Jennifer Willet creates art connecting inside the bio lab with outside.
Projects like 2011’s BioARTCAMP in Banff National Park built a portable bio lab with 20 artists completing biological experiments and artwork in raw nature, removed from the sterile, stereo-typically white bio labs.
A professor and bio artists, Willet runs Incubator Art Lab at the University of Windsor, a bio lab and exhibition space.
Her works try to re-contextualize and bring a new perspective to organisms in labs.
"I think somehow in our minds we’ve decided that the organisms in our lab are not part of our ecology, so we don’t need to afford them the same sort of considerations that we afford organisms out in nature, or in our home," said Willet.
To Willet, that consideration isn’t just academic. She sees humans as reacting differently to living organisms than artistic representations. After all in bio art the representation is alive.
"I think there are these bodily responses to other bodies, the same way that when a cat lets us pet it we have this very visceral response, I think those responses come with all sorts of organisms," she said.
It’s exactly this sort of reaction that needs to be considered, said Willet. There are some serious ethics and politics to consider, and not just by elite specialists in labs.
"Right now were able to produce and reproduce bodies. And this technology is going have a really significant generational, environmental, biological outcomes for hundreds of years. So I think it’s really imperative that other people outside the biological sciences engage with these technologies so we can all share in the decision making systems around these technologies."
"In a funny way I’m scarred for life. I can’t un-think these things. These are implications that will probably follow me around for a long time," said Ben Welmond.
"It totally changed the way I view science, and the social conscience around science," said Mary Tsang. "I’m seeing now you don’t need to be in industry, or a corporate setting, or an academic setting even to ask a simple question about something that affects you or your environment."
DIYsect, a documentary web-series, did this to the pair.
Welmond and Tsang are creating the series as they travel the United States interviewing bioartists and do-it-yourself (DIY) biologists. Tsang, a bioartist from Carnegie-Mellon University, and Welmond, a videographer, have been in for a ride.
The green-and-white site features artists from Pittsburgh, to New York, to Houston, to San Francisco where I caught them by phone. Travelling by ‘02 Honda Civic, this Kickstarter-funded project brought them to artists and bio-tinkerers like Adam Zaretsky, George Church, Joe Davis, Ellen Jorgenson, and 33 others.
Adam Zaretsky showed them plants he was tattooing, invoking visceral reactions as the needle drills the flesh, inking the remains. His works take critical stabs at the ethical and political responsibilities our society assumes to afford creatures ranging from frogs, to E. coli, to corn.
Joe Davis focused on the beautiful aesthetics of biology, uninvested in socio-politics.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg gave DNA a face, modelling 3D portraits on DNA extracted from chewing-gum and cigarette butts.
Ultimately, the DIYsect pair hope their project encourages discussion about biotechnology. In particular, Tsang said she hopes the bioart community can connect into the wider biotech community, fostering some deep thinking among scientists, do-it-yourself biologists, and the public; everyone outside the gallery-going bioart community.
'Shine', part of the Natural Occurrence series by Geoffrey Mann
When a planar 3D printer scans a metallic object, the laser has trouble detecting the difference between the object’s surface area, and light refractions caused by the laser beam itself reflecting off the object. Geoffrey Mann’s ‘Shine’, the Natural Occurrence series, shows the outcome, and misinterpretation, of a planar 3D printer attempting to recreate a Victorian candelabra through raw data. The spikes that shoot out at odd angles from each side are a visual representation of the intense reflection.
Mann’s piece demonstrates a fundamental argument within art, nature, and the universe – what is true reproduction? The Realist movement would have considered an artistic reproduction to be that which accurately reflects a visual object, however this 3D printer’s reproduction looks nothing like the original, but it is an accurate representation, given the data. ‘Shine’ gives us yet another way of seeing and interpreting nature and objects, and invites us to consider shine and reflection as measurable matter.
Geoffrey Mann’s work often involves looking at everyday objects from new viewpoints and reinventing craft, and his Natural Occurrence series is one such example. As well as ‘Shine’, the Natural Occurrence series also includes ‘Cross-fire’, that sees domestic utensils such as cutlery and tea sets warped and evolved by imagining their interaction with sound bites from an argument scene in Sam Mendes’s 1999 film American Beauty.