Lecture and Discussion Notes - Week 3/4: Organisms as Art


Science Vs. Art: where are we in our dialog?

Real science: gene splicing - gfp in to mice, or firefly protein in to tobacco, or goat + sheep embryo to create knowledge through empiricism

Real art: gfp bunny and others, bacteria with images encoded in genome, microacoustic signatures to create knowledge through aesthetic experiences, visual culture, dialog.

Adding context: Marshall McCluhan: the "medium is the message."

Reading for last week: Practices of looking

Representation: Use of language and images to create meaning about the world. (understand, define, describe)

Systems of representation: language, visual media, with "rules and conventions about how they are organized."

The Genetic Code is a system of rules and conventions for organizing/communicating information.

So is the structure of a gene, or genes and other sequences on chromosomes.

Question: If the"media is the message" then, what is the message in using genetics as a representational medium?

Historical debate: is it a reflection or are we creating the world through these constructs? Is the way we make meaning only through specific cultural constructs? Would GFP bunny have the same meaning for someone in a nonwestern culture that is not invested in the potential economic gains of genomics?

When considering works:

  • Roland Barthes, French theorist
  • Denotative: "to denote" - presents evidence, apparent truths, literal, descriptive meaning
  • Connotative: cultural/historical context of the image and the viewers' lived, felt knowledge of context, social and personal meaning
  • Use these concepts to discern differences in images functioning as evidence vs expression
  • Myth: cultural values and beliefs expressed through connotation; hidden set of rules and conventions specific to certain groups are made to seem universal an given for a society. Myth takes a connotative meaning and makes it appear denotative, (literal/natural). See this in advertising where a product is presented as part of a lifestyle, you are buying the lifestyle.
  • Mode of production, relationship to time, ability to be reproduced affect the meaning we make
    • Conventional photos/film - time delay between image capture and distribution: developing/printing
    • TV: electronic film (video): real-time "live" transmission, simultaneous with events, widely reproduced
    • Cinetmaitc film/TV: combination of images with sound/music in to narratives, meaning dependent on sequencing - time delay as sequence is compiled into narrative
    • Digital/CG images: simulations represent a virtual world, yet can be set forth as real; lower truth-value for altered images
  • Context affects meaning: a change in context produces a change in meaning
    • social power and ideology (systems of belief) ;
    • ideology: (def'n): "the broad but indispensable, shared set of values and beliefs through which individuals live out their complex relations to a range of social structures." A way of making certain culturally/socially created values/assumptions seem as if they are natural (inevitable). Create assumptions about the way things and how they should be. Key: take these as "natural" "given" "inevitable" and not seen as belief systems created to further a specific culture. Social institutions (family, education, medicine, law, government, entertainment industry) produce and affirm ideologies.

Visual culture integral to ideologies: images and media representations used to produce ideologies and used as tools of persuasion to adopt an ideology; how we "look" at these images/media representations is linked to our ideologies;

  • ideologies projected on to images/media representations (regulation, categorization, identification, evidence, notions of good/evil, beauty, social norms)
    • E.g. mug shot: framing and composition connote deviance and guilt.
    • ideological assumptions underlie aesthetic concepts: dark = evil, light = good
  • propaganda: using false representations to lure people into holding beliefs that may compromise their own interests (prop. Vs. adv. - "truth in adv.")
  • generalized process: personal ideologies,

What ideologies is genomic art engaging and challenging?

  • Social/ethical/ecological implications of biotechnology: raise awareness
  • Is bioengineering the same or different from conventional breeding? What happens when a bioengineered plant is under "stress"? Stress induced pleiotropic effect: control of many traits by one gene under conditions of stress (drought, lack of nutrients etc.) these are not desired outcomes of plant engineering and are not naturally occurring, are unexpected and un controlled.(see http://www.biotech-info.net/AAASgen.html)
  • New technologies change our perceptions of ourselves and our world. With biotechnology the distinctions between natural and artificial blur.
  • Digital art (does not use finite raw materials, uses digital tools [software, computers, digital cameras]) has been developed over the past 7+ years, and was seen as a way of democratizing the arts. (e.g. anyone can publish on the Internet). Where will genetic art take this?



"Discoveries in the sciences create new ways of see ing the world, which means they create new ways of making representations of the world. Here is where art and science cross paths: ways of representing the world."

Ellen K.Levey
Contemporary Art and the Genetic Code, 1996