Week 2 Response / Exploration of Genetic Modification in Art

In the second chapter of Information Arts, Stephen Wilson defines bioethics as a series of questions regarding advances in biology and medicine, including the morality of genetic manipulation and the consequences of such practices (Wilson 59). He continues by noting the role that artists can serve as commentators on cultural development, and how an understanding and even a direct involvement in science is useful for approaching these contemporary questions.

One artwork discussed in last week’s lecture that explores the ethics of genetic modification is Eduardo Kac’s “GFP Bunny”, one of several living “Bio Art” by him. GFP Bunny utilizes molecular biology, integrating the green fluorescent gene from a jellyfish into rabbit DNA to produce “Alba,” an albino rabbit that glows bright green under a blue light. The work consists not only of creating this transgenic animal, but also the dialogue prompted by the artwork, and the social integration of Alba.

Kac, Eduardo. GFP Bunny. 2000. Photograph. http://ekac.org/gfpbunny.html#gfpbunnyanchor

Kac stresses that “GFP Bunny” is not a simply breeding project or an art object. Rather, the work is about examining the very processes of creating Alba, introducing her to the public, and integrating her into Kac’s home where she can live out a happy, healthy life. He asserts that transgenic life must be made “with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created,” that genetic modification demands responsibility, and that artists and scientists who practice it bear a duty to treat their creations as well as any living being.

Another work from lecture that explores the ethics and consequences of genetic modification is the 1997 film Gattaca, which presents a fictional futuristic, dystopian society in which genetic manipulation and profiling produces discrimination. Individuals such as Vincent, conceived naturally without the aid of genetic selection agencies, are pronounced “in-valids,” looked down upon for their greater susceptibility to genetic “disorders” and assigned the bottom rung of the social ladder where they occupy menial jobs. “Valids” are expected to fully live up to the promises of their selected genes, and the stigma against those who fail is strong. The mindset that perfect genes have no option but success is so strongly held by characters such as Jerome. Failing to take home the gold at a swimming competition, he feels he has nothing left to live for and attempts suicide, and later agrees to become a “borrowed ladder” for Vincent. Irene is a valid, yet her risk of heart failure prevents her from embarking on Gattaca’s space missions.

Each of the main characters experience some sort of conflict due to the system of eugenics presented in the film. While Vincent’s struggle to go to space is the most obvious, even the valids with their supposedly “superior” altered genes face obstacles: Irene has heart problems, Anton nearly drowns twice playing chicken with Vincent, and Jerome is paralyzed by his suicide attempt. As Vincent notes, “there is no gene for fate,” reflecting the film’s overall stance on real-world scientific and technological advances in genetics. Gattaca suggests that modifying genes cannot fully eliminate chance and control the outcome of individual lives. Like Kac’s “GFP Bunny,” the film discusses the need for caution and protection of living beings’ rights in an age of scientific exploration and possibility.

– Dorothy Boyd

(Signed up for Week 8, presenting Week 9)

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