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What Is Bioart?

Art and science are often portrayed more as art vs. science; as if the two are diametrically opposed. But anyone who’s watched leaves change color or looked at an image in a microscope knows that biology ‘creates’ amazing art. 

Arts-integrated schools even use art to teach biology. In fact, biology is so loaded with complex beauty that it’s long been a subject for artists to explore. 

In the last 25 years, however, a new discipline has emerged that mixes art with biological research. It’s been coined bioart and it’s bringing scientists and artists together with uniquely fascinating and often stunning results.

The Genesis and Evolution of Bioart

The term ‘bioart’ was coined in 1997. Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac implanted a microchip in his ankle and then registered himself in a pet database as both the pet and the owner. He did this on live TV. 

By today’s bioart standards, it was a relatively tame piece of performance art. But back then, it was revolutionary.

Since that time, bioart has evolved into a wide range of activities including bacterial manipulation and sculptures on a cellular level to making rabbits glow and implanting a prosthetic ear onto a forearm. (More on that in just a bit.)

Bioart is seen as the bridge between art and science. And as artists have pursued art through biology, they’ve generated techniques and tools that have actually helped scientific researchers. Of course, in the name of forever pushing the envelope, there were some controversial situations as well. But much of the work challenges scientific thinking by blurring that line between art and biology.  

In essence, genes, cells, and animals (including humans) become the media. Bioart ventures into the fields of genetics and medicine and stokes discussion about the relationship between nonliving and living organisms. To nutshell it for you, the human body is nothing more than an “impersonal, revolutionary, objective structure.” Or so says Cypriot-Australian performance artist, Stelarc.

Stelarc – Exploring the Extremes of Bioart

Stelarc is an internationally renowned performance artist who’s made a name for himself over the past four decades partaking in risky performance pieces that involve his body. For example, he’s opted for aggressive voluntary surgeries and experimented with flesh-hook suspensions and prosthetics. He even ingested a stomach sculpture that could have had a fatal outcome. 

All in the name of marrying art and science. 

For Stelarc, the body is the perfect device for melding meat, metal, and code. His curiosity drives him to test the sheer psychological and physiological parameters of the human body. He is also fascinated with prosthetic attachments and robotic extensions that may enhance his sensory experience. 

The Body As a Canvass

What Stelarc is doing might seem insane. But bioart is driven by a fierce regard for the body as a means to an end. And so bioartists are motivated to engage in daring feats regardless of the risks. It’s not really so different from those who voluntarily get tattoos or multiple piercings. But it’s definitely more extreme. 

Which brings us back to the ear on the forearm. 

Stelarc has spent the past 27 years working on the idea of implanting a lab-grown ear onto his forearm. He birthed this idea before the term ‘bioart’ had even emerged. It took him ten years to find surgeons who were willing to do the procedure. Right now, what’s on his arm presents are merely a relief of an ear.

So why is he doing this?

“When the ear becomes a more 3-D structure, we’ll reinsert the small microphone that connects to a wireless transmitter,” Stelarc said in an interview with WIRED. This means the ear will be internet-enabled wherever there is Wifi. “So if you’re in San Francisco and I’m in London, you’ll be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing, wherever you are and wherever I am.” 

That’s truly enhancing his sensory experience. 

Other Artists Blazing the Biotechnology Trail

There’s no doubt that some of the most provocative artists are bioartists. While Stelarc’s artistic antics may seem extreme, there are plenty of other bioartists pushing the envelope. 

Many of them work directly with scientists and engineers to challenge existing notions that have been all but carved in stone. Among them are:

Eduardo Kac

We mentioned Kac above. Since those earlier days in 1997 when he transplanted the microchip, Kac has been utilizing biotechnology and genetics to examine and even critique scientific techniques.

In one work entitled “Genesis,” Kac translated a bible verse into Morse code, then converted it into base pairs of genetics. Using a bacterium he was growing in a petri dish, he implanted those genes. The whole objective was to demonstrate the dichotomy between the bible warning against messing with nature and then doing just that. 

Kac’s most famously known in the art world though for his project known as Alba. He took Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) found naturally in jellyfish and implanted it in a rabbit. The result was a rabbit that glowed an eerie green when placed under a blue light.

Natasha Vita-More

Natasha Vita-More is a strong advocate of human enhancement and morphological freedoms. Her futuristic and conceptual work explores AI, biotechnology, IT, nanotechnology, neuro- and cognitive science,  and robotics. She believes that it is human nature to want to solve problems through innovation.

Her most well-known work looks at the possibility of a human designed purely from intention rather than one that’s prone to the forces of natural selection. Named Primo Posthuman, it’s a vision of a future “feature-heavy” human form able to defy disease and aging. 

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

It’s not unusual to encounter themes of sex work, gender, and occultism in English artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s work. S/he is best known for a collaborative effort called Project Pandrogeny. Working with his/her wife, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, the project is an attempt to address issues of interpersonal coupling, post-genderism, and personal transformation by creating an amalgam of the two of them.

Embracing Biology As Art

Science can’t progress without creativity. Meanwhile, art that reflects on and questions societal standards is often informed by science.

Bioart is the brilliant morphing of these two disciplines. And you’re likely going to witness more innovation in this field in the coming years so keep your eyes peeled. 

In the meantime, if your child thrives on art and science, consider an arts-integrated education for him/her/them. Contact us today to set up a tour of our school and give your child a chance to be the next big innovator.


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