Can’t We Just Be Friends? Moderation Applied to Bio Art

The topic this week is a controversial one. Who is allowed to manipulate genetic materials for art purposes, and how far do we let “citizen scientists” take their work?

While there are certainly risks in giving the general public access to scientific materials, I have always been a strong believer in “everything in moderation”. Someone could theoretically create a bio-terrorist weapon or an invasive species in their personal lab, but I think that with clearly communicated limitations and reasonable enforcement these threats could easily be avoided.

The Steve Kurtz case for example was blown massively out of proportion by the FBI. The samples collected from his home were declared harmless a week after the arrest, but he was kept in court for four years after as prosecutors tried all kinds of tactics to incriminate the man, including charging him with using mail and wire fraud to get the harmless bacteria.

Click here to read more on the Steve Kurtz case!

I believe that artists and citizens alike should be able to access scientific equipment without a fiasco breaking out. Plenty of artists and companies use bio materials in their work and research without any harm. One of my favorite pieces involving bio art is a movie poster we looked at in a previous media class. Warner Brothers Canada created a living poster for their infectious disease thriller Contagion. Once installed in the storefront, the bacteria gradually grew into colorful yet disturbing designs that advertised the film.

I am such a huge fan of this work because it adds much more to the experience than an image you can look at once. It was a very smart move from an advertising standpoint because after it is first installed, the bacteria haven’t grown to a visual size yet. Passersby wonder, “Why is there a blank white space where the film’s name should be?” This creates an invested interest early on. When these same people walk by the same spot at a later time, they start to see bits of bacterial growth start to appear. This engages the viewer’s curiosity in the long term as the word “Contagion” and several bio hazard symbols appear very gradually.

Folks should be free to use bio materials in their work, provided that they do so safely. How would we know that that’s the case? I believe in thorough inspections for safety, but such that the artist or company in question does not feel inhibited by these inspections, and that the inspections themselves are under review to assure that they are not discriminatory, personally invasive, or incriminating in  nature. Again I bring the old adage “everything in moderation” to the forefront. Artists and companies should be very careful to thoroughly research any possible outcomes of their projects and take great care to execute them in the safest and most cleanly way possible. Safety inspectors and other regulators responsible for public health need to be aware of these projects and assist the artist in their execution, not look for any loophole to shut the project down. Perhaps I am being too optimistic of my fellow man, but I think that if both parties are diligent, respectful, and unassuming, there’s no reason that bio materials can’t become an extremely engaging medium for expression.

~ Gabi J.

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