Potential  Contributions of Bioartists to Research

Stephen Wilson, Professor Conceptual Information Arts, San Francisco State University.

Science and Technology dominate contemporary world.  
What is an appropriate response for the arts?

Topics of Presentation

Based on Research from book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology

  • Surveyed Artists working with Research
  • More work needed to understand how art and research might influence each other
infoarts book

Much Interest in Exploring Value of Artists' Involvement in Research

Policy studies
  • Michael Naimark, Rockefeller Report -"Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Money  Technology-Based Art and the Dynamics of Sustainability"
  • US National Academy of Science (Michael Century et al)  -"Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity"
beyond productivity

Governmental and Private Arragements

Canadian Research Council
Artists in the Lab Program (Switzerland)
Interactive Institute (Sweden)
Leonardo/OLATS Space Inititiatives
Arts Catalyst (UK)
Wellcome Trust Competitions (UK)

Rationales for Involvement of Artists

Creativity plays a crucial role in culture; creative activities provide personal, social, and educational benefit; and creative inventions (better recipes, not just more cooking) are increasingly recognized as key drivers of economic development. But creativity takes different forms at different times and in different places. This report argues that, at the beginning of the 21st century, information technology (IT) is forming a powerful alliance with creative practices in the arts and design to establish the exciting new domain of information technology and creative practices ITCP. There are major benefits to be gained from encouraging, supporting, and strategically investing in this domain

ITCP can constitute an important domain of research. It is inherently exploratory and inherently transdisciplinary. Concerned at its core with how people perceive, experience, and use information technology, ITCP has enormous potential for sparking reconceptualization and innovation in IT. In execution, it pushes on the boundaries of both IT and the arts and design. Computer science has always been stimulated by exposure to new points of view and new problems, which are ever-present in the arts and design. Because of the breadth of use to which artists and designers put different forms of IT, and because they typically are not steeped in conventional IT approaches, artists' and designers'  perspectives on tools and applications may provide valuable insights into the needs of other kinds of IT users. The needs and wants of artists and designers can suggest new ways of designing and implementing IT. Engaging their perspectives is a logical extension of recent trends in cross-disciplinary computer science research.

Limited Focus of Presentation

  • Can not analyze here the general impact of the art works in the larger culture -eg change in zeitgeist, subtle changes in the psychology, sociology, politics of science/research.  May ultimately be the most important impact.
  • Preliminary investigation more specifically at how art might impact the research world and its practitioners in a more concrete ways - with special focus on bioarts
  • Live with this ambiguity for a while:   Bioart artists working on the frontiers of biological research certainly seem to be doing culturally significant work.  Their contribution to art and to general cultural discourse about the research is easy to identify.  Less clear how they specifically  influence the world of scientific research
  • Limitations even in basic question
  • What would constitute a contribution and by whose definition?
  • Maybe it is not important that the art have an impact directly on the research world?  

Deconstruction of Narratives

  • Currently the most prevalent theoretical approach in the arts and humanities
  • Questioning the conceptual frameworks - eg objectivity,  external reality as a construct
  • Deconstructing the language used  - for example, germs as invading armies, animals as the Other
  • Unveiling the web of connections between this research and larger cultural structures (for example, cultural or gender bias)
  • Presumably any audience that encounters this work (including those who work as professional researchers) will become more thoughtful about the cultural implications of research
  • Core value of science is supposedly radical self reflection and criticism
  • Make cultural theory required reading in the sciences?
  • Problems with this approach.  Many in the sciences consider radical versions nonsense.  The normal canons and procedures of research are very effective.  Core values of science - there is a knowable, behaved external world, one can move toward objectivity
  • Beginnings of a new 2-culture problem.  How might critique be integrated into the siences.

Donna Haraway

Bruno Latour

Examples of How Bioartists Might Directly Influence Research

The pragmatic claim requires much more research.  Need to understand the claim and how influence might work.

Some Influence Points in Research Process (from Information Arts)

Imagining New Creatures - Bioengineering

  • Art has a long history working with fantastic creatures and chimeras - envisioning  life as it might be
  • With  genetic engineering the old dream of inventing creatures begins to enter the realm of possible
    Major ethical and safety issues
    If they are solved, then
    society will face major questions of what it should do with this technology
  • What new creatures should researchers create?
  • Are medicine and economics the only justifications?
  • Are genetically modified square tomatoes, created in order to facilitate shipping economics, more worthwhile than creatures created for art?

Louis Bec

Other Projects
Benefits and Problems

Embedding Messages in Genetic Sequences

  • DNA is tremendously effective for storing genetic information.  Furthermore mitosis (cell splitting) provides a natural process for creation of copies
  • Artistic Experiments - Joe Davis, Microvenus;  Eduardo Kac, Genesis
  • Artists beat researchers to the idea - Davis' idea originally seemed extreme - value of artistic vision
  • Bacterial memory and biological computing now focus of worldwide research

Joe Davis

Breeding and Selection

  • Humans engaged a form of genetic engineering long before the current research era as breeders of animals and plants
  • Some analysts critique contemporary biology for not paying sufficient attention to this storehouse of folk knowledge
  • Breeders accumulated significant information about genetic potential within particular species and the limitations and possibilities of particular cross breeding
  •  They also have knowledge about the way context can affect the expression of particular genes.

George Gessert

Art Projects


  • Ideas pursued for artistic reasons with possible ideas for research world
  • Adam Zaretsky created events in which he tested the effects of different kinds of music on the antibiotic production of selected strains of E. coli bacteria
  • Joe Davis  Audio Microscope listens to the movements of single celled animals (perhaps possible to identify sound signature of the organisms)
  • Paul Vanouse's Relative Velocity Inscription Device developed unprecedented electrophoresis device
  • Natalie Jeremijenko's One Tree  subjected 1000 genetically identical clones to different environmental conditions by planting all over the Bay Area

Stem-cell and Near Life Research

  • Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr - Use stem cells to grow tissue into forms they selected for artistic and conceptual reasons
  • Confront technical challenges - providing nourishment to growing cells and new ways of providing lattices to guide growth in the patterns they wanted
  • Artistic agenda demanded they develop unorthodox skills and understandings necessary to complete the work
  • Catts tells amusing stories about the cigarette smoke that fills the environment in art shows in a way that would horrify traditional lab technicians.  Interestingly, Catts notes that there is some evidence that the smoke encourages growth in some tissue cells
  • Now growing interest in scientific community in manipulated near-life materials

Protozoa Games Art Installation and Research (Steve Wilson)

  • Art Installation in which humans play motion games with live protozoa
  • I Worried that few observe other animals except pets & zoos
  • My preconceptions were challenged  - protozoa were sophisticated and varied in how they related to each other and to their environment.  
  • I imagined that this process of observing protozoa and considering their behaviors was not very different from the way a biologist might approach them.
  •  Like a scientist studying a species, I tried to focus on what I was seeing and theorized about its causes and implications.
  • I wondered if I could understand them well enough to predict their behavior
  • In Follow-me game visitors were rewarded for careful observation
  • In Control-me game visitors initiated experiments to try to influence protozoa - colored lights position and sound stimulation
  • Literature did not have much on this.  It is possible new understandings about protozoa life could result from this event

Dilemma of Artistic and Technological Demands

Summary:  Artists as Potential Contributors to Research

Out of Control - the Paradoxical Value of Violating Conventions

Incidental Knowledge

What is needed to maximize artist contribution to research?