Bioart and the communication paradigm of responsibility (2012)

The communication paradigm of responsibility(1)


Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000

We have been taught to assume that communication is a rational, conscious and transmitted between sender and receiver. The theories of communication tell us that it’s essential a code, a channel and, off course, a compulsory feedback. But for the visual artist Eduardo Kac, communication process may not necessarily be a rational process. He shows us that communication can exist at different levels and argues that there’s communication in interspecies and between transgenic bacteria. To defend such ideas Kac will build a concept of communication based on is artwork “GFP Bunny”(1) where one of his goals is “a permanent dialogue between the public and professionals from various disciplines (…) on the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering”(2). Nonetheless, the word dialogue is usually a synonym of communication where the entities that should dialogue are all human beings irrespective of their social role. Therefore, what is the main objective of Kac’s statement? In our opinion, it contains a number of issues from which stands out:

a) The promotion of interaction between experts of different disciplines;

b) Establishing a debate between experts and a wide public.

In this sense, according to Kac, bioart doesn’t establish mere “metaphors that help in the analysis of cultural products”(4), but inaugurate a possibility to create living experiences from dialogue. Basically, Kac is attempting to facilitate a debate about cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering and social responsibility. Although this goal seems simple, it is determined and ambitious, because implies an idea that bioart can establish itself as a stimulus for interdisciplinary communication between the scientific issues and, simultaneously, as a bridge to transform the artwork into real dialogues. This idea of establishing a multidisciplinary discussion isn’t exclusive of Kac, the visual art group Critical Art Ensemble, for example, claims that “the separation between experts and non-experts (the public) is almost complete, and there’s no initiative for the construction of an intersection”(5). This gap must be fought because establishes, especially through education, an environment of global bio-paranoia.

Beatriz da Costa, Pigeonblog,  2006-08

This broader concept of communication is not only non-verbal and non-semiotic. Bioart is about living genes and bacteria’s that alter these concepts and transforms them into real things, such as Genesis (1999) or as the The Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A), Worried Dolls (2000). In this sense, for these artists, bioart can be understood as an integral part of a communication process that involves rethinking our relationship with what surround us, including the cells of our own body. This broader concept of communication is based on a rhizomatic world where everything is connected. However, one problem of this kind of art is that isn’t focused on the visual component, but in the inter-relationship and connectivity field. In this case, we aren’t referring to theoretical or abstract concepts, but to a tangible process that place in crisis the concept of “emitter-receiver bipolarity”(6) and replace it with a broader model based on collaborative art, demanding the spectator’s participation in the artworks creation or in donating the medium (living cells). This idea of communication can also be taken from Robert Mitchell recent work where he distinguishes between two kinds of bioart: a prophylactic bioart that “tends to assume a position as a public agency that receives ‘messages’ of the artists on the evils of scientific or social interest in biotechnology”(7), and a vitalist bio art that “involves the public as part of a wider social body and makes a fold in order to overcome the forms dictated by innovation”(8). It’s precisely this approach that calls for the engagement of the artist, because more important than the message is the engagement that the artist and viewer can experience. Therefore, the communication is of central importance since it establishes folds in the informational flows of the artworks, questioning its boundaries, changing the topology of relationships between people, institutions and organic and inorganic world.

TC&A, The semi-living Worry Dolls, 2012 (Science Gallery)

As Filipe Silva uphold, “art is a language much more immediate than the written word and at the same time, more loaded with meaning”(9). We don’t want to compare two different forms of expression (writing and visual arts). Art signs are closer to the objects themselves, and they are living substances, organic material can go a lot further than simple words accessing to things and interpretations. On the other hand, we are breathing a time when the experience and the embodiment are not opposite concepts. This suggests, in turn, that artworks can be a problematic strategy and that bioart isn’t just mere representations of living beings, they are living beings. Therefore, it seems challenging to use biology to understand our communicative gestures in a wider sense and give birth to new possibilities. However if “we conduct ourselves as gods, giving rise to new organisms with each communicative act”(10), there must be responsibility, because this presents us also with the possibility of (re)establishing codes of communication.

Tagny Duff, Cryobook Archives (2012)

However, in a society obsessed with the medium and its framework it’s natural the consecutive copies of copies, imitations of imitations, produced in the world. It remains for us, therefore, the responsibility to consider whether the content of art will not only be enacted, or if what they want to present us isn’t merely an exercise of pure rhetoric.


(1) Original essay and written specifically for the Hannah Arendt Prize 2012, based on PhD research on the social responsibility of arts and visual artists.
(2) KAC, Eduardo, GFP Bunny, Leonardo, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2003), pp. 97-102. p. 97.
(3) KAC, Eduardo, Ibid. (2003), pp. 97-102. p. 97.
(4) KAC, Eduardo, A imaginação dialógica na arte electrónica In Revista Concicinnitas, Instituto de Artes da Universidade do Estado de Rio de Janeiro, ano 6, n.º 7 (2004). pp. 165-179. p. 165.
(5) Critical Art Ensamble, The Molecular Invasion, Autonmedia (2002). p. 123.
(6) KAC, Eduardo, Ibid (2004). pp. 165-179. p. 167.
(7) MITCHELL, Robert, Ibid. (2010). p. 67.
(8) MITCHELL, Robert, Ibid. (2010). p. 67.
(9) SILVA, Filipe Rocha, Porquê criar imagens visuais? In LEANDRO, Sandra (coord.) Seminários de Estudos de Arte: Estados da Forma I, CHAIA, Ed. Eu é que sei! Evóra University (2007) pp. 75-90. p. 81
(10) MITCHELL, Robert & THURTLE, Phillip, Data Made Flesh, Routledge (2004). p. 19.

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