Original publicado na Leonardo Reviews http://leonardo.info/reviews/nov2014/beareaud-etxeberria.php
META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts
by Annick Bureaud, Roger Malina and Louise Whiteley, Editors
Leonardo, Cambridge, 2014
691 pp., illus. eBook, $7.99
Reviewed by David Etxeberria
School of Arts and Design, Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, Portugal
META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts is a fascinating book that will be of the interest of many Leonardo readers, art and science enthusiasts. Most of them will find a large number of familiar essays that were important in the construction of a reflective thinking about the coupling of art, synthetic biotechnology and ALife. Even if this book doesn’t go further enough in the theoretically thinking of Meta-Life, surprisingly, it creates an excellent theoretical field gathering 45 articles that inspired a growing practice in the contemporary art of the last decades.
Thus, this is not just a book that tries to point a future to the couple of art and science, but the construction of a real bridge between the past, the present and the future of art and science collaborations. Consequently, META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts establishes, simultaneously, several speeches which seem important to highlight: The theoretical and historical context of artistic actions that operate between biology and life; The combining of artificial life and artistic practices; Bioart; The emergence of Bio-fiction, Biodesign and Bioarchitecture and, lastly, the DIY Biology.
All of these speeches are admirably discussed by authors derived from different fields and try to present new discussions not only confined to art but to a real approach of issues such as the risks of biotechnology and the ethics surrounding art practices. But most important than these discussions is the ability demonstrated by the coupling of art and science to bring ordinary people to the process of making in order to play and discover new ways of participation. These open contributions of art and science are precisely one of the most important reasons to provide new challenges to the power structures and to the process of decision-making in the creation and managing of life.
Most of this work seems to focus on the importance and on the need of the creation of broader debates around the breaking of barriers between art and life. This breakdown is constantly demonstrated in this book through personal testimonies or across considerations of artists and scientists who, at one point, decided to prove that nature is not a separate entity of humanity. Therefore, in this book we can value reflections and experiences of artists, researchers, art historians, among many others, trying to understand “life as it could be”.
There are a few examples that illustrate this approach among several experiences and reflections. But it seems more interesting to identify a common thread among them. One of which is the “policy of openness” and the idea that these new contributions between the intersection of art and life can enrich society. This is especially noticeable in Morgan Meyer’s essay, when he reveals the phenomenon of biology democratization at different levels: spatially, technically, socially and economically. However, this policy of intervention can be found transversely in almost all the testimonies given in this book. One practical example of the necessity of the creation of social platforms through art, of the compulsion of establishing new forms of social engagement are artworks such as the Worry Dolls of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, artworks that operate with and for the audience.
Despite the importance of the whole book, which presents several important perspectives (historical, reflective and practical) that it must be given is due prominence to the last section. Primarily, because this section was especially commissioned to this edition, but mainly because the DIY Bio “community” stands for a recent phenomenon that pushes further the possibilities for a truly participation of citizens in the discussions about life. This question is decidedly important to retain (even if this community is still somewhat limited and still too heterogeneous) because it may enable the possibility of new advances in educational and social goals in the establishing of a truly science for the citizens and, in terms of market, a step forward to the empowerment and autonomy of the citizen in the decision making processes about life.
The book is of great resource both for its ideas and for the theoretical and historical compilation of essays. It should be noted, though, that many of the questions raised in this book are still developing, but will subsidize new analysis. It should also be noted, however, that it is a step forward in the answer to a great amount of questions. Therefore, it is lacking testimonies or evidences that these practices can truly benefit citizens’ engagement. In this sense, while we can enjoy this book, we must recognize that is an excellent starting point to other reflections and analyses to come.