Imagining Science: Imagine That
Science is the new art in landmark AGA exhibit
Imagining Science will be looked back upon as a landmark exhibition. With origins brewing from conversations between brothers Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and Research Director at the Health Law Institute, University of Alberta and Sean Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Printmaking, Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta, the current Art Gallery of Alberta exhibit is a more direct result of a 2007 Banff Centre residency between international artists and scientists. At the center of the residency swirled questions concerning the legal, ethical and social implications in technological advances, and how these issues intersect within the realm between the arts and sciences.
For example, U of A Professor Emeritus Lyndal Osborne has been concerned about the long-term health and ecological affects of consuming and growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Stretching across the entire west wall akin to any aisle in a grocery shop, rows of illuminated seed pods highly altered in colour and size glow in wonder and estrangement. Osborne, who usually works with organic materials, has also left some seed samples for public handling, acknowledging our basic human curiosities to grasp the strange and unknown.
Increasingly, the strange and the unknown are becoming known, and the limits of how far we go to explore the abyss of knowledge is the shakable foundation of the bioethical dilemma. New York-based Adam Zaretsky explores these limits with the heart of an artist and the soul of a scientist in his work on producing transgenic pheasants. As a proposal to Prince William Alexander of Holland, a descendent of the House of Orange, Zaretsky wishes to create a royal orange pheasant for the Prince’s hunting grounds. Encasing a traditional pheasant hunting rifle (on loan from the Royal Museum of Alberta) alongside a bolistic gene gun, the guns sit emblematically beneath an enlarged microscopic photograph of an embryo disrupted with a microtubular red fluorescent protein (fellow exhibitor Eduardo Kac uses the green version in his project on rabbits).
Without blatantly saying so, Zarestsky, who offers his past as having worked in banks, in the porn industry and his present as a communist, is asking some much-needed and loaded questions within a field that is already contested and supported by extreme political and moral perspectives. What is the ethical position of creating a transgenic creature when the creature will be used for royal sportsmanship? Transgenic creatures are only illegal in the sense of pets, as transgenic animals are continually created and destroyed in the name of pharmaceutical research and other forms of marketable research.
Appearing at first like the amoral scientist injecting and executing embryos, Zaretsky is highly aware of his ethical position that there is sentiment in transgenics. His pursuit within the field rests beyond merely artistic or scientific output; it is a pursuit of diversity, as his main position is to counter the production of only homogeneous utilitarian super-organisms.
Playing the executioner of rejected embryos, batches that are very routinely put to death on ice or systematically flushed, Zaretsky is one of the first (and perhaps one of the only) transgenicians to mix valium into rejected batches of embryo.
“Interventions in biology are not new,” Zaretsky shares as we sit down outside the gallery to talk further on bioethics. “Random mutations have always been around, and human intervention has been around for at least 100 years, with scientists making two-headed salamanders. Eugenics was also a form, only it was the subtraction of the undesirable. Now biotechnology has the ability to add difference.”
Only it is the lack of difference that pushes Zaretsky to question the desire behind the direction of most transgenic research. Citing the statistical data that proposes the general population actually wants an extension of the frontal lobe (the storage area for cognitive rational thinking), Zaretsky wonders why there’s been no talk about developing the hippocampus (the region of forebrain where emotion and intuition runs).
“Scientists who seem amoral on the bench are actually highly political in the outside world,” says Zaretsky, who has yet to publish on his research and be implicated as a scientist. “A scientist will look at this cup of coffee and see more than what it is. It becomes a meditation, a state of perceiving the thing as is.’
Citing the creation of transgenic creatures as art, where scientists have to choose a gene to create an organism between the imagination and an objective reality, Zaretsky is transparent about his practice, his concerns, and acknowledges that researchers for the most part have no clear idea of where and how far they are willing to go.
“The things I see in the labs: frogs with eyes coming out of the back of their heads that are connected to the part of the brain that hears instead of sees,” he shares within shades of ambivalence and awe. “Science lives on the edge of knowledge, trying to capture it, torture it until it reveals to us its secrets so that we can claim it. I think these ethical conundrums are worth it. I admit that it’s not just a dream, but a nightmare, a real return of the repressed. We’re afraid of creative thought leading the way."
Image and photo credit: Adam Zaretsky, 2008
*First published in Vue Weekly, November 20 - November 26, 2008