TROY, N.Y. — Adam Zaretsky once spent 48 hours playing Engelbert Humperdincks's "Greatest Hits" to a dish of E.coli bacteria to determine whether vibrations or sounds influenced bacterial growth. Watching the bacteria's antibiotic production increase, Zaretsky decided that perhaps even cells were annoyed by constant subjection to "loud, really awful lounge music."
This sense of humor is a huge component of Zaretsky's work in the growing field of bio-art, a broad term for the blend of art, technology and science that is attracting artists, scientists and controversy. Having recently taught at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Zaretsky has become a prominent figure in the realm of bio-art and RPI is becoming a Petri dish for the cultivation of new works.
Bio-artists use live tissues, bacteria, living organisms and life processes to create works of art that blur the traditional distinctions between science and art. Most of these works tend toward social reflection, conveying political and societal criticism through the combination of artistic and scientific processes.
Making biotech more accessible
An exhibit of bio-art works by Kevin H. Jones went on view Feb. 16 at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass. Jones' work explores how biotechnology and other sciences are changing and being redefined. Almost every piece in it is alive, and the media used includes bioluminescent bacteria and rotting fruit. According to Montserrat College Assistant Curator Shana Dumont, the exhibit seeks to make the achievements and implications of biotechnology more accessible, a goal shared by most bio-artists working today.
Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, an Art Institute of Chicago professor and a leader in bio-arts, once had a microchip implanted in his body to make people contemplate the relationship humans have with technology.
"(Bio-art) is a way of looking where we interface with ourselves, human culture and the rest of the living world," said Zaretsky.
At RPI, bio-arts is a growing curriculum through its iEAR program (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer).
"Through iEAR, it's helping us make alliances and build connections as we develop the bio-art program," said Kathy High, an RPI professor and chair of the program. "We're fortunate here because there's so much going on (around us) with nanotechnology and bioengineering."
High said she originally became involved in bio-art through her interest in women's issues and much of her previous work focused on the birthing process and reproductive technologies.
Zaretsky taught his course, "VivoArts: Art and Biology Studio," at RPI in the fall 2006 semester. The course guides a mix of artists, scientists and medical students in the exploration of life sciences through projects that examine the human connection to living systems.
Exposing artists to laboratories
The VivoArts courses are meant to expose artists to laboratories, which he says are often the most "intimidating and foreign sites." In one assignment, a student might "paint" with genetically modified bacteria; in another, a student incorporates his or her self into a work of living art.
Much of the art involves tissue-culturing and transgenics, a catchall term for a variety of genetic engineering processes through which genetic material from one organism is altered by the addition of synthesized or transplanted genetic material from another organism.
One of the original examples of this type of transgenic art was Alba, a living phosphorescent rabbit created by Kac in 2000. By inserting the fluorescent protein gene from a jellyfish into a fertilized rabbit egg cell, Kac eventually produced a rabbit that glows bright green under blue lights.
RPI alum Julia Reodica incorporated her own body as well as animal cells in her 2004 project, "hymeNextTM." Using rat tissue samples and her own vaginal cells, Reodica combined new media and sculpture methods with tissue-cultivating to produce a series of artificial hymens. Reodica's pieces aim to confront modern sexuality, and provoke thought on the female body and the emphasis placed on virginity in our culture.
Reodica, who was originally a medical student, turned to commercial art before later looking for a way to explore science through art while also illustrating social messages and issues.
An exhibit last October at RPI, called "Prototype," detailed the processes that have gone into the development of "hymeNextTM" and her other works, including an enormous replica of muscle cells that allows the viewer to walk around and through the faux tissue. Other projects on which she is working include a series she calls "Living Sculptures," creating a collection of synthetic embryos of mythical creatures.
Not everyone is cheering this blend of art and science.
Kac and many others have faced opposition from animal rights groups accusing them of unfairly manipulating living creatures for selfish purposes, and from conservative groups who question the morality of transgenics and tissue-culturing.
"Transgenic manipulation of animals is just a continuum of using animals for human end," regardless of whether it is done to make some sort of sociopolitical critique, said Alka Chandna, a senior researcher with PETA in Norfolk, Va. "The suffering and exacerbation of stress on the animals is very problematic."
Chandna also warned that scientists can't always predict what other health problems the animals will suffer from their alterations. "We're all in support of creativity but we're opposed to all suffering."
For other bio-artists, their work has led to national legal scrutiny.
Steven Kurtz, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, was arrested on federal terrorism charges nearly three years ago after police discovered certain types of bacteria and other biological materials in his home. Kurtz maintains that the specimens were for his bio-arts pieces and that he has been unfairly targeted for his choice of artistic expression. Kurtz's trial is still pending in the federal court system, nearly three years later.
Part of the problem with bio-art, explained RPI faculty member and Kurtz's colleague Rich Pell, is that much of it seems shrouded in secrecy because of the laboratory setting. Pell and Reodica are working to combat this through the creation of the Center for Bio-Media, a gallery, lab and educational facility that will be open to the public.
"With bio-art, rather than just freaking out about it, you can then go into a lab where things are actually happening and then have an 'educated freak-out,'" Pell said.