First of all, I’d just like to thank Mike Lorusso for his lecture and for showing us the various ways science can be used in art as a medium of expression. One of the things Lorusso had brought up in the class was a paper entitled What Was Life?: Answers from Three Limit Biologies by Stephen Helmreich. The essay was a source of inspiration for Jens Hauser and David Familian’s bioart exhibit WETWARE. Helmreich argues that the term “life” does not hold the same meaning as it did years ago. New types of life from the fields of robotics, marine microbiology, and astrobiology just to name a few, have come to the human race’s attention forcing us to acknowledge our previously limited definition of “life.” Helmreich writes that “All these transformations destabilize any naturalistic or ontological foundation that life forms…might provide for forms of life…” (673). In other words, all of the redefining behind our term of “life” results in a reanalysis of how we perceive and interact with life.1
Due to technology, life has become something that we can more easily control. Scientists are able to create controlled experiments where variables that naturally occur at random are manipulated according to the investigators’ desires. In the laboratory, it’s become common practice for humans to remove their influence on an experiment by standardizing the experimental procedure as much as possible. This idea is taken to a fairly extreme level in Orkan Telhan’s bioart piece Biorealize. The piece consists of a “microbial design studio” described as “An Automated and Networked Biolab to Design, Culture, and Test Genetically Modified Organisms.” The hypothetical piece of lab equipment creates organisms that didn’t previously exist through the means of technology. This exhibitins a two-fold manipulation of the natural process of life in the forms of bio- and chemical engineering. The product is advertised as a studio giving the audience the idea that they are in control of this creation of new life. In fact, the slogan, “realize your genetic creations,” is in itself is a statement affirming the idea of humans acting as gods.2
Another example of humans manipulating the natural processes of life is Random International’s Rain Room which has been showcased at LACMA for the past few months. The piece touches on the idea of simulation versus reality and asks questions such as “how would it feel to be immersed in a rainstorm that wouldn’t physically affect you?” Another way of putting this question is “what would it be like to have a force of nature completely at your control?” The way the exhibit works is that the audience is invited to walk into a room where “rain” is pouring all around. The sensors of the room detect an individual’s presence and causes the “rain” at that spot to stop. This allows participants to walk through a rainstorm without getting wet. Random International explained in an interview that “Rain Room gives us the illusion of control…through its imperfections and abstraction, it also clearly shows us the differences between the simulation and the real deal.” Regardless of how much work the artists put into making the piece as realistic as possible, there will still always be that element of human manipulation that separates the experience from that of an actual rainstorm.3
The idea of manipulating life pushes humans to ask themselves how much value they place on the old definition of life that occurred naturally without human influence. Some are obsessed with this ideal of a pure form of life that has no sign of the human touch and consequently place a large amount of value on it. In Klaus Spiess and Lucie Strecker’s performance piece Hare’s Blood +, the DNA of a previous art piece’s hares are extracted and placed into yeast cells. The cells are then “auctioned” off where the amount of living biological material in the specimens depends on the bids of the audience. With this piece, Spiess and Strecker highlight the concept of “living money” where the value of life depends solely on the human audience. I personally find it an extremely fascinating piece because it suggests that the only value “life” has is the value that we humans subjectively place on it. 4
Another piece of media that exemplifies the seemingly arbitrary value of “life” is the 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. In this near future, a company known as Cybertronics aims to create robotic technology with the capability to love. The company succeeds in creating robotic children that help with parents coping with the loss (or potential loss) of their own child. The movie follows the story of David, a Cybertronic child, whose sole purpose is to love and be loved by his human adoptive mother, but ultimately fails due to the fact that he is just a man-made creation that will never be able to replicate or replace a real son. It’s interesting to see how much David acts as a human despite the fact that he’s only a robot and how he is rejected as another form of life by other humans simply because he isn’t the same as them. 5
Life is obviously evolving as technology advances and allows us to see new possibilities of life. I believe that what makes many people hesitant towards accepting life forms such as artificial intelligence or genetically engineered organisms as “life” is the fact that their creation is solely due to us. By creating new life forms, we are essentially playing God which consequently creates a sense of responsibility for what happens to these life forms. If these new life forms turn out to be a mistake for our species and our way of living, we are ultimately the ones held responsible. While it’s a tempting concept to manipulate life and gain a sense of control over the unpredictable, it can also potentially be a dangerous idea in that it can lead to our downfall.
1 Helmreich, Stefan. “What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies.” Critical Inquiry 37.4 (2011): 671-696. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.
2 Telhan, Orkan. Biorealize: Microbial Design Studio. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
3 Random International. Rain Room. 2012. Web. LACMA, Los Angeles.
4 Spiess, Klaus and Strecker, Lucie. Hare’s Blood +. 2015.
5 A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Steven Spielberg. Warner Bros., 2001. Film.