Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology Introduction

Biotechnology and art are fascinatingly intertwined. From our aesthetic appreciation of plants and animals which brought about breeding regimes, to art about ethics in the genomic age, these artworks invite the public into the conversation about the history, ethics, politics, and future of biotechnology.

Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping Our Genetic Futures is a multi-site exhibition that explores art’s relationship to biotechnology. The main exhibition was held at North Carolina State University October 2019–March 2020 and was sponsored by the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, the NC State Libraries, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. The project included a Field Trial exhibition at CAM Raleigh, a related interdisciplinary planning symposium, and installations at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, the D.H. Hill Jr. Library, the Hunt Library, and the NCMA Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, as well as a response symposium. The exhibition aimed to elicit discussion about genetics in society through provocative contemporary art and to offer viewers new ways to think about their role in the genetic revolution. Artists addressed questions often set aside in scientific conversations about biotechnology including questions of access, sex and gender, race, the rights and roles of animals, and the involvement of corporations.

Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology challenges the public, scientists, policymakers, humanists, and artists to examine what might seem to be the discrete boundary between art and science with boundary-crossing works. As these works collectively show, the categories of art and science are determined not by universal axioms or through practices that circumscribe bodies of knowledge. The exhibition instead asks visitors to participate as witnesses, donors, or interlocutors in nuanced conversations around genetics. Some of these artworks are rooted firmly in the past, while others raise scenarios about near-future and far-future possibilities for our society.

Yet each artwork is radically present-centered, since they reflect on our current social, political, and technical conditions. The artists in this exhibition generally avoid utopic or dystopic futures. Emerging biotechnology has allowed some of the artists to imagine futures where human behaviors have been altered or new affordances have been made possible. They assume that the social world as we know it would not be radically transformed, even as new technologies enter into our interactions. Instead, these artists suggest that many things we know from our own contexts of human behavior and social value will remain constant. Individuals and societies are influenced by these technologies, which themselves are influenced by our social values.

Hannah Star Rogers
Curator, educator
Email: hsr2120@columbia.edu

Excerpted from a gallery on Leonardo Just Accepted

Special thanks to the project team, including Molly Renda, Fred Gould, Todd Kuiken, Elizabeth Pitts, Patti Mulligan, Chris Vitello, Chris Tonelli, Sharon Stauffer, and Roger Manley. Further thanks to the staff of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, the NC State Libraries, particularly NC State Libraries External Relations team, and the Genetic Engineering & Society Center.