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Human Biotechnology in Art & Culture: A List

August 1st, 2004

Below we show examples of modern artistic and cultural work addressing or incorporating the new human genetic technologies.

Overview and analysis

Exhibits, galleries, and festivals

Film

Television

Music

Performance and experiential art

Literature: literary and pop fiction

Literature: children's literature

Radical art in opposition to eugenic technologies

Transgenic and transhuman art

Cloning humor

Overview and analysis

Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York (2004). Review at:
http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/2004/06/10/genomic_portraits.php

Steven Henry Madoff, "The Wonders of Genetics Breed a New Art," New York Times (May 26, 2002) - an important overview
http://www.ekac.org/nytimes.html

Jordan Lite, "Artists Mine Genetics," Wired (May 13, 2000) - an early overview article
http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,36288,00.html

Lists of artists, books, films and other works engaging human genetic technologies:

Website for "Genetics and Culture: from molecular music to transgenic art," a course given at the UCLA School of Media Arts
http://www.viewingspace.com/genetics-culture.htm

Extensive links can be found on the websites for:

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Exhibits, galleries, and festivals

Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution was a major exhibit of works by more than 40 artists that focused on implications of the new human genetic technologies. First shown in New York City in 2001, it toured through Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Dallas between summer 2002 and July 2003.
http://www.genomicart.org/pn-home.htm

Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics was aa major exhibit organized by the Henry Art Galley in Seattle, where it opened in April, 2002. It moved on to Berkeley, Minneapolis and Evanston, IL.
http://www.gene-sis.net

The Ars Electronica Festivals for 2000 and 2001, held in Germany since 1981, focused on genetic and biotechnology issues. They were accused of encouraging eugenic values.

Unnatural Science, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts in 2000 and 2001 included a number of pieces that touched upon genetic engineering, including Thomas GrĂĽnfeld's Misift and Gary Schneider's Genetic Self-Portrait.
http://www.massmoca.org/visual_arts/past_exhibitions/visual_arts_past_2000.html

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Film

Human genetic modification has been the central theme of several Hollywood films.

An archival list of films with human genetics or cloning themes
http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/clone.html#clone-movies

"A Futurist at the Movies" by Josh Calder lists and discusses movies that involve cloning, genetic engineering, biotechnology and other topics.
http://www.futuristmovies.com/intro/introduction.html

"Screening DNA: Exploring the Cinema-Genetics Interface" by Stephen Nottingham
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Stephen_Nottingham/DNA1.htm

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Television

Dark Angel - This television sci-fi drama starring Jennifer Alba ran for two seasons
between 2000 and 2002.
http://www.darkangelfan.com

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Music

Little popular or art music has drawn on human genetic engineering for theme or inspiration. An exception might be electronica / techno, which through its sounds, artwork, and experience emphasizes moving "beyond the limits of human" through a merging with the technological.

Steve Mizrach, "An ethnomusicological investigation of Techno/Rave"
http://www.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/housemus.html

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Performance and experiential art

Stelarc is an Australian performance artist committed to the re-engineering of the human body
http://www.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/stelarc.html

Creative Time sponsers a public art project that provides individuals with the information and forms to copyright their own DNA
http://www.creativetime.org/
dnaid/copyright.html

Natalie Bookchin and Action tank have created an online virtual game that serves as a critique of genetic engineering and corporate culture.
http://www.metapet.net

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Literature: literary and pop fiction

A large body of both literary and popular fiction makes themes of human genetic modification central.

In Margaret Atwood's 2003 book, Oryx and Crake, the future is bleak. The triple whammy of runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. As Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to the RejoovenEsencecompound for supplies, the reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event, its full dimensions gradually revealed.
http://www.oryxandcrake.co.uk/

J.R. Lankford, The Jesus Thief, Great Reads Books, 2003, is about an attempt to clone Jesus from DNA in the Shroud of Turin
http://www.thejesusthief.com/

James BeauSeigneur's In His Image, Warner Books, 2003, is the first of a trilogy about cloning Jesus from DNA in the Shroud of Turin.
http://www.armageddonbooks.com/clone.html

Nancy Kress's "Beggars Trilogy" is one of the most thoughtful and extensive considerations of the social and political divisions that may result from eugenic engineering. One review describes it as "a story of biological advantages and the complex maneuverings of society to adjust itself around the cataclysmic changes resulting from genetic manipulation." http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/fantasy_and_science_fiction/18597

In her 2002 novel The Secret, Eva Hoffman blends science fiction and philosophy to tell the story of a young girl's quest for identity after she learns she is a clone of her mother. The novel reflects on the challenges posed by contemporary science to our deepest notions of subjectivity and human nature.

The Star Trek series includes volumes 1 and 2 of The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox. In the books, we learn of Star Trek villain Khan's plan to genetically engineer perfect humans (dubbed the "Chrysalis Project") and take over the world. Interestingly, both volumes include afterwards with historical references.

Several science fiction anthologies focusing on genetic engineering and cloning have been published.

  • Clones - edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Ace Books 1998
  • Genometry - edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Ace Books 2001
  • Not of Woman Born - edited by Constance Ash, ROC books 1999

Greg Bear's novel Darwin's Radio explores the future of human evolution, taking a pro-eugenic position. In a 1999 interview, he describes the human future: "Nanotechnology and biotechnology point toward a time, not too far off, when we can have complete control of our bodies and even of the way we think. These choices lead to some fascinating possibilities, including designer bodies and designer minds—the rather disturbing notion of fashion adopting the bio-sciences!"
http://www.randomhouse.com/delrey/promo/bear/

Aldous Huxley's famous dystopic portrait of the future, Brave New World, is often cited as uncomfortably predictive of the eugenic future we may be heading towards with the new biotechnologies.

A comprehensive list of literature and fiction dealing with genetic technologies
http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/clone.html

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Literature: children's literature

The degree to which human genetic engineering themes have penetrated the culture is seen in the way they are treated in children's literature.

The Replica series by Marilyn Kaye for 9-12 year old girls features a young clone named Amy as the heroine. There are 24 books in the series, which deals with such dark themes as a eugenic future populated by children cloned to be "spare parts" for their parents and super scientists intent on creating a master race to take over the world.
http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/0553487493.asp

 

Non-fiction children's literature includes Cloning: Frontier of Genetic Engineering, by David Jefferies. It is intended for 9-12 year olds and presents cloning and genetically modified humans as desirable and inevitable.

Radical art in opposition to eugenic technologies

Some radical artists and collectives have focused on human genetic technology themes.

The Critical Art ensemble explores the "intersections between art, technology, radical politics and Critical Theory." They have created several websites that act as parodies of the destructive ideologies of biotechnology: Flesh Machine, The Society for Reproductive Anachronism, Cult of the New Eve, and Genterra.
http://www.critical-art.net/

Steve Kurtz, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo campus of the State University of New York and an activist artist who has worked with the Critical Art ensemble, has attempted to provoke debate about genetic research with installations that use bacteria and DNA. In 2004, he was arrested under the U.S. Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which prohibits the use of certain biological materials for anything other than a "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."
http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,63637,00.html
http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/fbi-buffalo.cfm

GenoChoice is a website that parodies the eugenic future in which parents can design their own children by allowing visitors to "create your own genetically healthy child online."
http://www.genochoice.com/

Diana Ludin: Genetic Response System 3.0
http://www.turbulence.org/Works/genresponse/index.html

Sarah Diamond: (Un)Free Radicals Towards a Manifesto of Shared Risk
http://www.itaucultural.org.br/invencao/papers/Diamond.htm

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Transgenic and transhuman art

Eduardo Kac commissioned French scientists to create a transgenic rabbit carrying jellyfish genes that enabled its fur to glow green under ultraviolet light, and sparked much publicity and press comment concerning transgenic arts.
http://www.ekac.org/

Natasha Vita-More works through the Extropy Institute to promote extropic art . She wrote the Extropic Art Manifesto in 1989,
http://www.natasha.cc

The Transhuman Web Alliance website contains extensive material on transhuman arts
http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Art/

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Cloning humor

The topic of cloning reflexively elicits joking behavior, in a way that most genetic, reproductive, medical or scientific procedures do not. Why is this?

A web site of cloning cartoons
http://cagle.slate.msn.com/news/cloning/1.asp

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