Wednesday, May 18, 2011

[Yasmin_discussions] SYNTH-ETHICS in VIenna / ART & SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY : following up with the discussion

Hi Yasminers, dear Laura,

thanks for pushing the discussion about „art AND synthetic
biology" or „art WITH synthetic biology", which popped up after
my announcement of the current SYNTH-ETHICS exhibition at the Vienna
Natural History Museum, a step further.
It's of course always better to actually go and see the exhibition
rather than discussing it as a dry run, but here we're are again
trapped by the gap between presence and representation, which is a
current and known problem especially when it comes to
biotechnological art forms which speculate on their underlying,
supposed or real live-ness effects.

Some of your points have to do with the very definition of the
branding and the tangible reality of an emerging (or blended)
technological discipline and what would be then the most justifiable
posture for artists to engage with it; others deal with the question
of the appropriate mediality and materiality of the aesthetic objects
that relate to, or use tools of this "new discipline" - if ever it
appears to be ontologically and epistemologically different from
previous biotechnologies in a more or less profound way.

To recall, the Vienna exhibition which runs until June 26 in the
very "temple" of natural history, is an exhibition that presents
art works related to the new field of Synthetic Biology and its
historical and epistemological roots, and which questions the very
notion of what „synthesizing" actually means within the long
tradition of the discipline of biology, be it in the light of the now
acclaimed field of contemporary Synthetic Biology, or be it in the
light of those previous practices and research orientations that
currently converge to make Synthetic Biology up.

I pointed out earlier that this questions what Synthetic Biology
actually can be defined by is not just a question of historical roots
but of diverging contemporary cultural and techno-scientific
understanding of the field, quoting as one exemple De Lorenzo and
Danchin (2008) with their more holistic approach which includes
engineering, computing, modeling, molecular biology, evolutionary
genomics, traditional biotechnologies, orthogonal/artificial, origins
of life research, proto-cells, protein modeling etc.

Laura, let's take up your first point, asking whether a contemporary
understanding of a changing field should not automatically supercede
its earlier definitions:

> Why is it we are putting synthetic biology on the agenda now – and
> not earlier if the field has the history we allure to? Should we
> distinguish between modern Synthetic Biology in the same way as
> traditional biotechnology is separated from modern biotechnology?
> The sciences has a shifting nature and its current state is often
> better understood in its present than past.

I agree with your remark that putting SB on the agenda as a mere
topic would be for sure – even curatorially speaking– a quite
questionable practice, just providing an intended utilitarian service
in the name of science communication or educational purposes. Indeed,
I disagree with what you say that science would be "better
understood in its present than past"; I believe that above all it is
historical epistemology which helps getting the absolutely necessary
critical distance when discussing the "newness" of a new field and
its applications, then subverted, co-developed or just used by
artists. But I think that you are absolutely right saying that
distinguishing between traditional biotechnology and modern
biotechnology is addressing the same problematic so-called
biotechnological art faces:

How different are, as an example, the practices of tissue culture
concretely used by the Tissue Culture and Art project since 1996 to
those already known in the first half of the 20th century? Looking
closely, one may say that they differ only gradually – but have
become available, and of interest, to artists only in the late 20th
century. The case of TC&A is even more interesting when thinking that
their use of tissue engineering has often been a way to actually
criticize the hype around genomics (taking the latter as a topic) –
using tissue engineering, materially speaking, to subvert discourses
surrounding the topic of the Human Genome Project ("Pig Wings")
– but both, indeed, include "traditional and modern
biotechnologies." Also, something has changed in biotechnologies
and tissue engineering: When you read manuals from the beginning of
the century – I'm just dissecting Erdmann's "Praktikum der
Gewebepflege oder Explantation besonders der Gewebezüchtung" from
1922 – you recognize that half of the book does not deal with the
actual practice of tissue culture, but with how and where to get the
growth medium from and how to extract it from living organisms. I'm
taking this as an example because many of TC&A's works actually deal
with the irony of the proclaimed contemporary "victimlessness" of
contemporary biotechnology which hides its victims away, unlike
traditional biotechnology manuals. By pointing to this shift, TC&A
actually criticizes modern techno-sciences by the use of, and the
reference to traditional ones – but without the very materiality
itself undergoing a paradigm shift. It points to the contemporary
"media blindness" of contemporary sciences, ready to hide the
means that produce knowledge away in the banality of their
"materials & methods" section, while in the contemporary
artist's work, the (growth) medium – understood in its sense of
milieu – is, finally, the very message. Another example from TC&A,
and which may justify the very presence of a TC piece such as the
"Worry Dolls" in the SYNTH-ETHICS exhibition, is that the used
McCoy cells (human/mice) can be actually seen as a product of
biological synthesis, even in the realm or tissue culture.

In a similar sense, we can see Joe Davis's "Bacterial Radio",
consisting of bacterially-grown platinum/germanium electrical
circuits to potentially listen to AM stations (unfortunately the last
one has been recently dismantled in Vienna), as an ironic reverse of
the main goal of synthetic biology by applying biological principals
to electronic engineering, instead of vice versa. While synthetic
biologists attempt to create "genetic circuits" made out of
standard biological parts, devices and systems, frequently citing
electronic engineering as their most favorite metaphor, critics argue
that living organisms are too complex to be designed and constructed
like electronic circuits. But even, to quote private conversations
with Joe Davis, for him the ideal "Bacterial Radio" would be
functioning not with bacterially grown metal circuits in a Petri
dish, but as a genetic circuit within a single bacterium… simply,
even contemporary SB is not yet up for this.

So, Laura, your following point is also important:

> How do we talk about synthetic biology as a practice? For instance,
> in terms of standardised parts: Is merely using parts from
> Synthetic Biology sufficient (i.e. transformation) or does one have
> to engage in synthesising parts

In fact you are asking the question whether SB art would need to
imply the actual techno-scientific CREATION of, to make it
'standard' let's say, an artistic "biobrick", or whether the
only USE of such a "biobrick" would actually make it qualifying
for the "label" of "SB art." Does this not ask the question of
the (rare) case of the artist as (scientific) inventor (see als
Dieter Daniel's book " Artists as Inventors -Inventors as
Artists", 2008)? My answer may seem quite conservative, coming
myself from film studies as my initial academic focus: of course I
value most highly all formalist's and avantgardist's attempts to
invent, transform, transgress and develop the very mediality of an
art medium, but the great majority of artists in all disciplines is
fine with just using these media for aesthetic and discursive
practices, and I do not see a problem here.

Taking the very example of Tuur van Balen's "Pigeon d'Or",
attempting at making pigeons defecate soap, my understanding is that
there is both use and development of two "biobricks" that work at
the level of the bacteria, not yet at the level of the pigeon
organism: one may lower the pH level in Bacillus subtilis, the other
makes it express lipase. See the "biobrick" here, I trust
indicating this correctly:

Of how many artists do we indeed know who really develop poetico-
artistic "biobricks" – and should this even be a criterium for
art? What comes to my mind is this "teenage gen poem" by the
Bangalore based art/science team Yashas Shetty and Mukund Thattai
named "BBa_K22100", a sequence of DNA that produces the organic
compound Geosmin, and which is responsible for the smell of wet earth
when it
begins to rain, thus playing on the mystique surrounding the aroma of
the Indian monsoon. How many do you know?

A last point I wish to develop relates to your quote of my 2005 text
"Bio Art—Taxonomy of an Etymological Monster" (Ars Electronica
catalogue "Hybrid") in which I wrote that "bio-fictional
manifestations such as chimera-sculptures, DNA-portraits, chromosome-
paintings or mutant-depicting digital photo-tricks are no more
examples of Bio Art than Claude Monet's impressionistic paintings
could be classified as ‚Water Lily Art' or ‚Cathedral Art'".
While here, the question was whether sculpture, painting, photoshop
etc. could be or not appropriate media – in the aforementioned sense
of "media adequacy" – to address biotechnology related issue in
their very presence rather than in their symbolic representation, I
suspect that your point is that works in SYNTH-ETHICS may not
materially relate to the field of Synthetic Biology, but rather in a
thematic or evocative sense. I do respect the kind of puristic
endeavor lurking behind such suggestion, but tend to affirm that this
comparison is not accurate. While there is no doubt that painting or
sculpture in their classical mediality do represent bio-topics,
however, I would claim that all works included in SYNTH-ETHICS do
actually include material techniques or disciplines which constitute
the convergent parts of Synthetic Biology, both conceptually and

Let's take, as a last case study, the development of the concept of
proto-cells, which are so central in Synthetic Biology nowadays
(again). For sure, as an example for the current state of the
"art", Steen Rasmussen (Rasmussen [ed.]: Protocells : bridging
nonliving and living matter. Cambridge, 2009), in his question what
protocells actually are, states in general as an universal
epistemological truth that „all life forms are composed of molecules
that are not themselves alive." In a contemporary sense, he then
elaborates that three operational functionalities may be required:
"a METABOLISM that extracts usable energy and resources from the
environment, GENES that chemically realize informational control of
living functionalities, and a CONTAINER that keeps them all
together." Now, for example, in the use of the term protocell by
artist and architect Rachel Armstrong, who seeks to apply the
properties of living systems to large-scale constructions, her
protocells in her installation "Living Chemistry" are more the
precursors of "living" cells formed by the innate, complex
chemistry of molecules existing at the interface between oil and
water. They definitively form a container and express a metabolism,
but they are not ruled by genes that would permit REPLICATION rather
than DIVISION only. But would it be for this reason that we would
dismiss the material qualities of Armstrong's artistic protocells?
Of course, she derives her practice from former research on
protoplasmatic structures, as already carried out in basic research
at the end of the 19th century. But in the context of today's
synthetic biology, protocells are becoming of central interest for
different reasons: While attempts to make cells function with a
totally synthetic genome have been successful, it still remains a
challenge to actually synthesize the cell itself as the basic unit of
life and have it serve, then, as a "chassis" for genetic circuits.
And who can be, as a speculative question, totally sure that such
protocells, as biological machines following an engineering principle
rather that needing to be alive, really need REPLICATION capacities
and could not be fine with DIVISION capacities only?

To finish with, I would like to quote a short passage from Stéphane
Leduc (1853–1939), the French biologist who was actually the first
to coin the term „synthetic biology" in 1910. In "The Mechanisms
of Life" he writes: „The evolution of biology has been the same as
that of the other sciences; it has been successively DESCRIPTIVE,
ANALYTICAL, and SYNTHETIC. Just as synthetic chemistry began with the
artificial formation of the simplest organic products, so biological
synthesis must content itself at first with the fabrication of forms
resembling those of the lowest organisms. Like other sciences,
synthetic biology must proceed from the simpler to the more complex,
beginning with the reproduction of the more elementary vital

By this quote, and by the other elements cited, I hope having
delivered some food for thought and some reasons why SYNTH-ETHICS is
presenting itself through an epistemological approach rather than
through the prism of the self-understanding of an emerging
contemporary discipline and its current techniques only.

Best wishes,


PS 1: You may have a look at how the New Scientist has seen the show:

PS 2: SYNTH-ETHICS stages art works by Rachel Armstrong, Art Orienté
objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin), Adam Brown, Joe Davis,
Andy Gracie, Roman Kirschner, James Tour & Stephanie Chanteau, Tuur
Van Balen, Paul Vanouse, The Tissue Culture and Art Project (Oron
Catts & Ionat Zurr).

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