The twentieth century experienced radical changes in the production and perception of art, and saw the rise of many new art forms, which led to considerable changes in framing and explaining art. With the emergence of BioArt in the late 1980s, biotechnology and genetic engineering became part of the art world, and new materials, such as bacteria, cells, tissue cultures, and transgenic organisms, moved into galleries and museums. The production sites of a number of artists shifted from traditional art spaces to scientific contexts, like molecular biology laboratories. Moving from the studio into the laboratory provided the fine arts with a variety of new means of artistic expression, but this shift also made it necessary for artists to acquaint themselves with new epistemologies and the logic of the techno-scientific regime, which governs experimental bench work with its protocols, techniques, methods, instruments, and equipment, as well as a complex set of human and non-human agents, and most notably through patents and the flow of global capital.
By bringing cutting-edge technologies closer to the public realm, BioArt provoked wider reflection about the ethics of turning biology into technology, and raised questions about the aesthetic and ethical status of manipulating living organisms, while at the same time it provided alternative concepts and approaches for altering nature. Unsurprisingly, the selective manipulation of living organisms using in vivo biotechnological techniques for artistic or aesthetic purposes sparked passionate debates about the shifting concept of life, a concept that has changed dramatically since the arrival of biotechnology with the emergence of the technosciences in the second half of the twentieth century.
Whereas in the early days BioArt sought primarily to reveal the state of the art of biotechnology or tissue engineering, current BioArt practices interrogate the limits, boundaries, frontiers, and frameworks within which life can exist, and how fragile these limits are in an age that some term the Anthropocene. Altering nature deliberately using biotechnology – in a scientific laboratory or in the kitchen at home – is still a vital topic in BioArt, but this is overshadowed by the fact that in recent centuries we have transformed our entire planet into a kind of “laboratory” where traditional distinctions between natural and artificial, subject and object, human and non-human agents no longer hold, confronted as we are with the enormous ecological problems and challenges that exist today.
In my paper I want to address some of the challenges facing art history, when it is confronted by contemporary art that seeks to articulate new approaches towards human and non-human agency in the age of the Anthropocene.
Ingeborg Reichle is an art historian and cultural theorist writing on contemporary art, new technologies, and new media, with a focus on biotechnology and artificial life, based in Berlin, Germany. Since 2014 she is FONTE guest professor at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt University, Berlin. From 2005–2011 she held a research position at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin, working on visual culture als well as on art and science collaborations. In 2004 she received her Ph.D. from the Humboldt University Berlin with her dissertation Art in the Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art, published 2005 in German and 2009 in English by Springer publishers,Vienna/New York. She completed her habilitation thesis in 2013 titled Bilderwissen – Wissensbilder. Zur Gegenwart der Epistemologie der Bilder at the Humboldt University Berlin. In 2010 she curated the bioart exhibition Jenseits des Menschen – Beyond Humans at the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité Hospital. Since 2000 she has been a guest lecturer and guest professor at various international institutions, including the School of Visual Arts, New York; the Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston; the Life-Science Lab, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg; Timbusu College National University of Singapore; SymbioticA at the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia; School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong; Lomonosov Moscow State University; and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico.