Inside the Captivating and Unusual Realm of BioArt
What is BioArt?
BioArt is an artistic practice that provides a unique way for viewers and audiences to interact with living matter such as algae, bacteria, and other types of cells. It utilizes living matter as a medium to raise questions about humanity and to reflect on society and the role of technology in it. It can serve as a great way to pique interest in life processes and blur dividing lines between human and nonhuman, illustrating how life is a shared experience. This interdisciplinary creative outlet is special because of its reliance on bio-technologies such as cell culturing and genetic engineering. BioArt’s use of living organisms is occasionally seen as bizarre and provocative, which is an excellent way to convey a powerful message that sticks with a viewer. One of the most extreme examples of this is the project Ear on Arm by Stelarc. He and his team utilized surgical techniques, tissue engineering, bio-compatable implantation and the artist's own stem cells to assemble and attach a man made ear to the artist's arm. This is meant to question perceptions of beauty and explore the nature of transhumanism and the union of technology and the flesh.
I first heard of BioArt last Summer, when I set out on an adventure to study at the Technische Universität Berlin to take a course called “BioDesign”. To be honest, I had little idea of what that meant, but it seemed interesting so I decided to give it a go. It was here that I met my instructor and experienced BioArtist Dr. Mirela Alistar, who introduced me to the fascinating world of BioArt and provided me with the tools and guidance to create a bacterial self portrait.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Alistar about her experiences creating interactive BioArt pieces and workshops. In her journey, she was equipped with the mindset of a scientist and a background in engineering when she delved into her passion for art. For her, BioArt is all about “connecting with life” and enjoying the process of nurturing the organisms she uses as the medium. Feeding and providing ideal conditions for microorganisms can “look a lot like babysitting” and it allows the artist to build a transformative relationship with the organisms. Being more connected to the process of the medium gives Dr. Alistar an emotional connection, especially in cases when the organism is killed. She has feelings associated with the death and sees this as not only a part of the artistic process, but as a shared experience in life.
Dr. Alistar facilitates hands-on workshops to engage the public in art and science through living organisms. In this way she is able to build a “community that is not confined to an institution”. This freedom creates a space where people of all types of backgrounds can come together for the dissemination of ideas, and in this space anyone can be an artist or a scientist. She has led workshops in designing bioreactors for microalgae and in nurturing bioluminescent bacteria. In Dr. Alistar’s opinion, the success of traditional art often requires the placement of the artist on a pedestal and many artists do not want to share their techniques. In collaborative interdisciplinary spaces, everyone can be an artist and can “challenge the current perspective on who is an artist and what is art”.
Outside of workshops, Mirela Alistar partnered with Margherita Pevere to challenge prevailing conceptions of art through an incredibly technically challenging art piece, Semina Aeternitatis, a “hybrid approach on immortality by entwining human memories with bacterial inheritance” (3). It investigates the ways in which human memories can be inscribed and passed on. Semina Aeternitatis, latin for “Seed of Eternity”, started with an elderly woman’s nostalgic recount of a formative childhood memory of her first time alone on a horse, which taught her an important lesson about strength. Mirela Alistar developed an algorithm that translated the text of the woman's story into a sequence of DNA. The DNA needed to be replicated, so they used E. coli to multiply it and then they gathered the DNA from the cells and killed the E. coli. Dr. Alistar reflected that “A lot of life is used as a machine because it is more effective than any other procedures we have”. After months of difficult research, she and Margherita Pevere were able to manufacture the DNA sequence as a plasmid and inserted it to the cells of the Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria by electroporation. The bacteria cells carrying the woman’s story were then cultured to create a cellulose biofilm for display. This gave the story a life of its own and makes viewers grapple with the idea of eternity in human storytelling and the nature of the relationship between human and nonhuman.
Another BioArtist who is also investigating the concept of eternity is Marta DeMenezes, who is the creator of the piece Immortality for two. In this project, she and her partner “immortalize” their immune cells by using virus vectors to “introduce cancer-inducing genes” to the cells (4). This gene will cause the cells to proliferate indefinitely. Since they are immune cells, if the cells from one partner interact with cells from the other, they will reject each other and they will both die, which is especially symbolic because the cells are taken from two people in love with each other. The piece shows that “immortality comes at a price – and that price is perpetual isolation”. There cells can never touch, and they can only interact in their projected image displayed at the exhibition.
Ultimately, BioArt is marriage of art and science, two seemingly different fields that have more in common than I thought. Dr. Mirela Alistar would simply describe the field as the “intersection of art and science”, which is visible in the way both artists and scientists think critically about the world we live in and come up with important questions and processes that attempt to answer them. BioArt overall, is a remarkable way to express oneself and it is universally relatable because of our ability as humans to connect to other living things. I am looking forward to seeing where advancements in biotechnological processes lead the future of BioArtistic expression.
About Mirela Alistar:
Mirela Alistar is currently an assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is interested in researching digital microfluidics, biochips, personal medicine and DIYBio. She hopes to make healthcare a more personal process by developing technologies that allow people to directly interact with their microbiome. In the DIYBio community she holds workshops and interactive performances to engage the public with living matter. She received her PhD from the Technical University of Denmark and was a postdoc in Patrick Baudish's lab at Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany. You can find her research and art at: http://www.personallab.org/
About the Author:
Hi, my name is Julia Caputo and I am a research intern here at EWAAB. I have always been amazed by science and technology. I am a biomedical engineering student from Queens, New York and I am entering my third year at Stevens Institute of Technology. On campus, I am passionately involved in the Society of Women Engineers and Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity. I recently got my Emergency Medical Technician license and I hope to go to medical school.