Some of the most provocative artists today deal with biotechnology. Working with scientists and engineers, these artists transform living tissue and even their own bodies into works of art. Here are seven bio-artists whose contributions you should know.
"Ear on Arm" by photographer N. Sellars
The legendary Cypriot-Australian performance artist Stelarc likes to consider how technology extends the capacities of the human body and how at the same time our bodies are becoming increasingly obsolete.
Neither a utopian or a dystopian, Stelarc's central claim is that we’re progressively extending ourselves into our environment and our technological artifacts, and as a result, are transforming ourselves into both cyborgs and zombies.
Stelarc’s performances often involve robotics and other modern technologies. He has undergone voluntary surgeries, endowed himself with a third arm, and risked killing himself after ingesting a “stomach sculpture.”
In one performance, he allowed his body to be controlled remotely by electronic muscle stimulators connected to the internet. Most recently, he had a cell-cultivated ear surgically attached to his left arm.
Image: The weight of the rocks are in perfect balance with Stelarc. Image: Stelarc.
He’s also famous for his suspension performances.
Shocking, controversial, and highly provocative, Orlan uses her body — and especially her face — as her canvas. She applies cosmetic surgery to transform her face into any number of forms, including The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan piece in which she morphed herself into elements from famous paintings and sculptures of women.
Orlan used these surgeries to conform her face to the feminine ideal as depicted by male artists.
The surgery is part of the performance. Image: USCB
But by using cosmetic surgery as the means of her transformation, she shows the power of technology to transform our physical appearance. What’s more, her art shows how fungible the human form can be.
Image: Orlan Gallery.
3. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
An English musician, poet, writer, and performance artist, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s work explores a diverse number of themes, including sex work, occultism, and gender issues. S/he is most famous for Project Pandrogeny — a collaborative effort with his wife Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge in which the two tried to create an amalgam of their two selves. The project touched upon such themes as personal transformation, deep interpersonal coupling, and postgenderism.
Image: Paul Quitoriano, Village Voice
The experiment to create a pandrogynous being named Breyer P-Orridge required the couple to undergo breast implants and other physical transformations. They also adopted gender neutral and alternating pronouns (e.g. s/he, h/er, and h/erself).
“And then over the years, we transformed more and more until we were both running around in miniskirts, dressed the same,” they noted to the Village Voice.
4. Eduardo Kac
Brazilian-American "transgenic artist" Eduardo Kac uses biotechnology and genetics to explore and critique scientific techniques.
In his first work, "Genesis," Kac took a bible verse, translated it into Morse code, and then converted it into the base pairs of genetics. He then implanted the resulting genes into an unspecified bacterium that he grew in a petri dish. The idea was to create a dichotomy between biblical injunctions against tampering with nature with doing exactly that.
But his most famous work is Alba, the creation of a green-fluorescent rabbit. Kac took a rabbit and implanted it with a Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) found in jellyfish. When placed under a blue light, the rabbit glowed a bright, eerie green.
Kac says that the “nature of his new art is defined not only by the birth and growth of a new plant or animal but above all by the nature of the relationship among artist, public, and transgenic organism.”
Kac also has a microchip in his ankle, choosing that part of the body because slaves were often branded there.
5. Natasha Vita-More
A seminal figure in the transhumanist and extropian movements, Natasha Vita-More integrates her futurist visions and ethos into her conceptual art pieces. An advocate of human enhancement and morphological freedoms, her work explores such themes as biotechnology, robotics, information technology, nanotechnology, neuroscience and cognitive science, artificial general intelligence. Human nature, argues Vita-More, is predicated on the desire to solve problems through innovative methods and design.
Her best known work is Primo Posthuman, a project that proposes the possibilities of the future human — one that’s the product of intentional design rather than the forces of natural selection. The Primo Posthuman is a futuristic version of the human form that’s overcome disease, aging — and which features any number of new “features.”
“Unlike the cyborg, Primo’s unfolding nature is based on expanding choices,” she says, “Unlike the transcendent, Primo is driven by the rational rather than the mystical.”
Primo is engineered like a finely tuned machine and displayed visually like a biological body to mirror the human shape for cognitive association, visual recognition, and aesthetic appeal. Yet, the Primo body does not age, is easily upgraded, has meta-sensory components, 24-hour remote Net relay system, and multiple gender options. Its outer sheath is primed with smart skin which vanguards practical designs purposes for communication. The model structure is composed of assembled massive molecular cytes or cells connected together to form the outer fabric of the body. The smart skin is engineered to repair, remake, and replace itself. It contains nanobots throughout the epidermal and dermis to communicate with the brain to determine the texture and tone of its surface. It transmits enhanced sensory data to the brain on an ongoing basis. The smart skin learns how and when to renew itself, alerts the outside world of the disposition of the person; gives specific degrees of the body’s temperature from moment to moment; and reflects symbols, images, colors and textures across its contours. It is able to relate the percentages of toxins in the environment and the extract radiation effects of the sun.
6. Micha Cárdenas
American performance and new media artist, Micha Cárdenas’s work explores the impacts of biotechnology, wearable computing, and the intersection of the real and virtual worlds. Her work investigates the way technologies can both extend and morph the human body, particularly beyond conventional gender roles.
Back in 2008, Cárdenas performed “Becoming Dragon,” a 365 hour mixed reality performance in Second Life. For the entire 365 hours, Cárdenas took on the form of a dragon named Azdel Slade.
She’s also the co-author of The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities in which she discusses augmented reality, mixed reality, alternate reality approaches.
7. Aimee Mullins
Aimee Mullins is primarily known for her accomplishments as a Paralympian athlete, but in 1999 she collaborated with British fashion designer Alexander McQueen on a rather interesting project. Mullins, who had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was one year old, posed on pair of hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs made from solid ash, with integral boots.
The BBC reported:
"You always expected the unexpected with Alexander McQueen," says Helen Boyle a fashion stylist and presenter. "Everyone was waiting to see who was on the catwalk, and what they were wearing.
"By putting disabled people on he was taking people out of their comfort zones, making people think, making people sit up in their chairs."
In 2003 she collaborated with director Matthew Barney for the Cremaster 3 project in which she posed for a series of provocative scenes, showing how the human body can be presented and extended beyond so-called human “normalcy.”
Image: Screen grab from Cremaster 3