You are on page 1of 5

The Fine Art of Creating Life Author(s): Amy M. Youngs Source: Leonardo, Vol. 33, No.

5, Eighth New York Digital Salon (2000), pp. 377-380 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: Accessed: 06/05/2010 22:23
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

The MIT Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Leonardo.

but he did not foresee the art of creating new biological life forms. AMY YOUNGS Abstract of artistictradition creatinglifeThelongstanding evolvesas technology like artworks growsfrom and DNAmanipuand chisels to computers paint are lation. Vol. 98 WarrenSt.The Fine Art of Life Creating M. the blending of tobacco eyes. ( 2000 Amy M. cure famine. ratherthanaboveor belowit.A.He traced this artistic impulse back to the idealized human forms of Greek sculpture. No. LEONARDO. followed by clockwork automata. Youngs. 377-380. OH 43215. received 1 May 2000 . early kinetic art. Youngs. 2000 377 tradition exists the Behindmuchartextendingthrough Western a yearningto break down the psychic and physical barriers between art and living reality-not only to make an art form that is believablyreal. U. Burnham predicted the possibility that artistscould create Jack amazinglylifelike artworks. while the rest of us on the sidelines are watching with great are interest as traditionalspecies barriers being breachedbefore our We have seen sheep-goat chimeras. pp.S. betweenwhatis considered humanand nature.better medicines. capableof intelligentintercourse -Jack Burnham [1] Forthe first time the word organicceases to be an unobtainable ideal held out to the artist. E-mail:youngs." At this point the field of genetic engineering is too specialized and expensiveto be consideredas a viable medium for most artists. Theauthor examinesthe differingwaysin whichartificiallife smearthe boundaries and biologicalartworks and natural unnatural. He clearly predicted the artificial life art forms that are being created in silicon today. but to go beyond and furnish images withtheircreators. plants with firefly genes to produce luminous plants. and a variety of animals and plants with human genes inserted into them. Now that genetic engineering companies are bringing forth a cornucopia of new life with organic properties "sculpture"-if it can be called that-rivaling the attributesof -Jack Burnham[2] intelligentlife. 33.followingin the wakeof cyberwill lead to netic technology. and The Modern In his book Beyond of Sculpture: Effects Science on Technology the Sculptureof This Century. So it is the genetic engineerswho are doing almost all of the creating. 5. I wonder about extending into the biological realm Burnham's idea that future artworks might be "capableof intelligent intercoursewith their creators. Presumably these freakishcreatureswill end up helping humanity by enabling us to make cheaper.written in 1968. Columbus. and finally the robot and cyborg art of the 1960s. and so Amy nowable to createdigitalworks that engage in the processes of life and biological that works existas artand actuallife.6@osu.and exploresthe role biologicalart mightplay in relocatinghumanity withinthe complexecologicalsystems of life.

and evolves.different when one considers that we are isms. As the plants grow on the toxic site. where people like to imagine that a state of never-changing purity exists [8]. Arti. Gessert calls his practice "genetic folk art. distant gramming. but because Yet it was a sense that would not have been of his position as a famous photographer possible without the presence of the living and his connections with the Museum of plants as an interface to the artificialones. As an artist. Mel Chin is another artistwho has been selectively breeding plants in his work. screen and lack the qualities of biological seeks "to breakdown the psychic and phys. For this experimental project. FineArtof Creating . Steichen was Lifelike Creatures by CreatedArtists Altered Genetically Life Biological Forms able to exhibit his flowers there. that the reservefor digital organisms"[4].the living via multiple simulations? Do tastic. the privilegedposition of creatoras well laborating with evolution" [3]. Since 1990. they only appear to us on a flat tradition. hall exhibitions at county fairs. Acutely He was referringnot to biological genetic aware of the impulse to create biological art but to the disciplines of cyberneticsand life. Biological genetic art is very evolution of complex artificial life organ.which the digital creaturescan live allows ficial life maker Thomas Ray calls it "col. that cause me to talk to dogs and feel ical barriersbetween art and living reality. Louis Bec is an artist and zoosystematician who creates beautiful.same code is used to construct us and we cation of life processesoutside a biological sharethe same world. Modern Art in New York. they are made up of concerned with the creation of life process.which allows humans to interact the plant's genetic makeup. who tend to breed for ruffled petals in every flower species. He keeps. Yet when logging roads are cut into the land. I am not as interestedin the polarities of this debate as I am in the ways that genetically engineered organisms challenge deeply held convictions about what is "natural"and where humankind stands as the DNA is reshuffled. dried. Minnesota. in which he disperses extra iris seeds gleaned from his hybridizingactivities. On the other hand.Using traand Laurent Mignonneau has created an ditional methods of selective breeding artificial-life piece called InteractivePlant along with colchicine. Geneticallyalteredflowerswould not be shown as art again until 1988. Bec asks. and new trees planted. The digital pixel-plants are fantastic. but do not give nearly as much of a sense of interaction as I had with the carbon-based plants. As a able to create strains of delphinium flowers of participant/viewer this piece. With this piece I am reminded that the desire to interact with life is at least as strong as the desire to createit.The other presumption is that genetic engineering will disrupt the delicate balance of life and lead to environmental destruction. Ray speaksof Tierraas a "biodiversity made up of the same materials. there has beginning to be discoveredby artists. This is particularly evident in his Scatter project.them without any consequences to our generateduniversedesigned to facilitatethe own world. as stated by Burnham. Their hope is that this technology will become self-sustaining. he does not need the expensive tools of genetic engineering to create conceptually intriguing artworks about the interactionof humankindwith nature. genetic engineering.a group of plants that extract heavy metals from the soil. The artistic team of Christa Sommerer Edward Steichen's Delphiniums. Since long been the demiurgic ambition to create the time of Burnham'swritings. In 1936. For this he has been accused of practicing "genetic graffiti" becausehe often plants them in the wilderness. These virtual creatures existing teratologicalart?"[6]. "Is it not the case that. Gessertcreateshis artisticirisesby hybridizing wild varietiesand discardingthe undesirableresultsin his compost pile. algo. when George Gessert's Iris Projectwas exhibited at New Langton Arts in San Francisco. As lovely as his creaGenetic art fits nicely into the artistic tures are. the Steichen Delphiniums show initiated the science of genetics into the context of the art world [7]. they absorb metals like zinc and cadmium.ment was generally the territory of flower rithmic plants on a projection screen [5]. colorful artificial life forms and believes that these new creatureswill serve as a kind of communication bridge between the biological and technological worlds. no one calls it genetic graffiti. which. after all. and the crebeen brought into existence by artificial-life ation of transgenicanimals open the way to artists. His as the knowledge that we may destroy artificial life piece Tierra is a computer. medium certainly challenges notions that life resides within carbon-basedorganisms only. an ecological restorationof a toxic landfill in St. That es in digital media-life that interactswith humans have invented the universeswithin its environment." and his work points to the way nature is interpreted-even authored-by humans. silicon-based organisms have indeed cloning. I felt like a that diverged widely from what had ever creatorof life as I moved my hands around been seen before. it is not exactly The first genetically altered life forms humbling when we consider that the digiexhibited in an artistic context were tal universeis programmedby humans. are created Humankind's position in relation to within virtual environments with genetic algorithms or genetic pro. a drug that altered Growing. and turned to ash. His decision to compost the flowers that have rufflededges is both an aesthetic choice and a reaction against commercial flower breeders.cause the stock market to rise forever. Chaney on RevivalField. This kind of accomplisha living plant to generate real-time. he has been collaboratingwith scientist Rufus L. and breeds. Steichen was with both living and artificialplants. trees are clear-cut. as the costs of cleaning up toxic sites might be recoverable from the recycled metal from the plants. 378 Life The AmyM. at the artificial life.With Gessert's folkstyle of genetics. His repli. which can be reused once the plants are harvested. those that display traits such as vivid vein patterns in their petals and unruffled edges. they use hyperaccumulators. those flowers that are aesthetically pleasing to him. which were at that time just very heart of artistic endeavor.artificial life organisms is a safe. Artists working in this field are detachment. Youngs. breeds.the same elements as video games. many fan." the desire to water wilted plants. even though these activities do alter the genetics of an area dramatically.

The creationof a transgenic animal-a dog that glows with the green Life 379 The AmyM.but the work will exist for many years to come. by making it seem less "natural" alteringits but the end result is a genetic makeup.The creation of new mammalian life forms has certainly occurred in the world of science. This will likely change as the tools and techniques become more availableand we all become accustomed to the new ways of creatinglife. So "why is it that dogs aren't yet blue with red spots. honorable human place in naturemight actuallylook like" [12].1. He is in a sense creating a new strainof bacteriallife by insertinga synthetic piece of DNA into the E." "everythingwe know about environmental history suggests that people have been manipulating the naturalworld on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing" [11]. artistJoe Davis interveneswith nature on a microscopiclevel. EduardoKac'sAlba. but by using the techniques of genetic engineering he is able to directly insert a human message inside an organism. Davis is altering the genetics of living beings. sustainable.Artificial-lifeartistscould certainly mock up this kind of scenario in digital form. Gessert. But this perception exists only if nature is assumed to be an entity separate and untouched by humanity. and still we do not see these creaturesbeing createdby artists. Over a decade has passed since that question was posed in Artforumby writer Vilem Flusser. While it is well-known that human intervention has toxified many environments. and that horses don't yet radiatephosphorescentcolors over the nocturnal meadows of the land?"[14]. a living bacterium. Working with bioengineers at MIT.He has encoded a message that can be read back through the DNA sequencing process and decoded to read as an icon he names which representslife. Here humans-who frequently dominate the natural world in ways that contaminate it and so renderit "unnatural" -are instead dominating a natural plant. Cloning is another method that has been used to literallycreate life as artwork. By revealing the cultural and environmental differences of their particularlocations (although they are geneticallyidentical). but no artistshave been able to participate as of yet. with help from scientists). Cronon disputes the dualism between humanity and nature on the grounds that "we therebyleave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical.Youngs." and human female genitalia [10]. but it is still out of the reachof artistsworkingwith biologicalgenetics. and Chin. Fig. The dichotomy between nature as pure and humanity as its contaminating agent is not so clear here. Like Steichen. purifying agent for previously contaminated environments.Fontaine. as the trees are being planted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. the trees will stand as a challenge to the popular notion that genetics equals destiny [13]. Not Colorful Animals? Why Cute. Photo by Chrystelle Chin believes that more efficient metal recovery will be possible with bioengineered plants [9]. FineArtof Creating . "Microvenus. The Revival Field project blurs our culturally constructed ideas of what is natural and unnatural.That this strain of bacteria will forever have the mark of human culture may seem to fundamentally denature it. Ratherthan changing the structureof existing life forms. Chin and Chaney's project demonstratesthat humans are also capable of engineering organic solutions. His interferenceoccurs at the structurallevel of E. coli that will in turn replicatein future generations. As environmental writer William Cronon points out in his essay"The Trouble with Wilderness. artist Natalie Jeremijenko makes her statement about genetics by cloning a single black walnut tree 100 times (again. The baby trees were displayedat the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in an exhibition entitled Ecotopias. earth. coli.a livetransgenicbunnythat glows in the darkundercertainlights.

Christa Sommererand LaurentMignonneau.normalcy. Interactive Plant Growing. The artist'sdesire to geneticallyalter a dog may at first seem immoral." History of Photography 17. 352-363 (Winter1993). [3] p. 1996). Uncommon Ground:Toward Nature (New York:W. 14. 5. are available for purchase online at the Burpee Seed Company Web site at a cost of $ family pet (named Alba).SIGat GRAPH' for instance. Springer. but there is no doubt that genetic artistshave been able to create works that"Microvenus. GeorgeGessert. No. 205-211 (1993). Amy M."Evolution Artist.California. MachineCulture. Ray. Ecotopias Yerba catalog(SanFrancisco: BuenaCenterforthe Arts. 28-30." Steichen Strain delphiniums. 14. 1. 9. require but since this protein has alreadysuccessfully been incorporatedinto mammaliancells. While Kac's project has remained unrealized. GFP Bunny (2000).fluorescentprotein of a jellyfish-has been proposed by artist EduardoKac in his article "Transgenic Art. p. Youngs was born in 1968 in northern California..ekac. Ibid. and interspecies communication [16]. BeyondModernSculpture:The and Technology the Sculpture on of Effects Science of This Century (New York:George Braziller. 9 (1988). "EdwardSteichen's 1936 of Exhibition DelphiniumBlooms: Art of Flower An Breeding. SeedWeb Site:http://burpee. [3] 7. as he says. ChristaSommererand LaurentMignonneau(New York: 1998). 15." Sommerer andMignonneau p. 70-74 (Spring1996). 81. 3. 312. References 1. She creates mixedmedia interactive sculptures and environments which reveal her interest in the complex relationship between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. the intentions of the artists who have altered biology in their work are not the same as those of the biotech industry. 2.html." 55. Gedrim. biodiversity. LouisBec. Eduardo Kac. 6. the manipulation of DNA to create new biological life forms seems to assert the superiority of humans over the rest of life on earth.1998). Perhapsthis kind of work has the potential to do what some environmental thinkers believe is imperative: relocate humanity within the complex ecological systems of life ratherthan above or below it. "Rising Above Our Garbage. exhibition 13. FineArtof Creating life while acknowledging-even pointing to-humanity's interconnection with it. Joe Davis. "Curie's Children. 2. p. "breakdown the psychic and physical barriers between art and living reality." 27. http://www. No. 11 (Dec. p. 83. 1998).1968). Burpee gonline.and their artworks do not reinforce the hierarchy that places humanity at the apex. Whether the art of today has lived up to Jack Burnham's predictions of intelligent interaction between humans and nature may be in question. Gessert's irises grow in people's gardens and maybe out in the wilderness somewhere. Vilem Flusser. "Transgenic ElecArt. As the rhetoric of the biotechnology industry focuses on the control of biology for the good of humanity. 1993. Anaheim. and an instigator of dialogue on issues such as genetic engineering. such an animal is entirelypossible [15].Jan. No. and Natalie Jerejimenko's 100 cloned trees are incorporated into the urban forest of the San FranciscoBay Area. "Artificial underTension:A LesLife son in Epistemological in Fabulation." Art@Science."Leonardo tronicAlmanac6.goshoppin17. 11.W. She has exhibited her works nationally and is currentlya part-timefaculty member at The Ohio State University. p. 4. "Noteson GeneticArt. 88. until. Kac considershis rabbit an artwork.asp?catID=search&prodID=376.ed. Ibid. heterogeneity."A projectlike this will a lab with specialized equipment. 10. Mel Joe Davis's Microvenus-encoded bacteria is a living testament that nature and culture can reside together in one organism. Norton & Reinventing Co. 82. Mel Chin's pioneering hyperaccumulator plants are working to clean up human-made toxic dumps." lecture deliveredthe Exploratorium. However. In fact much of their work deeply celebratesnonhuman 380 The Life AmyM. 12. purity. 8. Youngs. [11] p. Ronald J. ThomasS. Artforum No. 320. Ibid.95 for a packet of fifty seeds [15]. as in 3. he has recently succeeded in the creation of a transgenic rabbit that glows green under special lighting.San Francisco. EduardoKac. Jack Burnham. William Cronon. perhaps. http://mitpress. one considers that dogs did not exist before humans genetically altered them through the selective breeding of wolves. . 98. 4. ArtJournal No. [1] p. 16."Leonardo 26.