Trust and Transparency: Elevating the Future of Biotechnology
It’s a non-negotiable fact that the biotechnology being created today will affect all of our lives- whether we understand it or not
Human beings have been bringing innate curiosity and creativity to our interactions with nature since before our written history. This partnership with the world around us results in biotechnology; technology that is built from or harnesses the biological world around us. But scientists are only one element of this partnership. The other foundational members are artists.
Biotechnology: Humanity’s Highest Art Form
The study of human psychology offers many explanations for why human beings take the time to make art. It allows for…
It is a non-negotiable fact that the biotechnology being created today will affect all of our lives- whether we understand it or not
This means that while not everyone will be involved in the collaborative process of biotech creation, we should all be a part of the conversation around the ethical and moral ramifications of this technology. Making transparency a priority, at every step of discovery, will cultivate trust as we work to build a more equitable society. Artists play the essential role of increasing participation in this conversation. Their work fundamentally creates a forum, that makes the science understandable and accessible to everyone, while simultaneously carving a space for dialogue about the implications of biotechnology.
Pioneering this important dialogue are Genefer Baxter and Marco Locatelli, co-founders of IMRSV Arts
Gen and Marco met in Berlin in 2017. Combining their unique worldviews and backgrounds— Gen’s in marketing and illustration with Marco’s in mixed media visual arts and product design — was poised for significant impact.
Their company was born out of their mutual frustration with the way audiences interact with art in a traditional gallery setting. They recognized a disconnect between those making the art, those viewing the art, and those in the curatorial world. Creating a deeper connection with the audience took center stage as interactivity became a central tenet of their mission.
Berlin has vibrant art and technology ecosystems, and launching IMRSV Arts in this city meant they could tap into both
There they created several compelling installations including Habitat, EMERGE, and Nature in Binary, all allowing the audience to reflect on their individual experience with the natural world around them. As their installations began to incorporate intimate biometric data, like an individual's heart rate, Gen and Marco recognized the ethical implications of the conversation about the use of our most personal data.
Joining the Bioart Residency at the University Science Center was a natural evolution
The Science Center, located in Philadelphia, is a partnership with Integral Molecular, a resident biotechnology company focused on the discovery of therapeutic antibodies. The Bioart Residency is an opportunity for artists to explore the rapidly-changing biotechnology ecosystem. As artists in residence, Gen and Marco were able to go deeper into the conversation about humanity’s collaboration with nature. Beyond learning about the technical nuances of the scientific discovery — which is the cornerstone of the creation of biotechnology — they also explored the methods and philosophies behind the work. Gen and Marco both authored blog posts based on what they were learning, tackling issues like bio-data usage and vaccinations. They asked tough questions about equity in science and the ramifications of science being separated from its critical ethical considerations. These conversations were beyond relevant, foreshadowing the questions the entire world would grapple with, not even six months later.
Where there is controversy, there is space for art, and as IMRSV Arts we have made our mission to show the (good and bad) potential repercussions of emerging technologies for society.
-Marco Locatelli, cofounder of IMRSV Arts
Gen and Marco focused on the method of “arts-based research” during their Bioart Residency
This is the process of using an art project or installation as a vehicle for learning about a subject, with the end result being an open dialogue with the public about the subject. In presenting the audience with your piece, you give them the opportunity to respond. Intentionally placing themselves between the scientists, the biotech companies, and the public, artists are able to be a bridge of communication; cutting through the noise and politicization to facilitate critical dialogue about innovations that will affect all our lives.
In the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the widespread acceptance of false scientific information by the public. Gen and Marco believe that the responsibility for this phenomenon does not lie entirely with the public. Through collaboration, they want to remind scientists who they are doing the science for and equip them with the tools they need to share their technical expertise with the public.
This residency led to the creation of Biostory, which highlights that biodata is not only valuable, but the conversation around the handling of this data should be inclusive
The exhibit will be composed of ten individuals’ sequenced immune responses to antigens. These responses will serve as a digital portrait and a visual representation of the important contribution to science a single person can have. Included in the installation will be a fictitious biotech company of the future called the Biostory Data Bank. The details of this company will facilitate a conversation around the implications of donating biometric data for research and compensation for those contributions.
The planning and composition of this installation took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of COVID-19 has reaffirmed the importance of understanding the immune system. The public is an integral part of processes scientists and public health officials use to figure out why this particular coronavirus has been so deadly to humans. The immediate concern for the pandemic is a solution that will halt the unnecessary loss of human life.
But Gen and Marco want society to remember the long-term implications of scientific discovery when it involves such personal data. This installation will remind both scientists and the general public that this data comes from real people with hopes and dreams and that their biology is precious.
As the global bioeconomy continues to develop, Gen and Marco will continue to push for transparency around the use of biometric data
Our global society has placed a significant focus on the implications of the collection and the use of consumer data. Gen and Marco want to bring the same level of attention to the use of physiological and genetic data as the ethical implications are more significant. Biotech companies need to take the initiative to connect more with those who will use their products and consumers need to take the initiative to engage more with the science.
In my opinion, what should be done is twofold. First, like what we are doing with IMRSV Arts, is go from passive consumption to active engagement. By creating interactive experiences, we are looking to educate the participant and then prompt them to make a change. Second, consumers need to understand and have control over how their biodata is being used. The altruistic reasoning “it’s for science” is valid but given the intimate data we are talking about, it also has to be equitable.
-Genefer Baxter, cofounder of IMRSV Arts
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and the future of gallery openings remain uncertain, Genefer and Marco have transformed their potential for impact
They connected with First Hand, an educational initiative company at the University City Science Center. Since its inception, First Hand has had 377 students participate in their programs. These cofounders have been able to work as instructors for a digital biodesign challenge, helping the next generation explore science and the implications of these discoveries. They have also partnered with H&M Group to launch a design lab exploring AI at H&M Starting House in Berlin. Using the arts-based research method they used to learn about biotechnology and create Biostory, they are helping five artists recreate that journey exploring the social, ethical, and cultural implications of artificial intelligence.
The work that Gen and Marco are leading through IMRSV Arts will have an incalculable impact on the future of biotechnology. They, along with other artists, are creating an indispensable forum for greater participation in humanity’s highest art form. If you would like to stay updated on their work at IMRSV Arts, you can follow them on Instagram and on their website. Reach out and contribute to the dialogue they are facilitating.
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