Artists and Biology Research

Stephen Wilson, Art Department, 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 my 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

(Stephen Wilson, MIT Press, 2002)

Rationales for Involvement of Artists


-  Basic philsophical notions of what it is to be human, the nature of time and space,  the nature of the universe, what is maleable and what is fixed is being shaped by science - art historically helped us understand and anticipate.

 -Understanding the underlying narratives

- Importance of Scientific Openness to Alternative Paradigms. Art can be a tool for offering other perspectives .

ref:  Thomas Kuhn - Sturcture of Scientific Revolutions

Preface of Beyond Productivity (from US National Academy of Science)  illustrates pragmatic appeal


"Creativity plays a crucial role in culture; creative activities provide personal, social, and educational benefit; and creative inventions ...are increasingly recognized as key drivers of economic development. " 
* ITCP = Information Technology Creative Practices

"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."

Why is Biology Interesting to Artists

Critical area of innovation - opening up new possibilities, areas of inquiry, products.  scientific research and technological development
NSF - genome research
Contested area of culture.  eg. deconstructing nature, body, gender, disease 

8 cell embryo - stem cells
Biology has a mind of its own.  Unlike other art materials, it sets on its own trajectories.

Australian rabbit coin
We are biology ourselves.  A way of investigating our selves.

Visible Woman

Philosphical Issues Underlying Biology Research

Sometimes analysts focus only on socio- cultural issues
Also a significant set of key questions that have engaged philosphers and cultural commentators
Science opens up the questions and invites new reflection.
This reflection can also be part of art.
Biology does not belong just to science but to many disciplines
An old art teacher once said "art was philosophy made visual"
There are a set of issues that underlie biology which will be extremely important in years to come.

What is the nature of life? How are the living and non-living different?

What are the boundaries of naturally occuring life? - What are the limits of the forms it can take? What might exterrestial life be like? Can there be  forms of life not based on carbon?
SetiAtHome - search for extrerrestial life
Can we synthesize life? Can we create semi-life? Can we create artificial life? Will nanotechnology be able fabricate life atom by atom?

 Can we modify life through bioengineering?  through breeding? What are the limits?

Semi-living Art
Tissue Culture and Art Group
To what extent does genetics determine ultimate organism?  What is the balance between nature and nurture?  Can all biology ultimately be reduced to coding and bioinfomatics?

What is the nature of consciousness and intelligence?  What is the relationship of brain and mind?  Can we synthesize them?  What is the nature of non-human intelligence?

Rice University Bioinfomtics group
What are the possibilities and limitations of "posthuman" enhancement?  Can we increase strength, endurance, intelligence, creativity,  sexual powers?

Can we control mood and psychic space?  What are the limits of psychopharmacology?  Is there a prozac for everyone?


Superman / Wonderwoman
Can we eradicate disease? Can we create super-health?  Can life be prolonged?  Can death be eliminated?
Fountain of Youth
What is the nature of connection between species?  What is the connection between organic and non organic systems?

Ethics.  Which of any of these should be pursued and which not?

Examples of Areas of Biology Research & Development Asking for Artistic Inquiry

Smell & Taste  - Artificial Noses, Smell Synthesis, Pheromones, the near senses

u of Illinois - artificial nose
Bionics - integration of machine and organism

Campbell Aird - Irish bionic arm
Brain-machine interface
Neurons in Petri dish run robots

Steve Potter - GaTech
Brain control - remote control rats

Sanjiv Talwar, SUNY

Image from MSU Biometrics Research Page
Designer Drugs

Applied Molecular Evolution - cocaine analog without addiction
Bacterial memory for computers

bacteriorhodopsin protein

Artists Working with Biology

Protozoa Games  -   Stephen Wilson

New information available via new tools
Digital Microscope and motion tracking
Facination with other life forms

Follow Me - Reverse usual experimental forms
Protozoa in charge

Control Me - Wacky commentary on Experiments
colored lights, sound/voice
what really is important in protozoa lives?

Themes explored:
Human relationships with animals
Ethics of animal and human experimentation
Nature of intelligence and consciousness
Reflections on the essence of life
Protozoa Complexity


Introspection enables people to interact with live microorganisms and cells derived from their own body and those of others. 

Themes explored:
- Reflection on the place of humanity within the larger biosphere.  
- Sstatus as hybrid scientific/medical enterprise and media/game asks questions about access to scientific and medical protocols and new worlds made accessible by science. 
- Interactions with these alien, unfamiliar life forms (which are nonetheless intimately connected with our bodies) focuses on the boundaries between self and non-self. 
- Reflects on our culture’s increasing focus on the microbiological.

Microbiology - Laura Cinti - Cactus Project
(develop cactus that grows human hair)

Mcirovenus - Joe Davis  -
(embed codes in ecoli)

Eduardo Kac - Alba
(genetically engineered flourescent bunny)

Species Revival - Brandon Balengee
(redevelop extinct species of frog)

One Tree - Natile Jerijemko
(100 genetically identical trees subjected to different environments)

Hubert Duprat - Caddis Worm
(caterpillars cocoon formation manipulated with precious metal and jewels)

Diana Domingues -Insn(h)ak(r)es  - Robot snake
(Robot snake lives in harmony with live snakes)

Mel Chin - Revival Field
(Design both for artistic and ecological reclaimation)

Stelarc - Parasite - external control of body, broadcasgts from inside of body - prostheses

Critical Art Ensemble - Cult of the New Eve, Generra
Interventions, Public events .  Beer brewed with yeast engineered to include human genetic material

Ken Rinaldo - Augmented Fish Reality
(Robots driven by fish interacting with humans)

Paul Vanouse  - Relative Velocity Inscription Device
(electrophoresis of dna compares racial inheritance of relatives)

How could Artists Influence Research Process 

Dilemma for Artists