Cultur(aliz)ing Life

Cultur(aliz)ing Life

Cultur(aliz)ing Life

An essay by Špela Petric

Fascinating. Fake. Aesthetic. Unethical. Interesting. Banal. Not-art. Not-science. Elitist. Cute. Blank stare.

Impressions linger as I begin this essay on living systems and the art that desires their vitality. Truthfully, the public’s opinion has little to do with the transformative experience I underwent as a former scientific researcher exploring the principles of living systems in an artistic context, a transition marked not only by the epistemological and methodological disparity between the sciences and arts, but also the interregnum of a paradigmatically shifting ontology of the living as proposed by various critical discourses in both the humanities and sciences. Continuously questioning the context of the work produced, I would like to point to a recent change in interest, attitude and approach in wet media, drawing an arc from biotechnology-centered bioart to a broader artistic exploration of living systems stemming from holistic discourses such as ecosophies, new materialism, the post-digital and posthumanism(s), whose expression has the potential to develop new synthetic dispositifs. If hybridity is to be considered a constructive legacy of autotelic postmodernism, how should we navigate its contingencies in art to avoid the traps of mannerism, utilitarianism or succumbing to public demand - entertainment? These considerations stem from art/sci in practice struggling with the messy knot of human and non-human agencies amongst which the artist’s intent is all but a moderator of the vivacious cacophony.

Looking back at the past two decades, it seems the field of bioart (and perhaps art/science in general) has permutated in two ways: the first, staying true to its progressive beginnings, has outgrown its initial scope of investigation (i.e. biotechnology, hybridity, artists-in-labs) and is looking towards novel artistic methodologies to further challenge ontological questions; the second found a comfortable grounding at the interface of science, society and culture, often integrating the fields of design, science communication and social innovation to mine the benefits of interdisciplinarity. It might make sense to terminologically distinguish these two orientations as they have different implications in regards to the development of art: applied bioart and zoegraphies.


The term bioart had been coined in 1997 by Eduardo Kac to signify his break from the increasingly mannerist digital realm. In the continuous advent of biotechnologies, Kac took it upon himself to begin using living material as the medium of his manipulation, sparking fascination and controversy in both the art and public realms by creating transgenic organisms (who were in a sense laboratory ready-mades) like Edunia and Alba and constructing a DNA-encoded statement from Genesis. Even though he was not the first artist to work with living organisms (photographer Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums exhibit in MOMA (1936) is considered the first acclaimed gesture of displaying selectively bred therefore intentionally genetically modified organisms as a work of art), his articulation of the ‘wholly new’ artistic methodology caught on, establishing bioart as a household term.
Alongside the proliferation of new media approaches employing the digital, bioart as a novel interdisciplinary embodiment of Snow’s mediating “third culture” gathered great interest amongst artists eager to transcend the postmodern contemporary art by addressing issues of emerging technologies, specifically the promise and perils of the biotechnological revolution, which was progressively gaining traction since the discovery of the central dogma of molecular biology (DNA->RNA->protein, 1956) and molecular biology techniques allowing increasingly sophisticated manipulation of cellular processes. What bioart brought to the table was the need for an ontological assessment of an artistic practice in which the boundaries between the subject/object, nature/culture, and art/science had been blurred, an undertaking accepted by several curators, philosophers and artists, resulting in a substantial amount of publications that analyzed bioart through the prism of aesthetics, ontology, activism, biotechnology and, of course, ethics (like Tactical Biopolitics, Bio Media, Art And Science Now).
As González Valerio points out, “In bioart, life appears in its highest grade of secularization. ... If techno-science has permitted the manipulation and intervention of living organisms for scientific and pragmatic purposes, its peak is represented by bioart, in which such manipulation no longer is justified by the search for something better - but it rather concerns the pure uselessness of art.” I will however argue that, through the proliferation of bioart, the prerogative of uselessness has been undermined and in many ways commoditized to fulfill cultural needs.

Despite their conceptual lucidity, many of the early works were critiqued as being hoaxes; due to objective problems of legislature connected to presenting GMOs, time-consuming and costly procedures, bioartworks often implied authenticity rather than presenting it. The next generation of artists sought to remedy this dismissal by increasingly focusing on the actual process - the dance of agencies and its often momentary or even invisible successes, embracing failure, decay and death as properties of the practice, shifting the focus of the artwork from the presentation to the research phase. This processuality had proven to be a double-edged sword. Programmatically liberating the artist from the often-unattainable holy grail of the finished product where every aspect of the project is perfected, polished and put on display, it left the spectator a bit underwhelmed. Making bioart “for real” meant little was to be seen, the installations fraught with messiness, they were accompanied by lengthy tractates of explanations and were taxing to galleries attempting to display them (which resulted in numerous non-human casualties). The fragility of the organisms under manipulation and control diminished their vitality, making life seem increasingly fragile and precarious amongst the technological interfaces, which took center stage.


Crucially, as practitioners came to realize, the discrepancy between the artist’s idea and its manifestation, which has to work with and not above living organisms, is indicative of human intervention in complex systems in general. Whereas art taking on living material as an expression of human dominance over “nature” reinforces the supposition that our technological inventions can and do successfully organize the contingent vitality of organisms (our biological selves included), the numerous difficulties to realize the concepts in practice speaks against this utopic vision. The efforts to artistically manipulate life and their (ethical) legitimization is one of the pivots for the further development of art/science, leading to the present situation of two diverging streams of investigation.

Bioart was the avant-garde of the noughties; appearing, deterritori?alising scientific practices and appropriating disciplines at the discretion of the artist and (dis)approval of the public. It paved the way for future artwork addressing complex content that inherently requires transgression of boundaries, which bioart established as an acceptable and valuable contribution to art. On the other hand, bioart and art/sci generated a surprisingly large following amongst biodesign-oriented artists. The term “ArtScience”, the wider umbrella of bioart, appeared in an expanding plurality of contexts and meaning: a fad for the curious, a research-based interfaculty course at Den Haag, a staple to the DIY and citizen science movements, a museum in Singapore, a catchphrase seeking creativity and innovation for the idea-depleted entrepreneurship and a public outreach goldmine for the sciences. Simultaneously (and perhaps for this same reason), bioart has become less and less appealing amongst theoreticians as well as many artists, who continue to search for novel modes of thought and expression that tread beyond the colonized and restricting tools of science (very few artists are the ingenious inventors that can surpass their scientific counterparts, so most often they are limited to appropriation and modification). Why did bioart catch on at the unprecedented scope it did and why did it lose its edge in the process?

Applied bioart

The (un)limited access to the techniques and knowledge once reserved to scientific circles was to carry as much promise as frustration to the practitioners in the field, often going to great lengths to find those precious few scientists willing to spare some time and effort helping artists achieve their scientifically sense-less projects. Clearly the emancipated artistic motivation and meaning is difficult to grasp amidst ideologies of economic growth, progress and sustainability, all wrapped by an aura of utilitarianism. The contribution of the artist must therefore somehow be classified, quantified and valorized to legitimize the cost of these interdisciplinary endeavors, which almost invariably require collaboration amongst professionals from different fields – artists, designers, scientists, engineers, programmers, not to mention the workforce manufacturing items in the actual exhibitions, which are either pre-made articles (suffering from functional aesthetics) or outsourced custom pieces. Considering the innate challenge of a work of art/sci, where the practitioner is faced with curtailing living systems, complicated and perilous methodology and overcoming a huge gap in understanding natural processes, the seemingly benign shortcut is to work within the social structure instead of insisting on a no-questions-asked autonomy. Thus artists often open doors to funding, labs and people by regurgitating common tropes of bettering humanity’s future through the creative application of the latest technological and scientific insights, social mobilization, or expression of ethical concerns. The scientists appreciate the creative value of science communication, even if it might be misleading.

Applied bioart is in function of a society where the human condition is continuously displaced by its techne producing an endless list of ethical conundrums, but moreover it generates hope and optimism, attempting to empower through the (bio)technological fruits of advanced capitalism. Life, it seems to say, is material, and knowing its parts and functions, recombining knowledge in unprecedented ways, is the inevitable reality of the posthuman, whose morphogenetic becoming is pliable at their will – or rather, at the will of the privileged. However, as almost every artist working with living systems can confirm, empowerment through subjugation is difficult to attain, both in connection to our own development as well as our interventions into other organisms and the environment. My fear is that piece-by-piece, the mass application of living systems to an art whose societal imperative is to be in function (as applied bioart is) might be commodifying life to a misrepresented totality devoid of agency, whereas the interfaces are the prominent skeletons that stand in the forefront. The public enjoys being immersed in novel vantage points and is entertained by being offered a fascinating glimpse into the hidden workings of biological processes. When the interfaces are removed, what has changed in our attitude? Without mediation the fungus is just a fungus, the plant is just a plant.


I borrow the term zoegraphy from Louis van der Hengel, who used it to describe “…a mode of writing life that is not indexed on the traditional notion of bios—the discursive, social, and political life appropriate to human beings—but which centers on the generative vitality of zoe, an inhuman, impersonal, and inorganic force which … is not specific to human lifeworlds, but cuts across humans, animals, technologies, and things. Zoegraphy is my attempt to confront the question of how to think and how to write a life that does not have any human body or self at its center, a life which is in fact fundamentally inhuman, yet which connects human life to the immanent forces of a vital materiality.” Why is it important to bring the mundane, machinic basis of life to center stage, when these ‘background processes’ are inextricably linked with the cherished emergence of the social, cultural and abstract?

Despite the rapidly increasing sets of data available along with interpretations and theories describing recursive effects, the construction of functional relations to non-linear living systems is far from trivial. Humans have a propensity to utilize every aspect of knowledge to our advantage and in the process reify the multitude of actors comprising these new machines (think sustainability, genetic engineering, space exploration, the digitized stock market), but the immense speed of cultural adaptation creates bubbles of growth unreconciled with the slow touch-and-go pace proper to the environment. Beside the factor of velocity, many discoveries point to emergent properties that don’t fit into existing paradigms. For example, scientific reductionism falls short of explaining and especially predicting phenomena in ecology, cognitive science, macroevolution, artificial intelligence etc. As a result, we see a surge of cross-disciplinary scientific fields (like biosemiotics, artificial life, plant neurobiology) attempting to administer humanities’ understanding to the way we interpret scientific data in order to construct models that are more in line with the observable reality. On the other side, as science obtains a clearer view of complex system behavior and the contingent interconnectedness of living and non-living agencies, classical western philosophy struggles with the dethronement of the human amongst non-human agencies, calling for a pleiad of feminist, posthuman, deconstructivist and hermeneutic discourses. Working within this topology calls for artistic methodologies that navigate the biological, cultural, social and biopolitical in dispositifs that are emancipated from identifiable utility, as the envisioned usefulness largely contributes to existing structures, permeated by mono-cultures, mono-polies, and mono-ideals. Instead, they might reflect the subtle void of the post-digital, post-internet, post-biotechnological, to summarize Antonio Gramsci, in an interregnum during which the old is dying, but the new has not yet been born.

A look to the 19th and 20th centuries reveals a resurfacing of several past topics including questions of authenticity, environmentalism and nature, Maschine Kunst versus Kunst Maschine, mannerism, capitalism, powerlessness and alienaton, post-colonialism, globalization and materialism, to name a few. Observing how ‘progress’ has impacted these phenomena and why they still remain a focal point in our discussions shows that technological development itself cannot answer the question “what should be done?"; rather, it sharpens the necessity of an ethical framing of economic and political actions, which we now realize have a greater long-term impact than ever before. If the recent acknowledgement of the Anthropocene has taught us anything, it’s that scientific understanding and its dissemination in the public realm is not sufficient to impact policies, such as in the case of carbon emissions both in the developed and developing countries – the short-term economic interests overpower the warnings of climatologists, the pending disaster is brushed off to pester future generations. On the other hand, the same era has provided us a glimpse into our ephemerality, an acknowledgment of deep time within which the human species is reduced to a geological layer that has only begun to accumulate. Almost humorously, the pragmatic dualisms of humanism (mind/body, nature/culture, male/female, human/other…), which have for centuries empowered a particular kind of entity (male, white, educated, rich human), are given unexpected paradoxical additions provided by its legacy, technoscience. In the face of totalizing capitalism, biopower is inextricably linked with powerlessness and reification of humans themselves (including those in power, who are utilized by the system that transcends them), the grandeur of achievements diminished by their uncontrollable codependency on non-human agencies.

Thus, the tasks of various post-humanism projects include pointing to our ontological precariousness, the embeddedness of our biological and cultural selves in the living/non-living processes and to show what we consider human achievements within the continuity of evolution of life on Earth; not to undermine the unique properties of our species in a forceful attempt at making unequal things equal, but to construct vantage points that better suit the observations of complex, non-deterministic interactions between various entities. Hence the importance of discourses stemming from feminist theory, ecological thought and cybernetics, which give rise to post-anthropocentric new materialisms, ecosophies, abductive informatics as well as paradigm-challenging scientific fields.

These discourses reflect the changing western conception of what it means to be human and since art is a constitutive human practice it will derive, amplify, con- and dis-figure their possible effects in a pre-social arena of ethics and aesthetics, where ‘dangerous ideas’ may be tested, cultivated, and toyed with. In fact, bioart has been doing just that; however, its reliance on technoscience as the entry point to living phenomena tends to limit its expression within the existing classifications of either utility or mannerism, even as it co-joins the fields of science and art. If bioart rekindled debates over the definition of art, aesthetics and its function, the challenge ahead is to candidly navigate these new degrees of disciplinary freedom in search of a sublime emancipated from the expected derivatives of our experience.

Even though a clearly defined, programmatic break from bioart or its multitude of variations (regardless of the label) might be at this time too early to call, I find our western relation to the Other demands further artistic exploration in parallel to a vigilant reflection of the successes and caveats of the past/current practices that have dealt with this topic. I see the relevance of art focused on living beings as a continuation of questioning how we engage with complex systems at different time-scales and various levels of complexity (molecular processes, cells, organisms, communities, species), applying the full capacity of artistic, scientific, humanities’ and cultural disciplines to the endeavor - not to search for a new hybrid expression that would fill the pages of future art history - but as an expression of hope that western culture will eventually outgrow its navel gazing and would be able to see itself as biological, semiotic, cybernetic, emergent, non-linear and embedded in a continuum of processes and agencies. Human culture, after all, extends its influence to non-humans and art doesn’t stop existing when we aren’t looking – its beauty then lies in the eye of the non-human beholder.

Da, C. B., & Philip, K. (2008). Tactical biopolitics: Art, activism, and technoscience. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

González Valerio, M. A. (2012). Bioart on the verge of aesthetic ontology. Annales. Series Historia et sociologia, vol. 22, no. 2, p. 327Ë—334.

Kac, E. (2007). Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. Cambridge: MIT Press/Leonardo Books.

van den Hengel, L. (2012). Zoegraphy: Per/forming Posthuman Lives. Biography, vol. 35, no. 1

Wilson, S. (2012). Art and Science Now: How scientific research and technological innovation are becoming key to 21st-century aesthetics. London, England: Thames and Hudson.