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Artistic Immersion in Biology Laboratory


Art and Biolab











BioArtLab Gallery


Documents from Adam Zaretsky's Research Affiliation with the Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Arnold Demain Laboratory of
Microbiology and Industrial Fermentation

Statement from 1999-2001:

I have been attempting to determine whether music has any effect on the growth and/or production of pharmaceuticals by an engineered strain of E. coli. With only an MFA, this is a vast undertaking, which is further complicated by my own preoccupations about the near future effects of genetic engineering on our social milieu. By immersing myself in the culture of Post Doctoral research with a solid anthropological fervor, I have both participated and observed the processes by which this new technology unfolds. I have also refined both my fears and hopes (sometimes coexistent) of just how far biotechnological alterity has come and where we may end up going with it.

How does an artist who specializes in automatic noise collage, pluriform digital media and performative excess interact with the characters, processes, and organisms of everyday biological research? How do I attempt to ‘do’ science? And how does my artistic process respond to this strange habitat? Finally, what common ground do we find between the disciplines and what conflicts seem irresolvable, subject to glorious and interminable debate? These are the questions that inform my daily life.

On the grand scale, molecular biology is simultaneously seen in Utopic and Dystopic lights. A great deal of hope is invested in the products of genetic engineering. Many novel strains of life are being used to bolster markets like global agriculture, animal husbandry/IVF, drug development and gene therapy (somatic and germline). The possible elimination of many inherited or acquired diseases keep a great many suffering people watching for promising results from recent clinical trials. A great deal of fear is also cathected to the biotechnological sector. It is not unusual to confront Biophobic visions of environmental apocalypse or intuit military applications. To top it off, we are becoming Posthuman and slowly dealing with the loss of human identity as we had thought we were. It is for this reason that my hopes and fears coagulate around the central question of ‘What Is Bad Taste?’ as it becomes imbedded in life’s cascade.

Scientific and industrial organisms, created for specific utilization or for the furtherance of comprehension, are also expressions of aesthetic choices. This is why I feel it is my duty as an artist to learn these technologies. Instead of phobic reaction, I am attempting to critically embrace the processes of life’s permanent and inheritable alteration. New reproductive strategies are opening the doors to rapid evolutionary trends, nationalized, racialized, popular and corporate. Are there more aesthetic organisms? The lack of a common global aesthetic and a historical track record of bad taste (i.e. ethnic cleansing, line dancing, liposuction, most painting) provides me with the impetus, the eclectic fecundity to guarantee iconoclasm in a situation which could all too easily lead to the erasure of the same. This is the impediment and the allure that epitomizes the crossroad between biology and the arts.

As to the less theoretical arm of my activities, my position at MIT has been an immersion into the most obscure culture I have yet to encounter. I have learned to mix my own stock solutions, to run an accurate fermentation of E. Coli ZK650 and to assay for secondary metabolites (Microcin B17). I have obtained interesting results from playing Engelbert Humperdinck’s Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours. It appears that the production of antibiotics may have increased. There are multiple explanations for this, being narrowed down through further experimentation. One possible cause could be that ‘The Humperdinck Effect’ is caused by annoyance. Being subjected to loud, really awful lounge music for two days in a row may bother the cells. Then, they may produce antibiotics to fight against a perceived threat the only way that they know how. Although my application of music to incubating cells has the potential to increase pharmaceutical production world wide, I am more interested in what kind of music E. Coli prefer and which kind they dislike. If I can establish a preference, I would consider hosting Cellular Bandstand a syndicated TV program playing back the hits of the Bacterial Top Forty.

I would like to propose a furtherance of my own knowledge and techniques towards a long-term yet achievable end; The ability to understand the processes of molecular and developmental biology as an art practice. If there will be an intelligent response to the future of industrial ecology then I would like to be able to be an active part of it. And if the future of art lies beyond the species barriers which until recently were walled up by natural selection, I would like to be able to teach this art to the next wave of the intrigued non-scientists. Whether we are guerrillas or just curious, there is a subset of the creative universe that needs to know the inner workings of life.

The techniques that I would like to understand in both practice and theory (including my own versions thereof) are as follows: Isolation and Culturing of Embryonic Stem cells, A Deep and Personal understanding of Developmental Biology especially in the realm of Morphology, Specialization of Pluripotent Cells into Novel Progeny cells through Addition/Restriction of Expressed Genes, Nuclear Transplantation of 'choice' cell lines into Enucleated eggs (i.e. Cloning). This is biological practice and, sans the questionable logic of the science in question, this is Life in general, both veiled and unveiled. Since I do not expect to thoroughly know and understand all of the mysteries in this lifetime, my goals for my next years might be within the realm of the achievable.





Footnoted: Journal Sytematic Biology