Playing God

Karlee R
Karlee R
Dec 22, 2018 · 7 min read
A doctored version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam newly features a double helix connecting God and Adam.

Emerging biotechnology, CRISPR enables the genetic modification of humans.

Questions regarding the ramifications of gene-editing have prompted new media artists to explore “BioArt.”

“Biotechnology and genetic engineering offer artists quasi-godlike powers to merge art and life.” — Ernestine Daubner

BioArt is a contemporary art form that combines biotechnology and aesthetics. It applies scientific methods to investigate living systems as artistic subjects. The term was coined by Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist known for his provocative, transgenic work.

In 1998, Kac created “Genesis.” He selected a quote from the Bible and transferred it into Morse code. This decision was made because morse code was used in radio-telepathy, spurring the genesis of global communication in the dawn of the information age (Kac). Then he translated the morse code into genetic base pairs ACGT, the building blocks of DNA. Exploring the intricate relationship between biology and belief systems, the original Bible quote and its translation into genetic code were posited parallel to one another in his exhibit.

Since the quote now takes the form of genetic base pairs, it was possible to genetically program bacteria to reflect this. Thus, bacteria sat at a podium in the center of the room. Participants online had the ability to control the ultraviolet lights in the gallery. This resulted in genetic mutations in the bacteria. Following the exhibition, the genetic base pairs were translated back into Morse code and then English. Kac writes, “The mutation that took place in the DNA had changed the original sentence from the Bible […] In the context of the work, the ability to change the sentence is a symbolic gesture: it means that we do not accept its meaning in the form we inherited it, and that new meanings emerge as we seek to change it.” A human-machine interface unveils where two systems meet and interact to finally shape, “a code that carries cultural messages” (Manovich, 64).

Genesis (1998) by Eduardo Kac

Genesis 1:26: “And God Said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection determines that evolution is the result of natural mutations and genetic recombinations. When these alterations are artificially managed by our own species, it inevitably manifests in our power to control the “survival of the fittest.” Nature versus nurture has been an age-old debate but now with a twist. Are we playing God? For some, tinkering with humanity is a sin. For others, it is an opportunity. We have the power to precisely design genes, but is fate really in our hands? How much control do we have over our own bodies? Our own image? Are we gaining control or losing it?

Left: Alba (2000) by Eduardo Kac | Right: EAR ON ARM by Stelarc

Kac also worked in tandem with French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine to create Alba, a genetically engineered rabbit with the GFP gene responsible for jellyfish luminescence. Under blue light, Alba glows a neon green. This isn’t the only animal to be genetically engineered with the GFP gene. A list may be found here. It isn’t long before the idea of these technological body manipulations are applied to humans. Performance artist Stelarc has famously grown an ear on his arm, an ongoing process throughout the past twelve years. Stelarc states, “Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body’s identity […] but its interface.” He continues, “As technology proliferates and microminiaturizes it becomes biocompatible in both scale and substance and is incorporated as a component of the body.”

A still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

Humans have been interacting with machine interfaces for years.

One may recall David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) where the protagonist becomes an extension of technology. His thoughts and actions are penetrated by media. In one scene, he inserts his head into a screen as it becomes one of his physical components.

This mechanical and biological blend has been described as a “‘natural’ evolutionary process” (Fjord) by thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, who believed that “All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical” and famously quoted, “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 26). With the rise of BioArt, no longer does one rely on a computer interface but our bodies are the interface.

What message does this send?

How does this transform our image of self-perception?

“…we go on from the representation and simulation of life to the creation and shaping of life” — Gerfried Stocker

The Sims

The Sims pose as a simulacrum for recent biotechnology. As the video recording above suggests, users may “play with genetics” and select traits for the characters in the game. It is one of many games available where avatars must be chosen to continue playing. Nick Yee, a researcher who focuses on self-representation and social interaction in virtual environments, states, “Studies have shown that, in general, people create slightly idealized avatars based on their actual selves” (Yee).

As technology increasingly revolutionizes our existence, we find ourselves surrounded constantly by the idea that we can construct a ‘better’ version of ourselves. Technology continues to advance to keep up with the demand. With apps filtering lives and social media accounts demonstrating our ‘highlight reels’, taking control and ‘correcting’ our imperfections has never been more possible. Perceived perfection is cultivated many times through selecting a picture on social sharing platforms to choosing avatars in games. Lev Manovich introduces the idea of a cultural interface (Manovich, 69). New media art stems from familiar ideas from former works. For instance, cinema came from theater. Games are influenced by cinema. And so forth. In this case, how has the former ideas to perfect oneself through technology resulted in an obsession with gene-editing? Now with the ability to design genes, an addiction to refining identities manifests into something even bigger.

Video by Karlee

Returning to CRISPR, the biotechnology also permits the genetic-modification of humans through in vitro fertilization (although scientists have added a moratorium). A new term has resulted, “Designer Babies.” Prospective parents may select traits for their future offspring similar to virtual avatar selection.

May this fall under BioArt? May we copyright a designed genetic makeup for a prospective child? The Supreme Court ruled the patenting of naturally occurring genes illegal in the case of The Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics on June 13, 2013. More than 4,300 genes previously patented were revoked as a result. The court argued that these genes were discovered, not created because DNA is a “product of nature.” No intellectual property was at stake. Therefore, patents should not be granted. However, the Supreme Court did not rule out the possibility of acquiring intellectual property for synthetically altered DNA. BioArt falls into this category.

Comic by Signe Wilkinson

It leaves us with question of who has ownership over our genes? Have we commodified ourselves as an interface?

BioArt Lab at SVA Art and Science Laboratory, New York

Institutions have increasingly dedicated programs to support BioArt. This includes the University of Western Australia’s School of Anatomy and Biology’s SymbiotcA artistic research lab, School of Visual Arts’ BioArt Lab ’in New York, and Harvard University’s Dept. of Cell Biology now accepts works based for both scientific or artistic merit.

Bibliography/Filmography:

“Bioart: An Introduction.” Trends in Biotechnology. Cell Press. 23 Nov. 2015.

Fjord. “Why The Human Body Will Be the Next Computer Interface.” Fast Company. 5 March 2013.

Manovich, Lev. The Interface, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Osthoff, Simone. “Eduardo Kac’s Genesis: Biotechnology Between the Verbal, the Visual, the Auditory, and the Tactile.” Leonardo Digital Reviews. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, Oct. 2001. Print.

Stelarc. “Ear on Arm: Engineering Internet Organ.” Stelarc.

Stocker, Gerfried. “Uprising.” Genesis. O.K. Center for Contemporary Art. 41–43. 1999.

Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The Effect Of Transformed Self-Representation On Behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271–290.

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