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BIOHAPPENING

DNA manipulation
as aesthetic process
 
Can genetic glitches produce organisms
that can be considered an living art form? 
 

Introduction to the Project

by Alexandra Ehrlich Speiser

Glitch aesthetics brought malfunctions and the uncontrollable into the foreground of media art.
This productive “noise” opened a potential field of the unforeseen and unknown to media artists. Foucault already located “noise” not only in a technical, but also organic, environment.(1) He writes in one of his essays:

 

"Medical practice is to decode the non-silence of organs. A doctor should not concentrate on the narrative of the patient but on the "noise" of his body. He (the doctor) is dealing with the noise. Through the noise ..he must hear the elements of a message."(2) 

The human body is the medium, the system.

When we assume that it is absolutely possible that malfunctions and acoustic, as well as visual, manifestations of these errors – “wild glitches” – can occur in an organic system, we can also assume that these systems can be affected by artists and manipulated through a specific process. Organic glitch-alikes or organic “hot glitches”. 

Biological systems are not stable per se and, therefore, extremely “glitch” prone. This makes tracking down “pure glitches” in these biological systems less interesting than in techno-scientific based systems. However, these organic systems are increasingly becoming intentionally disturbed. But, in this genre, these disturbances are not referred to as “glitches” but as “biohacks” or “genetic hacking”. It is necessary to question why the term “hacking” established itself here. Could it be because “hacking” sounds more like control and “glitching” has more random parameters? Perhaps people find it more comforting to feel that they are in control in these laboratories and experimental spaces. “Bio Art” is a broad area: We can encounter bacterial manipulation, green-glowing rabbits, cell sculptures or an artificial ear on an artist’s arm (Kac, Stellarc). 

Fig 1. An example of Bioart: Eduardo Kac used a jellyfish and bunny to make a glow in the dark bunny. In the picture Eduardo Kac and Alba, the fluorescent bunny.
 

Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

The borders between modern biology and art have become so blurred and lead to philosophical and societal discussions that present a challenge to scientific thought and action.

Most people have no idea of the existence of “Bio Art” although, in the past, it has made it possible for scientists to develop new ideas and search for new solutions from a different perspective and this without the restrictions imposed by ethics commissions and safety regulations. In the meantime, stricter directives have been set for artists as well. 

Biohacking is still in its infancy, but could soon lead to major changes in our lives.

Following the DIY principle, these activities first took place in small laboratories outside of the university sphere. This is still harmless “do-it-yourself biology” where artists and other inquisitive people work with the genetic code just as playfully and creatively as computer hackers once did with algorithms. For example, making use of techniques that have found their way out of the universities into garages and cellars – they are now easy to obtain and cheap to run – the DNA of plants can be manipulated to influence growth or simply make them glow in the dark. The miniscule budgets mean that the experiments are very simple and not at all unspectacular, but usually DNA and genes are involved. The activity has its roots in childish curiosity and the creative desire to explore but, in spite of that, biohacking still has a negative connotation. This is possibly because the word “hacking” implies massive intrusion into the system and a destructive idea.

 

Fig 2. The bioartist Stelarc has an ear surgically implanted on his forearm. Like him, a number of other people have hacked their own bodies with implants and prostheses. With growing interest in transhumanism, more and more people are likely to request enhancements to turn them into cyborgs.

Photo: Nina Sellars

There are two approaches to “biohacking”: One that takes place outside of the human body where non-human cells and bacteria  are manipulated and one where human biology is hacked and manipulated in an attempt to gain control over the body (bio-system).

However, in the latter case, various governments and institutions are keeping their eyes on the actors – laws already exist to make artists and scientists responsible for their activities. Of course, the fact that governments actively support innovative ideas and the creation of laboratories of this type, as well as the simple and inexpensive access to diverse products, conflicts with the great fear that terrorist bio-weapons or “monsters” could be produced in unwatched back rooms and garages. Equipment to duplicate DNA is offered at little cost on eBay; enzymes and other microbiological aids can be ordered without any difficulty.

We know that concepts such as “hacking” and “glitching” have their own individual history and – although the meanings can be very close to each other and sometimes overlap – artists identify themselves with one or the other affair. No matter which terms we use for these processes and experiments in this new genre, we also recognize a strong connection between technological developments and the wilful destruction of DNA bio systems that reveal new ideas and aesthetics. We can count on having to face up to a completely new generation of “noise” in the near future.

_______________

(1) Michel Foucault, “Message ou Bruit?”Concours Médicale 88 (October 1966):6285-6286; reprinted in Michel Foucault, Dits et Ecrits I (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), pp. 557-560.Cited in Krapp, P. (2011). Noise channels. 1st ed., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. xii. 

(2) Cf. Siisiainen, L. (2008). From the Empire of the Gaze to Noisy Bodies: Foucault, Audition and Medical Power. Theory & Event 11(1), The Johns Hopkins University Press. From Project MUSE database. 

THE EXPERIMENT

Through the artistic experimentation with the bacterial life, the project aims to produce a genetic mutation that is considered as an artistic form. 

Biohappening

1. Preparation of the materials

Images of the process of genetic modification. 

2. The Genetic Manipulation

Images of the process of genetic modification. 

3. The Aesthetic Environment

The DNA and bacterial soup were irradiated with different luminous stimuli to produce an artistically-induced mutation. The Petri dishes were exposed to different light radiations and colors with LED bulbs and pulsating laser strokes, with color temperatures between 1100 and 7000K Kelvin degrees for approximately 3 hours. The Petri dish III was the most exposed to laser light pulsations.

4. The Results

As a result of the DNA manipulation, it can be observed how the bacterias had successfully assimilated the new genetic material, creating colonies with different patterns and geometric forms. The bacterial mass has acquired different colours and densities, plastic qualities related directly to the light stimulus produced during the aesthetic process.

Results are considered satisfactory in terms of artistic production.

"DNA Nebula" - Petri Dish1

"Bacterial Love"

“Triangle of Bizarre Love: Bacteria + DNA + Aesthetics” 

5. Interpretation of the results:
Bacterial bio-patterns as audio landscapes

The images of the results were mapped and processed through Spinphony, an audio-generative app to create an audio landscape according to the pattern generated by the biomaterial. This software allowed to coerce specific tonalities out of the stream of data coming from the bacterial images. Colours, forms and cellular structures were interpreted as a unique audio form, applying different tonalities and synthesized sounds. The result is that the mutated bacteria produces a singular pattern of audio, that can be interpreted as a mutated audio landscape.

Risk of the Project:

From New DNA Aesthetics to New Epidemics 

Can an aesthetic experimentation lead to bacterial pandemics?