“Bioart” refers to the manipulation of living cells, tissues, or organisms (or their derivatives) for artistic purposes. While artists and biologists have collaborated for centuries to illustrate biological phenomena (you can see some fantastic modern examples of this tradition here), “Bioart” refers to the practice started in the early 1990’s of artists training in and performing techniques from the biological sciences, such as cell culture, genetic engineering, and surgery. Artists have used these technologies to create novel living entities (such as a leather jacket grown in vitro) or modify existing living entities (such as Stelarc’s third ear). These tools provided new options for aesthetic statements (the ability to radically sculpt living tissue to suit particular tastes), ethical statements (if we are growing a small, edible steak in a vat, should we continue to kill cattle for food?) as well as a novel flavor of irony (that “victimless” PETA-endorsed cultured steak required an entire cow’s worth of fetal bovine serum to produce ).
Some bio-artworks incorporate living neurons. Early works such as Force and Intelligence used neural culture for its aesthetic and, er, cultural significance. Later however, neural art work began to incorporate the functional aspects of neurons by recording and initiating neural activity. This bi-directional communication allowed for neural culture to control robotic art installations, giving the biological “brain” a robotic “body”. This embodied neural art is a distinctive subset of bioart much for the same reason that neuroethics is a distinctive subset of bioethics- while similar issues can be addressed (is it alive?), there are a new set of issues that come up (does it feel pain?). In many ways, embodied neural art is the perfect playground for the “extra-rational” side of the neuroethics discussion. Here, novel neural systems, or novel presentations of natural living systems, can be presented to the public in a manner that encourages both critical thinking and the development of new intuitions.
|Peter Gee (center) explains Silent Barrage's processing loop to two museum attendees standing amid the work's robotic "body." On the wall behind them are shown projections displaying rainbow-colored electrical recordings (left) of the neural activity of the biological "brain" that controls the robots, and the view from the overhead cameras (right) that provide the "sensory input" for the "brain." Photo by Philip Gamblen.|