Bioart, Ethics And Artworks

On: April 18, 2012
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Clément Adam
I was born In Paris. I then moved to the Netherlands for a Bachelor in Psychology and Anthropology. Studying New Media is a new field for me however I have always been interested by the latest technology. Aside from my studies I am interested in Photography & a lot more.


This lengthy post is part of a Critical Media Art Course. The theme of the week  was “Life”, and the readings provided focused on Bioart, and the concerns around it. Following an introduction to the term of Bioart, concerns and ethics are introduced, followed by a selection of artworks which, we believe, are important to the theme despite the significant differences between artworks.

Written By Jesse Oyegbesan, Aurelie Ghalim, Ula Jurgiel & Clément Adam

Defining Bioart

Today’s technology, art and sciences are evolving at great speed. The important changes to these fields have introduced new ways to think and engage into the different disciplines, creating new links between them.
BioArt is a recent practice, which has emerged along with the combined evolution of various fields of study. People have a tendency to label everything, but in the case of bioart, categories overlap each other. Zylinska (2009) defines bioart as art that is “utilizing biomaterial such as tissue, blood, or genes as its medium” (Zylinska, 2009). BioArt is thus a general term to talk about art that uses a living medium. Thacker (2005) describes bioart as “often used to refer to projects that deal with biology as an artistic medium” (Thacker, 2005). Anne Munster (2005) describes “bioart” as “… a relatively new nomenclature” describing “…an area of aesthetic practice that takes in a number of approaches ranging from the selective breeding of irises to the production of transgenic organisms in art work”.

The Debate over BioArt

The traditional distinctions between science and art are blurred so that political and social criticism comes up consistently. “Bioart” and its interdisciplinary projects, however encounters a lot of resistance. Debates concerning the ethics of “bioart” or if it is even “terrorism” are not fading away. Zylinska (2009) states, that the reasons for this resistance may be lead back to the “current transformation of human and nonhuman life and its mediation by technology.”
For certain people, using a living medium for art is not the only requirement for bioart: it should also draw attention to different social and political aspects of our society.

Bioart has received many critics since its first appearance in the end of the 20th century. Indeed, when the symbolic and material boundaries of humans opened to technology, some considered it as hospitable, however many (especially the general public) found it offensive or even dangerous. One of the main concerns about bioart is that people view it as an unnecessary use of living organisms. While the use of living (in vivo) organisms is often tolerated because they are used for research and thus improving the quality of peoples’ lives, bioart is often criticized as an uncalled-for practice because of the role of aesthetics in the artworks. In addition, bioart creates uncertainties among the public because bioart projects such as eugenics are undertaken by artists and not researchers. Nevertheless it is important to bear in mind that (bio)artists also need to do research prior to conducting their experiment/artwork. Furthermore, in theory, money is far from being the main motivation for artists to conduct an artwork.

Zylinska denounces the monetary drive involved in the process of eugenics and bioart in the following quote: “If big science can ignore nuclear holocaust and species annihilation, it seems very safe to assume that concerns about eugenics or any of the other possible flesh catastrophes are not going to be very meaningful in its deliberations about flesh machinepolicy and practice. Without question, it is in the interest of pancapitalism to rationalize the flesh, and consequently it is in the financial interest of big science to see that this desire manifests itself in the world” (Zylinska, 2009). Zylinska uses in this quote her own definition of ‘pancapitalism’ : “an identifiable network of (evil) forces against and outside which artists can take a clear and principled stand” (Zylinska, 2009).

The big sciences, as addressed by Zylinska, refers to the major biotech companies. The quote puts forward a critic about the way the biotech industry values life and power.

Bioartists are thus often criticized as irresponsible, and lacking ethics. When Eduardo Kac released a picture of a fluorescent green rabbit, many denounced the act as immoral and harmful for the animal.

Munster (2005) in her article “Why is BioArt Not Terrorism?” firstly describes the case of Steve Kurtz, one of the co-founders of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). In 2004 Kurtz was accused of using biological materials in order to produce bio-terrorist weapons. All the investigations undertaken by the FBI could be lead back to the “post 9/11 anxiety”. However, Munster (2005) also responds to Mark Lombardi’s art work BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91 (4th Version). Lombardi was obsessed of discovering intrigues of governments, connections between governments, corporation and mafia activities. He collected his findings and illustrated them on paintings. Above-mentioned art work, however, became an important matter of the FBI right after 9/11 as Lombardi apparently had relevant information concerning Al Qaeda.

Munster (2005) detects no connection between Kurtz’s and Lombardi case, even though both “are concerned with aspects of the politics and finance of corporate globalization.”

“If anything links these two events at all, it is simply that in the broader sphere of public culture in the US (rather than in its more insulated art world), the political status of art is no longer determined by recourse to the politics of the artist or to the platform promoted by the work’s content. Art now becomes ‘political’ when it catches the attention of a policing agency.”(Munster 2005)

Art Works

GFP (green fluorescent protein) Bunny, 2000 by Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac - Green Fluorescent Rabbit

Eduardo Kac’s art work “GFP Bunny Project”, in which a rabbit received an injection with a green fluorescent gene from a jellyfish, so that it was glowing when illuminated with a special type of ultra violet light, opened a huge debate. Even though Kac defended himself by saying, that he had done nothing that other scientist had not done before and that the experiment was totally harmless to the rabbit, however a bitter aftertaste in this case still remains. As the modification of genes was already successfully tested before the question arose, what the contribution of “GFP Bunny project” was. Zylinska (2009) tries to offer an explanation of his actions by saying that Kac intended to play the role as an educator in order to provide “…new insights into our understanding of genetics”. Her claims that bio-tech companies keep secrets of their progress due to financial and political interests may demonstrate a connection.

Flesh Machine, 1997  by CAE

Some could ask where is the line between being an artist and scientist while talking about BioArt. CAE (Critical Art Ensemble) the collective of tactical media practitioners at one point in 1997 made a performance called Flesh Machine where they gave a 30 minutes long lecture about new reproductive technology. They then allowed participants to take donor screening tests and asked some of them to give their blood for DNA extraction and amplification. On the side they prepared a lab where cell samples were taken for flash freezing and later participants could asses the potential value of their bodies as commodities and hence their place in the new genetic market economy. To do all that and prepare for their performance CAE studied in biology labs to learn cryopreservation and biopsy techniques. They lived with and documented a couple going through in vitro fertilization treatment and they studied material science to learn how to build a cryolab. Their aim was to reveal what they considered to be hidden eugenic agendas, most apparent on the intimate level of the literal procedure. After cell-sharing experience, CAE presented to their audience a frozen embryo that they inherited from a couple who no longer needed their eggs. A live image of the embryo was projected onto a screen. The image had a clock marking the time the embryo had until it was “evicted” from its clinical cryotank. If enough money was raised to pay the rent (around $60) on the cryotank through the performance, the embryo would remain alive. If nobody would buy it, it would die. CAE wanted to take donations from the audience. Every performance has ended with the death of the embryo. This part of the performance, in CAE opinion was speaking for itself.

Body Modification for Love, 2005 by Michiko Nitta

Another example of BioArt is Michiko Nitta’s Body Modification for Love. It is an idea which could be developed in the future – a technique for genetically growing selected parts of another (beloved) person on another person’s skin. What Nitta is proposing is for example a nipple of ex-girlfriend or a mole of ex-boyfriend. Patch of living hair would be also possible to grow on somebody’s else arm. It is supposed to be a new form of tattoo. Would you like to get one?

inthewrongplaceness, 2009 by Kira O’Reilly

Kira O’Reilly is famous for her performances involving blood-letting. In order to do that she is helping herself with medical instruments such as scalpel, leeches or wet cups – Wet Cup is one of her performances where she is becoming a sculpture and she let her blood go to cups attached to her cut open skin. In this piece O’Reilly wanted to compare human body to a cup which in her opinion main function is to carry the fluid of life. In her other performance “inthewrongplaceness” (2009) she asked the audience to approach one by one and touch her and dead pig’s skin and find the similarities. It was her way to engage the audience with the complexities of the relation between skin, touch and species.

Que le cheval vive en moi, 2011 by Art Orienté Objet

Art Orienté Objet in 2011 made a controversial performance “Que le cheval vive en moi” (“May the horse live in me”) where they wanted to get an impression how it is to be a horse. They tried to find out by preparing the artist’s body over the course of several months by allowing it to be injected with horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that circulate in the blood serum and which can function as antibodies in immune response. The artist called the process “mithridatization” after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sublethal doses of the same. After having progressively built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign immunoglobulins. Because of the preparation for many months she did not fall into anaphylactic shock which is a natural allergic reaction and what she would experience without the preparation. Horse immunoglobulins passed the defensive mechanisms of her own human immune system, entered her blood stream to bond with the proteins of her body and as a result of this synthesis have an effect on all major body functions. Even impacting the nervous system, so that the artist, during and in the weeks after the performance, experienced not only alterations in her physiological rhythm but also of her consciousness. Afterwards she said she had “the feeling of being extra human”. She said she was not in her usual body, that she was hyper–powerful, hyper–sensitive, hyper–nervous and very diffident. She said that she could not sleep and she assured that she  probably felt a bit like a horse.


Biojewllery resulted from a project in which couples donate their bone cells to a team of researchers. By using bioglass and a special bioactive ceramic, which mimics the structure of bone material, researchers are growing rings made out of the couples’ bone.

Smell, 2007 by James Auger

The project “Smell” is about the human experimental potential of the sense of smell, applying contemporary scientific research in a range of domestic and social contexts.

DNA portraits, ongoing by  DNA 11

DNA11 pioneered the application of genetic science in the creation of truly personalized unique custom art. Their DNA portraits allow customers to buy portraits created using the customer’s very own DNA. Just as a person’s DNA is unique, each frame is created according to the person’s DNA, making the frame one of a kind. Nevertheless for this company, and in contradiction to traditional bioart, the rentability of selling the artwork seems to outweigh the eventual politics (charities) they are involved in.


Munster, A. (2005) Why Is BioArt Not Terrorism?: Some Critical Nodes in the Networks of Infomatice Life, Culture Machine Vol 7.

Schneider, R. (2000). Nomadmedia: On Critical Art Ensemble. In TDR, Vol. 44, No. 4 (pp.120-131). The MIT Press.

Thacker, E. (2005). Conclusion: Tactical Media and BioArt. In The Global Genome Biotechnology, Politics and Culture (pp. 305-­‐320). London.

Zylinska, J. (2009). Green Bunnies and Speaking Ears: The Ethics of Bioart . In J. Zylinska, Bioethics in the Age of New Media (pp. 149-­‐174). London: The MIT Press.

Extra readings


Comments are closed.