. The projected bacteria looked like a glowing rain. The installation was visually stunning and almost classically beautiful in its balance, which only made its unmasking of collective hubris more shocking. The larger context of Linz amplified the effect. Linz is near Hitler's birthplace and was one of his favorite cities.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In 2000 Eduardo Kac, working with French scientists, created a genetically engineered rabbit that contains a jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP). The rabbit, who Kac named Alba, fluoresces bright green, but only under blue light. Ordinarily Alba looks like a typical white domesticated rabbit. Alba's capacity to look and function normally is important to Kac. He did not want to create an animal that was so different from its fellows that its social life with them would suffer. Concern for the rabbit's well-being also dictated the use of GFP, rather than some other source of bioluminescence, because some of them, such as luciferase, which gives light to fireflies, are harmful to some mammals.

Eduardo Kac. Genesis, 1999. Ars Electronica Festival. Courtesy Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago.

Another important development in recent genetic art is expanded use of photography. Before the 1990s, the only role of photography was documentation of breeding projects. Gary Schneider's Genetic Self-Portrait explores a very different possibility. Genetic Self-Portrait is a series of photographs of the artist's body. [26] They range from an x-ray of his skull to microscopic views of his cells and DNA. Visually the interior of the human body is largely unfamiliar territory to most of us, so the microscopic details of Schneider's body may not immediately bring the human figure to mind, much less self-portraiture, yet titles and associations with medical photography encourage the connection. We are led back to a human-centered view of the world, but Genetic Self-Portrait does not discourage association of the human body with other forms of life.
For more than a century genetic art has had allies in horticulture, animal breeding, and literature. In the last few years new allies have appeared, notably artists exploring developmental biology. Marta de Menezes manipulates the development of chrysalises to produce butterflies with new wing patterns. And Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Guy Ben-Ary grow manipulated stem cells over non-living artifacts to create what they call "semi-living sculptures."

Top: Christine Borland. Hela, 2000.
Bottom: Natalie Jeremijenko. One Tree, 2000.

We have come to expect art to be modest relative to other human endeavors, MacDonald's, for example. However, as Helen and Newton Harrison have demonstrated, art can tap the collective energies - epic, megalomaniacal, world-creating and - destroying - that industrial civilization presents to science, government, the military, and business. Serpentine Lattice, which would extend more than 1,500 miles along the West Coast, and cost 5.7 billion dollars yearly for 25 years, [27] dwarfs not only the most ambitious constructivist projects, but most corporate projects as well. Yet Serpentine Lattice is modest compared to Stapledon's vision of all life forms, including the human species, as potential art.

Symbiotica/TC&A. Semi-Living Worry Dolls Growing Inside a Bioreactor, 2002. Installation, fragment. Image courtesy of the Tissue Culture & Art Project.

Today there is no serious philosophical opposition to genetic art, but a mature art of evolution remains almost as distant as it was before World War II. Full exploration of genetic art will require, as a bare minimum, new kinds of museums, spaces that welcome rather than exclude diverse forms of life. We can imagine traditional gallery spaces combined with gardens, zoos, and wilderness areas.
Art involving DNA is extremely diverse, but individual works often bring up the same questions: what kind of consciousness does the work serve? To what extent does it aestheticize the biological revolution, help commodify life, and further the holocaust of nature? On the other hand, does the work contribute to awareness that plants and animals did not arise for our sake, that they have their own ways of becoming and their own paths to fulfillment? How does a particular work of art affect the community of life? These are social questions but ones that in genetic art are inseparable from aesthetic experience.

References and Notes:
Two earlier versions of this essay have been published. The first was "A Brief History of Art Involving DNA" in the September/October, 1996 issue of Art Papers Magazine. For more information contact Art Papers Magazine at P.O. Box 5748, Atlanta, GA 31107; 404/588-1837.; . The second version was "A History of Art Involving DNA," which appeared in English and German in the proceedings of Ars Electronica: LifeScience, New York and Vienna: Springer, 1999. Portions of this essay are also taken from "Art Is Nature," which was published in Art Papers in March/April, 2001.

[1]. Shakespeare, W. The Winter's Tale (J.H.P. Pafford, (ed.), London and Cambridge, Mass.: Methuen and Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p.93.
[2]. Rindos, D. The Origins of Agriculture (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984), pp.82-143 and 249-256.
[3]. Sauer, C. Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), p.27.
[4]. Goody, J. The Culture of Flowers (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), pp.1-27.
[5]. Pliny the Elder, Natural History (W. H. S. Jones (trans.), vol. 6, Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard Univ. Press and William Heinemann, 1951), p.17.
[6]. For example, Hegel wrote, "Artistic beauty stands higher than nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born <...> of the mind <...> God is more honored by what mind does or makes than by the productions or formations of nature." "The Philosophy of Fine Art," B. Bosanquet (trans.), in Aschenbrenner, K., and Isenberg, A. (eds.) Aesthetic Theories (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1956), pp.298-304.
[7]. Darwin, Ch. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1970), p.82.
[8]. Darwin in ibid., pp.115 and 134.
[9]. Darwin in ibid., pp.459-460.
[10]. Huysmans, J. K. Against the Grain (trans. not cited, New York: Dover, 1969), pp.84-90.
[11]. Burbank, L., quoted by Peter Dreyer in: A Gardener Touched by Genius (New York: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, 1975), pp.172-177.
[12]. Sitwell, S. Old Fashioned Flowers (London: Country Life, 1939), pp.1-3.
[13]. Sitwell, S. in ibid, 159.
[14]. For an excellent account of the exhibit and of Steichen's work as a hybridizer, see Gedrim, Ronald J. "Edward Steichen's 1936 Exhibition of Delphinium Blooms," in: History of Photography (vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 1993, London: Taylor and Francis), pp.352-363.
[15]. The next time that a museum exhibited hybridized plants as art was probably in 1990, when my installation, The Iris Project briefly occupied the courtyard of the University of Oregon Museum of Art.
[16]. This and subsequent quotations in the section are from Stapledon, O. Last and First Men, and Starmaker (New York: Dover, 1968), pp.143-154.
[17]. For more information on Lysenko, see Medvedev, Z.A. The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, I. (Michael Lerner (trans.), Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1971).
[18]. Vonnegut, K., Jr. The Sirens of Titan (New York: Dell, 1959), p.177.
[19]. Harrison, H.M. and Harrison, N. The Lagoon Cycle (Ithaca, New York: Office of University Publication, Cornell University, 1985), p.76.
[20]. For these and other paintings, see Rockman, A. Second Nature (Normal, Illinois: University Galleries of Illinois State University), 1995.
[21]. Eduardo Kac coined the term "transgenic art."
[22]. Hoffmann, P. G. "Kunstwesen," in: Kriesche, R. (ed.) Animal Art (Graz: Steirischer Herbst, 1987), unpaginated.
[23]. Flusser, V. Art Forum XXVI, No. 7, Mar., 1988, p.156; XXVI, No. 10, summer, 1988, p.18, and XXVII, no. 2, Oct., 1988.
[24]. Kremers, D. "The Delbruck Paradox 2.0," in: Art Journal, Spring 1996, Vol. 55, No. 1, p.39.
[25]. Many non-Judeo-Christian religions place high value on plants and animals, and link our well-being to theirs. To give an example, according to the Lotus Sutra, Buddha said, "I appear in the world like a great cloud that showers moisture upon all the dry and withered living beings, so that all are able to escape suffering, gain the joy of peace and security, the joys of this world, and the joy of nirvana." In this passage, "all" refers to all sentient beings, not just human beings. In Buddhism individual happiness is considered inseparable from the happiness of all other sentient beings. Trans. Burton Watson in Dharma Rain, Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (eds.), (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2000), p.45.
[26]. See: Schneider, G. Genetic Self-Portrait (Syracuse, N.Y.: Light Work, 1999).
[27]. Harrison, N. and Harrison, H.M. The Serpentine Lattice (Portland, Oregon: Office of News and Publications, 1993).


How to purchase this book



I. LABORATORY: science and technology

Svetlana Borinskaya. Genomics and Biotechnology: Science at the Beginning of the Third Millennium.

Mikhail Gelfand. Computational Genomics: from the Wet Lab to Computer and Back.

Irina Grigorjan, Vsevolod Makeev. Biochips and Industrial Biology.

Valery Shumakov, Alexander Tonevitsky. Xenotransplantation as a Scientific and Ethic Problem.

Abraham Iojrish. Legal Aspects of Gene Engineering.

Pavel Tishchenko. Genomics: New Science in the New Cultural Situation.
II. FORUM: society and genomic culture

Eugene Thacker. Darwin's Waiting Room.

Critical Art Ensemble. The Promissory Rhetoric of Biotechnology in the Public Sphere.

SubRosa. Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century.

Ricardo Dominguez. Nano-Fest Destiny 3.0: Fragments from the Post-Biotech Era.

Birgit Richard. Clones and Doppelgangers. Multiplications and Reproductions of the Self in Film.

Sven Druehl. Chimaera Phylogeny: From Antiquity to the Present.
III. TOPOLOGY: from biopolitics to bioaesthetics

Boris Groys. Art in the Age of Biopolitics.

Stephen Wilson. Art and Science as Cultural Acts.

Melentie Pandilovski. On the Phenomenology of Consciousness, Technology, and Genetic Culture.

Roy Ascott. Interactive Art: Doorway to the Post-Biological Culture.
IV. INTERACTION CODE: artificial life

Mark Bedau. Artificial Life Illuminates Human Hyper-creativity.

Louis Bec. Artificial Life under Tension.

Alan Dorin. Virtual Animals in Virtual Environments.

Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau. The Application of Artificial Life to Interactive Computer Installations.
V. MODERN THEATRE: ars genetica

George Gessert. A History of Art Involving DNA.

Kathleen Rogers. The Imagination of Matter.

Brandon Ballengee. The Origins of Artificial Selection.

Marta de Menezes. The Laboratory as an Art Studio.

Adam Zaretsky. Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz.
VI. IMAGE TECHNOLOGY: ars chimaera

Joe Davis. Monsters, Maps, Signals and Codes.

David Kremers. The Delbruck Paradox. Version 3.0.

Eduardo Kac. GFP Bunny.

Dmitry Bulatov. Ars Chimaera.

Valery Podoroga. Rene Descartes and Ars Chimaera.
VII. METABOLA: tissue culture and art

Ionat Zurr. Complicating Notions of Life - Semi-Living Entities.

Oron Catts. Fragments of Designed Life - the Wet Palette of Tissue Engineering.

Dmitry Prigov. Speaking of Unutterable.

Wet art gallery





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