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The Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz

What follows is a four part depth ethical foray into The Workhorse Zoo with accompanying quizzes.


Art and Biolab







The Workhorse Zoo installation was enacted by Julia Reodica and Adam Zaretsky as a part of Unmediated Vision an exhibition curated by Stacy Switzer at the Salina Art Center in Salina, Kansas from Jan. 26 to March. 24, 2002. The project was funded by The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology.

Description: We feel a strong desire to surround ourselves with the most known and least know organisms on earth, the industrial workhorses of molecular biology. When we say surround ourselves, we mean in a teeming and messy way, flies and worms and frogs. We have filled a portable cleanroom (an aseptic containment facility) with the least aseptic barrage of industrial life possible. The 8 foot by 8 foot Simplex Isolation System CleanRoom houses a variety of the workhorses of Molecular Biology together in environments of coexistence and natural integration. In a strange way we are demented naturalists, as is nature in many strange ways. So, more than any essential anality on either side lets revel in bioart as a love for slimy, gooey, sticky, pulsating, throbbing, jumping, flapping, living and dying, eating and having sex, Everyday Life.

Public Knowledge Purpose: To introduce the public these particular species in an installation environment. We feel as if the display of these animals in a spectator arena is an aid towards intelligent discussion about animal research, pro or con, without the moral superiority of pat answers. These are the organisms that shoulder the brunt of scientific invasiveness. These are the organisms whose genomes have been sequenced and partially annotated. These are the evolutionary templates with whom we search for homologies to assess our own inherited pains. Much of the public has little or no idea how much the deadly study of these select strains effects their health and potential physical future.


By discussing the ethical edge-workings of the Workhorse Zoo, we are exasperating an already contentious arena. Various competing and ideologically inflexible concepts of animal cruelty and care are in a verbal and sometimes physical brawl for the moral high ground. There are many conceptions of what a properly functioning artist is. One way to measure the degree of artistic efficiency being expressed in any presentation would be to gauge how much of a royal ‘fly in the ointment’ their works are for everyone involved. We don’t expect everyone to agree with all of our actions. Through our expressions of personal philosophy, we hope to scramble, through contention and incongruity, the multiplicity of outdated and inhibitional humanenesses we live in. We function only as underscorers of the porous membrane between our ‘human’ cultures and the rest of the lifeworld.

Our pride and willingness to discuss important issues surrounding nature/culture issues and human/other relations implies a public invitation to intelligent debate. Conceptual novelties are expressed in the living arts, with or without the meddling of artists, scientists or ethicists. Life is alive and mutating, officially and unofficially. It is only within the situational ethics of pluralist integrities that an effective debate has a chance of flourishing. Life is not composed of pat answers and shallow assumptions. This is why this essay includes many more questions than answers.The Workhorse Zoo was a display of nine of the most studied industrial organisms of Modern Molecular Biology living together in a ‘glass house’.

The Organisms:
Bacteria - E. coli
Yeast - C. cerevisiae
Plants - A. Thaliana and Fresh Wheat
Worms - C. elegans
Flies - D. melanogaster
Fish - D. rerio
Frogs - X. laevis
Mice - M. musculus
Humans - H. sapiens

With the exception of the Zebrafish, Wheat and the mead-brewing Yeast, all of the organisms were pedigree, wild-type laboratory breeds. They were either donated or bought and all of them (with the exception of the local hybrid wheat) were shipped United Parcel Service to the Art Center from their respective vendors. The E. Coli, Worms and Flies came from Carolina.com. The Yeast came from Beerathome.com. The Plants were donated by Lehle Seeds (Arabidopsis.com) and The Land Institute, which is a local eco-minded hybrid wheat lab. The Fish came from Santa Fe Pets, a local pet store who ordered them from a tropical fish vendor in Florida. The albino Xenopus Frogs were donated by Enasco.com. The mice came from Charles River Laboratories, 1-800-LAB-RATS. One mouse order was shipped as newborn pups / lactating mum combination and the other was a timed pregnant mother expecting on or around the opening. We, the only voluntary, informed and consenting subjects in this installation, were the representatives of human organisms. We came in from San Francisco, California on commercial airline flights.

For the first week of the installation, all of the organisms lived together (or were housed) inside of an 8’ X 8’ cleanroom lent to us by Simplex Isolation Systems. All of the air in the enclosure was HEPA filtered, insuring that no airborne life larger than 3 microns was able to enter the enclosure. Of course all the organisms were released inside of this Aseptic Containment Facility, making the point moot. Worms were released into the soil and the water. Flies were released into the air. Overlapping microenvironments were sustained according to the needs of the organisms in question. The Fish and the Frogs had water filters and aeration. The Mice, Plants and Worms had moist mulchy soil to burrow into. The humans were given a fridge and a hotplate as well as a porto-potti.

All of the organisms were allowed to interact with each other. In fact, multi-species interaction was encouraged. The interior architecture reflected our desire to overlap our culture’s generic definitions of kinds of interaction with ‘other’ life. This is why the interior of the cleanroom was designed to emulate the architecture of a kitchen, a water garden, a farm, a laboratory and a natural setting all in one. An experimental Earth/Air/Water Interface was put in place to help socialize these disparate varieties to each other. It was a rather successful attempt as the Frogs and the Mice were seen chatting along the perimeters of their respective interfaces.

The actual artists were only physically present during the first week of the installation, Jan 26th - Feb 3rd 2002. During that time Adam did not leave the enclosure. Over the period of a week, Adam and Julia took on daily personas to reflect various devolutionary conceptions of what it means to be a part of pop culture in a multi-organismic world. We were particularly interested in the ways in which cultural conceptualizations of Food, Animal Experimentation, Pets, Wildlife and Entertainment can be blurred, transgressed, confuted and variously de-trenched for re-evaluation in one multifaceted display. We took on different relational personas over this weeklong odyssey and we tried to live through the eyes of these usurped identities as follows:

Day One - Biotech Workers Day
Day Two - do-it-yourself Punk Biotech Hobbyists Day
Day Three - Bioterrorist Day
referencing both Al-Queda and (fast)food poisoning
Day Four - Medical Patient/Doctor Day
Day Five - Caveman/Anthropologist Day
Day Six - Wild Animal/Lion Tamer day
Day Seven - Infant/Mother Day

Within the first week of The Workhorse Zoo, the installation had become a part of the Global entertainment network, which meant that the Animals (including the humans) had become another in the long line of Real Television styled, ironic volunteers in the media war against personal privacy. Like a multispecies Big Brother, The Real World and Survivor, we had voluntarily displayed ourselves spread eagle on a non-stop 24-hour web cam and through personal interaction with the hungry, voyeuristic eyes of Middle America. We had college level Art, Biology and Psychology classes, high school and elementary classes, church groups, lawyer’s luncheons, art appreciation groups, goth-punk contingents and local farmers filtering through on a daily basis. There were also rewarding moments of public purview, mostly when the little children entered the Zoo and held or fed a lab mouse or a lab frog for the first time. Whether they would become future Biologists, Bioethicists or VivoArtists or all three was not up to us. It was a joy to facilitate the interactions.

Instructions for the following Quizzes:

We have our own way of seeing and commenting on the State of Naturality/Humanity in which we inhabit. Please feel free to be lucid, transparent and forthcoming. Though we may disagree on some of these points, the stimulus of debate should be a service to all sides and we value your opinions. Please, try to cover each of these important points and please try to describe why you hold these views.

Quiz 1:

What is your view on the Origin of these organisms, before domestication and now as mail-order commodities, particularly laboratory breeds. Where should they be if not where they are? Why is this your belief?

What is your view on the live Shipping of these organisms, especially pregnant and neonatal Postal shipments? Why is this your belief?

What is your view on the Housing of these organisms, in particular the ethics of multispecies housing? Should multiple organisms be allowed to live together under the jurisdiction of human compatriots? Why is this your belief?

What is your view on the variety of settings collaged upon each other inside this education/entertainment/agitprop environment? How is this different than a nature-ish setting at a zoo or the minimum requirements for keeping laboratory animals? Is ‘The Wild’ any better? Are any of these settings acceptable.

Is there a way to determine what an acceptable or unacceptable environment may be? Why is this your belief?



The most difficult panopticonical dealywhak to put up with during the week of living in the installation, was the front window of the museum, which had visitors at all hours. We were central and at street level open for viewing by both foot and auto traffic. That meant putting up with very human banging on the windows by drunken teens in the middle of the night and whole families unconscientiously knocking and waving way before eight in the morning. The horn beeping became a cacophony at times. Feelings of exposure, a kind of indeflectable, pornographic focus were experienced by Adam, Julia and their seemingly less literate friends as well during their term as display animals. Upon leaving the enclosure, Adam and Julia drove down a dirt road appropriately named Hamburger Lane to the nearest Wheatfield/Cow farm and just sniffed the domesticated nature with a hearty inhale. It was nice to be outside of that cage and just stand under the sun near a little house on the prairie.

The non-human Animals stayed on display in the Cleanroom for another seven weeks, well fed and housed by the Art Center staff. Although they were plenty fed, the Frogs continued to eat a Fish now and then. Of the 50-60 mice, (from a start of two Moms and two litters of Pups minus the four-five that were eaten), about ten were given away as pets after a radio advertisement of their availability. I believe there were a few escapes as well. The rest (~200 mice) were released in the spring. An unnamed abandoned barn near a Kansas wheat field became their new home. May they enjoy their release. We are aware that many or all of them may have died and/or been eaten upon release. We are also of the opinion that the non-native CD-1 Wild-Type Swiss mice whom have not left the lab for hundreds of generations deserved a chance on their own.

It is our sincere hope that some of them make a niche for themselves in the heartland of the USA. If any of them make it, they have achieved a rodent version of the American Dream. Forcibly deported from Switzerland in the 1920’s by the Rockefellers, held as a commodity in Boston’s most biotech intensive rivulet, the Charles River, forced to be art collaborators, they now have a chance at independence in the Creekbeds of the Biblebelt… in the GMO wheatfields of Pop Americana… in the Breadbasket of the West.

Quiz 2:

What is your opinion on animal exhibits in general and the essence of pop voyeurism in particular as it pertains to the ethical treatment of animals on display for mass media consumption?

Some criticism has been laid against this exhibition for accentuating the popular aspects of Surveillance Television, euphemistically referred to as Real TV. Shows like Survivor have emphasized daredevil tactics around ironic-at-best stabs at emulating ‘red in tooth and claw’ pop-Darwinism. We are quite obviously referencing these faux re-tribalisms in our installation. What do you think is the effect on living organisms of the omnipresent gaze of spectatorship?

Is there a continuity between the ways of looking which are fetishized in laboratories, the complacent viewing of art appreciators and the voyeuristic thrill of surveillance TV as low-brow entertainment?

Are the subjects of study also the objects of desire? Or, are they subjects of ridicule and objects for control’s sake?

Does being a being on display imply stress or suffering?

Is it possible that reflections on being a person trying to retain what it means to be human while under the observation of the whole of society has any redeeming social value or is it just a currently accepted form of pornography?

Please comment on these questions and explain why are these Your beliefs? and explain why this is your belief?

How do you respond to the intentional release of laboratory grade wild-type organisms into the mostly agrarian landscape of non-urban Kansas? What other options are there to releasing organisms? The ten giveaway pets may also be subject to mistreatment. They may even become food for mouse eating pets like snakes. The lab would gladly take them back for experimental subjects but that would entail a sort of Double Jeopardy, subjects of art and science in one short life, ugh.

Is there a rehabilitation program for rodents that would have been more appropriate than The Workhorse Zoo at preparing domestic animals for the ‘freedom’ of the Outside World? If the mice are able to establish their own colony independent of human command and control, is that a good thing? Why is this Your belief?

How well trained are you in judging artistic merit of independent, multispecies performance? Do you have any experience in art criticism or art history? Are you a bioethicist by trade? Not being a fan of expert knowledge, we ask, how do you decide what is real art, hollow art, farcical art or credible art and are those judgments mutually exclusive?

How do you define what it means to be human, humane, good or just? Is it possible for a human type primate to make real, serious, hollow, semihumane, anthropoliminal (humandecentric), multispecies art just? Why is this Your belief?


There was a focus on food during this first week of the Zoo. Processed food for animals was given at regular intervals to all the denizens of the Zoo for all the days of the installation except for day five and six. Adam also ate mostly pre-prepared and pre-packaged food. For the feeding of Adam, we had actually exerted selection pressures on some of the most processed foods on the planet. He literally lived on sugar cereals, frozen entrees (in particular Hungry Man Dinners) and canned products like Beefaroni. Sara Lee pound cakes and orange sodas were a staple of his diet. He entered the clean room with about three days worth of junk food but he stayed in the box for seven days. On the fourth day, the townspeople of Salina were asked to feed the Human. They showed up with more Fast Food and Junk Food, assuming that this was his preference. Happymeals, Gummy Worms and Animal Crackers were among the signs of ‘Animal Care’ among the local populace. All of the other animals were fed proper rations on day four.

On the fifth and sixth days, pre-processed food was withheld and a botchy attempt at a bioshere-esque, field-ecology-like ‘unsustainable in the long term’ food chain was enacted. It was a our faithful presupposition that the habitat was a friendly commensurate faux-eden with its necessary compliment of prey/predator relations as well as some natural parasitism possible. The number of organisms and their reproductive rates were high, and it was not mere strange conjecture to think that no organism would starve, even without food aids from the outside world. It was also reasoned that if animals did die of some inability to escape domestic security habits… they would be eaten by the other animals and not go to waste.

Suffice to say, the food was live but not improper, no animals starved in the Workhorse Zoo and these two days were not that different than the days before or after with the exception that no factory was producing the Frog Brittle or the Hungry Man TV Dinners. They were instead, internally produced by the farm, zoo, kitchen, lab, garden, natural area which was capable of short-term self-preservation as a contained and interactive multi-organismic earth bound space station. This is not unlike everyday life.

Quiz 3:

What is food and what is not food? Is eating ever humane?

We are chained to the food chain but often we cannot stand to be reminded of the origins of our nutrition. How can we have such an inordinate focus on food and still pretend that food comes from a box? What is processed food?

Has farming, hunting and herding actually become a taboo activity? If so, what has replaced these activities? Why are these your beliefs?

Should we, as artists, have protected the fish from the fish eating frogs? Should we have tried to prevent the eating of fruit flies by the tropical fish? Is there a difference between these two diets in captivity? Why are these your beliefs?

Is vegetarianism automatically more humane than carnivorism? Plants share sex, birth, death and many of our developmental stages. Do plants have feelings? We know they do go into shock when they are cut down. We also know that they enjoy meat as food. Many organic farmers feed their plants bone meal, blood meal and fish meal along with varieties of manure from animals of varies diets. A piece of fruit is, like an egg, food for the unborn kindred of a living organism’s fertile seed. Are plants assumed to be a more cruelty free choice for the moral dietician? Why is this your belief?



Another everyday life experience was the death exposed during those two days of deprivation, death without a repackaged gloss. With issues of food inevitably come issues of death as there is no food that is not derived from the once living. Some animals were killed for consumption. Their deaths were brought about as quickly as possible. The four neonatal mice that were eaten were caught and killed by Adam’s hands while dressed in a Disney Tigger suit. Their necks were broken by hand; they were gutted and deep-fried. They were eaten whole, head and bones Et. Al. They tasted a lot like bacon. The Frogs which were eaten were decapitated and skinned (their skin is poisonous), gutted and fried. The fish were beheaded. Plants were sauted. All this was actuated by Adam dressed as a caveman. Any leftovers from the gutting and/or after the meals were buried in the soil of the installation.

Local citizens of Salina joined us for taste tests of fried Frogs, Fish, Plants and Mice with fresh Beer. Adam ate Fish, Frogs, Mice, Plants and Beer. Julia also ate Mice and had her fair share of the un-carbonated mead/beer. Jessica, a local teenager, ate frogs with us; she had no beer as she was underage. PeeWee, a local Blue House Martin bird refuge organizer and road-kill stew aficionado, ate mice and beer with us. Mice ate Plants; in particular they clear-cut all of the fresh wheat that had been transplanted the day before. Frogs ate Fish. Fish ate Flies and Worms and their own Eggs. Worms ate Bacteria and Excrement. Basically, everyone ate whomever he or she (or in the case of the hermaphroditic worms, heesh) could in a sort of anarchist-commensuralist feast.

We are aware of the varieties of ceremony that American culture practices after the death of a familiar organism. Postmortem humans are relegated by law to be buried in designated spots or cremated (incinerated) and redistributed at the surviving family member’s discretion. Ceremonial invisibility is practiced by most slaughterhouses and the meat or vegetables are often processed so as to become unrecognizable as the full organisms.

Prayer is often offered before consumption of both raw and cooked lifeforms. Excess meat from food preparation is usually just put in the garbage for collection and distribution to a local landfill. A good farmer would compost their excess organic matter or feed it to other livestock or pets.

Pets are sort of liminal in their semi-humanness. This allows them the courtesy of ceremonial burial but often within the ‘owner’s’ yard or nearby local plot without legal jurisdiction being enforced. Because of this freedom, a gravestone or similar memento is often created on the spot.

Research methods ask for deep freezing (-80C) followed by incineration of what is presumed to be biohazardous material. By burying our dead, we, as culturally immersed VivoArtists, were of course referencing these traditions in a very sentimental way. Even artists are allowed a certain degree of sentimentality, but to no avail.

The mice were also seen digging up the leftover Frog bones that had been buried in the soil of the installation and gnawing them clean.

It was also noticed by Pee Wee that while we ate mice… the mice were also eating one of their own. This was not planned or especially celebrated, but it was a fated cue as to our breaking with metaphor. Here mouse will and co-performance showed that we were engaging the lifeworld as an inseparable part of non-anthropocentric behavior (of which human behavior is a minor subset).

After ‘Wild Animal Day’, regular store bought food was given at standard intervals to the remaining animals for the duration of the exhibition. On the other hand, they were not prevented from eating each other as a dietary supplement because it was presumed that this was an occasion of inter-species communication. Was this the inevitable meet/meat-ing of the mortal forces that call us to be finite as entities yet infinite in the organic recycling that is this ecosphere we call Earth?

Quiz 4:

Is the political or aesthetic simulation/actuation of living and sometimes vertebrate food chains inhumane? Why is letting animals hunt and eat live food (each other) in a display environment inhumane? For instance, why is it cruel to let fish eating frogs eat live fish instead of processed fish pellets?

Do we show preference for the well being of organisms with spines over non-vertebrates? Does the hierarchy of life’s value happen to coincide with the proximity of that organism to the look or morphological development of Homo sapiens?

Do you think cultural safeguards should protect flies or worms from sadistic artists? What is your opinion on the accidental witnessing of mouse cannibalism? It is not unusual for mice to eat each other but it was not planned for. In a lab situation it might be left underreported or filed away. The role of chance in an installation like this is not to be underestimated or under reported.

Do you blame the artists for this act or do you give the mice some agency for their own behaviors? How do you differentiate between human effect and animal instinct and/or animal consciousness? Are mice capable of being inhumane or inmousish? Is interspecies guilt a two way street? Why is this your belief?

Is human identity a culture or a cult? Is there a difference between these two conceptions of humanity? Is it less human to kill what you eat? When and why is this appropriate?

In conjunction, what is your opinion on the eating of laboratory strains of animals by performance artists? How is this different from the eating of Beefaroni or Hungry Man TV dinners by performance artists? I am asking two questions here. First, why processed meat (and even vegetable matter) would never get a complaint in the first place while DIY (do it your self) food preparation is taboo for public display? Second, what is the difference between eating lab animals defined as pests outside of the lab (i.e. Mice) lab animals defined as livestock outside of the lab (i.e. Chicks), lab animals defined as pets outside of the lab (i.e. Doggies)? Is there a difference between laboratory animals used for knowledge acquisition and laboratory animals used for nourishment? Why is this Your belief?

What do you think about the burying of dead organisms within an artistic installation? Why is this Your belief?

We have been overt in our detailed quizzes. We are sincerely interested in the your personal eye view on these issues, in detail. As you can see, We are curious about both your beliefs and the philosophies that inform these beliefs.

Email answers here.