A New Perspective in the Laboratory

Hello! My name is Jennifer, and I am a fourth year majoring in Psychobiology. Though I was always interested in art when I was younger, I was never exposed to any artistic medium beyond still life and pencil on paper. I saw art as an entirely separate domain from the scientific and medical career that I wanted to pursue. When I decided to come to UCLA to study biology, I left both my hometown of San Jose and my artistic endeavors behind. As I hear about the different artists, I am beginning to realize that there does not exist a firm line separating biology from the arts, but that exploring one can lead to a greater insight into the other.

My first lab experience was in breeding Drosophila lines so that the inserted green fluorescent protein (GFP) genes in the fruit flies’ heart systems could be illuminated. This fluorescence was a tool for me to investigate developmental mutations.



Source: GFP fluorescence in Drosophila melanogaster, own image.

Before last week, I had never heard of Eduardo Kac. I had never even particularly considered the artistic, ethical, or aesthetic role of GFP transgenic organisms. Fluorescent animals were functional. This is an idea that Kac specifically revolts against, identifying the distinct responsibilities that arise from his GFP Bunny Alba (Kac). His distancing of Alba from just a breeding outcome or a scientific object became an argument for her to be cared for irrespective of her nature as a hybrid, transgenic animal—a stark difference from my GFP flies, which the lab disposed of immediately. His work carries the theme of using biological components to confront broader ethnical issues in genetic engineering (Hauser 8). I regret that I did not have a greater appreciation for the GFP flies that I worked with. By using and discarding the animals, I was inadvertently contributing to the culture surrounding transgenic animals that Kac took objection with.



Source: Other GFP organisms that have been engineered since Kac's “GFP Bunny” Alba, from http://www.pnas.org/content/106/25/10073/F10.expansion.html

Another bio-artist whose work struck me was Christian Bök, who embedded poetry into sequences of bacteria DNA to form living poetry (Redmond). His words now take on a life of their own, not only thriving in a living archive but also writing and rewriting itself through the course of the organism’s existence. Genomic insertions are not new to me, either. However, I have used it as a functional tool in flies and rats without ever considering the fact that they become independent, living creatures.



Source:
Cover of The Xenotext when encoded in DNA, from The Found Poetry Review (http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/xenotext-cover.jpg)


From just these two artists in my initial foray into BioArts, I can see that there is an entire artistic discourse behind even laboratory procedures or techniques that I have inadvertently been a part of. I am excited to learn what role art can continue to interact with and shape my relationship to science, and I hope that I continue to gain a more nuanced understanding of the vast potential in the shared space of these two domains.


Citations:

Bök, Christian. “The Xenotext Works.” The Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/the-xenotext-works. Accessed 8 April 2017.

Hauser, Jens. “Observations on an Art of Growing Interest: Towards a Phenomenological Approach to Art Involving Biotechnology.” Tactical Biopolitics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Kac, Eduardo. “GFP Bunny.” KAC, www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html. Accessed 9 April 2017.

Redmond, Sean and Darrin S. Verhagen. “Of Microbes and Machines: How Art and Science Fus in Bio-Art.” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/06/arts/bio-art-microbes-and-machines. Accessed 7 April 2017.

Walden, Stephanie. “BioArt: Is It Art? Is It Science? Is It the Future?” Mashable, mashable.com/2013/10/29/cutpastegrow-bioart. Accessed 9 April 2017.