A Call to Feminism in the Age of Biotechnologies and Bioinformatics

Carrie Paterson

On the surface, the relationship of feminism to biotechnologies is an easy one. As a cross-disciplinary field with multiple branches, feminism has been utilized to imagine the future of the human body, to consider the way bodies are thought about in terms of their materiality and cultural/historical context, and to critique the way female bodies are represented as metaphorical “figures” and visualized as subjects. But with recent developments in technology, it has become important for feminism to supplement the study of gender as a socially constructed concept and turn “back” to the biological in order to be progressive. As artists and theorists we must look at the representational implications of sciences and technologies that endeavor to enhance biological creatures through prosthetics, create genetically modified and transgenic organisms, and imitate their reproductive processes through cloning and other forms of DNA manipulation. As a method of inquiry and critical intervention into the language, representations, and politics around the notion of “body,” feminism is uniquely equipped to address the overlap between scientists and artists in the new field of biotechnologies by closely examining the way issues of choice, self-determination and agency play out in projects across the disciplines.

Presented almost a decade ago, Eduardo Kac’s Genesis project (1998-99) used Morse code to translate a biblical verse—the so-called “dominion passage”—into a synthetic chromosome, which he then incorporated into DNA of E. coli bacteria using a common laboratory process.12 The verse originally read, “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) The biblically enhanced bacteria were bred with normal strains under ultraviolet lights in Petri dishes at the exhibition. Their progeny’s DNA was then scrutinized for evidence of genetic alterations. 3

The mis/translations made by Kac’s bacteria only resulted in a few letters being changed—underwhelming to say the least. But quickly one realizes this exercise was not the point of the exhibition. In Kac’s project, biology is presented as both language and language-generator. It is part code, part animal, and part machine. But it is also part spectator. Through an interactive website, Genesis viewers could trigger ultraviolet lights in the gallery, exciting the bacteria and causing them to reproduce more rapidly and with higher rates of mutation (UV radiation damages DNA).

Genesis reveals vestiges of the artist’s earlier work from the pre-Web 1980s, which used telecommunications, fax machines, transistors, and early “telepresence” technologies. In his Ornitorrinco project (1989-96), Kac used a publicly available “teleoperation system” that enabled “users in public and private spaces to remotely access a fully mobile and wireless robot and alter its remote location via the telephone network.”4 Kac knows that in order to protect the information content of an electronic signal, it must be coded and decoded on either end of transmission. Mathematical engineer Claude E. Shannon put forward this basic tenet of information theory in the 1940s. By using the Morse system to encode the biblical message before insertion into the biological system, Kac puts the reproductive processes of “wet” (biological) media in parallel with the way electronic circuitry carries information. Using Shannon’s model as a conceptual foundation, Kac suggests that the thermal “noise” that causes errors in communications has a relationship to his bacteria’s reproductive processes and mutational rates.

In the “carnality” of the Petri dish, more than just the bacteria were engaged in the heat of the moment. Virtual participants witnessed and influenced the development of transgenic art, breaking the isolation of the bacteria and virtually bringing them into their homes via the internet. In her seminal book How We Became Posthuman, critical theorist N. Katherine Hayles wrote about cybernetic circuits such as these. The feedback loop connecting man to machine “splices your will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system.”5 In Genesis, human/machine/bacteria all shared the interface.

  1. The Genesis sequence is placed into a plasmid (an extra chromosomal ring of DNA ) at the “Multiple Cloning Site,” engineered to accept such insertions. See http://www.ekac.org/plasmid.html for a detailed diagram of the process whereby the plasmid replicates its genetic material.
  2. I thank artist Anita Sinclair, author of The Ethical Dilemma of Transgenic Art (MFA Thesis, California State University Fullerton, 2008), for discussing some of the dynamics of this project.
  3. Kac’s website explains how results were collected. “Genesis bacteria have cyan fluorescence and share a Petri dish with another colony of E. coli bacteria that have yellow fluorescence but which do not have the Genesis gene. Transgenic bacterial communication evolves as a combination of three visible scenarios: 1. Cyan bacteria donate their plasmid to yellow bacteria (and vice-versa), generating green bacteria; 2. N o donation takes place (individual colors are preserved); 3. Bacteria lose their plasmid altogether (become pale, ochre colored).” http://www.ekac.org/trans.html.
  4. http://www.ekac.org/ornitorrincoM.html.
  5. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. xiv. Emphasis mine.