I have been director of The Arts and Genomics Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands for more than five years now.1 The Arts and Genomics Centre is active at the interface of art, science and technology, and we have focused from the outset on exploring new forms of collaboration between the humanities, the life sciences and the arts.
In this paper I will reflect on why I think it is necessary for artists and scholars to engage with the sciences and participate in art-science collaboration. I will explain why The Arts and Genomics Centre believes it is important to explore new forms of collaboration between the humanities, the life sciences and the arts. I will also discuss the rhetoric and pitfalls of art-science collaborations, and how we can avoid these pitfalls. In that sense this paper is also about the specific role and function of art in our society and culture. I will thus discuss the specificity of art: what makes art different from other media or other forms of communication?
From the beginning The Arts and Genomics Centre focused on artists who are actively involved in the life sciences, otherwise known as bioartists.2 A growing number of artists make use of the opportunities offered by the life sciences to work with new materials: living materials that traditionally do not belong to the artistic realm.3 The use of these living materials, or moist media,4 in artistic practice also implies the application of the tools of the life sciences in the arts. Much bioart – as we call it – literally comes out of the laboratory. The materials, tools, and technologies of the life sciences are hardly neutral, of course. They are rife with all sorts of cultural, political, social, and ethical assumptions and implications that are part of this particular scientific practice. In other words, the accomplishments of the life sciences, both scientific and cultural, are directly linked with the materials, tools, and technologies associated with them. Bioart encompasses the concrete results of, say, DNA research, as well as the promises, expectations, and fears it arouses. The use of these materials, tools, and technologies within an artistic context automatically means that artists have to deal with these promises, expectations, and fears, including their cultural, political, social, and ethical ramifications. In using biomaterials – tissue, blood, genes – in their work, artists have also taken on board the discourses and practices of the science lab. Bioart is the artistic outcome of the ways in which artists deal with living materials and life science practices.5
One of the most famous bioartists is Eduardo Kac.6 Kac has produced a number of works incorporating living materials, but he is best known for a work that he called GFP Bunny. This is an albino rabbit called Alba that glows green when illuminated with light of a specific wave length. Alba is a transgenic organism – an organism containing inserted DNA that originated in a different species. Alba was created in a biogenetic lab in France using EGFP, an enhanced version of the original green fluorescent gene found in jellyfish. One of the issues that this artwork addresses is what the fact that we can now have transgenic animals as pets means. The work challenges us to consider our responsibility for these new kinds of transgenic pets. The GFP Bunny provoked a huge public response, especially among life scientists. The discussion mainly focused on ethical questions, such as whether it is permissible to genetically modify a living organism for purely artistic reasons. However, such questions in themselves highlight the issue of our responsibility towards the creatures that we are able to produce by technological means and the boundaries that we set ourselves in creating new organisms. Kac himself claims that his art “does not attempt to moderate, undermine or arbitrate the public discussion. It seeks to contribute a new perspective that offers ambiguity and subtlety where we usually only find affirmative (‘in favor’) and negative (‘against’) polarity”.7 He considers his art to be art as social intervention.
Other bioartists, including an Australian group called The Tissue Culture and Art Project, have chosen to turn the practice of tissue engineering into the medium of their artworks.8 The Tissue Culture and Art Project claim that their sculptures created from living cells call into question deep-rooted perceptions of life and identity, our concept of self, and the position of humans in regard to other living beings and the environment.9 One of their most famous projects is the ‘disembodied cuisine’. In this project they grew frog skeletal muscle over biopolymer for food consumption. To grow these little pieces of meat they procured cells from a living frog without killing or even hurting it. This project culminated in a feast at the international biological art exhibition ‘L’art Biotech’ in Nantes, France in March 2003, where the little pieces of this ”victimless meat” were marinated in calvados, fried and then consumed by friends and other artists. As the guests dined on frogs’ legs that were apparently also suitable for vegetarians, the frog from which the cells were procured leapt around among them.10 Another work by this group is “victimless leather”, in which they grow a leather jacket using tissue engineering. As in Kac’s work, TC&A’s art raises issues concerning responsibility for the new entities that we are able to create with life science technologies such as tissue engineering.
Most bioartists also share a fascination with the new media – like moist media – that life science technologies make available, and the artistic challenges they bring. For example, Australian bioartist Boo Chapple created her A Rat’s Tale installation using collagen derived from rats’ tails. The tails used in this work were scavenged from life science researchers once they had finished with their rats and, in this sense, A Rat’s Tale can also be seen as an investigation of waste and use-value, in relation both to living bodies and to the production of art. But when we look at this installation we can see that Boo Chapple is clearly fascinated by the potential of collagen as an artistic medium and its aesthetic appeal.11
It is clear from these examples that bioart does not necessarily address the content of science but rather the social, political, economical forces and ethical and aesthetic values that may be driving the research and the societal application of knowledge acquired by scientific discovery. And these are also the concerns of many scientists and scholars.12 It is precisely in the space where the shared concerns of the sciences and the humanities meet – and often clash
– that bioart can act as a catalyst for a new and more productive relationship between the humanities and the sciences, providing an opportunity to make artistic practice an integral part of scholarly and scientific reflection.
Why does The Arts and Genomics Centre think we need to establish a new relationship between the arts, the sciences and the humanities? In recent years the humanities have become less and less involved in setting the agenda on major issues and developments in science. In debates on the implications of developments in life sciences, scholars often find themselves at the end of the pipeline, so to speak, expected to respond critically to scientific developments or technological applications which have already been put into practice. The growing complexity and inaccessibility of science and technology make it more and more difficult for scholars in the humanities to formulate responses that go beyond those of the general public, while many also have to rid themselves of their own personal anxieties about science.
As a result of this complexity, the ethical issues and questions prompted by the results of the life sciences are being addressed or resolved more and more within the sciences themselves. This is the responsibility of, for example, ethical committees, which rely on scientific expertise and standardized protocols. Looking from the outside as a scholar and as a concerned citizen, the answers and solutions these committees provide often appear pragmatic and policy-oriented, while issues that require profound or fundamental ethical reflection seem to be largely ignored.
This highlights a dilemma in the relationship between the sciences, the humanities and the public; a dilemma that arises from the clash between scientific integrity and societal anxiety. Scientists often express frustration at the public’s failure “to understand as they do” as a reason for their rejection of new technologies, and at the fact that their scientific integrity is not fully appreciated as a valuable contribution to the public debate. To the public, a different assessment of the benefits and related risks, and also of social and moral values (i.e. different from that of scientists), seems to be key.
In 2009 President Obama lifted the ban on stem cell research, and at the same time he issued a memorandum intended to ensure scientific integrity in government decision-making. Obama declared: “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or
technological findings and conclusions”.13 In response to this memorandum Robert George, a bioethicist at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, warned that it could run the risk of tarring opponents of stem-cell research as ideologues and enemies of science. “It’s not a question of science on one side and ideology on the other,” he said. “It’s a dispute about what ethical norms will govern science.”14 This dispute lies at the heart of bioart; think of Boo Chapple’s A Rat’s Tale, which is, as I said, an exploration of waste and use-value with relation to living bodies. In other words, the work has a tangible ethical dimension that makes us reflect on these issues. Chapple’s work is therefore first and foremost a wonderful work of art, which at the same time opens up the public debate to unexpected and ambiguous perspectives on ethical, cultural and political values that underpin decisions made in life sciences research.
This is possible because bioart shares with the life sciences a material engagement – something that the humanities do not have - and both bioart and science are engaged in constructing new metaphorical relationships between life and matter. The relevance of bioart to the humanities is that – through this artistic material engagement – this new form of art provides the humanities with unique and unexpected access to the life sciences, allowing scholars to participate in debates on their implications from their own humanities perspective. Bioart clearly shows that the clash between scientific integrity and public anxiety can be made productive in collaborative practices between art, science and the humanities.
Taking these considerations and arguments as a theoretical basis The Arts and Genomics Centre decided to address issues surrounding the life sciences in a joint effort involving art, science and the humanities. We agree with Kac that “it is impossible – and unacceptable – to circumscribe the questions raised by biotechnology within the realm of scientific research or industrial production, precisely because they take place in society at large”.15 It would therefore be inconceivable not to involve artists, designers and scholars in these discussions. And indeed what we see happening at the many symposiums recently organized to address important issues such as designing life, designing nature and owning life
– issues typically implied by the developments in the life sciences – is that artists and designers are almost always invited to participate in the discussion. Exchange projects between artists and scientists, such as artist-in-lab-projects, have become common and we have seen the emergence of a large number of organizations that stimulate and initiate collaboration between artists and scientists.16 Research funding organizations in the humanities, such as the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), have also initiated all sorts of research programs that explore and support interactions between art and science.17 The recently established Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts at the University of North Texas can also be considered part of this movement (http://iarta.unt.edu/). It seems that art-science collaborations are here to stay.
Similarly, it seems that the bridge between art and science has been firmly constructed and is no longer the subject of discussion. However, in spite of these positive developments, it is my contention that it is still – perhaps even more – important to reflect on the nature of this bridge, how strong it is, who built it and why, for what purpose, who is supposed to cross it and who is actually crossing? And I observe – much to my regret – that there is still a huge difference between the answers produced by science and industry on the one hand, and art and design on the other. Artists and scientists seem to build different bridges to each other with different aims in mind.
Why do we consider it so important, urgent and necessary for art to play a societal and cultural role in addressing issues such as designing nature, designing human life and questions such as “who owns life”? This is in essence a question about what exactly the role of art is or might be in that discussion about our future. Why is art needed for that? Think for instance about the issue of who owns life and the commodification of nature and the body: the phenomenon that genetic engineering techniques transform living things – plants, animals, and human bodies – into marketable biomaterials. Animal bodies are engineered and cloned to serve as research tools. Human body tissue is turned into valuable raw material for pharmaceutical products.18
Two rather disturbing books were recently published about these issues: David Koepsell, Who Owns You: The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes and Donna Dickenson, Body Shopping: Converting Body Parts to Profit.19 When we read the blurb for Body Shopping it is immediately evident why these issues are so disturbing: “According to law, you don't actually own your own body, and you might be shocked by the cunning ways everyone from researchers and entrepreneurs to doctors, insurers, and governments are using that fact to their advantage. Thanks to developments in biotechnology and medicine, cells, tissues, and organs are now viewed as both a valuable source of information and as the raw material for new commercial products.” Having read these books, to me the question that remains is what can artists and designers add to this discussion? And I mean that on a fundamental level: what can they add to this discussion that is not already part of it? What can artists add to this discussion with their works of art, with arguments, feelings and intuitions that cannot be found in books or articles?
Can art transcend the verbal rhetoric of the relevance and urgency of art’s engagement with science and of art-science collaborations, a rhetoric which most of the time is not reflected in the actual artworks that come out of these collaborations? Art-science collaborations should imply much more than scientists and artists together imagining or imaging possible scenarios for the future, or ways of embedding new developments in nanotechnology, for example, on a cultural and societal level by making artworks with the help of nanotechnologists in order to arrive at conclusions, intuitions, insights and ambiguities already offered in books about the implications of nanotechnology.20 Most art-science collaborations seem to involve a one-way exchange of knowledge and technology from the sciences to the arts. Yet in most such collaborations the central question is what has art to offer science, what can art do for science? And the answer is often to help us (and science) understand or become critically aware of the implications of science or to help us (and science) reshape culture in the face of technological developments. That seems to be art’s gift to science: to culturally embed science, whether critically or not. And there is also of course the rhetoric of art’s gift to science as hybrid vigor. For instance, on the iArta website we read that “the use of new technologies in art often acts as a laboratory for subsequent industrial and commercial applications”.21 A rhetoric reiterated over and over again: art really can add something to science which science itself cannot achieve on its own. This might well be true.
My argument, however, is that we should also ask what science can do for art above and beyond providing new artistic media and technological knowledge. What is science’s gift to art? To make such a gift possible requires a fundamental rethink of the role and position of science relative to art, a change in the hierarchal relationship between science and art. Art- science collaborations often strike me as an artist’s attempt to articulate an attitude vis-à-vis science. If such a quest is perhaps characteristic of art in general, while one is unlikely to see scientists embark on a similar effort to define their relationship to art, this particular dynamic also suggests that the position of art relative to science is unclear, a situation that is perpetuated by the overwhelming presence of science and technology in today’s society. There is a general uncertainty as to the role of art in society. Although the cultural status and importance of the natural sciences is taken for granted, the cultural role or significance of the arts is much less clear.
The uncertain and searching position of the arts vis-à-vis science surfaces in the dangers that threaten art that engages with science. The first danger is the Dazzled by Science Trap: artists can be so dazzled by the challenges and possibilities offered by new technologies and materials that they lose themselves in playing with nanotechnology, for instance, creating nano paintings or whatever,22 without any deep interest in or knowledge of nanotechnology itself or the societal or ethical implications of these technologies, and without a sustained artistic focus. And scientists often happily play along with these artists, recognizing an opportunity to improve their public image.23 The question is, however, should art please the sciences? What should we think of art that is funded by science and industry money, when science and industry has created a playground for art to fool around with new materials without any real consequences for or critical approaches to science?
The next danger is the Complicity Trap. Ziarek refers to this as a dilemma for bioart: “In the context of this thinning boundary [between art and technology], it seems legitimate and necessary to ask whether and to what extent transgenic art is complicit with the manipulative flows of power or whether, on the contrary, it exposes, complicates, or perhaps even contests them”.24 The question is: should art be one of the voices that reassures us about technological developments and solutions and, by the melding of science and artistic expression, help to ease the way to popular acceptance of new technological applications? Is art that makes scientists happy good art? Should art be instrumental to the goal of disseminating science and technology?
And what about art that merely repeats what has already been done in science and technology? More and more artists use the internet to create art and/or include interactive interfaces. Inventive as these works may be, according to Ziarek, they are “nonetheless thoroughly determined by the same principles of interactivity that underlies e-commerce, Internet trading and banking, and so on, as well as other forms of Web interactivity”.25 And as we know from computer games, interactive shows and web browsing, interactivity was commoditized even before it was extended into the realm of art. This kind of art is ”often more repetition than rupture, more of the same rather than of the new”.26
Considering these traps, therefore, any art-science collaboration firstly raises a question about the nature of the added value of inviting an artist to participate in a project. And this is ultimately a question about the specificity of art. What is it that makes it important for art in particular to address the issues of designing nature, designing human life and who owns life? In other words, what sets art’s images, discourses, practices apart from other images, practices and discourses, especially those of the sciences?
Ethics and aesthetics
An important aspect of the specificity of the practice of art engaging with the life sciences is the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. This of course applies in particular to bioart. The very fact that these works of art are produced in part in a biology laboratory must, necessarily, give rise to ethical considerations, irrespective of the main focus of the work. Furthermore, the mere fact that biological material or live organisms are used, either to present the work in a public space or as a medium for artistic expression, makes this type of artwork inextricably bound up with ethics. This is the case with the work of bioartist Adam Zaretsky, for example. His work has been called “bioethics in action”27 in order to distinguish between the theoretical and discursive level of ethics and the level of ethics that only reveals itself in the hands-on artistic practice of a bioartist like Adam Zaretsky.
I will give a brief example of Zaretsky’s bioethics in action. In one of his bioart classes at The Arts and Genomics Centre Zaretsky tried to make pheasant embryos transgenic in the hope that they would grow two heads or four legs, all in his relentless quest for a transgenic aesthetic.28 In the Netherlands there are no ethical guidelines on bird embryos. What Zaretsky and the students did in this class – making a window in the eggs and injecting them with plasmid DNA – is totally within the bounds of science ethics and no licenses are needed. This is because of the definition of life currently applied in the life sciences: something is considered alive when it can sustain life independently and when it can reproduce itself.29 These eggs may not therefore hatch, because once the pheasant is out of the egg we have life. So the students had to kill the embryos before the eggs hatched and Zaretsky offered them several humane methods of doing so – although we may dispute whether ”to kill” is the correct word in this context. The choice of one of these ”humane methods” of disposing of the embryos caused a lot of discussion, anxiety and even tears among the students. Zaretsky himself remarks of this event: “My ‘Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab’ workshop concluded with students being invited to ‘kill’ their genetically modified pheasant embryos in any way they wanted to (these included frying, flushing down the toilet and putting to sleep with valium). The disturbing nature of this to the general public raises interesting ethical questions about the right to life. Interestingly, this work would not cause any specific problems for science ethics, which would find it completely acceptable. The work demonstrates the gap between the wider public and science ethics.”30
In my view this embryology lab is a perfect example of bioethics in action. In this respect I also consider Zaretsky’s performance a key to the ethical education of young science and humanities students much more than any educational program I know, in the sense that they gained hands-on experience of ethical judgment and action by becoming part of Zaretsky’s performance – not by looking at it from the outside. The way Zaretsky staged this performance also ensured that the life science students present at the class gained a new perspective on what for them had become already more or less a routine part of their studies. This hands-on tampering with life – however basic – by the students themselves set within this artistic performance, alienating them from everyday student life, gave them a deep, new experience and understanding of issues raised by the life sciences. In this embryology lab a lot of questions,
anger, confusion, ambiguity and misunderstandings emerged from all sides. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, I see this performance by Zaretsky as a wonderful example of creating a platform on which scientists, artists and scholars can work together on important issues associated with the notion of tampering with life. The artwork is neither the objects or eggs nor the processes and activities, the artwork is the open space created with these objects, processes and activities in which something can happen, in which insights can arise that have not been predetermined, but are unexpected, surprising, threatening or unpleasant.
An even more radical project of Adam Zaretsky’s is his “Initial Attempts at Embryonic Transplant Surgery”. The goal of this project was “to cut the head off of one growing zebrafish embryo and transplant (paste) that head onto another ‘whole’ zebrafish embryo. Done correctly, this might develop into a two-headed, fleshy and fashionable, ‘Mosaic Brut’ designer zebrafish”.31
The transplant operation did not succeed but to Zaretsky the lesson learnt from his attempt is: “By learning standard microsurgical skills as an art productive process, I am attempting to focus on the liminal relationships that are formed at the border between the creation and the destruction of living beings. This is an attempt at waking the sleeping dreams of personal beauty. Therefore, I am not shielded by the rhetoric of moral sanctity implicit in the public face of scientific rationalization. I also believe participatory observation is a prerequisite to the comprehension and recontextualisation of any practice. But this is self expression, first and foremost.” 32
In relocating a scientific or technological practice into the artistic domain, Zaretsky offers a different approach to nature than science, in the sense that he calls upon aesthetic motives to explain his artistic research. I quote from his website: “the limits of the possible realms of bio-sensuality have not even been approached”. Yet he undertakes his artistic quest into the aesthetic and therefore ethical unknown with the tools of the life sciences in a hands-on approach and fully covered by ethical procedures within science. Another quote from Zaretsky’s website: “This is the infinite approach to the mutual unknown that scientists, artists and even most novelty seeking organisms entertain.” The work of art in his project “Initial Attempts at Embryonic Transplant Surgery” is not the beheaded embryo, nor the tools and procedures. The artwork is the open space created by the interaction between the embryos, tools, procedures, moral hesitations, public anxiety and scientific and aesthetic hubris. Only in such an undefined open space can fruitful and non-hierarchical exchange and understanding arise between scientists, scholars and artists.
Modes of collaboration
Zaretsky’s Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab and his artistic work in general demonstrates what art and design participating in the practice of the life sciences can add to the academic and public debate, while carefully preserving artistic integrity and independence from the sciences. By turning a scientific practice into an artistic practice and placing life at the centre of art, bioartists can address the cultural, ethical and political implications of the life sciences within the realm of artistic imagination. The artistic imagination can capture our fears, expectations, and out-of-control imagination with respect to the life sciences in tangible images. Bioartists can reveal the cultural meaning of the tools and technologies of the life sciences, and also their hidden dreams and expectations.33
Bioartists can do this quite differently than, for example, philosophers of science or science consultancies: in the field of possibilities opened up by the artistic register – including inconsistencies, paradoxes, ambiguities, uncertainties – an artist can try out different and sometimes opposing avenues of understanding without being troubled by or getting stuck in linguistic paradoxes and dualisms. However, what we see in most recent art-science collaborations, as in the broader debate on art’s role in society, is that there is an uncertainty in defining or understanding the characteristics or specificity of art and that this is mostly resolved by using art in an instrumental sense: art as moral education, art as a vehicle for criticizing science or art as a tool for social change. Despite the intention of putting the emphasis on art’s assumed importance in addressing urgent societal issues, art’s specificity remains unanswered.
Unanswered by the scientists, that is, but in many cases not understood by the artists themselves. Science’s gift to art should be to allow and help create a space for art in the practice of science itself in order to develop and understand art’s specificity within the practice of science. This sounds simple, but it is not, as I see it happening only rarely. It means that, in its own house, science must give control to artists, that science must reconsider itself in the face of an artistic practice that permeates scientific life. On the other hand, it also entails a deep understanding of what is happening in science on the part of the artists. Only then can we truly appreciate what it means to say that it is urgent and relevant for art to engage with science and not stick to mere rhetoric about the importance of this engagement.
There is a fundamental ambiguity in art’s position and role in our contemporary society, again elegantly expressed in The Force of Art by Krzysztof Ziarek: “Can art affect the power momentum of the society of which it is itself a product and in which it often plays the function of an aesthetic object and/or commodity, and if so, how can it do this?”34
One is tempted to think that this is indeed impossible, and when I look at most art- science collaborations, I find it very difficult to see art in these projects as enriching, destabilizing, transforming or complicating the scientific discourse as Ziarek would like to see. Ziarek implies that science does not seem to need art to do what it does. Science only allows art in when art more or less sticks to the discourse of what he calls the manipulative flows of technoscientific power.
In a more optimistic mode we can say that art-science collaborations can only be successful when the artists involved make art that scares the scientists, that unsettles them, that disrupts them, art that threatens them. That is my conclusion, drawn from my experience as director of The Arts and Genomics Centre and from my very positive experience of Zaretsky’s periods as artist in residence at our centre. He is doing exactly that, and that is why his residencies are so controversially successful. But I also found the same conclusion in an article on interdisciplinary research in which the authors describe what they call the agonistic- antagonistic mode as the most successful mode of interdisciplinarity: “in the agonistic- antagonistic mode, interdisciplinary research is conceived neither as a synthesis nor in terms of a disciplinary division of labour, but as driven by an agonistic or antagonistic relation to existing forms of disciplinary knowledge and practice. Here, interdisciplinarity springs from a self-conscious dialogue with, criticism of or opposition to the intellectual, ethical or political limits of established disciplines or the status of academic research in general”.35
What is being argued here is indeed, as I said before, something completely different from what I see happening in more recent art-science collaborations, where artists are tolerated in the lab to see if they have something to offer science, but in which art has to stay within the boundaries set by the sciences and cannot ultimately exert any transformative force.
W.J.T. Mitchell speaks in his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction” of the “tactical irresponsibility” of bioartists. This “tactical irresponsibility”, writes Mitchell, “might be just the right sort of homeopathic medicine for what plagues us”.36 I think that “tactical irresponsibility” neatly describes the artistic strategy in Adam Zaretsky’s project “Initial Attempts at Embryonic Transplant Surgery” and that therefore makes Zaretsky the perfect artist for the agonistic-antagonistic mode of interdisciplinary research.
The development and application of technologies will be increasingly needed to find sustainable solutions to the important challenges mankind will be facing for many years to come, including improvements in public health, food security, protection of the environment, more efficient use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change and protection of our societies from crimes and acts of war. The impact of these new technologies on our daily lives will continue to be significant. However, developments in the life sciences and their application generate all sorts of new concerns. That is why we cannot leave the decisions about societal applications of new technologies to scientists alone. We must all feel responsible, we are all responsible for the direction our society and culture are heading under the influence of new technologies, and that of course includes artists and designers. Zaretsky’s work, like most bioart, gives artistic shape to a personal responsibility – though perhaps it is better to speak of an embodied responsibility – for the implications of the life sciences. In other words, bioart reveals in a very specific artistic manner how, in collaborative projects between the sciences and the humanities, a new and more effective (i.e. ambiguous) understanding of our individual ethical and aesthetic responsibility for the living organisms that we can produce technologically, for example, can arise out of the openness of a work of art.
Robert Zwijnenberg, Universiteit Leiden. January 2012.