Less than three months ago, scientists all over the world celebrated when the first draft of the human genome was at last complete. But now many people are wondering what comes next. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City sponsored a public forum on genetics and its many social ramifications a little over a week ago, where researchers, ethicists and technologists all gave their take. But another forum of a sort has been going on some 80 blocks south of the museum in Soho. At the Exit Art gallery there, 39 artists from the U.S. and Europe present their views in a show called Paradise Now--Picturing the Genetic Revolution.
The show, which will run until October 28, tackles many thorny issues, including gene therapy, cloning, race, privacy and genetic identity. But it "does not take a moral position about genetic research," says Marvin Heiferman, one of the curators. He and his colleague Carole Kismaric steered the exhibit only in that they chose artists who "really understood science," Heiferman says, and didn't simply "use it to decorate."
Many of the artists, like Eduardo Kac from Chicago, have in fact regularly collaborated with scientists. Kac recently caused a stir with GFP Bunny, a transgenic, green-fluorescing rabbit named Alba. In New York, he is presenting Genesis. To create this work, Kac first copied the verse, "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" from an Internet bible. He then converted it into Morse Code, and from there into genetic code, according to his own encryption method.
Next, scientists synthesized this DNA sequence and put it into bacteria, which are on display under ultraviolet light in an almost dark room. Visitors to Kac's website can switch the UV-lamp on and off. This UV-light acts as a mutagen, introducing mistakes into the DNA over time. Thus the bible verse slowly accumulates increasingly many mistakes. The bacteria are projected against a wall, to "render them more or less on a human scale," Kac explains, to "put ourselves a little bit in that Umwelt [environment] of the bacteria."
His work is not the only interactive piece. The Human Race Machine by Nancy Burson allows visitors to transform their face into that of a different ethnic group on the fly. After someone scans in his or her face and marks nine prominent points--like the eyes, the mouth and the chin--they can choose to adopt an African, Asian, northern European, Hispanic or Indian appearance. Burson's message is straightforward: The ease with which the transformation takes place should remind us of the fact that any two humans, wherever they come from, are genetically 99.9 percent alike.
Natalie Jeremijenkos OneTree project too nicely shows how variable a genetic identity can be on the surface. She presents cloned trees, all created from the undifferentiated tissue of a single adult tree. Although genetically identical, these trees all look very different. The visual impact is strong, even though it comes as no surprise to scientists--and amateur gardeners. Everytime you put a twig into water and it grows roots, you are cloning.
Not DNA but chromosomes are the fascination of Suzanne Anker. Her entry in the exhibit, Zoosemiotics (Primates), shows the chromosomes of gorillas, orangutans, gibbons and chimps sculpted from metal and mounted on the wall. In front of them stands a vessel that, like a lens, distorts the image of the chromosomes in different ways from different angles. "Its distortion, but its also instrumentalization," Anker says, "and without this intervening instrument, there is no way to know these entities."
One interesting aspect of these works of art is that scientists probably make different associations when they view them. This is certainly the case with Dennis Ashbaughs Bio-Gel (aka The Jolly Green Giant), a painting of a DNA sequencing gel. Whereas most people see abstract black blobs and bands on a hazy green background, a biologist sees a wealth of information. For Jane Hubbard, assistant professor of biology at New York University, the painting conjured up memories of her first experiences with sequencing DNA. There was "the satisfaction of the binary nature of this information," she commented, "something true" that you can repeat numerous times and always get the same result.
Similarly, Catherine Wagners photography of a lab freezer--entitled -86 Degree Freezers (Twelve Areas of Concern and Crisis)--might look like leftovers hell to a non-scientist, with lots of little vials labeled with undecipherable codes. Yet they contain the vital tools and samples that scientists use to research such important diseases as AIDS, breast cancer and Alzheimers disease. "Its so typical, isnt it?" comments Hubbard, "especially when the freezer goes down, and you have five minutes to get everything out of there," referring to an all-too-common crisis in many labs.
Some of the works deal with how genetic engineering will affect-- or has already affected--agriculture. On Alexis Rockmans painting, The Farm, a pig shows off internal organs that will be used as human spare parts; the giant udder of a square cow promises unlimited milk; and the tomatoes have edges shaped so that they fit nicely into a basket. Laura Stein displays a Smile Tomato, a happy vegetable she created by growing it in a polyurethane mold.
In addition to the art, the exhibit showcased some scientific artifacts, along with background information on modern genetics. "Its presumptuous to assume somebody can walk in and know about the subject matter," Heiferman points out. At the entrance to the show, visitors are greeted by one of the original models of DNA, which dates to 1953 and is owned by co-discoverer of the molecule's structure, James D. Watson. Representing more modern times, there is also a state-of-the art DNA chip, which allows scientists to monitor the expression of many hundreds of genes simultaneously.
What do scientists make of the scenarios the artists have painted, sculpted or otherwise installed? They are "more feeding on the fears of the public," Hubbard judges. "The beauty of the reality that attracts the scientists to discovery is not brought out as much as it could be. But perhaps thats not the role of art."