Artist and Researcher’s Book Explores World of Subversive Bioart

By Tom McLaughlin

Art is in the eye of the beholder. But art made from DNA and living cells? Like it or not, says LiQin Tan, we are only at the beginning of a revolutionary fusion of art and living organisms.

Tan notes that his book looks toward the future to consider how technological singularity’s impact on conceptual and live bioart raises many thought-provoking – and sometimes controversial – issues.

The Rutgers University–Camden artist and researcher explains that the future of bioart – art conceptualizing and/or incorporating biological elements – will continue to be impacted by technology at a meteoric rate.

“This is where art is going; no one can escape it,” says the art professor matter-of-factly.

Tan explores the unchartered world of bioart in his new book, Singularity: Subversive BioArt (Guangdong People’s Publishing House).

The book is a follow-up to his 2018 offering, Singularity Art: How Technology Singularity Will Impact Art (China Machine Press), which explores the impact of technological singularity, the notion that artificial superintelligence will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in previously unforeseen changes to human civilization.

“Some people want to panic when they consider, for instance, art that merges living organisms with inanimate materials,” says Tan. “Of course, we always fear everything new.”

The Rutgers–Camden artist explains that there are two definitions as to what constitutes bioart. The first is “live art,” which uses genes, DNA, bacterium, algae, and living cells to create artworks.

“For instance, some artists are using DNA to create transgenic – genetically modified – plants and animals,” says Tan, citing the work of artist Eduarto Kac, who combined rabbit and jellyfish DNA to produce a bunny that glows green under blue light.

In another example, he notes, artist Li Shan changed the genes of pumpkins, resulting in the vegetables growing in an array of different shapes and sizes.

The Rutgers–Camden artist focused his art on ink-brush drawing on rice paper before being introduced to computers in the early 1990s.

Tan explains that, although biologists will alter DNA for scientific purposes – for example, altering a vegetable to make it heartier or to taste better – artists change genes with artistic concepts or metaphors in mind.

“For instance, artists may try to represent social or political issues,” says Tan, who adds that it is still against international standards to change human embryo DNA. “People will ask, ‘Why do you create?’ It’s because artists need to express themselves.”

The other form, says Tan, is called “general bioart,” which includes anything made from biological elements or symbolizing bio concepts. For instance, he says, a bioart installation may use computer animation to make cells move.

“Some people would argue that this isn’t bioart, but others agree that it is because it presents biological movement and elements regardless of whether they are living or still,’” he says.

Tan describes how he created a conceptual bioart installation wherein he grew plants on the top of large central processing units – the electrical circuitry of computer systems – in the shape of a square. The creation didn’t use soil and relied on humidity in the air.

“My main concept is that the Earth’s soil is not the only mother carrier of the plant,” says Tan, who, for more than two decades, focused his art on ink-brush drawing on rice paper before being introduced to computers in the early 1990s. “CPU technology has the potential to replace it gradually. In other words, technology would be the carrier of life evolution in the near future.”

The Rutgers–Camden artist notes that, while previous books have defined and explored bioart, design, and education, his book looks toward the future to consider how technological singularity’s impact on conceptual and live bioart raises many thought-provoking – and sometimes controversial – issues.

Tan’s 2018 book explores the impact of technological singularity, the notion that artificial superintelligence will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in previously unforeseen changes to human civilization.

Among these points of discussion, Tan shares his personal philosophy that, as an artist and creator, technology shouldn’t be utilized solely to change the tools and media that artists employ, but to change the very nature of what it means to be human.

“Technology is going to change your life construction; the inside of your body,” he explains. “So if you change the human body, it will change one’s creativity as well.”

He adds that genetics for non-human species will be altered as well and a human-dominant view of life and civilization will be altered forever.

“Humans have dominated society for nearly 6,000 years and we treat animals as a lower species,” he says. “Technology will enable non-human species to have consciousness and creativity as well, and give animals the opportunities to change and become equal to humans. So then, how will we define beauty and what is considered art? Those definitions will totally reconstruct.”

He warns that no one person will be able to hold back technological progress and, with that, safeguard international, ethical standards that come along with these changes. With this inevitability, says Tan, it’s up to people everywhere “to the change the world responsibly.”

“That is a positive way that we can embrace these changes,” he says.

However, Tan readily admits, the debate as to what is considered a responsible and ethnical approach will continue. Some people, he notes, believe that a humanoid has already been programmed with “deeper learning.”

In the end, says the Rutgers–Camden artist and researcher, technological advances continue to be made at an unfathomable rate, so it’s up to people – as humans and artists – to realize their untapped potential.

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