An Uncomfortable Synthesis of Art and Biology

Posted by Pete Shanks May 26, 2011
Biopolitical Times

An exhibit called Synth-ethic, at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, opened on May 14 and runs through June 26. It's described in the overview as intended to convey "a glimpse into Synthetic Biology and its potential societal ramifications through an artists' point of view." New Scientist had an introductory write-up, and there is much more on the official exhibit website.

For example, "The Semi-Living Worry Dolls" (pictured) are "tissue-engineered sculptures cultured live under micro-gravitational conditions" and said to "thematize the anxieties brought about by corporate biotechnology and eugenics."

The genderless figures represent the current stage of cultural limbo: a stage characterized by childlike innocence and a mixture of wonder and fear of technology. But in light of the current trend toward synthetic biology, the dolls also address the fascination with the precarious border between life and non-life, as well as with its artificial synthesis.

The exhibit is part of the Bio:Fiction Science, Art & Film Festival, which opened on May 13 and 14 with a program of short films. That drew a notice in Science, and was accompanied by panel discussions about synthetic biology. The J. Craig Venter Institute was represented, as was DIYBio, along with academics from around the world.

The films themselves are almost all on-line. Of those I have sampled, some are conventional documentaries, such as a discussion of patents that includes interviews with Jay Keasling, George Church, Drew Endy and more. Others are satirical, for instance a commercial for the "perfect body" ("real feelings guaranteed") whose "bottom spring collection" is shot to resemble soft porn. And some are whimsical fiction, like this dialog-free drama.

One of the prize-winners, Echromi, describes the winner of the 2009 iGEM competition, a bacterium that changes color in the presence of pollutants, and then extrapolates the technology. By 2069, they suggest, Google is releasing biosensors into the atmosphere that turn red in the presence of CO2:

"Red sky in the morning, Google Health warning."

This is by no means the first exhibition to focus on modern biology; see here for a large, and somewhat outdated, list. But it's certainly one of the more elaborate. Funding for this extravaganza came largely from GEN-AU (the Austrian genome research program), the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Life Technologies.

The curators note that "apparently the idea of synthesis in biology…makes us feel uncomfortable" and stress Kantian questions about "correct moral behavior." But it certainly seems that the gee-whiz outweighs the concerns. "Is synthesis actually 'unnatural'?" they ask. "Doesn't the silk worm synthesize too?"

Previously on Biopolitical Times: