martes, 11 de febrero de 2014

- Ethics and Gen-etics

Interactions between art, architecture and science in the age of biotechnology

Lecture (Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, 11th May 2012) and text of Alberto T. Estévez, “Interactions between art, architecture and science in the age of biotechnology”, in VV.AA., Artistic innovations and new media, conservation, networks and techno-science, Barcelona: AASD Research Group, Universitat de Barcelona, 2014, pp. 133-140 and pp. 267-273 (

One example of the evolution of contemporary art from abstraction to bioart would be the symbolic, highly ironic step that leads from Malevich’s 1918 painting White Square on White to my own fleshly Soft Square on Soft (2012), created as an explicit manifesto to illustrate the point at which we now find ourselves (in Spanish it is also an ironic pun: blanco=white / blando=soft).

Left: Kazimir S. Malevich, White Square on White (1918). Right: Alberto T. Estévez, Soft Square on Soft (2012).

The social impact of art, architecture and sciences that use biotechnology – that work with living beings – is so strong that the issue of their ethical implications comes to the fore. Especially now that science has reached a stage where we can work at an intramolecular, genetic level: a step that casts shadows and doubts on the matter due to the familiar subjective reservations that usually come up in relation to anything new. Nonetheless, from an objective point of view, there is no ethical difference between acting on what we could call “the surface of things” and acting at the intramolecular level. There are differences because the scales are different, but there is no break in the ethical continuum between the two. There is no inherent ethical distinction between an artist who uses a bulldozer, as in Land Art for example, and a shovel, a teaspoon, or a pipette as in bioart and genetic art. And where we say artist, we could just also say architect, scientist, engineer, chef even, or any other human actor.

Once we accept the organic, fluid configuration of nature, which goes from the outside to the molecular interior of what we call “natural” objects, there is, ethically speaking, not much difference between a human action that produces a Japanese bonsai and one that produces a fluorescent rabbit. Does one of these beings suffer more than the other? Bonsais are socially accepted and even admired, even though they only come into being as a result of constant, recurring cuts to tormented living matter, while a fluorescent rabbit is no less happy than a black one or a white one.

In our work as researchers in the Genetic Architectures group, and in our practice as architects developing genetic architecture plans and designs, we have always been concerned with resolving the ethical implications as well as the scientific aspects of our projects. For this reason, our team includes philosophers who deal with bioethical maters, and geneticists who work for us. In fact, we subtly draw attention to the ethical undercurrent – to the need for planetary sustainability that justifies our work – by always hyphenating the words “gen-etics” (and “gen-éticas” in Spanish, with “éticas” meaning “ethics”) on the covers of our publications.

Human action upon living beings is inevitable, ongoing and necessary, and even though it could be said to have a devastating effect, it must be ethically exonerated to a large extent. In a sense, human beings have, and must have, a “licence to kill”. For example, a human body has 1013 of its own cells and 1014 microorganisms. In other words, our body hosts 10 non-human beings for each human cell, so every time we take a shower, wash or clean, countless living beings die as a result of our consciously annihilating actions. Even so, the cultural and social contract insists that we continue to wash ourselves, and we don’t allow bugs in our houses. Even though each and every one of those living beings is, in itself, a biological marvel that cannot be reproduced by humans.

On the other hand, the most extreme of the series of actions that includes manipulating, wounding, and killing a living being, would certainly be eating it. Because by eating something we don’t simply killing it, we make it disappear completely into our own cells. Of course, eating living beings is endorsed by a basic need, given that, at least for the time being, we can’t eat rocks. But in spite of it being the most extreme action, nobody gets thrown in jail for eating a chicken sandwich. There is a natural, tacit and universal pact. Just as there is a natural, tacit and universal pact to punish anybody who murders and eats a human being. This means that humans are the only “protected” beings. If we eat a lettuce, we won’t go to jail. If we eat, stab, kidnap a person, we will. We only respect the integrity and independence of human beings, not of all other beings. As this applies to even the most extreme action – eating –, it automatically follows that any other less drastic action is permissible.

We are obviously talking in generically, without entering into the case of “endangered species”, for example, which introduce the factor of scarcity, and thus add the value of biodiversity that human beings want to preserve. The importance that we place on endangered species actually arises from their genetic value, the desire to safeguard every single one of the groupings of genes that “work” autonomously. That entail life. Similarly, we take for granted the exception of harming non-human living means for pleasure. Society’s rejection of this simply reflects human dignity, which would be weakened by the desire to make an animal suffer for the sake of seeing that suffering.

If you leave a potato in a kitchen drawer, it will eventually start to sprout stems, leaves, flowers… What is more “radical”: To cut a potato? To fry it, burn it alive in oil? To eat it and erase its identity in order to fuel our own cells? Does the potato feel honoured by this death? Resigned to it? Or is it all simply the path that nature forces us along? All human actions upon any natural being are natural.

But of course, is we act upon genetic material we must accept our responsibility as illustrated by the “domino effect” that takes place in time and space, and that has been explained using the example of a butterfly. In spatial terms, there is the “butterfly effect”, where the beating of a butterfly’s wings in China is said to be able to trigger a storm in Spain. And in terms of time, in A Sound of Thunder (1) Ray Bradbury wrote a dramatic story about a prehistoric butterfly which was accidentally killed by a traveller from the future – a historical development unforeseen by evolution – resulting in life being slightly different millions of years later than if that butterfly had not been killed. When I presented this article in public, nobody imagined that it was the last time that someone was speaking about him at a university event, as he died barely 25 days later.

Precisely as this science fiction story shows, it is not just our actions on genetic material but any of our actions at all – whether or not we eat a particular potato– that will have a corresponding domino effect millions of years later. But all of them are part of nature.

Moving on to other questions that need to be answered in order for things to fall into place: Can the result of a plant graft be considered art? If the graft was the work of Eduardo Kac, it would be declared art with great fanfare. But if it was the work of an anonymous farmer, with a different specific intention, nobody would be particularly interested in it. Even if the process and the result were identical. Though a graft is not yet an intramolecular action, but simply a “surface” action.

So when Kac claims to be some kind of God-Creator, he oversteps the definitions that human beings have agreed on. And this transgression simply provokes more resentment among non-specialists: this muddying of the waters does not do any favours to science, which is exploring the enormous potential of genetics for resolving the serious, urgent problems of humanity. This exploration is in line with the key objectives of genetics applied to architecture as explored by the Genetic Architects research group, such as the creation of living beings that include bioluminescent and bioheat qualities that can be useful in domestic and urban spheres. And the synthesis of elements that can be genetically processed to favour the cleaner, more efficient and affordable construction of habitats.

For example, the accounts that Kac likes to offer in public, such as the following excerpt from an interview, do more harm than good:

“it took – seven years! – of work on the Edunia petunia before I managed to introduce my own DNA into it. (...) I put my DNA into its ‘veins’, and now it is producing my human proteins. The green phosphorescent rabbit and the “plantimal” aren’t nature… I created them! (...) With Alba (2000) and the plantimal Edunia (2003), I also relieve God of his status as a creator-myth and turn him into a lab worker, a technician working in a transgenic workshop.
I don’t copy reality: I create it” (2)

Few things can have a greater negative effect than somebody with a strong media presence who speaks without rigour, sowing terminological and ideological confusion. Also, such an exaggeratedly pretentious attitude is likely to create a bad impression, to give Kac a bad name as an individual, and also drag the work into disrepute. Which is a pity, because it casts the shadow of suspicion on anybody who follows a similar path. But going back to what he says:

- It is not true that he spent seven years on the work, simply that it took seven years for it to happen.

- It is not true that he inserted his DNA into the plant, it was more like having a “microbrick” inserted into an enormous set of many thousands of “microbricks.” A tiny piece that would be insignificant in mathematical terms. And in any case, this “microbrick” is identical to the ones that we all have, and is not in any sense specifically or uniquely “his”.

- It is not true that the resulting plant produces “his” human proteins. Rather, it produces human proteins that are chemically identical to those of any human being.

- It is not true that by inserting a gene taken from an animal into a plant, it becomes a “plantimal”. Just as the fact that a virus can manage to mutate the DNA of some of our cells, resulting in a tumour, does not make us a “humanirus”.

- It is not true that the rabbit and the plant in question “are not nature”.

- It is not true that he created this rabbit and this plant.

- It is not true that he relieves God of his status as a creator-myth and turns him into a lab worker, a technician in a transgenic workshop, because even the most inexperienced student of theology knows that God the creator is defined as he who “creates from nothingness”. By consensus on the terminology or by faith: the divine being creates from nothingness, and human beings can only create from pre-existing elements. And the “creation” – in inverted commas – of new beings by means of genetic manipulation is ultimately nothing but “bricklaying”. It involves simply repositioning the “microbricks”, repositioning existing genes, and has nothing to do with divine creation or with something that is not natural and does not belong to nature, either before, during or after said manipulation.

- It is not true that he “creates reality”, because the gene that he integrates into an enormous pre-existing genetic structure also existed earlier. So he doesn’t even create a single gene, he simply changes its position. He is not really a creator at all. At most he is a simple archivist, who has arranges for some molecules to be taken out of one position and placed in another. He hasn’t even created, or discovered, or invented, the process that those molecules activate. A scientist has simply identified the gene responsible for the proteins required, the gene has then been isolated, and repositioned in a plant. This is all very prosaic and nothing like the true creation of a living being.

Basically, by inserting a gene from another being into the rabbit and the plant, they did not cease to be “natural”; they did not cease to be nature. This gene “repositioning” has been carried out anonymously by the pharmaceutical and agricultural food industries since long before Kac’s projects, with more complexity and implications, and on a large scale. Just as our own research into a type of bioluminescence that can be efficient at the domestic and urban scale leads us to work with situations in which genetic science puts animal genes into plants, without this being considered extraordinary and worth announcing with such media fanfare.

Eight great untruths, published far and wide and read by thousands of people, in barely half a dozen sentences: it’s very close to quackery, to creating a blinding confusion, to a total lack of ethics… At least this example has allowed us to explain things more clearly in this text, to try and shed light on the issues and put them in their proper place, even though only a few dozen people will read it.

The fact is, that whenever somebody thinks up a new imaginary creature for a book or a film, it is easy to see the traces of their inspiration. But it is highly unlikely that if they had never seen anything similar to an octopus or a barnacle, for example, they would ever have been able to imagine one.

The limitation of the human creation comes from their inability to create from nothing. The human being, when challenged to create a new creature, he necessarily is based on pre-existing images. This is the reality of human creations versus natural realities.

Human beings have gradually discovered scientific explanations for rain, rainbows and eclipses, for example, leading to a demystification of natural phenomena. Now we continue to try and resolve the mystery of life. Nobody has been able to discover why the arrangement of a few simple molecules in a certain order makes them “work” – legs grow, they walk, eat and reproduce. And the wiser and more specialised a geneticist is, the more likely he is to answer “we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know,” to the questions that are put to him.

However, this emergent nature of life is what mankind has to take advantage of, and this is why we are interested in investigating how genetics can be applied to architecture. The idea is to take advantage of nature’s capacity for self-organisation, growth, and reproducibility. So we look for plants that emit light or heat, that will help find the energy saving mechanisms that our world needs, that will be usable as construction materials and even as entire habitats. We can begin to imagine, in a not so distant reality, “streetlights”, “heaters”, and even entire houses that grow on their own.

Given that this research also focuses on the use of genetics, we can also consider possible architectural uses at the level at which undefined cellular masses emerge and self-organise, as the first structural step. We can study this with a scanning electron microscope, which has an extremely high resolution that allows us to see images magnified thousands of times. This opens up a little-known dimension of reality, which, depending on how the images are read or interpreted, can lead to a fascinating level of surreality. As a result of research carried out in this framework, it was possible to create strange, surprising new images that were publicly shown in two exhibitions and a book (3): a selection of “altered” photographs of natural structures at their most Genesis-like and primitive level. Artistic works and architectural plans based on biotechnological work that have an enigmatic evocative power.

© Alberto T. Estévez, Mauve “still alive”, 2009-10. Image created from a photo with scanning electron microscope FEI Quanta 200 (SCT-UB).

Part of this power comes from the “objective beauty” that Gaudi talked about: the beauty of nature. It is certainly true that artists and architects from Alberti to Le Corbusier, have pursued the myth of the existence of the objective proportions that should guide the underlying structures of art and architecture. A proportion that can be instinctively seen by those who have “a compass in their eyes”, a natural gift that echoes Alberti’s “concinnitas”, without the need for mathematical calculations, exceptional talents from Michelangelo to Gaudi. Even though Gaudi created the first architectural “computer”, which objectively and automatically ordered or “computed” architectural forms based on the weights that had to be borne by the structures, hanging from ropes in the space, subject to the force of gravity.

What neither Alberti, Le Corbusier, Michelangelo, nor Gaudi knew, is that, in nature, this “objective beauty” that can be sensed in a certain harmonious resonance between each fragment and the overall whole, is due to the fact that the same DNA, the same morphological laws, are contained in each and every cell: be they in a nail, a tooth, a cheek, a petal, a leaf or a stem. Obviously, different weather conditions, physical and mental illnesses, nutritional factors and innumerable coincidences and external interactions can introduce “ugliness” into this “objective beauty”, which would be optimal at the genesis or original starting point. This is why living beings that are less “damaged” by time – babies, puppies –, appear to have more concinnitas or “grace”. We seem to be able to see their DNA more clearly, without the veils that build up over time.

This suggests that if we were to create art and architecture based on a single “DNA”, following a particular set of morphological laws to govern each fragment, which would in turn be harmoniously integrated into the whole, then our work would be endowed with the “objective beauty” of nature. And this is easily done when the “DNA” in question is digital, when every line is drawn by the mathematical equations that make up the graphic software being used. This is how having “a compass in the eye” is democratised: and it is the biodigital research that the Genetic Architectures research group carries out, in a quest for a communal enjoyment of beauty.

This process was illustrated at the Biodigital Architecture “installation-pavilion” at the eme3 festival, for example, in an attempt to explain the obsolescence of techniques of the past, and to implement the bio-digital manifesto “no models, no moulds”: the quest to produce real architecture directly at a scale of 1:1, using CAD-CAM technology. The project was based on an analysis of radiolarian structures and pollen applied to the digital development of architecture, using a scanning electron microscope. It was thus in keeping with the idea of “bio-learning”, which offers the benefits of the structural, formal and processual efficiency that we can learn from nature.

Left: © Alberto T. Estévez, photo of pollen with scanning electron microscope FEI Quanta 200 (SCT-UB). Right: © Alberto T. Estévez, Genetic Architectures Office, Installation eme3, 2010, digitally designed and fabricated.

“Yes, research into biodigital architecture, research into the architectural application of cutting-edge biological and digital techniques, with the benefits that come from the inclusion of genetics (efficiency, economy, renewable use, self-replication, etc.), is crucial, relevant and even urgent right now, before it becomes too late for a planet that has reached the limits of its sustainability.” (4)


[1] BRADBURY, Ray. “A Sound of Thunder”. In BRADBURY, Ray. The Golden Apples of the Sun. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1953.

[2] AMIGUET, Lluís - KAC, Eduardo. “Eduardo Kac, creador del conejo fosforescente”. La Vanguardia. Barcelona, 4th February 2012, p. 64 (cp).

[3] ESTÉVEZ, Alberto T. “Still alive”, landscapes and others fleshinesses / “Naturalezas Vivas”, paisajes y otras carnosidades. Barcelona: ESARQ (UIC), 2010.

[4] ESTÉVEZ, Alberto T. “Intro investigación biodigital”. In ESTÉVEZ, Alberto T. (ed.). International Conference of Biodigital Architecture & Genetics. Barcelona: ESARQ (UIC), 2011, p. 19.

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