Courses:MAT200A 02W:Biotechnology:C. Ramakrishnan
Report by: C. Ramakrishnan
Long Live the New Flesh
What is there to introduce? Everyone knows what biotechnology is. It is the range of possibilities unleashed by 20th century discoveries about the make-up of life: the role of genes in determining the traits of organisms; the double-helix structure of DNA; the improved understanding of neurochemistry; ...
These discoveries are enabling a range of new technologies, applications, and art. Corporations are taking advantage of these discoveries to create new products to make them money. They are also using this technology to create new ways to make money from existing products.
Artists are taking advantage of their newly discovered ability to "sculpt" with a material not previously available for them to work with: life itself. They are using their position to comment on and encourage discussion about the possibilities and dangers of our new capabilities.
Let us take a closer look at what corporations and artists are doing with biotechnology.
Before we actually look at examples of work with biotechnology, let us consider the implications of philosophical positions one can adopt with regards to research and modifications of genes and biochemistry.
As with everything, there are the con and pro positions on biotech. The con being concerned about and focusing on the potential dangers of biotechnology; the pro being excited about and focusing on the potential benefits of biotechnology.
What issues make people pick one side or the other? What problems does biotech create? What problems does it solve? Think about some cases where you oppose biotech research and biotech-based solutions. Are you concerned about the technology itself, or about how it will be used? Both?
Think about the cases where you favor biotech research and solutions. Why?
An example of a someone (or some people) who thinks biotechnology only creates problems and solves none is the Genesis of Eden page. They argue against the use of biotechnology in any situation.
On the other hand, as a modern-day parallel to the Futurist Manifesto, the Paradise Engineering page argues that biotechnology will solve all problems. They argue for using biotech to create a "Post-Darwinian" age where suffering throughout the living world is totally eradicated.
The examples we look at won't be this polarized, but we should still consider the objectives of the companies and artists we will look at.
To get a sense of the number of corporations affiliated with biotechnology research, take a look at the Google directory listing for biotechnology companies. They can be broken down into companies that sell technology to other biotech companies (B2B) and companies that sell products to end consumers (B2C). Let's take a look at the web pages of some of these companies and see how they present themselves. Look for what they show and what they don't show.
These companies aren't afraid to flaunt their connection with biotechnology. They generally have some sort of technology or laboratory imagery on their pages. They also tend to have lower quality web sites. What do you find interesting about the way these companies present their web image?
Let's look at Genentech and Amgen, two companies that manufacture biotech medicine. These companies have some tech imagery, but it is more muted, and less clinical looking. They have professional-quality web sites. Both Genentech and Amgen use imagery that shows its connection to biotechnology (compare with Monsanto). They also provide some general education about biotechnology and their research: Genentech; Amgen.
Any other observations?
Epicyte is another company that makes biotech medicine, but it's a little harder to figure out exactly what their products do. For example, they created a GM corn that hosts a spermicide, but you'll have a hard time figuring this out from their website.
Monsanto is an interesting case. Because of their controversial activities — like developing Terminator Technology which renders the second generation seeds sterile or suing a Canadian farmer for planting their seeds without having purchased them (Monsanto won) — they have become a focus of attack against biotechnology. Here is a sampling from Monsanto's listing in Google's directory of Allegedly Unethical Firms:
Other fronts of Monsanto's efforts to win the public-relations war, can be seen on these other domain names they own: http://www.biotechbasics.com/, http://www.biotechknowledge.com/, http://www.farmsource.com/.
Here is short list of some artists who work with biotech. I see two major catagories of these artists: those who actually manipulate the genes and biochemistry of organisms, and those who don't.
My list is biased towards those artists who get their hands dirty and do some genetic manipulation. I find this category more interesting because they are using new techniques from science to create art that was not possible until now. These artists can be further broken down into those who work with breeding, those who make transgenic art, those who clone, those who work with biochemistry, and, of course, "other".
Carrie Mae Weems — concerned about how genetics is being used
George Gessert — breeds flowers
Brandon Ballengée — breeds frogs
Eduardo Kac — created the term and pushed the idea of transgenic art
Natalie Jeremijenko — the One Tree project
Alexander Shulgin — Life's work has been synthesizing and taking all Phenethylamines and Tryptamines
Jaron Lanier — cockroach genome tweaking time capsule
Heather Ackroyd/Dan Harvey — GM grass "prints"