Genetically manipulated life as a work of art

In a furious essay, the american biocritic jeremy rifkin makes followers of transgenic art with their fluorescent rabbits the prophets of a new eugenics

You can’t accuse jeremy rifkin of not knowing what he’s talking about. The american visionary is as much at home in the world of biology as he is in the world of networks, work or – most recently – hydrogen propulsion. His book "the biotech century" (the biotech century) is still a standard work five years after its first publication in 1998. His warnings against the momentum of pranatal genetic diagnostics are among the most forceful and plausible scenarios of a brave new genetic world. After 1998, rifkin liked to keep quiet about his genetic visions. He dealt with access rights to digital content and with hydrogen as an energy carrier. But now rifkin has returned to the biotechnology debate, with an eloquent commentary in the guardian newspaper.

Genetically engineered life as a work of art

Alba, a "work" by eduardo kac

The work of art as a flirtation with creation

This time, rifkin focuses on the bio-artists who use genetic engineering methods to create living works of art. Reluctant followers of this method, most prominently represented by eduardo kac "transgenic" prefer to work with photoshop and digital images rather than with enzymes, pipettes and living creatures. What most transgenic artworks have in common, however, is the provocative play with nature, the combination of previously unthought-of properties, the synthesis of nature and technology into artificial hybrid beings.

The most famous example of this is the one created by eduardo kac? Created?) transgenic rabbit alba. Alba wurde auf kacs wunsch hin in einem sudfranzosischen labor im embryonalstadium mit dem gen fur das grunfluoreszierende protein (gfp) ausgestattet. Gfp ist ein den biolabors rund um den globus weit verbreitetes signaleiweib, mit dem sich via einbau des entsprechenden gens eine ganze reihe von zellularen strukturen in zahlreichen tierarten visuell markieren lassen. Depending on the question, tie sections of such animals are made and can be examined under the microscope with the help of a special lamp.

Sinnspruche fur paranoiker, 1: the master may be hidden from you, but you can tickle his creatures

Unlike the armies of laboratory animals, alba was not killed, of course. Two and a half years after her creation, the lady continues to hop happily through kac’s living room in los angeles, with a fur female like snow under normal circumstances and luminous grun in appropriate light conditions.

Genetically manipulated life as a work of art

Pig wings by symbioticaa

Alba was followed by a veritable boom in bioart: at ars electronica 2000 in linz, electric potentials from nerve cell cultures moved a robotic arm. The creation hieb fish chips. The artists belonged to the australian laboratory symbioticaa, which shortly afterwards made a name for itself with a starter kit for bioreactors. In the pig wings project, the same group tried their hand at making wings from connective tie cells of pigs. Kac himself has been working since alba on artistic creation scenarios such as the eighth day, where fluorescent plants meet genetically modified fish, maintained by robots that draw the energy for locomotion from the metabolic processes of likewise fluorescent bacteria in their, well, heads.

Paranoia, 2: in the guilelessness of the creatures the amorality of the master is reflected

The occasion for rifkin’s latest intervention is the latest kacsche project: genesis. It was shown in paris in the fall and is currently touring the united states, where it is attracting considerable public attention. "Genesis" is intended, according to kac, to help find new points of orientation in the borderlands of biology, religious creation myths and the information society.

Genetically manipulated life as a work of art

The interactive installation genesis by edurado kac

The main protagonist, in some sense the messiah, is a fluorescent bacterium into which an artificial gene has been inserted. It is the biological transcript of a part of the genesis. The text was first translated into morse code and then transcribed into dna base sequences. The bacteria multiply under uv light in a petri dish, and visitors watch them via video camera. By activating a kind of uv dimmer, they can also play evolution (or god) to a limited extent: depending on the wavelength and intensity of the selected uv light, the mutation rate increases or decreases. The spectators thus become the authors of a potentially endlessly variable creation text translated into biological life.

In contrast to the artists themselves, who hope that their artworks will stimulate the public to think more easily than scientific experiments ever could, rifkin fears the dawning of a new eugenic age through the back doors of art in the face of such scenarios. He places alba and her relatives in the broad context of a trend to see the biological body as the manipulable work of art par excellence. Whether genetically engineered laboratory animals or cloned mammoths, whether freeman dyson’s schizoid vision of a fleshless and bloodless life or human cell cultures, whether preimplantation diagnostics or gene therapy: viewed through rifkin’s paranoid glasses, virtually all products of biotechnologically inspired fantasies become signals of a relapse into the world of a widely accepted eugenics sometime at the beginning of the oh-so-dark 20th century. Century.

Meaningful sayings for paranoids, 3: whoever succeeds in persuading you to ask the wrong questions, need not fear the answer

Equipped with such a perceptual prosthesis, it is not surprising that rifkin sees the unnamed danger at work as soon as he leaves his house:

"More and more people already see their very own body as the ultimate work of art, a constantly changing project."

Rifkin’s axis of evil thus stretches from the most isolated bio labs to naive dinosaur enthusiasts and far beyond to the subcultural urban environments between new york and tokyo, where pierced young people change their entire appearance as quickly as david beckham changes his hairstyle.

Rifkin makes some good points where he tries to weave the idea of the body as a material of artistic manipulation into the history of genetic engineering. In an equally famous and infamous essay from the early days of genetics, joshua lederberg fantasized a then still distant future in which genes were deliberately altered by human hands and (human) art, no longer biological evolution, drove life forward. "Replacing evolution by art" is the original quote that has become famous. The corresponding article appeared under the title "experimental genetics and human evolution" in the journal "the american naturalist" in 1966.

Scientific hubris is not uncommon in the history of genetics, as in the history of the life sciences in general. It is also true that one of the most ambitious scientific attempts to declare nature a kind of uber-art was closely linked to the development of eugenics at the turn of the last century, without being identical to it.

Rifkin, however, falls into the trap that all paranoids fall into when they interpret loose and in individual cases highly variable connections as fixed causal chains. Just as ambiguous as the connection between violence in the media and in everyday life is the connection between genetic engineering and transgenic art, not to mention other body art.

For rifkin’s actual concern, his apocalyptic painting is counterproductive anyway. Those who, in the interest of a eugenic threat scenario, construct causal chains where there are none, only reduce the need to discuss questions that will actually decide how this society will function in a few decades’ time. Do we want pranatal diagnostics and if so to what extent?? Is there a right to healthy children? Will a couple that decides in an imagined future for natural procreation and against prenatal diagnostics be stigmatized if the child is not completely healthy?? All questions that not least rifkin helped to formulate five years ago.

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