Introduction to Bioart

Coming into this class as a fourth-year neuroscience major, and having some experience tinkering with traditional art media, I am very interested in learning about what bioart is. I have been working in a neuroscience lab focusing on neuronal underpinnings of motivated behavior, using techniques including chemogenetic manipulations, fast-scan cyclic voltammetry, and immunofluorescence histology. I first encountered bioart when I was imaging brain tissue. I became fascinated by the colors and the fine detail I could get in pictures, such as in the one below showing a stain for cholinergic neurons in red and cell bodies in blue (own image). I am curious to learn if images like this are more than just pretty pictures, or if they could be considered bioart in the same realm as Alba, the GFP bunny (Kac, “GFP BUNNY”); not just because both pieces involve bioluminescence.  

Source: own image, unpublished

I was intrigued by the section in this week’s reading explaining that bioart is contextual (Hauser, 2008). In first reading this, I thought that bioart is contextual in that bioart literally depends on the context the art was made.  This made me think of how Joe Davis’s E.coli work shines in the context that he is using transgenic E.coli as a potential messenger to extraterrestrial life (Davis, “Microvenus”). When I apply this to an example from my own experience, see below, the colors might not seem to convey much meaning when taken out of context (Collins et al., 2016). However, in the context that this color plot was made using a technique used to measure levels of dopamine in a behaving rat, the colors take on more meaning; the line of green after the dashed line indicates a very high level of dopamine following the presentation of a 2-minute long reward-paired auditory cue. However, upon going more in depth into the characteristics of contextual art, I was struck by the characteristic of bioart to include more than the visual. Perhaps the image below could be considered more contextual if the color plot was shown in real time as the auditory cue was played, or even if other smells and sensations were paired with the picture in a live demonstration. 

Source: Collins et al., 2016

Source: Bakkum et al., 2007

One of the pieces shown in the videos that struck with something I have encountered previously was Symbiotica’s MEART (Bakkum et al., 2007; see above). This robot converts neuronal spikes into strokes of a pencil, yielding a tangible piece of art. This piece reminds me of how some scientific talks might present neuronal activity as sound rather than a diagram. The audience would listen to “blips” in real time, representing when a neuron would fire, rather than look at spikes on a graph. Compared to the strokes of a pen, the blips, seem to make it easier for one to pick out spike patterns. Maybe as a bioartist one would more easily convey a message through audio rather than through writing, or maybe the comparison between the two media might convey different messages, despite coming from the same neurons.  

Sources:

Bakkum, Douglas J., et al. “MEART: The Semi-Living Artist.” Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 2 Nov. 2007, doi:10.3389/neuro.12.005.2007.

Collins, Anne L, et al. “Nucleus Accumbens Acetylcholine Receptors Modulate Dopamine and Motivation.” Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 41, no. 12, 2016, pp. 2830–2838., doi:10.1038/npp.2016.81.

Davis, Joe. “Microvenus.” Art Journal, vol. 55, no. 1, 1996, pp. 70–74., www.jstor.org/stable/777811.

Hauser, Jens. “Observations on an Art of Growing Interest.” Toward a Phenomenological Approach to Art Involving Biotechnology, 2008, pp. 83–98., doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262042499.003.0006.

Kac, Eduardo. “GFP BUNNY.” Rabbit Remix, www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html#gfpbunnyanchor. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.