Book review: Bio Art. Altered Realities

Bio Art. Altered Realities, by writer, teacher, and curator William Myers.


Find it on amazon UK

Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: In an era of fast-paced technological progress and with the impact of humans on the environment increasing, the concept of “nature” itself seems called into question. Bio Art explores the work of “bio artists,” those who work with living organisms and life processes to address the possibilities and dangers posed by biotechnological advancement.

A contextual introduction traces the roots of bio artistic practice, followed by four thematic chapters: Altering Nature, Experimental Identity and Mediums, Visualizing Scale and Scope, and Redefining Life. The chapters cover the key areas in which biotechnology has had an impact on today’s world, including ecology, biomedicine, designer genomes, and changing approaches to evolutionary theory, and include profiles of the work of sixty artists, collectives, and organizations from around the world. Interviews with eight leading bio artists and technologists provide deeper insight into the ideas and methods of this new breed of creative practitioners.


Anna Dumitriu performing Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon

Bioart* is an umbrella term that covers a host of practices. For Myers, not all of them involve ‘getting your hands dirty’ by doing tissue culture or using synthetic biology to create glow-in-the-dark plants and other novel biological systems. Bioart practices have often been reduced to the medium and this book liberates them from the use of living material by arguing that bio artists are the ones who use biology either as a medium or as a subject in order to investigate how science is shifting cultural perceptions of identity, nature, life, and environment. Artists can do so by reverse engineering genetically modified flowers or organizing competitions between two people’s white blood cells duel but also by using more ‘traditional’ practices such as manipulating photography, sculpting grotesque life forms in silicone or speculating on the ecological soundness of reducing the human populations to 50 cm high individuals. You might agree or totally reject this expansion of the field but the idea is certainly worth a debate.

Because they cover a series of art practices but also scientific innovations and their ethical dilemmas, books about bioart often excel in either the art or the science part. Bio Art. Altered Realities shines at both: bioart’s place in art history, its significance and challenges are skilfully presented and scientific concepts such as epigenetic, synthetic biology, or bacteriology are explained with clarity and efficiency.

One thing i found less pertinent is that the name of each artist is immediately followed by their nationality. I would also have given more than an ultra brief mention to SymbioticA as i think their work and ideas have inspired pretty much any bio artist or designer.

Other than that, Go! Get that book. Make some space in your life for an art field which i believe has great cultural significance. The author often compares bio artists to the surrealists who, during the first half of the 20th century, tapped the unconscious mind and attempted to explore the traumas of wars. Bio artists are similarly interested in engaging with the contradictions and dramas of their times. It is an art that challenges our understanding of what it means to be alive but more importantly, it is an art that is often firmly rooted into the Anthropocene. And i don’t think that there are many issues more dramatic nowadays than humanity’s harmful impact on the planet.

Some of the works i discovered (or rediscovered) in the book:

Azuma Makoto, Water and Bonsai

Water and Bonsai is an aquarium containing a piece of Sabina chinensis deadwood that has had java moss attached to it to look like the tiny tree foliage of a bonsai. A closed ecosystem made of filtration pumps, LED lights and CO2 emissions is created in order to recreate the photosynthesis.


Maja Smrekar, BioBase: risky ZOOgraphies. Aksioma Production, Installation, 2012 / 2014. Photo: Janez Janša

Developed in close collaboration with a team of scientists, BIOBASE: 45° 53′ 28.20″N, 15° 36′ 9.18″E explores the issue of invasive species in Europe and in particular a crayfish featuring an unusual mutation that allows it to reproduce asexually. Because i can multiply rapidly, they threaten ecosystems wherever they are introduced. Smrekar has choreographed and recorded encounters of the new species with the more “natural” crayfish. This sort of interaction may be one that we humans will repeat in a far-off future when we compete and conflict with dramatically mutated versions of humans adapted to new environments.


Transgenic specimens under lock and key at Center for PostNatural History. Photo: Andrea Grover


Carole Collet, Biolace, Strawberry Noir – the roots of these black strawberries with high levels of anthocyanin and vitamin C, would produce black lace

Biolace is located in a future where all grown food is ‘enhanced’ and where sustainable manufacturing is compulsory for an overpopulated planet. ‘Biolace’ proposes to use synthetic biology to reprogram plants into multi-purpose factories. Plants would grow in hydroponic organic greenhouses and become living machines. In this scenario, we would harvest fruits and fabrics at the same time from the same plants.


Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus, 2008

Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together again in a different way, disregarding our knowledge of human anatomy.


Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Things in the World (the Llareta plants in South America that grow 1.5 centimeters annually and live over 3,000 years)

Since 2004, Rachel Sussman has been researching the history of the planet through the photos of living organisms that are at least 2,000 years old.


Mark Dion, 300 Million Years of Flight, 2012 (photo)


Mike Thompson, Susana Cámara Leret and Dave Young (in collaboration with the Netherlands Metabolomics Centre), The Rhythm of Life. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

The Rhythm of Life investigates the potential of sensory data experiences. Participants are offered the possibility to listen in on the electro-chemical messages transmitted by their own bodies, in exchange for donating their personal biodata to scientific research.


Sonja Bäumel (in collaboration with Manuel Selg), Metabodies, 2013

Metabodies visualizes aspects of the microbiome of a subject at three distinct times: after sex, after a shower, and after an athletic activity. The artist used E. coli to visualize the communication that occurs in the bacterial populations through chemical signaling.


Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph)

In the most recent stage of Corrupted C#n#m# , Madagascar hissing cockroaches were transformed into ‘cyberinsects’ capable of disrupting video data.

Views from inside the book:


If you are in London on Thursday 26 November, Bio Art author William Myers and artist Anna Dumitriu will be at Tate Modern to discuss ‘the ethics and aesthetics of artists working with living organisms and life processes.’

Image on the homepage: Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph).

*Sorry i like to write bioart in one word.