Sunday, February 8, 2009


[Click on Diagram for the original/larger view]

Scientific discovery relies on the careful observation of organisms and natural forces; but to go beyond just surface description of these phenomena, scientists must intervene
through experimentation. Since the invention of the microscope in the 1600s, there has been a desire to extend the biological gaze. Evelyn Fox Keller describes the evolution of what was once a didactic relationship between “looking” and “touching” in her article, “The Biological Gaze.”

In the pure realm of science, there is a value placed on looking over touching. Keller argues, however, that looking always has some effect or impact on the subject of the gaze. Before the advent of photography, natural scientists had to kill their specimens in order to accurately describe them through highly detailed drawings. Most geneticists rely mainly on observing the results of their crossings, but to achieve these results they must alter the course of nature through careful selection and pairings, which can be a form of touch (manipulation and control).

As evidenced by the above diagram, as technology advanced in the field of biology, the act of looking developed from what could be seen with just the naked eye to what could be made visible with the aid of the microscope. The invention of the microscope was the crucial step in the eventual convergence of looking and touching, as it required the alteration (using killing) of an organism to prepare it for viewing on a slide.

So what motivated the early scientists? From the beginning they were trying to find the “secret of life”, what we now know to be cells, genes and DNA. Their only desire wasn’t to just observe these natural processes, but to intervene in the fundamental processes of generation.

What I found surprising is that the relationship between looking and touching in this case was not causal (ie one allows/leads to the other) but more circular—we cannot see a cell in action through a still image like an x-ray because it kills what it records. Instead scientists insert viral vectors and genetic fragments into organisms to be able to visually observe the activity of a particular gene. This action of genetic alteration could not have occurred without the “eye” of the microscope, thus looking and touching become inextricably linked when peering into life at this level.

In her conclusion, Keller said: “The ‘secret of life’ to which we have so ingeniously gained access is no pristine point of origin, but already a construct at least partially of our own making.” This leads me to the question—if must intervene in an organism’s natural state in order to observe it, are we actually observing its actual state and functions? Thus while it seems that we have control over nature as scientists now have the ability to genetically alter organisms; nature still has the upper hand as it’s impossible to observe it in a ‘pure’ state without human intervention. Also, organisms like viruses change and mutate so frequently that we cannot always keep up—one of the reasons that we can ‘cure’ diseases like polio but not the common cold.

["Primordial Dance" 1991. Artist Karl Sims uses computer animation to describe natural phenomena. The video is the product of "artificial evolution", a technological process that mirrors biological evolution-- it's an interactive process between Sims and the computer in which the program randomly creates images based on imputed mathematical formulas; Sims then selects the most aesthetically pleasing images which then "survive" and "bred" to create another string of images. Sims describes the process as such: " The equations, or artificial genes, of the survivors are copied, mutated, and mated by the computer to generate new offspring pictures. This process of variation and selection is repeated, and with each cycle more complex and interesting results can occur."]

So where does this all connect to art? Recently, artists like George Gessert who wrote the article “Art is Nature: An Artist’s Perspective on a New Paradigm,” have paid attention to and commented on the evolution of scientific observation through what is termed “genomic art.”

According to Gessert, “From an ecological point of view, much of today’s art is at least 140 years out-of-date.” This proclamation startled me, as I previously hadn’t reflected on how Darwin’s theory of evolution affected image making. While many contemporary Americans acknowledge evolution as a scientific fact, there is a tendency to still see humans as the most highly evolved, the top of the food chain and the center of the known universe.

After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, however, there was a realization that, at least genetically speaking, not much separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. In our early embryonic stage, humans vary little from other mammals. Artists like Suzanne Anker and Gary Schneider not only consider our role in the world in a new way but also employ methods that were previously regulated to the realms of science—that is they appropriate technology to present images of chromosomes and re-define genres like portraiture by using x-rays of their bodies and images of their own DNA.

["Panspermia, 1990 by Karl Sims. From Sims: "Panspermia is the name for the theory that life exists and is distributed throughout the universe in the form of germs or spores. This short computer animation places the viewer in the middle of a virtual world of an aggressively reproducing inter-galactic life form, and depicts a single life cycle of this unusual self propagating system." Through this short video Sims uses "artificial evolution" techniques to select random mutations of plants that reflect biological methods of selection that create biodiversity in the world. In this work he examines chaos and how it contributes to the nature of life itself.]

Even in this new way of looking at ecology, can we get away from human-centered art? While these artists draw parallels between the origins of humans and other animals, they still exert control over the bacteria they grow and dye, and in the extreme case of Eduardo Kac’s GFP bunny, the life of an animal. Gessert tends to gloss over the ethical implications of tampering with nature for the sake of art—only alluding to the idea that the ownership of these living artworks also constitutes custodianship.

Just by using the word “custodianship,” Gessert shifts the power of control in our favor—which makes me wonder if these artists who supposedly have a new awareness of humans and the environment we live in realize that by manipulating these organisms (especially in the case of the fluorescent rabbit or using DNA to spell out a passage from Genesis) we are still bending nature to our will.

In science we cannot observe nature without our own intervention, in genomic/ecological art there may be a more up-to-date idea of our role in nature but we generally still have to present these artworks in human institutions like the museum or gallery and also alter organisms to reflect a particular artist’s point of view. Gessert’s answer to this dilemma is to spend more time in nature, to get to know our ‘kin’ better. I agree, by acknowledging that we are wild and part of a larger ecological system, we are already one step closer to reconciling the Darwinian view of nature with our own art production.

1 comment:

  1. You were right, the videos are awesome. I especially like the first one. so... what are your thoughts on the ethical implications of tampering with nature for the sake of art? I'm thinkin of giving my house centipedes a glowing gene so I can kill them at night when they try to stalk me in my own apartment.