It was the first time I ever went to an art show where the art had gotten unruly and climbed outside its frame. A Sunshine-looking installation by Philip Ross of plants growing inside glass tubes of water (above) had turned into a jungle of plants breaking out of their transparent prisons and in some cases actually knocking bits of the sculpture onto the floor. It was the perfect example of how bio-art works: created from living materials, it breeds and grows and behaves just as illogically as life itself. This was just one of the reasons I was fascinated by the recent BioTechnique art show at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Each exhibit, whether chosen for its scientific design innovation or purely aesthetic value, dealt with the way humans manipulate living matter via modern biotech — or fermentation technology that's thousands of years old. We've got a gallery of the installations from the show, including glowing bacterial colonies and the rainbow skeletons of mutated frogs, as well as an interview with show curator Philip Ross.
How did you get interested in bio art?
I don't call it "bio art." It's more like design, or science. My entry was through weird vectors: working as a chef and hospice caregiver. I noticed similarities between life support technology and death prolongation technology. And cooking gave me this hands-on experience with life materials and manipulating living things into other forms. Also a lot of it came through learning about mushroom growing. I noticed that scientists describe experiments like recipes. Protocols are recipes. The measurements are precise and teh results must be reproducible. I'm interested in ancient biotech too. We've been doing this stuff ever since we could dig a hole in the ground.
Some of the pieces in the show are art, but some are just biotech equipment. Tell us why you chose to include things like the microfluidic arrays.
People never get to see these tools, and yet they're very graphic and visual. Plus, biotech is about to disappear the way microelectronics disappeared with micro-integrated circuits. So I consider stuff like this [exhibit] a last glimpse of this thing before it becomes microscopic.
What about the mutated frog skeletons?
Man people were taken with the beauty of the images of the frogs. That was surprising to me. What's interesting is that Brandon Ballengee's work has an ambiguous relationship to these frogs. He collects them to understand the mutations better and maybe find out the causes and eliminate them. But he also breeds them in his own lab and induces these mutations. So he's also the cause of the mutation; he's implicated. Everybody in the show is implicated in one way or another. They're implicated in things people aren't comfortable with ethically.
What kinds of ethical issues do you hope this show invites people to think about?
I hope that people will come away thinking that they're already involved in biotech. You're already participating in biotechnology if you're drinking alcohol or using a vaccine. it's not an us or them. It's not biotech here and not there. it's been going on for a long time, with fermenting and farming. I wanted people to think about the larger view of how we manipulate living things and why we might do it for alcohol and medicine, but also to understand how pollution alters living things around us.
We're all implicated. You might have a clone in your house and not know it.