Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology

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Bring me home, please

I can't think of any artist who manages to outdo Adam Zaretsky in the art of combining a somewhat comical approach with a keen reflection on the legal, ethical and social implications of new biotechnological materials and methods.

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Adam Zaretsky buys a pig heart at the Boqueria food market in Barcelona. Image credit, Capsula

Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and the lovely yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact the music had on the bacteria. In case you've never heard of this romantic singer, let me spoil your day with a video of one of his smashing melodies:

Zaretsky is a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts at The Department of the Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He's a bioartist, performer, researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world, including the MIT's Department of Biology, the Conceptual/Information Arts department at San Francisco State University, SymbioticA at The University of Western Australia and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Integrated Electronic Arts Department.

As you might remember, Zaretsky teaches Vivoarts, an emerging and politically charged field that brings together art and biology, at the University of Leiden (NL.) The Vivoarts: Biology and Art Studio course explores the intersection between art and biology and discusses the many cultural issues involved in bioart -and more generally in the field of life sciences- through a blend of hands-on laboratory protocols, critical readings, and the production of contemporary artwork. The ethics of producing living art are debated and made more tangible and understandable by the use of living material/organisms into the class final projects.

I posted it last year already but in case you haven't seen it yet, here's 'Dangerous Liaisons', a short documentary on his class at Leiden University:

And here's part 2 and part 3.

Zaretsky believes that we should "embrace our visceral and experimental mutant kindred. Life is not perfectionism. Life includes the open, onanistic and seemingly unacceptable faces of radical variation." As he states:

If I am a representative of any ideology, it leans towards appreciation of Full Breadth Genetic Alterity. If we are in the process of engaging in auto-evolution, then diversity, the inherent biological love of difference, implies that the human genome should be engineered with as wide a range of genre humans as there are art movements and swanky tastes in the world. Posthuman integrity is only guaranteed by an expanded aesthetics of anatomy, the more obscure the better... ! Let's alter our identity as a species by birthing versions of ourselves into every permutative potential of fleshbound imagination. Let's have a punk banquet of anatomy, a buffet of new senses, fancy new and multiple genital-orifice smorgasbords and the mad collage of multi-species brains. If we are to go this route, let's not start by being monocultural, paternalistic snotbags with assumed distinction ruling over the aesthetics of betterment. We must be done with the rhetoric of human enhancement.

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powerFARM :: Woodstock, NY. Adding DMSO for Crypreservation. Still from video

I had the pleasure to share panels with Adam Zaretsky several times. The most recent was Media Art in the Age of Transgenics, Cloning, and Genomics, an event that the lovely rhizome people had invited me to curate. Now that i've finally recovered from the surprise he made us by starting his presentation with an extract from a biotech porn video he was working on, i feel that it is high time to 1. invent an opportunity to share another glorious event with him somewhere on this planet before it implodes 2. blog an online Q & A i had with him so that you can get to know him better. I focused this short interview on the work he has been doing in The Netherlands.

The experiments you describe in the video took place in the context of an avian embryology lab for non-scientists at Leiden University. How much knowledge did the participants have of biotech before they entered the lab room? What was their background? Does it take a long time before they can 'get their hands' into the genome?

The VivoArts : Art and Biology Studio Honors Class at Leiden was the first of its kind in the Netherlands. Since my class another Art and Biology Course has been taught at Leiden U. by Jennifer Willet and in April the third version will be taught by Boo Chapple starting spring 2009 (so sign up now.)

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DNA extraction in class. Image

Thanks go out to Prof. dr. Robert Zwijnenberg of The Arts and Genomics Centre for investing time and brave direction to make these courses a reality and for organizing the breadth of disciplines being exposed to this sort of Bioethics Art Practice. The participants were from Art History, Sociology, Philosophy, Biology and even Theology... But, there is no Art Studio practice degree at Leiden U. so we put out the word and a few artists applied or just showed up.

The simple answer to your first question is, no experience is necessary. All Vivoarts labs are hands on labs for the untrained. I guess it's a sort of biology brut or outsider biology. Informed opinions on present-day and near-future bioethical conundrums are more readily coaxed out of non-biologists through a hands on approach. It takes time to get approval to teach non-professionals and students whose focus is not biology or bioethics. After clearance, the students can come in with zero experience and leave having made time-based, hybrid, new media, wet-lab, living arts pieces: transgenic embryo sculptures, GMO bacterial paintings and/or tissue cultured embryonic stem cell totemic fetish objects.

The difference between a technical scientific learning session and a Vivo-artistic laboratory approach is mostly qualitative. While engaging in the technics, we also deal with the relational issues surrounding this type of process: pain, death, responsibility, curiosity, the meddlesome sadism of a personal genetic footprint/signature/graffiti/, risk assessment between foreign species and the ecosphere as well as critiquing admonitions against the urge to fondle the folds of mutant love.

There were some reticent parties on campus. They claimed that they were worried their patients might be afraid that artists a la Moreau were treating them. (...) I think that the reaction to an art class in the lab doing 'important' transgenic embryology work in the name of non-utilitarian, 'frivolous' artistry reflects a fear of demystification of transgenic process. Is the fear of attention given to playful transgenic embryological research procedures limited to wariness to contend with animal rights advocates often knee-jerk responses? Or, is it because often enough, well-funded Transgenesis research is as equally 'useless' or has just as little chance of producing important data as a hands-on Transgenic Developmental Biology Embryological Sculpting Lab for Social Commentary. But, these balkers are University researchers. Why hide from eager students in a castle of learning? Transgenic human production is a contentious cultural issue that is in need of interdisciplinary research before it goes to market. If we want an informed public to help us gauge the eventual results of aesthetic human engineering, we need people with experience who have their own ideas about the process, the results and the price of genetic tinkering.

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Photo from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

You mention in some of the written documents that plasmid injections were made with homemade tools. Hackers and amateurs around the world are experimenting with technology in a creative way as part of a broad DIY culture. Do you think that this DIY approach could apply to biotech art experimentations like the ones you perform? Where are the limits?

About half of my labs are 100% DIY. A lot of the Art and Biology crew are interested in the demystification of technology. The dorkbot skillshare mentality is more than a hot geek dating service. It's about showing that the technology, in this case biotechnology, is comprehensible and actuate-able with home brew strategies and some kitchen sterile technique.

For instance, the microinjectors for our embryology lab were made of glass pipettes pulled over a flame into small-bore needles. The plasmid was literally sucked up and hand pressed into the living embryos. We squirted into the embryos. The hope was that the microinjection needles were smaller than the embryonic nuclei and that, without microscopes, the plasmid would be injected or find its way into some nuclei for incorporation into the genome of the unborn pheasants.

This is not how an embryologist would work. The odds of success are already low without such haphazard application technique. Expensive machines are used to pull glass needles of the exact bore which will penetrate the nuclei of the organism of choice (mouse, rat, human, frog or fly embryos for instance.) Injections 'usually' occur through the microscope and XYZ microcontrollers guide the payload into the organism with finesse and acuity. Microinjectors cost over 100,000 euro and are not usually available to the general public (although I did use one at MIT to inject wasabi and cream cheese into Tobiko.

0aggeneggun.jpgBut less accurate methods like gene guns or direct injection of DNA are also used in today's gene therapy trials. These human trials, which may be producing germline alterations, emphasize the porousness of our collective genome. The history of embryology is built on cheap contraptions and closet incubators. Look at chicken breeders, both their social status and their successes. How many of them used strange feed or other 'pushing of life' techniques to make their prizewinning mutants?

So, I would say that persistence will outweigh the technological edge especially because no one has any idea of what life is, what the future holds and what the long term effects of even supposedly 'controlled' experiments will have on ecology, living being and the concept of species integrity. As far as I can tell, a tattoo gun with a single point needle dipped in the right plasmid concoction might be a great nano-transfectant for the lotek-biotech artist who still likes to draw. If it takes a lot of microinjections to get success when working blind... then gene tattooing is the way to go. (You could also buy a cheap microscope and improve your odds at least 30X.)

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Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

(Warning: Gene insertion may eventually cure cancer but right now it can also cause cancer. (i.e. Leukemia, see the case of Jesse Gelsinger).

Now, when it comes to DNA sequencing and plasmid design, this is just starting to be a tabletop possibility with cheaper sequencers and biobrick sets from the megaMaterialists over in Synthetic Biology. But, the learning curve is steep and can be expensive if you don't want to work with ready-mades. Designing your future pet's body plan or your own prehensile tail or an extra brain in your lovely daughter's derriere... that will take some trial and error. The effect is not just material. The genes are multifactorial. We haven't a clue as to what metabolism is. We can't even distinguish between enhancement and a living curse. But still, I'm hopeful.

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DNA extraction in class. Image

The lab obviously triggered many questions and debates. One of them drew a thought-provoking parallel between animal research and animal sacrifice, a pratique which nowadays seems outdated and almost barbarian. I know that you are careful to comply with legal limits and are deeply concerned with the ethics of what you are doing and preaching. But did you mention this parallel between sacrifice and research in order to highlight the more sinister aspects of research? What are the most sobresalient points of the research/sacrifice debate that took place among the participants of your class?

First I wrote this:

Funerals Rites for Transgenic Pheasants: Rituals of Bio-Art Practice

Some artists are utilizing lab technique as a new medium to produce living and often mutant living art forms. As these 'sculptures' live and die, often at the whims of the artistic investigator, the personal, non-repeatable moments take on a ritual air. What kinds of rituals do interdisciplinary Art and Biology practices entail? How do they reveal the implicit rituals of science? What new performative rites come out of mixing ethics and esthetics in the laboratory? Scientists also have their methodologies of creative flourish and humane sacrifice. But, scientific and artistic play is often based on different paradigms of what the act of experimentation is. As artists learn laboratory technique, the rituals of science and new rituals of sci-art unfold, decouple and reconfirm magical thinking in both arenas. How does animal research relate to the history of animal sacrifice? What is the role of subjectivity in developmental embryology? Is transgenic protocol also a ritual for the cultural production of liminal monsters? And how does mutagenesis impede or coerce the imaginary in the lifeworld? Through an analysis of artists confronted with the responsibility of ending the life of transgenic pheasant embryos, (which they had altered with plasmids in the name of art,) I hope to show living rituals for new biotechnological processes as they are invented.

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Photos from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

But to be more down to earth, this is complicated and needs regular talk too. First of all the students were guaranteed a good grade even if they choose to be ethical observers. So there was no pressure to be hands on. Secondly, methods of humane sacrifice were discussed even if the concept is an oxymoron. Legally, embryonic birds are not organisms in Europe. What they really are is unclassifiable, but they are not free living nor do they have fully developed nervous systems. So they are conceived to be dim or not fully on. They may be thought of as a group of cells on the way to becoming a full-fledged, free-living organism. For this reason, they do not have rights in any way nor do they have a single preferred humane sacrifice method. Actually, humane sacrifice is not a prerequisite in embryonic end of life issues.

Of the scientists I quizzed, the methods of sacrifice commonly applied were death by: autoclave, refrigeration, put down on ice or poured down the drain. I added to other options for my students: valium overdose or ritual sacrifice. The valium overdose was my idea of the most humane sacrifice for an embryo. It may have been the first time that an embryo was given such a respectful euthanasia. But, the ritual sacrifice option was wide open and I can tell you that we are still living in barbaric times.

Also, I offered to play executioner for my students. Often I had to not just respect their choices but enact them. It was a horrific part of the lab for me. But, I did learn a lot. I wouldn't dismiss the value of sacrifice in science, religion or even secular posthumanism. Some rituals were moving funerals about the traumatic pasts of the slayers. Some underscored visions of techno-obliteration, the War Machine (Critical Art Ensemble, see the first chapter of The Flesh Machine), which accounts for way too much of the world's economic and productive focus. Some of them were heartless and natural and sincere. One student's acts even inspired remorse for outsourcing an incineration. It is as if serial killing and bureaucracy were still strange bedfellows. All and all, the sacrifices were conducted in a responsible way even if they were non-utilitarian. The lab showed the range of human behavior when dealing with GMO snuff issues and unborn politics and it gave experience of the viscerality of transgenic process to the students.

0aapicnicniokk.jpgPhoto from the Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Lab, credits to Jennifer Willet from Bioteknica

To be quite frank and honest, I am still in a strange state of being torn around these issues. I think abortion should be legal and believe in a woman's right to choose. Yet, I believe in embryonic isness: that there is something dignified about a developing organism. I am anti-war and think capital punishment should be abolished. I support some animal research as I have seen results that do help with disease. I do think the focus should be on AIDS and Malaria instead of prostate cancer and new cholesterol blockers. But it is not that simple. Often enough, I approve of experimental curiosity in general. I understand that we have a strange human gymnastic need to scope and poke everything to see how it 'ticks' or even just as pornography. I do think most biological research is just in-group magical empiricism but I also think that it is effective in a social cohesive sense. So, I guess I am old fashioned when it comes to ritual sacrifice even with a lab coat shaman behind the lab doors. Nonetheless, we humans could be less nationalist and provide global food, shelter, clean water, free rent and a 'work-optional' baseline to all humans. And, if you believe the news, many Bioart practitioners, myself included, lay claim to a sort of relational bent, attempting to go beyond anthropocentrism in the name of respect for the non-human actants of the earth. That is, many of us do consider all life to have an existential specialty which is their own and which is often superior to Homo sapiens narcissism in diverse ways of niche working and play. Yes, if we have it in us, we need to give back a lot of the land mass we have 'cultivated' on the crust of this planet to non-humans for their rights to freedom, space and daytime walks. But when it comes to embryos, I admit, I eat bunches of them on a weekly basis: caviar, eggs, raw seeds, grain, and bean sprouts. Being alive is a sort of hypocritical stance.

We cannot apologize to the organisms we use, even our flowers after death, because I doubt they would accept an apology. We cannot thank them, as some of the native peoples of the Americas still do, for providing us dinner or art materials, because I doubt they would say 'you were welcome.' In a sort of Taoist or Fatalist sense, we can try to welcome the hunger of the living consumers of our living and hence dying bodies (whether they be human, other animal, vegetable, bacterial, insectoid, fruity or fungal) as they come to feast on our inevitable temporary-ness, our becoming food for others. For this reason, I am anti-embalming and believe in green burials as we are just mulch in the long-term sense. In the short term we are entropic, greedy, sensual, hungry holes in need of sustainable release through passionate spectacle. (see my video Retool Earth.)

I often refer to this type of trial by fire lab as a Milgram Experiment without authority. I proclaim myself an amateur, I give the option to not participate and yet, when given the legal thumbs up, most people will do what they know is ethically tarnished. At the same time, fear of implication in the lifeworld, shame of causing death in general, while causing death, is more dangerous than modern primitivism. The Nobility of Neurosis (J.G. Ballard re/Search) is part and parcel to the Latourian concept of modern distinction as a farce. So, although I wish the Hague War Crimes Tribunal had authority over the nation I live in which has no respect for the Geneva Convention, the Nurenberg Code or the Declaration of Helsinki, fertile eggs are still a popular food particularly in green non-vegan circles. A well-made fertile egg omelette is no casual funereal ritual. Baroque and gourmet productions take time and the nuance and the taste is not lost on the pallete.

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Just to underscore that I am thinking while acting the clown...

The fertile eggs were named during incubation. This is a list of their names:
Health, Beauty, Longevity, Public Good, Knowledge, Profit, Erotism, Utility, Novelty, Animal, Poor, Queer, Captive, Slave, Fat, Ugly, Short, Stupid, Primitive, Unborn, Deformed, Poor in the World, Raw Material, Extinguish Humanely, Expendable Being, Educational Embryo, Pity Party, Defect, Murder Me, Loss and Lack, Death Row, Dead End, Destiny, Non-Being, Non-Human, Sub-Human, Pre-Human, Ancestor Rape, Use Me, Material, Fratricide, Torture Mirror, Somatic Machine, Responsive Behavior, Model Organism, Reflex Entity, Workhorse and Factory.

One of your documents mention a project in Spain? Why Spain? And where exactly would you like to perform new researches? Can you tell us briefly what this project would be about?

Actually, I talked to Marta de Menezes of Ectopia in Portugal (another Bioart Residency to look into) and she said that Bull Fights, the Politics of Primitive Tradition versus the Elimination of any Appearance of Injustice and Bull Sperm Sorting for Breeder Profit (transgenic as all hell) were all popular pastimes in Spain. So if I was in Spain or Portugal, I might like to look for some off target mutations in the garbage bin of a major Bull Sperm Sorting outpost. Really, the FACS Bucket text was just an idea for a residency that ended up getting published in Portugal. Due to parenting responsibilities, I can't spend more than two or three months a year outside of the US. The WAAG Society and The Mondriaan Foundation have decided to host/sponsor a public course and performance over the next year in Amsterdam. I would also like to work on making more transgenic pheasant embryos so I can fine tune my imaging and maybe even discover something that might make a reductionist out of my otherwise sticky fingers. I am looking for more funding so send money people to Lucas Evers

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pSHEEP, screenshot from pFARM

Right now, I live in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Woodstock, USA. I am gearing up to initiate VASTAL: The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. I would prefer it function independently of any university so it would be obscure, DIY and edgy. But this would need a real budget even for a two-year planned obsolescence trip. I also consider pFARM to be conceptually ready to make the move to something more than a small collective. The Organic Biotech Fetish Farm has started to attract devotees and as a cult grows, so must its infrastructure. We are still accepting applicants on subservient grassroots level at this time. Although I have traveled widely, I ask myself which other nation is there that deserves the kind of lessons I mete out. I can smell the Ku Klux Klan hay in every corner of the world markets but the USA has taken Superpower-Slumlord to a new low. So, I figure New York is my tropical island in which to experiment with human volunteers and their gonads... VASTAL 2010 ... Know any strange hosts?

I wish i did. Thanks Adam!

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Transgenic embryo prints as exhibited at Imagining Science Exhibition, Art Gallery of Alberta, 2008-2009

In the news: Adam Zarestky is participating to the show Imagining Science that runs through February 1, 2009 at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Zaretsky and The pFARM Collective are part of the exhibition Corpus Extremus which opens in February 2009 at Exit Art in NYc. The book Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change has won an award in the 2009 New York Book Show in the Scholarly & Professional category.

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