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Who’s the lab rat? Zaretsky in his element.


Politically minded gene splicing, bioartists are erasing the lines between aesthetics and science

By Jacqueline Keren

Photos by Alicia Solsman

Ike cells in a Petri dish, artists cluster. The modernists colonized New York, impressionists gravitated toward Paris. Bioartists are finding a home in Troy.

Bioartists make use of and explore the life sciences and biotechnologies. From that simple definition, bioart can be expressed in many different ways—from paintings that use living forms to performances that question the ethics of animal experimentation. The “bio” in art can be defined quite broadly as well—a bacteria, a chicken, and a human being have all held starring roles in works of bioart.

While bioartists are scattered around the world, there are few centers where they congregate. A growing number are heading to Troy thanks to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s iEAR program (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer) and a combination of cheap rents and few distractions. iEAR is headed by Kathy High, a newcomer to bioart. She says the program, while small, ranks high and attracts talented students. “We offer scholarships so there is a high level of artists from different disciplines—musicians, bioartists, activists—and an interesting collection of people on the faculty.”

Take Adam Zaretsky, a former RPI professor who teaches VivoArts: Art and Biology Studio. With Zaretsky as their guide, a mix of artists, scientists and medical students explore the life sciences through projects that question our relationships to living systems. In assignments both intellectual and gooey, students extract DNA from raw oysters, roses and cucumbers; paint with transgenic bacteria (bacteria that have been genetically modified with genes from another species); create stimulating habitats for animals; and incorporate themselves into a work of living art.

The exercises, Zaretsky says, help students think about the effects of new technologies and express a “sense of innovation and beauty through art.” But they also raise questions about the ethics of genetic modification and our relationship to the newly created organisms. “The projects break barriers of cultural definitions of what it means to be alive,” Zaretsky says. For one assignment, a student grafted human scar-tissue cells onto the cut leaf of a plant and then watched as human scabs filled in the wound. “I was dumbfounded,” Zaretsky says. “No one has done this in the lab. It’s innovative and cutting-edge. But is it OK? The students must decide for themselves.”

Zaretsky, who was raised by an experimental behaviorist and a Jungian, has an MFA in Art and Technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied with Edgar Kac. Kac, a pioneering figure in the field of bioart, is best known for his GFP Bunny, an albino rabbit made fluorescent, under the right light, with help from the gene of a jellyfish. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zaretsky worked with Joe Davis, another bioart pioneer. Besides RPI, Zaretsky has taught at SymbioticA, a research lab in Western Australia and one of the few centers for bioart worldwide. He has exhibited and performed from Macedonia to Salina, Kan., where, in his Workhorse Zoo, Zaretsky sealed himself in a glass room for a week with nothing to eat but lab animals—frogs, flies, worms, mice—which he eventually devoured.

While Zaretsky says bioartists differ in their politics and interpretations of science, they share a zest for getting into the lab and practicing scientific techniques. He believes that the lure of new media is one of the reasons for the growth of bioart. Artist envy for the remarkable creations of science is another. “Scientific reality is going faster than the artistic imagination,” Zaretsky says. “Scientists are making better art; they are making dreams come alive.” He sees his art as an opportunity to showcase scientific knowledge, critique and question its applications, and inform the public on recent advances. But to “vamp science and infect science with artistry,” he says, artists need to get their hands dirty, learning the biotechnology trade. It’s a Faustian bargain he’s willing to make to inform the public about research that might be life-changing.

Zaretsky sees a future where the human genome is a commodity that will be altered for more than just health reasons. “It’s possible we won’t recognize our (future) selves.” His fear rests not with technology but how it might be co-opted for efficiency (designing humans to withstand radiation, for example, so they can make the trip to Mars) and standards of beauty dictated by what’s popular. “But who decides aesthetically what’s better?” he asks. “It has more to do with art than you think.”

Julia Reodica, a former iEAR student, agrees. She is concerned with the rapid progress of biotech. “We need to make comments along the way,” she says. “As individual artists, we need to get things to the public. There is so much out there to translate. People are curious about what’s going on in universities.”

Originally from California, Reodica was a pre-med major who veered into commercial art before landing at the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco, as a life-sciences exhibit technician. It was there that she discovered another way of helping people. Artists, she says, can “explain what they [scientists] are studying, like tissue culture, and explain the purpose to the public for the greater good.”

While at RPI, Reodica worked closely with scientists on a living sculpture that made use of tissue-engineering technology. The result was an artificial hymen, or hymNexttm, made from rat aortic tissue. Reodica says she wanted to “turn the symbolism of the hymen on its ear and reposition it as a novel piece of our body. You could bring seven on a honeymoon and break it every night.”

As part of the project, she performed a prototype application and “defloration” on a human volunteer—Zaretsky, a former teacher and collaborator—who had the hymen attached to his nose. A touring exhibit is in the works for next summer for which Reodica is designing a bioreactor to keep the hymens alive. “They are living art pieces, somewhat sentient, reacting to environment, lights, jostling,” she says. With a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, Reodica, who is completing a degree in nursing, hopes to continue working with RPI biologists and incorporate cells from her vaginal wall into the rat cells. “Each hymen will have my signature. They will become sacred again.”

Boryana Rossa of Bulgaria came to RPI to work with artists from different cultures in a nontraditional art program. The mingling of art and science is not new, she points out. Before the Enlightenment, interdisciplinary studies were common. “To me, this is more normal and beneficial. Artists must be interested in everything and comment on everything and be free to shine a light to communicate ideas.”

Rossa’s parents worked in robotics in Bulgaria, and she grew up believing that technology could have a positive effect on society. Today, on her own and through the Ultrafuturo Group, she comments on the way technology effects society. Rossa uses robots as a symbol of the oppressed and marginalized in society to provoke questions about equal rights and how we define intelligence and life. With her partner, Oleg Mavromatti, an interdisciplinary artist and Ultrafuturo member, she took part in an exhibit exploring the ethics of robotic design at the Schenectady Museum. The artists fit a dead fish with electronic parts. The hybrid fish swam around in a pool. “We gave it a second life,” she says. While she found that kids enjoyed the exhibit, few adults did. One possible explanation, Rossa believes, is that adults are divorced from their food sources. “They think meat grows in the Price Chopper. In the fish, they saw what they did.”

Creating living art: Reodica in the lab.

As an international artist, Rossa prefers to participate in projects that deal with universal themes. “Because we have similar bodies and needs, biology becomes a cross point.” Her interest in symbiogenesis, an alternative view of evolution that credits the merger of different species with the production of new organisms, has led to an interconnected view of the world that encourages respect for all living things. In a public performance in Bulgaria, Rossa declared her blood brotherhood with E. coli bacteria through a mixture of poetry, music, lighting, and blood letting (she cut the E. coli genome into her arm).

While some people have been supportive of her work, others say it’s too aggressive. “For a message to be delivered, it needs to be loud enough to be heard,” Rossa counters.

Kathy High takes a gentler approach. A media artist who explores issues of gender and technology, she exhibited Embracing Animal at MASS MoCA last winter, featuring three transgenic rats with genes for autoimmune conditions. Tara, Matilda and Star were retired breeders who begot lab animals used to study diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. High, who also suffers from autoimmune diseases, felt a connection to them. “I could see that they were mirrors of me in a way. They were being developed to treat my kind of diseases. I wanted to get to know them and to try and treat them more holistically.”

She gave them the retirement she felt they had earned rather than the usual fate of lab animals, termination. While High is not opposed to scientific research, she thinks other issues should be explored as well. In the exhibit, the rats, who still suffered from their conditions, were given a large and complex environment to roam around in, a new diet and an animal communicator who told High what they were saying. In the end, the two surviving rats were adopted by the night watchman. “It became,” High says, a “great love story.”

In another project, Julia Reodica is collaborating with Richard Pell, another graduate of the RPI program, to create the first Northern Hemisphere studio-lab-gallery for bioart. Located in Troy on 3rd Street, the Institute for Public Transgenography (the soft science looking at genetics and engineering) will serve as a public interface between biotech innovation and the community, with artists invited to research and develop projects, and present workshops and lectures open to the community.

Pell, who is known for his award-winning documentaries and his use of robots in public art, sees the Institute as the interface between biotechnology and people on the street. The center, he says, will be like “a natural history museum” for bioart and biotechnology. Both feel Troy is the ideal place. Reodica sees a “wonderful merging of minds” happening there. Pell, who is returning to RPI as a professor in the iEAR program after a visiting professorship at the University of Michigan, sees Troy as a “hot spot, relatively speaking.”

As an art student at Carnegie Mellon University, Pell watched engineers develop new technology without discussing the implications and ethics of its use. Later, as engineers began moving into biology, using living systems as tools for everything from drug to picture development, he felt it was important for artists to be involved. “People need to be caught up on this,” he says. “Engineering life is significant and contentious in people’s minds. Artists can help people think ideas through.”

But it’s not just laypeople who are welcoming artists, Pell says. Scientists are enlisting artists to educate the public as science comes under siege from the left, with its opposition to genetically modified organisms in food; the right, with its support of such anti-science theories as intelligent design; and state-security entities, where resources diverted to bioterror are taking away money for scientific research. New security fears also have led to the arrest of bioartist Steve Kurtz, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, whom Pell studied under. Kurtz was preparing for a show at MASS MoCA, a critique of “bioterrorism paranoia,” when the police were called to his home the night his wife suffered a fatal heart attack (“A Matter of Authority,” March 9). What they found—bacteria in Petri dishes, a manuscript about the inefficiencies of bioweaponry—led to his arrest and indictment.

Back in Troy, Pell hopes to explore his interest in transgenic zoology with RPI’s new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, which combines engineering and the physical, information and life sciences. iEAR’s Kathy High notes that Troy’s attraction for bioartists comes in part from the nearness of academic and industrial resources. “With the predominance of nanotech and other related industries in the Capital Region, it’s a natural place for artists to experiment and push boundaries,” she says. At RPI, she is hoping to build ties between the art and biology departments and establish a center on bioart, modeled after SymbioticA. She sees a “living art center . . . with collaboration between artists and scientists that is real and profound.”

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