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Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond

Editor: Eduardo Kac
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Yazan Haddad

Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond is an edited collection of articles intended to face the nature of a newly emerging form of art. It also explains how the resulting art works and how it reforms our philosophy of life. To make this point, editor Eduardo Kac, a well recognized bioartist, gathered a group of artists, philosophers, and biologists, in a unified celebration of Bio Art. Signs of Life is divided into four sections: Biotech Culture; Bioethics; Bio Art; and Biology and Art History.

Biotech Culture discusses several aspects of biology that have direct influence on society, beginning with the bioinformatic aspect. Here, Bio Art provides solutions to problems of society in an analog hierarchy to the code-organism-biosystem model of biology. This topic is followed by aesthetics and the influence of biological ornaments on culture and economy. Next, the term chimera is discussed starting from mythical and ending with scientific meanings of the term. The author argues that even synthetic chimeras stem from human understanding of life. The discussion then turns to transgenesis, featuring two examples: first, the enormous variability of cannabis cultivars (summarized by the question of who is growing whom!); and second, the famous GFP bunny "Alba" (living proof that transgenic animals cannot be definable in terms of taxonomy but rather by overlapping "differentials of intensity"). The following chapter discusses the transfer of cognition into machines, where the integration of life (biological cognition) into interactive machines/robots has been exploited.

The second section of the book highlights the fundamentals of bioethics starting with a comprehensive introduction to the topic based on major opinions laid by Arthur Caplan, Cora Diamond, and others. Next, the symbolic uses of blood in art are offered as examples -- as a substance of life, as a social symbol, as a symbol of evoking racism, and as an exploit of control and power. The section further discusses the effect of Bio Art on public policy by featuring a number of legal cases where bioartists collide with community, especially on the subject of ownership of organs. The section ends by showing the method of Bio Art as a thinking tool of how people control the technology -- i.e. what they are authorized to do.

The third section, Bio Art, tells stories of a number of bioartists, each describing a unique world of struggles, searches, discoveries, and accomplishments. The rationale by which these artists were chosen was that they employed a variety of media in their artwork, such as genetic materials, animals, plants (irises and evergreen grass), hybridoma cells, food, electrophoresis sets (for both DNA and proteins), and tissue culture (tissues grown and maintained in semi-living art pieces).

Biology and Art History is the last section of the book. In these last chapters, the authors exploit matters of historical importance. Namely: the origins of a biocentric works of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an essay by Alexander Fleming, Edward Steichen's exhibit of delphinium flowers, and threads of relations between biology and art since the origins of traditional biotechnology.

To set the scene for discussion, the editor starts by explaining the direct relationship between the science and the art: the science as in the ability to manipulate life is limited to direct concerns of life and understanding of its secrets. On the other hand, the ability to see evolution in action lead to Bio-Art -- the interest in answering indirect questions concerning life through the tools of biotechnology. Further, the editor sets the historical ground for the development of this new art (art of manipulating life) by quoting great historical figures such as philosophers (Aristotle, Descartes), theologians (Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), naturalists (Mendel and Darwin) and artists (Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Picasso). Sure enough, many historical comparisons of art concepts and art pieces are discussed. For example, the development of the chimera concept finds roots ranging from mythological creatures to the modern hybrids such as the sheep-goat chimera. A plethora of examples are displayed in the rest of the book in a way that makes the reader curiously compelled to further check and google each surprising notion. The book as a whole included a clear diversity in style and topics throughout the pages, ranging from historical display and philosophical arguments to plant porn (cannabis buds) and search for extraterrestrial life in outer space! Also, I have to confess that I found the essay by Alexander Fleming quite amazing.

In the first two sections, cultural aspects were supported with a plethora of examples of both social and artistic themes. As stated, Bio Art has recently opened our minds into new frontiers. Recent developments in Biotechnology raised a non-ending list of questions, only limited by our own imagination. The role of Bio Art here was to expand beyond these questions (limited by scientific imagination) into all possible futuristic consequences of these technologies. This act of expansion is well represented by the case of Alba. Clearly, not only does Alba complicate the evolutionary network, but she also adds to it. She is connecting to us in the same being of an animal but with the need for a "host" and vice versa. I have to add here, Alba raises the same question of "who is growing whom?"

Philosophical themes of the book highlighted the bioethics and law issues, and were supported with opinions of historical and well known figures. Even for the most debated arguments, authors did agree on "liberating life from itself" by "creating existential value of the living" (159) -- i.e. humans own their fate (and that of other animals) in their hands. However, others stated that with genetic manipulation comes responsibility towards environment. The new species may get uncontrolled, "resulting in a kind of artificial genetic drift" in the wild (306).

I do have some reservations regarding chapter 6 on bioethics by Cary Wolfe. The author has written a comprehensive review of bioethics. However, the topic was far too advanced and complex compared to the scope of the book (especially Derrida's opinion, pp 105-111). I also have reservations regarding Caplan's opinion on working on animals where he suggests the rule of how animals are not "moral equivalents" to humans (98). I have to admit that the author objectively identified the weaknesses in Caplan's argument as suggested by following philosophers. Yet I have to point out how in the end it seemed as if Caplan was asking a "less applicable" question! He should have asked "when can we manipulate animals?" instead of "can we manipulate animals?" Again, I had to admit here that I feel more biased to Caplan's original question and answer. In general, this book introduces Bio Art to the community using a fair argument, and keeps an objective eye on mystical facts in a way that leaves enough space for the reader to decide. The philosophical arguments were well cited to historical figures, while the artistic examples were as much surprising as interesting.

In the latter two sections, Bio Art is more of a process than an idea. A more personal and individualized theme is presented to the reader. Art pieces are shown and explained by the artists themselves. These sections are of high importance because understanding art always stems from understanding the process itself.

Although art works on the topic of epigenetics were not clearly presented, this innocent skipping can be attributed to the recent recognition of the term. However, the interesting work of Jeremijenko (301) showed how even in identical clones of plants, the environment plays a vital role in determination of their growth patterns (thus indirectly referring to epigenetics in a Bio Art work).

A work like Signs of Life documents an art movement that has been emerging strongly in the past two decades. Through that time, as philosophers, we have been mind-teased with questions we never thought could be asked. As artists, we have found a new medium for work. And as biologists, personally, I guess we all seek aesthetic perfections in our work. I always feel the rush of excitement when I'm staining and developing a 2D-gel simply because I know deep inside that thousands of spots (representing all proteins in the cell) will always take the same position on gel like the stars in the sky. And if it was clear enough maybe someday I'll see a shooting star just like the protein biomarkers are discovered holding hope for diagnosis of a disease.

Despite any weakness or imperfection in this book, I can surely declare it as exciting, comprehensive, and illuminating.

Yazan Haddad:
Yazan Haddad has a Master degree in medical sciences, working on the epigenetic silencing of tumor suppressor genes in Leukemia. Currently working as research lab supervisor (Proteomics division) at Princess Haya Biotechnology Center, Jordan. His research interests involve microbial biotechnology of bacteria living in extreme environments and the study of human diseases, mainly the field of cancer biology.  <yazanhaddad@hotmail.com>

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