Week 3 Response: Bioart and Ethics

Bioart, as defined by the notes in class, encompasses living organisms as a medium for art. The discussion surrounding Alba the transgenic rabbit’s creation caused me to recall a photographer I’ve been interested in for several years. Joel Peter Witkin is one good example of an artist who primarily worked with living organisms as the medium for his experimental photography, but a number of the organisms used for subjects for his photos were deceased. Much of his opus is evocative of life, death, sensuality, and the human body (though Witkin also used animals—living and dead, whole and dismembered). As with the engineering of Alba the rabbit, Witkin’s photography has received scathing criticism from some who question the ethics of using living (or once-living) organisms as subjects for art, be they rabbits or corpses. Witkin’s answer to his critics was that the deceased subjects of his photographs (or, in some cases, limbs of the deceased) were all unclaimed bodies of prisoners in Mexican morgues—while unwanted by society, still useful to him. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Ethics often come into play where animals (as art subjects or experimental subjects) are involved. It’s fair to say that living humans involved as subjects in art or experiments chose of their own volition to participate so there’s no real discussion to be raised about their choices, but the deceased can’t speak for themselves—or so Witkin’s naysayers would claim.

Witkins – “The Kiss” 

While Witkin is a contemporary example of an artist using deceased biological entities for his subjects, he definitely wasn’t the first. It might be prudent to mention that taxidermy seems a distant cousin to Witkin’s photographs, although the practice of taxidermy itself precedes Witkin’s work by around one hundred fifty to two hundred years. Taxidermy’s peak of popularity came around the mid-nineteenth century when it was vogue in England during Queen Victoria’s rule. Walter Potter is a prime example of one of the most well-known taxidermists who used his subjects to portray scenes were his animal subjects were posed in human scenarios. One scene, for example, shows a group of kittens in ruffled dresses sitting at a table having a tea party. Interestingly, there was far less controversy surrounding Potter and his recreations than compared to the criticisms mounted against Witkin and the Kac-Houdebine transgenic rabbit. (Some questions were raised against the ethics and conditions of Potter’s subjects, but that wasn’t until many years after he had become widely-known.)

Potter’s “Kittens’ Tea Party”

Are ethics really the concern here, or are advocates against biological entities as subjects for bioart mainly concerned about the matter of consent from the participants? Ethics being defined as “moral principles” that rule a person’s deeds, it seems fair to say that ethics are only conceptual and not real codes to govern art or science (and bioart). Barring cruel and unusual treatment of animals or deceased subjects and ruling out subjecting them to harsh treatment, why can’t an artist or scientist (or both together) create freely without fingers being pointed and cries of “cruelty” or “ethics” being raised?

Dorian Koehring

(P.S. I’d like to present on week 6’s topic, science fiction, on week 7)

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