Education system globally, for ages, has distinguished art and science as two fundamentally distinct fields of expertise and encourages the notion that the two disciplines view the world in diametrically opposite ways. With humanity taking significant strides towards a more technologically advanced future to satisfy human aspiration for happiness and well-being, this rigid ideology is anything but archaic. However, the collaboration between art and science dates back centuries, with the works of Leonardo da Vinci being the most well-known examples.
In recent times, bio art has gained currency as a promising union of science and art. With recent shifts towards increasingly interdisciplinary approaches to design, bio art stands as an epitome of this philosophy. It is an art style that uses applications of recombinant genetics, biotechnology, and molecular biology to create unique artworks. The approach to bio art blurs the boundaries between art and modern biology, giving birth to bold and jarring pieces of work. Although the field has received criticism for transforming natural forms, the work produced by bio artists is truly fascinating. Some exciting examples of bio art are illustrated below.
The Australian performance artist takes the ‘creation of art’ to the extreme. Stelarc’s performances often involve robotics and other modern technologies. He has used medical procedures, prosthetics, robotics, Virtual Reality, and biotechnology to explore alternate and more intimate forms of creating art, using the human body as a tool. For the sake of his vision, he has grown a ‘third ear’ on his arm.
The ear was first constructed using a frame made out of biocompatible materials, which are often used in plastic surgery. Once transplanted onto his arm, the artist’s own tissue and blood vessels morphed with the material, creating an ear that can feel sensations but can’t hear. Stelarc now plans to make the ear fully functional by using his stem cells to develop a proper ear lobe. He then plans on implating a Wi-Fi-enabled microphone, which will allow people to ‘tune in’ to him and hear exactly what he is hearing.
Kac is a Brazilian American transgenic artist. In his work ‘genesis’, he explored the intricate relationship between biology, belief system, information technology, and the internet. The artist created a synthetic gene by translating a sentence from the biblical book ‘genesis’ into morse code. He then converted this morse code into DNA base pairs based on a conversion principle developed by Kac for this project. This synthetic gene was then incorporated into a bacterial specimen, which was shown in a gallery. Participants could use the internet to turn on the UV light in the galley, causing real-time biological mutations in the bacteria. Subsequently, these mutations caused the biblical sentence to change.
The idea behind this piece was to create a dichotomy between biblical instructions against tampering with nature by doing precisely that.
Developed by designers Van Mensvoot, Meijdam, Kayak, and Jensen, this brand brings together science and art and gives it a utilitarian spin, leading to the making of ray fish footwear. The brand creates personalized sneakers from stingray leather. The bio customization technique developed by the company allows the user to customize their footwear and ‘harness the beauty and variety of nature’. Using their online tool, the user can design their pattern and color. The custom DNA strand created based on this design is implanted in fetal stingrays, which grow to bear the unique design. Although unique as an idea, this project attracted the attention of animal rights activists, ultimately causing the company to go bankrupt.
Combining scientific techniques and principles with art may act as a tool for improving public awareness about science while allowing cultural and political commentary. The constant strive for experimentation and innovation can help foster collaboration and scientific literacy among various fields within the arts and science. Bio art can also initiate new science and engineering concepts, foster openness to collaboration, and increase scientific literacy while helping form the basis of artists’ future relationships with the communities of biology and the life sciences. The amalgamation of self-expression with the beauty of biology and nature, bio art opens up new avenues for artistic and scientific pursuits alike.
A relatively unexplored arena, the existing works in the field of bio art, although fascinating, questions the constant human desire to manipulate other species, organisms, and nature itself. Several examples of bio art make one ponder upon our increasingly exploitative and consumptive nature. Collaborative and hybrid thinking among various disciplines, although necessary in an increasingly dynamic and challenging world, should be done keeping in mind specific ethical standards. The question is not just about morality but also about responsibility toward the planet in general. Discussion regarding the good versus the evil of this discipline from an ethical standpoint is still up for debate and shall remain inconclusive till we find sufficient evidence to pick a side. Until then, all one can do is stay in awe.
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