Bioartist Adam Zaretsky on the Art of Genetic Modification (and More)

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Until I listened to this piece, I didn’t even know what a bioartist was. Wikipedia describes it as an “art practice where humans work with live tissues, bacteria, living organisms, and life processes”. Labs become studios. Discussions of, say, human genetic engineering as art form revolve around the aesthetics the work aims to achieve, more than the ethical or moral dilemmas that might stand in or jump into the way.

In the intro to ‘Doing the No No‘, a fascinating and extremely entertaining episode of Love and Radio, Adam Zaretsky is described plainly as a bioartist “who explores the manipulation of DNA, the fringes of genetic modification, and butts up against the ethical boundaries of science and beyond”. (He’s also a self-described child of Rocky Horror and Soft Cell which I could immediately relate to.)

If you’re new to this topic, you’ll likely agree that the next hour and 14 minutes, should you choose to listen, will be unlike any other hour and 14 minutes you’ve spent this month.

At its core bioart necessarily includes comedic elements so parts of the discussion are clearly in jest –Zaretsky made news five years ago when he apparently attempted to extract DNA from a piece of turd preserved from the colon of William S Burroughs— but he, and producer Britt Wray don’t sidestep serious bioethical questions.

Here are just a few outtakes clipped at random from a discussion that bounces all over the place.

On his origins as an artist:

I think I was just supposed to work with art and mud. But along the way I decided to work with life as an art form. And then I spread out into things like ecology, tissue culture, genetic engineering. Weird lab things. All along the way towards exploring new reproductive technologies as art.

I’ve always been interested in what now falls under ‘deviant art’. And I find some of the best versions of that art are being made in labs. They’re in Nature magazine. They’re not in Art Forum. The scientists are leading contemporary art right now.

On his early aspirations:

I think I wanted to be a banker and a pornographer and a communist. It’s hard to mix all those three, but I’m on my way. I’m already a pornographer and a communist so I think I just have to go to business school.

On some of the mutants forming in his mind (for now):

What if we became solar-powered? What if humans could actually photosynthesize? What would be good about that?

Well, you wouldn’t have to pay rent because you’d have central heating. You wouldn’t have to work because all you’d have to do was sit in a hammock. Um, skin cancer would probably go up. People around the equator would probably become obese. The Nordic races would suddenly become really skinny and have to run down to the equator during the winter at the dark suicidal end of the long night. And, you know, in a neo-colonialist way, they’d probably eat some overweight equatorial solar-powered people. And weirdly we might actually grow to be flat and have webs underneath our arms that collect more sun. That could be a problem but it could be great. Like a giant flat bat-like solar-collecting human beatnik.

Most interesting to me was his description of how transgenics, essentially cutting and pasting genes from one organism into another, has evolved over the past half century. The process of creating transgenic humans, Zaretsky says, is much close to fruition that most people realize.

Transgenesis is taking one gene from one organism, cutting it out and pasting it into another organism. We are reaching a point where we’re getting better at the potential for making transgenic humans. Genetically modified humans, humans that are GMOs. Transgenic human embryos are already being made. They’re not necessarily being grown full-term but this is something that is possible.

It’s been possible to do this since the 1970s. It’s not perfected yet, but on the world scene –and there are different laws in different nations– this is one of those standard Pandora things. If you can do it –and it’s been fifty years– it’s about to be released that people are doing it because they have been doing it.

And it’s a point in time when people are taking it seriously to ask, ‘What about the rest of the ethics of human gene editing? Who gets to decide? And which way are we going? How are we going to engineer ourselves? And is it us, or is it small professional cliques human designers? Who’s in charge of that?

These types of questions are actually starting to be allowed. And one of the reasons they’re starting to be allowed is because all of these things are already happening and we need to get the public to a place where they’re willing to accept them so that we can ask them if they’re willing to accept them and they will say yes. I think we’ll get to that place sooner than you think.

I can’t vouch for the how accurately he’s characterizing the science, but the questions are intriguing.

More on Zaretsky? From a bio for his 2008 residency at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center:

While working in an MIT lab, Adam Zaretsky once spent two days playing a recording of the hits of singer Engelbert Humperdinck to a petri dish full of E. coli bacteria. The organisms’ antibiotic production increased, and he concluded that humans aren’t the only clusters of cells agitated by the continual “loud, awful lounge music.” He dubbed it “the Humperdinck effect.”




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