Sculpted by the Milieu: Frogs as Media

Classifying the artwork of Brandon Ballengée is not an easy task. His eco-actions and participatory survey field trips in the spirit of amateur science, the collecting and conservation of amphibians or other wetland species with deformities and malformations – or promoting the growth of such anomalies in controlled laboratory simulations – his selective breeding and micro-surgery projects to intervene in natural developmental processes, the presentation of these animals either alive, or cleared and stained in a highly aestheticized fashion, or the colourful, oversized and abstract, yet seemingly alive scanner photographs of the specimens’ physiologies, encompass an expansive range of transdisciplinary practices. But between the aims of species preservation and their transformative manipulation is there not an inherent paradox in altering living beings within the context of art for the sake of ecology ? Instead of a taxonomy of apparently obvious traits, only a genealogy in the most Foucauldian sense of digging up the interwoven origins of the still relatively new discipline of the biological sciences helps reveal the fruitfulness of this combined strategy of Eco Art and so-called Bio Art – not unlike the amphibians’ aquatic and terrestrial lives themselves. By refuting the primacy of one of these fields over the other, Ballengée’s artistic and scientific production retraces the various foci of biology as a discipline, sometimes favouring the mesoscopic description of individual organisms, sometimes their macroscopic interaction with the external environment, or the microscopic focus on the inner biochemical and physiological mechanisms and its contemporary extrapolation in the form of technological biofacts.{{A biofact denotes living technological artefacts; it is a neologism introduced by the German philosopher Nicole C. Karafyllis to fuse artifact and bios. A biofact requires the “trick of living material [growing] as natural material, although it is considered technology and is cultivated for specific purpose.” See: Karafyllis, Nicole C. : Biofakte. Versuch über den Menschen zwischen Artefakt und Lebewesen. Paderborn, 2003 ; p. 11-26.}}

The fascination for the microscopic level has seduced the contemporary arts since the 1990s, increasingly subverting biotechnological methodologies and staging a process-based art of transformation in vivo or in vitro that "manipulates biological materials at discrete levels (e.g. individual cells, proteins, genes, nucleotides)"{{Kac, Eduardo (ed.) : Signs of Life. Bio Art and Beyond. Cambridge, 2007 ; p.12.}} and creates displays that allow audiences to experience these organic materials both cognitively and emotionally. Brandon Ballengée’s "art of unnatural selection"{{Ballengée, Brandon : The Art of Unnatural Selection. In: Kac (ed.), op. cit. ; p. 303.}} has often been associated with this recent tendency in art. However, while contemporary artists who have adopted tissue engineering, neurophysiology, transgenesis or the synthesis of artificially-produced DNA sequences etc. as new artistic tools have frequently been said to resist simulation and computer culture in order to introduce a re-materialized form of post-digital Media Art, Ballengée’s holistic practice may be considered Media Art in its most historically relevant form. In the epistemological sense, his work recontextualizes and combines various senses of what the term media has historically signified in relation to biology : 1) media in the sense of milieu, that denotes the maintenance in and exposure to physical substrate, or the interaction within an environment or Umwelt ; 2) media in the sense of means, as a technical tool of material or informational transformation that does something; and, 3) media in the sense of measure, including devices and strategies of analysis and perception. As we will see, these different senses of media also accompany the evolution of biology as a discipline itself.

Since the polarizing dichotomy between Darwinism and Lamarckism has largely dominated popular discourse on biology – emphasizing their divergent positions regarding the inheritance of acquired characteristics, while indeed much of their knowledge overlaps – purportedly make-or-break dichotomies have been propagated : innate genetic factors versus environmental factors, the central genetic dogma versus current epigenetic findings in cellular networks, bottom-up-approach versus top-down-approach, or, as an applied example, genetic research into obesity versus nutrition education programs. Generally, two main features come into play: the organisms’ plasticity and variation. It can be argued that Lamarckist thought centrally addresses "variation whereas a Darwinian approach is an approach of variability. The first unfolds in time, the second in space",{{Loison, Laurent : Qu’est que le Néolamarckisme ? Les Biologistes Français et la Question de l’Evolution des Espèces. Paris, 2010 ; p. 10-11.}} so that the former is seen as focusing more on individual organisms’ plasticity while being exposed to their environment over a given lifetime, while the latter focuses on trans-individual genetic variety effects in populations and generations being spatially separated. Brandon Ballengée’s approach does not make ideological comments or choices in this debate but, rather, encompasses both positions, against the backdrop of today’s ecological and environmental challenges.

In the artist’s earlier biological projects, there has been a reversal of Darwinian fatalism, when he speaks of his undertaking as an "art of unnatural selection". In Species Reclamation Via a Non-linear Genetic Timeline – An Attempted Hymenochirus Curtipes Model Induced by Controlled Breeding, Ballengée has tried to phenotypically recreate a species of African aquatic frog believed to be extinct, using closely-related extant species by "resurfacing" historically described physical traits. However, in an open empirical setting, he also played on the individual organism’s plasticity by varying the degree of light exposure, temperature or pH fluctuation, and observed possible changes in breeding rates, limb length, skin texture, or even behavioural aspects, over a time span of up to ten generations – "I consider them to be the actual artworks."{{Ballengée, op. cit. ; p. 305-306.}}

Can artists enrich biodiversity ?

The inherent biotechnoromanticism of such a "Noah's ark spirit" harbours the illusion that new technology might hopefully be able to undo damage to the environment caused by past human technologies. When Ballengée began performing microsurgeries and employing techniques of mechanical disruption in development, the goal was to study how amphibians "overdo repair" by hyper-compensation in the regenerative tissues or building of multiple limbs. Features of deformity found during field trips are re-created in the laboratory. Although within the context of an art and science project, these manipulations are not being carried out for the sake of an aesthetic effect – "it’s too easy to create monsters", Ballengée says. But his practice joins the ancient tradition of scientific teratology initiated in the 18th century by French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a colleague of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck who defended his evolutionary theories. Teratology became a medical science studying animal anomalies, dealing with the causes, mechanisms, and manifestations of developmental deviations of either a structural or functional nature, while abstracting from their supposed mythological or religious charge and therefore revolutionizing concepts inherited from Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Teratogenesis regards phenomena as bio indicators, as do Ballengée and his scientific partners when they compare effects that can be either caused by internal factors or by external influences from the environment : "Frogs are modelled and sculpted by the environment!"

For this reason amphibians such as frogs have long been considered a reliable indicator of eco-systemic balance, sensitive to environmental degradation and pollution, especially in their larval form. Their skins are particularly permeable, they readily absorb toxic residues and are sensitive to pesticide and other contamination, UV radiation, temperature and acidity. But, they are also easily affected by competitors, predators, parasites and diseases. Ballengée’s longest ongoing project MALAMP, or Malformed Amphibian Project, is most significant in that it tests the malicious interactions between the studied organisms and their predators and parasites, thus shifting the focus of attention from the direct effects of biochemical substrates to indirect population based effects, from physiology to ecology and back again. Ballangée and his collaborator Stanley K. Sessions have observed that predation induced injury may cause an array of abnormalities.{{Ballengée, Brandon and Sessions Stanley K.: Explanation for missing limbs in deformed amphibians. In: Journal of Experimental Zoology, 312B, 2009 ; p. 1-10.}} In short, frogs serve as a means to measure the complexity of the milieu.

In a certain way, Ballengée’s eco art echoes still perceptible lineages in the development of the biological sciences and the role of media in this epistemological process. Both Leo Spitzer{{Spitzer, Leo : Milieu and Ambiance. An Essay in Historical Semantics. In: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1942 ; p. 169-218.}} and Georges Canguilhem{{Canguilhem, Georges : La Connaissance de la vie. Paris, 1952.}} have painstakingly traced the origins of the concept of the milieu as intermediate point or place – without which today’s concept of media cannot be understood – back to its first use in Newtonian physics before it was adopted and extended by early biologists. When Lamarck coined the modern term “biology” he assumed that changes in the milieu cause changes in organisms that would progressively adapt and increase their complexity, as internal and external milieu correspond.{{Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de : Philosophie Zoologique. Paris, 1809.}} Darwin, in his quest for the origin of species, was then less interested in the relationships between organisms and their ambient milieu than between organisms among each other, in inheritance and variability. Later, Claude Bernard{{Bernard, Claude : Introduction a l'étude de la médecine expérimentale. Paris, 1865.}} distinguishes the milieu intérieur and the milieu extérieur cosmique, stating that the former achieves independence from the external by becoming a technomorph machinery with self-controlling organization. Physiology was becoming more and more fashionable, as was the search for the origins of inheritance and variability within this inner "machinery". Yet, milieu theory was not dead but unfolded into more complex and functional subject/environment relational models.

These models, in turn, lead to our contemporary concept of ecology, or even to bio-semiotic models, such as first proposed by Jakob Johann von Uexküll,{{Von Uexküll, Jakob Johann : Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. Berlin, 1909.}} who conceded even more agency to organisms in building up their very own environments, now called Umwelt. Indeed, with the rapid molecular turn taken in the field of biology since the second half of the 20th century, reductionist methods increasingly look at biochemical causality on the micro-scale. Biotechnologies extrapolate their logics ; organisms as means become programmed production machines for specific purposes, be it GMOs or knock-out lab mice as guinea pigs. Organisms, or their parts, also become measuring devices in and of themselves – think of the GFP biomarker technique or of gel electrophoresis or biochips – they are, as Eugene Thacker describes, biomedia.{{Thacker, Eugene : Biomedia. Minneapolis, 2004.}}

Brandon Ballengée’s frogs, too, are living measuring devices. The idea that one organism can be used as an instance of measurement is not new. Especially the frog has a long history when we think of early electro-biology of the 18th century.{{On the history of "the frog as a medium" see: Rieger, Stefan: Der Frosch – ein Medium ? In: Münker, Stefan and Roesler, Alexander (Ed.): Was ist ein Medium? Frankfurt a. M., 2008 ; p. 285-303.}} Galvani, for instance, interpreted animal electricity in the Vitalist sense as an inner force of life energy and wanted to prove that it was not just a phenomenon of conductivity. Volta, in turn, was fascinated by the low level of outer energy to which frogs reacted – therefore, he employed frogs as living electrometers.{{Pera, Marcello : The Ambigious Frog. The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity. Princeton, 1992.}} Later, in the middle of the 19th century, Carlo Matteuci constructed a "physiological rheoscope" in which the bioelectricity of one frog served to measure the electricity of another frog, and even of animals of the same species such as electric fish.{{See: Rothschuh, Karl E. : Aus der Frühzeit der Elektrobiologie. In: Elektromedezin und ihre Grenzgebiete. Zeitschrift für Klinik und Praxis einschließlich Elektropathologie. Vol. 4, No. 6, 1959 ; p. 201-217.}} If Ballengée’s choice of frogs as medium and historical site for knowledge production has a long tradition, it is telling that he began his research around 1996, within the context of the Human Genome Project, which was then about to be completed, without ever employing genetic engineering as a method himself. Likewise, his interest in the most complex species interaction, be it parasites or predators, rather than focusing on bio-chemical impacts or genetic mutation, stem from the same motivation : to confront the contemporary hype of bio-logics at the microscopic scale with a mesoscopic one in the line of taxonomy, and with a macroscopic ecological perspective – in a time marked by the trend to look at organisms mainly through the lens of anthropocentric appropriation of the inner mechanisms of the living.

Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who always fought for a fruitful exchange between the arts and the sciences, once said: "Although the research work of the artist is rarely as systematic as that of the scientist they both may deal with the whole of life, in terms of relationships, not of details. In fact, the artist today does so more consistently than the scientist, because with each of his works he faces the problem of the interrelated whole, while only a few theoretical scientists are allowed this luxury of a total vision."{{Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo : The Function of Art. In: Kostelanetz, Richard: Esthetics Contemporary. New York, 1989 ; p. 68. Reprinted from Vision in Motion, Chicago, 1946.}} Likewise, Brandon Ballengée’s work encourages, symbolically and effectively, a holistic and systemic view he wishes to share with the most diverse audiences and multiplies the ways to reach, touch and engage them.

A first version of this text was published in: Cravero, Claudio (ed.) : Praeter Naturam. Brandon Ballengée. Turin, 2010. P. 38-41.