Synth-ethic: Art and Synthetic Biology Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Synthetic biology is at the scientific cutting edge, but also on the ethical edge. The works in this exhibition explore that edge. The curatorial essay starts with the principle that synthesis is one of the fundamental practices within art. As the exhibition title suggests, when moving from mimesis to synthesising with the living, ethics need to be half the work.
Art has always involved synthesis. Uniting disparate elements, putting them into a collage to create new works, metaphors, sensory experiences, or aesthetic genres, however, is also inherent to a curiosity, present in every epoch, for finding new ways of creating with new expressive media. Those contemporary artists, who in recent years have begun to employ laboratory methods and biotechnology for their own purposes in new contexts and to modify living systems, are particularly “close to life”. Here, it would seem, the newly declared discipline of synthetic biology is well-suited to the task, seeking, as it does, not only to modify existing organisms but to design “life” anew, from the ground up. Yet, this biological science is not concerned with living beings but rather with components, circuits, and systems. The language of engineering has been shifted to biology. These new dimensions to our technical ability to act, however, call for a new ethical engagement concerning the question of how and whether we should act simply because we can. The exhibition synth-ethic offers perspectives on human intervention in biotechnology and the responsibility that arises with it. Artists appropriate these technologies for their own purposes, see through the mania of novelty and beyond the constraints of economics to examine the areas of tension between molecular biology and ecology, architecture and biochemistry, technology and nature, cybernetics and alchemy.
But reading Vandana Shiva‘s text The Corporate Control of Life (Hatje Cantz, 2011) provides a different and significant critical perspective on these issues. Shiva sets out the activist work of many years challenging the corporatisation of nature. She articulates the powerful arguments against the application of IPR to biodiversity and the impact on farmers, women and indigenous people. Underlying her argument is an epistemological position radically at odds with the economically driven epistemology of Western corporate and governmental cultures which she describes as biopiracy. She says (2011, p8),
The rise of reductionist science was linked with the commercialization of science and resulted in the domination of women and non-Western peoples. Their diverse knowledge systems were not treated as legitimate ways of knowing. With commercialization as the objective, reductionism becaue the criterion of scientific validity. Nonreductionist and ecological ways of knowing, and nonreductionist and ecological systems of knowledge, were pushed out and marginalized.
The genetic-engineering paradigm is now pushing out the last remnants of ecological paradigms by redefining living organisms and biodiversity as “man-made” phenomena. Patenting life was transformed into international law through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
In the context of this epistemological critique, artists need to step with care into the field of Synthetic Biology and the work of the Critical Art Ensemble is, amongst others, exemplary for demonstrating the potential for art to position itself as an effective counterpoint to corporate-political cultures. One must question carefully the ability of artists to appropriate these technologies, and the form of appropriation must manifest the critique.