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Biotechnologie as Mediality: Strategies of Organic Media Art

Biotechnologie as Mediality: Strategies of Organic Media Art

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Art that utilizes diverse biotechnological methods as new media of expression in its actual practice is today often being referred to as bio art.1 This catchword has appeared within a still unclear post-digital paradigm, and may be seen as a polysemic placeholder, including its own evolution and mutation. Currently, it first and foremost denotes an ephemeral and process based art of transformation in vivo or in vitro that manipulates “biological material at discrete levels – be it cells, proteins, genes or nucleotides – creating displays which allow audiences to partake of them emotionally and cognitively.”2 Artistic strategies that conceive of biotechnology as mediality are also indicators for a larger tendency in art: Re-materialization and de-image-ing characterize emerging forms in which performativity is central, and in which associated paratexts play an increasing role in giving the art works a presence.

Wetware art – in reference to hard- and software based art – raises the question to what degree a priori non-image producing biotechnological processes can become artistic media, and how they tie into current tendencies in media art. Corresponding to the Foucaultian idea of a progressing miniaturization from physical to physiological scales of today’s invisible « bio-political powers » dominating our bodies, here, satellite-bodies and body fragments are developing within bio art. Defying the visio-centric tradition of Western art, representation of physicality is being superseded by organically constructed and staged presence. The artistic displays are mostly time-based – performatively or diegetically – and offer a holistic perspective on the continuum of life. Their analysis needs to comprise the phenomenological dimensions of perception, and the multi-sensorial aesthetic experience,3 going beyond cognitive comprehension.


Art has often been inspired by scientific paradigms and technologies of its day – from the early avant-garde and its interest in biological regulatory circuits up to internet art, new knowledge and tools have been an object of artistic experimentation – sometimes with more, sometimes less critical distance. But can the life sciences be appropriated?

Bio art can by all means be referred back at least to tendencies in art history of the late 20th century, although the influences seem diverse. While schematically the « blurring of art and life »4 leads through Fluxus, Conceptual Art and Situationism to a “dematerialization of the art object”5 combined with a critique of prevalent institutions and the acceptance of non-object-bound processes, a similar development, when continued in the digital era,6 also affects the reception of biological concepts and their media-artistic transposition into visualized « genetic algorithms », Artificial Life installations and autopoetic systems. These were however primarily based on technological assumptions of information transmission and expressed strong genetic determinism. Art at the interface of the organic and the mechanical finds itself now again confronted with concrete carbon-based matter. In the space of just a few years, in parallel to techno-scientific developments and the end of an unconditional genocentrism, a panorama of  biotechnological methods have been appropriated and subverted in the name of art: transgenesis, cell and tissue cultures, hybridization and selection of animals and plants, homo-transplatation, neuro-physiology, physiological self-experimentation as well as the synthesis of artificially produced DNA sequences have become tools for artists consciously striving to leave behind the paradigms of representation, simulation and metaphor. What has taken the place of a suggested programmability of life mechanisms is not only a verification of those self-same theories with the help of organic material and organisms, but rather the literal mingling of “art and the living“ and with it a general trend towards physicality and bodily perception. It generates presence.

De-image-ing: the production of presence in place of representation

In an age, in which the techno-sciences themselves have become potent producers of aesthetic images,7 the use of biotechnological processes as means of expression in bio art has no prime depictive function, even if it does occasionally bring forth one or the other effective publicity icon – Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny may be the most prominent example. Bio art distances itself from the assumption made on the comparability of scientific and artistic images as proclaimed in the context of the iconic or pictorial turn.8 It defies referential representativeness and simulation, such as that which characterizes the understanding of biological systems in digital media art. When analyzing these “living images”, we must ask ourselves whether the artists involved are actively contributing to the process of knowledge, thereby making rival use of the “epistemological power of the image”9 – or whether they see their role instead in the subversive questioning of dominant concepts and dogmas, and thereby also their modes of representation. What seems to point to this de-image-ing, which should also be regarded as often subversive, is the ironic approach that wetwork-centered artists have towards visualization technologies such as functional magnet-resonance tomography, GFP-protein localization or gel-electrophoresis.

Bio art is to a large degree based on the staging of authenticity. This takes place simultaneously both through imparted knowledge of the underlying processes, as well as through the organic presence, which the viewer comes into contact with and which with he sensually or multi-sensorially accomplishes an affective visualization of a metonymic corporeal projection. The specific aesthetic experience is partially based on the “production of presence”.10 Theories on contextual art11 also apply to bio art when it doesn’t involve visually reproducible images to analyze hermeneutically, but impressions of self-experimentation, taste, hearing, touch, etc, in other words: the “oscillation between the effects of presence and the effects of meaning.” 12


Re-materialization in bio art does not conceptually entail a relapse into object-centered art. It is mostly about the enacting of transformational processes of a temporary nature, not about the conservable final products. Many artists choose performative forms of presentation that display biotechnologies in relation to their philosophical, political and economic parameters. The underlying dialectical relationship between actual presence and metaphorical representation is comparable to that of performance art: while the theatrical actor metaphorically em-bodies a role, the performer contributes his/her own body, identity and biography – on the side of the recipient this creates a singular physical, emotional field of tension between the possible modalities of perceiving the action. Similarly the observer of bio art must shift between the symbolic artistic space and the “real life” of the presented processes suggested by the organic presence. These processes draw their significance not only as semiotic cultural signs, but also through their own performativity, which suggest to the recipient the existence of a “bodily co-presence” through the materiality of the presentation.

After a phase of dematerialization in (media) art, bio art is contributing to an artistic tendency that increasingly reconsiders physicality for use as a battleground for bio-political debate. In doing so it is drawing the interest of a growing number of artists active in the field of body art. The structural affinity between the two fields is not to be overlooked, for in the conservation or presentation a posteriori of the often ephemeral projects there are a range of similarities between body and bio art: they either survive as film, photo or video documents, as traces such as poster or flyers, or in the form of material remains or physical remnants, which then synecdotically refer back to the process. In this context the question of “un-presentability” arises: on the one hand bio art defies reproducibility, on the other hand it postulates the importance of direct presence – and is therefore usually read and interpreted via “over-semantization” as secondary text or paratext.

Bio art as paratext – the paratexts of bio art

In spite if their marginalized and still largely undefined status, protagonists in the field of bio art become socially accepted producers of epistemological discourses  – paradoxically, so far only a very restricted audience has experienced such biotechnological artistic displays concretely in an exhibit or performance situation. And yet this art fulfills a strong agenda setting function in the public eye. Bio art reflects the zeitgeist and is brought up as a wildcard in public discourse. This interest, which does not genuinely develop out of the realm of art itself, culminates in interdisciplinary conferences, events by biomedical groups or thinktanks.

Here, Gérard Genette’s formula of paratextual analysis,13 originally designed as a philological tool, is well suited in that it can be transposed onto a complex, inter-medial concept of work beyond that of a text in the narrower sense of the word.14 It lends itself well to the understanding of bio art, because it clarifies the thus far prevalent problem of reception: this art today would be, in Genette’s paratextual terms, comparable to a book that almost no one has read, but which the wider public has heard about, thanks to its paratexts (mainly reproduced images and reviews). Genette defines paratexts as an equation: Paratext = peritext + epitext. The peritext includes elements inside the confines of the aesthetic object (artist’s name, titles, notes of intention, dedications, epigraphs); the epitext denotes elements outside the aesthetic object (reviews, interviews, public responses, media coverage, symposia, letters).

So far existing analyses have mostly been based on discourses, declarations of intent or indirect media response. Mediated reception clearly dominates through epitexts. In this situation, artists construct an often inscrutable substructure of paratexts on multiple levels of reception – as peritexts – or react to external, public epitexts and integrate them in turn, so that the paratextual organization significantly determines the aesthetic object itself.

Biotechnology as mediality

Bio art has an indicatory function for a broader shift of paradigms. It does not permit itself to be nailed down with an unambiguous conceptual, material or procedural definition as its medium. In contrast to the means employed in digital media art, biotechnologies have not yet been democratized. Purely technical media definitions fail to properly reflect the diverse possibilities of utilizing biotechnological processes in art. Information technological notions of biomedia,15 which explain bio-informatics and bio-computing as information carriers of similar systems of data transformation prove to be of only limited use in the context of art. If for example the encoding of visual icons or text fragments in DNA is still relevant for artists within the genetic paradigm, then the artistic practice of i.e Tissue Culture demands a media definition that is not based on this kind of information theory.

The media terminology hereby not only refers to the material medium but to its mediation within a context. The spectrum is wide: while some artists may emphasize biotechnologies as information-transmitters in self-referential installations or manufacture organic sculptures, other “tactical media” artists define their politically motivated actions with wetware as a direct exertion of influence on public discourse and media reality. It is significant how in bio art the specific intermedial function between artist and recipient can be characterized, since “the mediality of the arts must not be identified by the status of their images but in the execution of the operations”.16 The question of inter-mediality in bio art also contains in it the question as to the self-definition of the artist – be it in the acquisition of a partial double qualification, delegating certain processes to scientists, or in the temptation of the latter to address the “art system” themselves. These processes of research and the often tedious elaboration of ideas also influence the modalities of the presentation – in its organic, ephemeral conditionality bio art is performative.

Citer cet article

Jens Hauser, « Biotechnologie as Mediality: Strategies of Organic Media Art », [Plastik] : In vivo, L’artiste en l’œuvre ? #02 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 21 mars 2011, consulté le 16 décembre 2018. URL : ISSN 2101-0323

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