Art's Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Critical Methods for Collective Experiments

Hannah Star Rogers · March 4, 2021

Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Critical Methods for Collective Experiments

“Art exhibitions in the area of biotechnology are social and political interventions. From art
inspiring our aesthetic appreciation of plants and animals which brought about breeding
regimens, to art about race, gender, ability, and identity, these artworks invite the public into the
conversation about the history, ethics, politics, and future of biotechnology.”

Hannah Star Rogers, Curator and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Bioethics and Health Law

Art and science exhibitions are social and political interventions. Curators must necessarily take a stance as they invite visitors into public space that is the site of interventions, be they aesthetic, social, or technical. As a curator for art and science exhibitions, I work to position both art and science in places of power where audiences have the opportunity to consider different viewpoints and to examine the value of both of these knowledge systems. My current exhibition co-curated at the University of Pittsburgh Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Critical Methods for Collective Experiments with Elizabeth Pitts asks: What do we want from biotechnologies? Who is biotechnology for? Who decides?

This art and science exhibition invites viewers to join in collective experimentation with what we want from technologies of the body, and why. The online exhibition offers ten artworks from a mix of mediums to consider questions about biotechnology. In addition to its stated aims in using art to start a public conversation about science, this exhibition raises the kinds of questions scholars of science and technology frequently ask: what is the status of new knowledge and how should we understand its potential benefits and challenges for society?

Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology, began at North Carolina State University nearly four years ago. In its first iteration, the exhibition was led by the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, held at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, the physical and digital display spaces of the NCSU Libraries and the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). These activities will elicit discussion about genetics in society through the lens of contemporary art and offer viewers new ways to think about their role in the genetic revolution. In its current form at the University of Pittsburgh, the exhibition is supported by the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research its Research, Ethics and Society Initiative and made possible by a Pitt Seed Project grant from the Chancellor’s Office. The divergent research priorities of the institutions involved and the strengths of the sponsoring entities led to diverse but related sets of different artworks being chosen for the two exhibitions.

As an STS scholar and the curator for the exhibit, I have been interested in exploring the potential of an exhibit on science and technology with potentially complex social and political results, while also considering the way that artworks, particularly those that involve scientific expertise or technical materials, are understood by visitors. The exhibit aimed to engage the public about the social uses (familiar and new) that this technology might offer through provocative contemporary art which dealt directly with these technologies or offered new ways of contextualizing them.

By combining science, art, and design, the artists and artworks chosen for display explore critical methods for collective experiments. These artworks contextualize biotechnology by bringing it out of the lab and into public places to challenge viewers’ understandings of the human condition, the material of our bodies, and the consequences of biotechnology. Artists include Pittsburgh locals Alisha Wormsely, Rich Pell, and Bill Shannon, as well as internationally renowned artists such as the artist-led food thinktank the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and SymbioticA bioartists Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Tarsh Bates. Ten artists and collaboratives, representing eight countries, will open a conversation about the role of the arts in shaping biotechnology and the ways that biotechnology is used, interpreted, and expanding through the involvement of non-scientists.

Through their artworks in this exhibition, artists address questions about biotechnology beyond those typical in scientific conversations. These include questions of access, race, gender, the rights and roles of the nonhuman, and the involvement of corporations in science. Artworks include a 3D film made from historical stereoscopic images which explores artificial intelligence and climate change, a first-person eater game which offers eater-players the chance to explore food and biotech cultures, web comics exploring an alternative biotech future, live streaming plant cyborgs that roam the studio floor in search of light, and mediations with the microbes inside your body.

Together art and science offer us a more complete understanding of our world, our societies, and our futures. Consider joining us for Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology. Public events via Zoom the artists will occur throughout Spring 2021. These programs are free and open to the public. More information about attending is available here.

Daniel Slåttnes. [Norway]. Plant Cyborgs, from the series Anthrobotanical Investigations. 2015-ongoing. P. obtusifolia (rubber plant), electronic and robotic components, bespoke software based on plant's biosignals controls robotic prosthesis.

Baum & Leahy. [DK and UK]. Cellumonials: Cellular Ceremonies. 2019-ongoing. Soundscape by Sofie Birch, video by Carl Bigmore and Kevin Walker, editing Baum & Leahy with Celine Caly.

Ashley Jane Lewis and Ayodamola Okunseinde. [Canada and US]. SOWERS: A Collaborative Interspecies Performance by Slime Tech Lab. 2021-ongoing. New media, collaborative interspecies performance.

Kite and Devin Ronneberg. [Oglála Lakȟóta and Native Hawaiian descent]. Inyan Iye (Telling Rock). 2019, new media immersive installation composed of song, power, sound, processors, and machine learning decisions.

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