Signs of Existence: Biotech Art was a group exhibition about life, ecology and genetics at The Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at SUNY College at Old Westbury.
Helen J. Bullard presents Blood Oath, a vignette forming part of the larger research project, Blue Blood, an investigation into the relationships and environments of the Atlantic horseshoe crab. The focus of the project is on the complex connections these animals share with biomedicine and the pharmaceutical industry. In 1970, an extract found in horseshoe crab blood was licensed for use in testing the safety of vaccines, and has since become the most reliable agent in detecting pyrogens and endotoxins. The extract is also used ubiquitously by intravenous drug manufacturers due to its natural ability to clot upon the introduction of bacteria. All intravenous drugs contain it. This licensing was the turning point that signaled the mass closures of the then prevailing (but far less reliable) rabbit labs. Most crabs survive this process and are returned, after recuperation, to their natural habitats.
More Exhibition info: The exhibition explores a diverse range of creative approaches to transforming and manipulating the processes of life. These life-science artists explore living organisms ranging from human DNA samples to marine animal subjects, altering them through subversive use of biotechnological processes. In an age of molecular biology, stem cell research, and debates over genetically modified organisms, the rapid growth of experiments in biotechnology gives rise to corresponding endeavors among life-science artists. Biotechnology has opened the way to new artistic visions of the body, resulting in a growing convergence of science and art. Through their observations and experiments in their respective fields, the five artists in this exhibition raise issues of bioethics in a world in which new relationships between human and nonhuman subjects emerge and humankind struggles for dominance over natural forces.
This exhibition emphasizes three distinct themes within Bio Art. Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Paul Vanouse utilize DNA samples for their research, drawing attention to individual rights, genetic manipulation, commodification, and the paucity of regulation of biotechnology. Under current law, people have few rights to their bodily tissue and genetic material once they leave their bodies. DNA, which provides more personal information than fingerprints, is highly vulnerable to discriminatory uses by employers, insurers, and the criminal justice system. These artists offer social commentary on genetic analysis while their methodology raises social concerns about discrimination and privacy. Brandon Ballengée and Helen J. Bullard expand upon their interests in the health of complex ecosystems. Ballengée issues a call for conservation of amphibian and avian species threatened by human activity and environmental changes. His methods are diagnostic of each species’ situation within its ecosystem. Bullard researches the complex relationship between the Atlantic horseshoe crab and biomedicine and the pharmaceutical industry. Despite their exploitation by industry, horseshoe crabs survive and return to nature. Soyo Lee’s “artistic intervention,” A Dying Art, concerns anatomical human specimens preserved at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Historical artifacts of human remains at such “medical” museums used for educational purposes suffer from neglect of maintenance. Lee proposed strategies to the museum officials that led to a yearlong collaboration between the artist and the institution, thus demonstrating the practicality of artistic institutional critique.