Thursday, July 29, 2010

Timothy Morton on Alba

Here's Timothy Morton on Eduardo Kac's fluorescent rabbit:

"Is the horror of this art simply the shock value derived from the clichéd Frankenstein interpretation--that science has overstepped the bounds of human propriety [see clip below]? Or is it the revelation that if you can do that to a rabbit, then there wasn't that much of a rabbit in the first place? If you really could put duck genes in rabbit genes and rabbit genes in duck genes, it would give a new spin to Joseph Jastrow's duck-rabbit illusion [reproduced below]. You really would be able to see a duck or a rabbit at the same time, because you never really saw a duck or a rabbit in the first place. There are less ducks and rabbits not in number but in essence. We're faced with the extraordinary fact of increasing detail and vanishing fullness. The ecological thought makes our world vaster and more insubstantial at the same time." (The Ecological Thought, 36-7)

Morton is speaking at CalArts on Thusday, October 7th.

Here's the image that Michael Bryant refers to in the third comment on this post:


  1. I think this is interesting. One consequence of evolution (defined here as descent with modification) is the existence of species. Such as the common European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) that is used in laboratories. Some Bio-Art (Alba in particular) gains a lot of attention because of the introgression of genes among species. This human controlled process seems to be taken as sufficient to alter the species. I disagree, or at least think that a discussion of the nature of a species and the various species concepts (biological versus evolutionary). If Alba is no longer to be considered Oryctolagus cuniculus, then a fairly random jellyfish gene has been declared a “Gene for a species”. The consequence of relaxing species concepts to this extent need to be considered carefully. Alba is different but I think Alba is still Oryctolagus cuniculus.

  2. ok, so maybe we need to distinguish between species-changing bioart and non-species-changing bioart (with alba being an example of the latter, as you argue). i think morton's point is that with species-changing bioart, the notion of species itself comes under pressure. its 'fullness' vanishes, as he writes; there might not have been a clearly defined notion of a species in the first place...

    mike, do you know of any cases where plant DNA was inserted into animal DNA or the other way around? in the interview with eduardo kac that i posted a few weeks ago, he talks about a flower he created that has some of his own DNA inserted into its genetic material. this seems pretty extreme to me--more extreme than alba--because it messes with the plant/animal distinction. any thoughts?

  3. I would argue there has never been species changing bioart. A gene added here or taken away there is a far cry from a speciation event. There is still some debate here as a single mutation in the right place can lead to a new species based on the "biological Species Concept". But for the most part the type of genetic manipulation seen in bioart is not of that sort. I would agree that what a species is or is not is still in question. The role that art may or may not have in this debate is interesting

    I made an image that I think may interest people. (I'll email it to you as I can not seem to figure out how to post it). The photo was not made as a piece or art but maybe that does not matter. It comes from a short article in 1999. I picked it (honestly because it popped up first in my search) but it illustrates a few things. The red and green leaf is the product of a plant genes, a virus gene and a jellyfish gene (same as in Alba). It is from an article that has nothing to do with the genetic methods per se but rather it looks at an evolutionary dynamic that technology brought into focus. It also has a pretty catchy title.

    The answer to your question is yes many studies put animal genes into plants, fewer go the other way around. Why? it is easy to put genes into plants (easy being a relative term). Plants do not divide their bodies into Germ and Soma (Sex and Body). This makes then easier to manipulate.

    If you can post the image I would appreciate it. If not no worries

  4. thanks for this, i've added the image to the original post.

    re: the point that "what a species is or is not is still in question", we should probably also note here that darwin begins his _the origin of species_ by distinguishing between those who think species are immutable, and those who believe that they undergo modification; a few pages later, he talks about the "highly plastic condition" of species... (the notion of plasticity has been theorized very powerfully by catherine malabou, who is coming to speak for us on november 9th.) i guess 'in nature', species are changing; the question we are looking at is whether bioart can achieve such a profound change.

    maybe bioartists are just making superficial modifications with no real consequences in the long term? is this what most scientists would say?

  5. but how can you tell certain modifications are only superficial? i was checking _origin of species_ again, and darwin writes of infinitely small modifications that ultimately change the species--very few people can actually notice, only those who are talented and spend years studying a particular species. it's only when one takes the long view that changes become visible. this is kind of paradoxical: with GFP bunnies or pigs, one sees the change immediately, but it will probably not last; whereas the small changes that one doesn't see, actually have a lasting effect...

    i found a few more uses of the word plastic in darwin: in my edition (the broadview edition edited by joseph carroll, based on the first edition of darwin's text), the term 'plastic' appears on p81, 113, and 144. again, the point here is that if species are plastic, what happens to the 'fullness' of his notion? to say they are plastic doesn't mean to say there are no species. it's just that they become a little less clearly defined. darwin is very clear about this, saying there is little agreement among scientists as to what actually constitutes a species. on p127, he writes "i look at the term species, as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. the term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, and for mere convenience's sake". the key term would be "arbitrarily"...