Originally published in Leonardo, Vol. 33, N. 5, 2000, pp. 377-380.

The Fine Art of Creating Life

Amy M. Youngs


The longstanding artistic tradition of creating life-like artworks evolves as technology grows from paint and chisels to computers and DNA manipulation. Artists are now able to create digital works that engage in the processes of life and biological works that exist as art and actual life. The author examines the differing ways in which artificial life and biological artworks smear the boundaries between what is considered natural and unnatural, human and nature, and explores the role biological art might play in relocating humanity within the complex ecological systems of life, rather than above or below it.

Behind much art extending through the Western tradition exists a yearning to break down the psychic and physical barriers between art and living reality - not only to make an art form that is believably real, but to go beyond and furnish images capable of intelligent intercourse with their creators[1].

For the first time the word organic ceases to be an unobtainable ideal held out to the artist; following in the wake of cybernetic technology, systems with organic properties will lead to "sculpture" - if it can be called that - rivaling the attributes of intelligent life [2].
--Jack Burnham

In his book Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century, written in 1968, Jack Burnham predicted the possibility that artists could create amazingly lifelike artworks. He traced this artistic impulse back to the idealized human forms of Greek sculpture, followed by clockwork automata, early kinetic art, and finally the robot and cyborg art of the 1960s. He clearly predicted the artificial life art forms that are being created in silicon today, but he did not foresee the art of creating new biological life forms. Now that genetic engineering companies are bringing forth a cornucopia of new life forms, I wonder about extending into the biological realm Burnham's idea that future artworks might be "capable of intelligent intercourse with their creators."

At this point the field of genetic engineering is too specialized and expensive to be considered as a viable medium for most artists. So it is the genetic engineers who are doing almost all of the creating, while the rest of us on the sidelines are watching with great interest, as traditional species barriers are being breached before our eyes. We have seen sheep-goat chimeras, the blending of tobacco plants with firefly genes, producing luminous plants, and a variety of animals and plants with human genes inserted into them. Presumably these freakish creatures will end up helping humanity by enabling us to make cheaper, better medicines, cure famine and causing the stock market to rise forever. The other presumption is that genetic engineering will disrupt the delicate balance of life and lead to environmental destruction. As an artist, however, I am not as interested in the polarities of this debate as I am in the ways that genetically engineered organisms challenge deeply held convictions about what is "natural" and where humankind stands as the DNA is reshuffled.

Lifelike Creatures Created by Artists

Genetic art fits nicely into the artistic tradition, which, as stated by Burnham, seeks "to break down the psychic and physical barriers between art and living reality." He was not referring to biological genetic art, but to the disciplines of cybernetics and artificial life, which were at that time just beginning to be discovered by artists. Since the time of Burnham's writings, many fantastic, silicon-based organisms have indeed been brought into existence by artificial-life artists. These virtual creatures existing within virtual environments are created with genetic algorithms or genetic programming. Artists working in this field are concerned with the creation of life processes in digital media -- life that interacts with its environment, breeds, and evolves. Artificial life maker Thomas Ray calls it "collaborating with evolution" [3]. His artificial life piece Tierra is a computer-generated universe designed to facilitate the evolution of complex artificial life organisms. Ray speaks of Tierra as a "biodiversity reserve for digital organisms" [4]. His replication of life processes outside a biological medium certainly challenges notions that life resides within carbon-based organisms only. On the other hand, it is not exactly humbling when we consider that the digital universe is programmed by humans.

The artistic team of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau has created an artificial-life piece called Interactive Plant Growing, which allows humans to interact with both living and artificial plants. As a participant/viewer of this piece, I felt like a creator of life as I moved my hands around a living plant to generate real-time, algorithmic plants on a projection screen [5]. Yet it was a sense that would not have been possible without the presence of the living plants as an interface to the artificial ones. The digital pixel-plants are fantastic, but do not give nearly as much of a sense of interaction as I had with the carbon-based plants. With this piece I am reminded that the desire to interact with life is at least as strong as the desire to create it.

Louis Bec is a artist and zoosystematician who creates beautiful, colorful artificial life forms and believes that these new creatures will serve as a kind of communication bridge between the biological and technological worlds. As lovely as his creatures are, they only appear to us on a flat screen and lack the qualities of biological life that cause me to talk to dogs and feel the desire to water wilted plants. Acutely aware of the impulse to create biological life, Bec asks, "Is it not the case that, at the very heart of artistic endeavor, there has long been the demiurgic ambition to create the living via multiple simulations? Do cloning, genetic engineering, and the creation of transgenic animals open the way to teratological art?" [6].

Humankind's position in relation to artificial life organisms is a safe, distant detachment; after all, they are made up of the same elements as video games. That humans have invented the universes within which the digital creatures can live allows us the privileged position of creator as well as the knowledge that we may destroy them without any consequences to our own world. Biological genetic art is very different when one considers that we are made up of the same materials, that the same code is used to construct us and we share the same world.

Genetically Altered Biological Life Forms

The first genetically altered life forms exhibited in an artistic context were Edward Steichen's Delphiniums. Using traditional methods of selective breeding along with colchicine, a drug that altered the plant's genetic makeup, Steichen was able to create strains of delphinium flowers that diverged widely from what had ever been seen before. This kind of accomplishment was generally the territory of flower hall exhibitions at county fairs, but because of his position as a famous photographer and his connections with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Steichen was able to exhibit his flowers there. In 1936, the Steichen Delphiniums show initiated the science of genetics into the context of the art world [7].

Genetically altered flowers would not be shown as art again until 1988, when George Gessert's Iris Project was exhibited at New Langton Arts in San Francisco. Gessert creates his artistic irises by hybridizing wild varieties and discarding the undesirable results in his compost pile. He keeps, and breeds, those flowers that are aesthetically pleasing to him, those that display traits such as vivid vein patterns in their petals and unruffled edges. His decision to compost the flowers that have ruffled edges is both an aesthetic choice and a reaction against commercial flower breeders, who tend to breed for ruffled petals in every flower species. Gessert calls his practice "genetic folk art," and his work points to the way nature is interpreted - even authored -- by humans. This is particularly evident in his Scatter project, in which he disperses extra iris seeds gleaned from his hybridizing activities. For this he has been accused of practicing "genetic graffiti" because he often plants them in the wilderness, where people like to imagine that a state of never-changing purity exists [8]. Yet when logging roads are cut into the land, trees are clear-cut, and new trees planted, no one calls it genetic graffiti, even though these activities do alter the genetics of an area dramatically. With Gessert's folkstyle of genetics, he does not need the expensive tools of genetic engineering to create conceptually intriguing artworks about the interaction of humankind with nature.

Mel Chin is another artist who has been selectively breeding plants in his work. Since 1990, he has been collaborating with scientist Rufus L. Chaney on Revival Field, an ecological restoration of a toxic landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. For this experimental project, they use hyperaccumulators, a group of plants that extract heavy metals from the soil. As the plants grow on the toxic site, they absorb metals like zinc and cadmium, which can be reused once the plants are harvested, dried, and turned to ash. Their hope is that this technology will become self-sustaining, as the costs of cleaning up toxic sites might be recoverable from the recycled metal from the plants. Chin believes that more efficient metal recovery will be possible with bioengineered plants [9]. While it is well-known that human intervention has toxified many environments, Chin and Chaney's project demonstrates that humans are also capable of engineering organic solutions. The Revival Field project blurs our culturally constructed ideas of what is natural and unnatural. Here humans -- who frequently dominate the natural world in ways that contaminate it and so render it "unnatural" -- are instead dominating a natural plant, making it seem less "natural" by altering its genetic makeup, but the end result is a purifying agent for previously contaminated environments. The dichotomy between nature as pure and humanity as its contaminating agent is not so clear here.

Working with bioengineers at MIT, artist Joe Davis intervenes with nature on a microscopic level. His interference occurs at the structural level of E. coli, a living bacterium. He is in a sense creating a new strain of bacterial life by inserting a synthetic piece of DNA into the E. coli that will in turn replicate in future generations. He has encoded a message that can be read back through the DNA sequencing process and decoded to read as an icon he names "Microvenus," which represents life, earth, and human female genitalia [10]. Like Steichen, Gessert, and Chin, Davis is altering the genetics of living beings, but by using the techniques of genetic engineering he is able to directly insert a human message inside an organism. That this strain of bacteria will forever have the mark of human culture may seem to fundamentally denature it. But this perception exists only if nature is assumed to be an entity separate and untouched by humanity. As environmental writer William Cronon points out in his essay "The Trouble with Wilderness," "everything we know about environmental history suggests that people have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing" [11]. Cronon disputes the dualism between humanity and nature on the grounds that "we thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like" [12].

Cloning is another method that has been used to literally create life as artwork. Rather than changing the structure of existing life forms, artist Natalie Jeremijenko makes her statement about genetics by cloning a single black walnut tree 100 times (again, with help from scientists). The baby trees were displayed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in an exhibition entitled Ecotopias, but the work will exist for many years to come, as the trees are being planted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. By revealing the cultural and environmental differences of their particular locations (although they are genetically identical), the trees will stand as a challenge to the popular notion that genetics equals destiny [13].

Why Not Cute, Colorful Animals?

So "why is it that dogs aren't yet blue with red spots, and that horses don't yet radiate phosphorescent colors over the nocturnal meadows of the land?" [14]. Over a decade has passed since that question was posed in Artforum by writer Vilem Flusser, and still we do not see these creatures being created by artists. Artificial-life artists could certainly mock up this kind of scenario in digital form, but it is still out of the reach of artists working with biological genetics. The creation of new mammalian life forms has certainly occurred in the world of science, but no artists have been able to participate as of yet. This will likely change as the tools and techniques become more available and we all become accustomed to the new ways of creating life. The creation of a transgenic animal -- a dog that glows with the green fluorescent protein of a jellyfish -- has been proposed by artist Eduardo Kac in his article "Transgenic Art." A project like this will require a lab with specialized equipment, but since this protein has already successfully been incorporated into mammalian cells, such an animal is entirely possible [15]. The artist's desire to genetically alter a dog may at first seem immoral, until, perhaps, one considers that dogs did not exist before humans genetically altered them through the selective breeding of wolves. While Kac's project has remained unrealized, he has recently succeeded in the creation of a transgenic rabbit that glows green under special lighting. Kac considers his rabbit an artwork, a family pet (named Alba), and an instigator of dialogue on issues such as genetic engineering, biodiversity, normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, and interspecies communication [16].

Whether the art of today has lived up to Jack Burnham's predictions of intelligent interaction between humans and nature may be in question, but there is no doubt that genetic artists have been able to create works that do, as he says, "break down the psychic and physical barriers between art and living reality." Steichen Strain delphiniums, for instance, are available for purchase online at the Burpee Seed Company Web site at a cost of $2.95 for a packet of fifty seeds [17]. Gessert's irises grow in people's gardens and maybe out in the wilderness somewhere; Joe Davis's Microvenus-encoded bacteria is a living testament that nature and culture can reside together in one organism; Mel Chin's pioneering hyperaccumulator plants are working to clean up human-made toxic dumps; and Natalie Jerejimenko's 100 cloned trees are incorporated into the urban forest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

As the rhetoric of the biotechnology industry focuses on the control of biology for the good of humanity, the manipulation of DNA to create new biological life forms seems to assert the superiority of humans over the rest of life on earth. However, the intentions of the artists who have altered biology in their work are not the same as those of the biotech industry, and their artworks do not reinforce the hierarchy that places humanity at the apex. In fact much of their work deeply celebrates nonhuman life while acknowledging -- even pointing to -- humanity's interconnection with it. Perhaps this kind of work has the potential to do what some environmental thinkers believe is imperative: relocate humanity within the complex ecological systems of life rather than above or below it.


1. Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 312.
2. Ibid. [1], 320.
3. Thomas S. Ray, "Evolution as Artist," in Art@Science, ed. Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau (New York: Springer, 1998), p. 82.
4. Ibid. [3], 88.
5. Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Interactive Plant Growing, at Machine Culture, SIGGRAPH '93, Anaheim, California.
6. Louis Bec, "Artificial Life under Tension: A Lesson in Epistemological Fabulation," in Sommerer and Mignonneau [3], 98.
7. Ronald J. Gedrim, "Edward Steichen's 1936 Exhibition of Delphinium Blooms: An Art of Flower Breeding," History of Photography 17, No. 4, 352ñ363 (Winter 1993).
8. George Gessert, "Notes on Genetic Art," Leonardo 26, No. 3, 205-211 (1993).
9. Mel Chin, "Rising Above Our Garbage," lecture delivered the Exploratorium, San Francisco, Jan. 28-30, 1993.
10. Joe Davis, "Microvenus," Art Journal 55, No. 1, 70-74 (Spring 1996).
11. William Cronon, Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.: 1996), p. 83.
12. Ibid. [11], 81.
13. Ecotopias exhibition catalog (San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 1998), p. 14.
14. Vilem Flusser, "Curie's Children," Art Forum 27, No. 2, 9 (1988).
15. Eduardo Kac, "Transgenic Art," Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 6, No. 11 (Dec. 1998); http://mitpress.mit.edu/LEA/.
16. Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny (2000); http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html.
17. Burpee Seed Web Site: http://burpee.goshoppingonline.com/detail.asp?catID=search&prodID=376.

Amy M. Youngs was born in 1968 in northern California. She creates mixed-media interactive sculptures and environments which reveal her interest in the complex relationship between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. She has exhibited her works nationally and is currently a part-time faculty member at The Ohio State University.


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