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Russian and Soviet views of Modern Western Art

BioArt and the Vitality of Media

by Robert E. Mitchell
University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2010
224 pp., illus. 23 b/w & col. Trade, $60.00; paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-295-99007-1; ISBN: 978-0-295-99008-8.

Reviewed by Daniel López del Rincón
Universitat de Barcelona
Department of Art History


In BioArt and the Vitality of Media, Robert Mitchell analyses different issues related to BioArt, an artistic expression that encompasses artworks using both living materials (DNA, microorganisms, cells, tissues) and traditional media (such as painting) as a way of engaging with the "problematics" of biotechnology. Mitchell's contribution is foremost theoretical and provides methodological tools for research on BioArt.

The book begins with an approach to the broad concept of BioArt, continues with an overview of the historical scientific and artistic conditions that favoured the emergence of BioArt, and concludes with a discussion on the importance of using living media in artworks. Mitchell uses a solid structure and a clear language, making it accessible for anyone interested in the intersection between art, biology and technology. However, as the book progresses, the analysis becomes more complex and also more interesting, linking concepts of Immanuel Kant ("disgust"), Gilles Deleuze ("affect") and Gilbert Simondon ("individuation" and "metastability"). The main text also refers to a wide range of references, which directs the reader to further discussions on terms and concepts as well as other interesting issues.

At present there is still no established term to define the artistic practices focused in the context of biology, as demonstrated by the profusion of terms proposed: "Genetic Art" (Steve Tomasula), "Transgenic Art" (Eduardo Kac) or "Art Biotech" (Jens Hauser). Mitchell uses the term "BioArt" to establish an internal subdivision (including "prophylactic" and "vitalist" BioArt) that can include highly diverse works. The "prophylactic tactic" refers to works that operate from outside the context of biotechnology, usually applying traditional media (e.g. Alexis Rockman, The Farm, 2000), whereas the "vitalist tactic" reflects on biotechnology using their own media, such as working with laboratory techniques and using living material as artistic material (e.g. David Kremers, Gastrulation, 1992). Mitchell's proposal offers an alternative to others classification such as the one of Natalie Jeremijenko (Creative Biotechnology: A User's Manual, 2005: 14-16), which distinguishes between "inevitable" and "dystopian", with reference to the critical position of artists towards the use of biotechnology.

Art history, art sociology and media theory are the main disciplines to which this book contributes.

Regarding art history, Mitchell identifies three stages in the development of BioArt.The first (1930s and 1940s) is based on the use of Mendelian's laws of inheritance (e.g., artistic plants of Edward Steichen). The second (1970s to 1990s), is the overcoming of the "silence" in genetics that followed the eugenic atrocities of Nazism, and incorporates new techniques of molecular biology to genetic intervention, with artists like George Gessert, Joe Davis and Eduardo Kac. Finally, the third (since 2004) is based on the association between BioArt and bioterrorism following the legal persecution of the artist Steve Kurtz.

However, it is not Mitchell's aim to provide a list and descriptions of bioartistic works (as done, with a broader framework, by Stephen Wilson in Art+Science Now). Mitchell establishes two fundamental references of Twentieth Century Art, and thereby enabling the understanding of the very nature of BioArt: "ready-made" and "performance". In the tradition of "ready-made", BioArt reframes industrial objects in two ways: producing the sense of utilization of real biotechnology and using the gallery as a space to promote the artistic conception of biotechnology. Regarding "performance", BioArt inherits the confusion of boundaries between art and life, mainly due to the use of living material and also the ephemeral nature of the artwork.

Regarding art sociology, Mitchell asserts that BioArt (in its vitalist tactic) lies within the triangle of "innovation ecology" that characterizes biotechnological research: Research Institutions, Corporations and the Public. This contradicts the extended idea that BioArt acts from outside the system with greater objectivity, as has been argued, e.g., by Natalie Jeremijenko (op. cit.: 11) and by Eduardo Kac ("GFP Bunny", Leonardo, 2003: 101).

Regarding media theory, Mitchell bases the uniqueness of BioArt in the double meaning of the term "medium" both in artistic discourse, understood as the material substrate that enables communication (e.g. television or a canvas), and in biological discourse, understood as the means to maintain nutritional compound living cells and organisms. Mitchell intends to recover the concepts of "metastability" and "individuation" in order to establish a new theory of media that matches the characteristics of unity and change that define the living environment used in BioArt.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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