Melanitis : The DNA decoding techniques seem to become a predominant factor
for the definition of the body; is art entering this form as a mediator or
an interpretor of genetic information?
Davis : For science, DNA decoding consists of one of two means
(Gilber-Maxam and Sanger methods) for determining the sequence of
individual chemical bases in single-stranded DNA molecules. Because these
bases occur in pairs and are "complementary" to each other, the sequence of
base-pairs occurring in any given double-stranded DNA can be surmised - but
this is not what happens in the body.
In the natural processes of "decoding" DNA that are employed by cellular
machinery, DNA is also interpreted one strand at a time but it is not
resolved into individual bases rather, into triplets of bases, or "codons".
These direct protein-building biochemical processes within the cell and
thus, within the body. Each triplet of DNA bases is translated by cellular
machinery into one of only about twenty subunits of protein construction
called "amino acids".
Because these triplets or "codons" have no chemical or structural
connection to the amino acids they represent, it is now clear that DNA
operates like true language in the formal, linguistic sense. Each codon has
as much to do with the amino acid it represents as say, the word "red" has
to do with the perception or phenomenon of the color red. When scientisits
first discovered this they themselves waxed a little bit poetic (see: Max
Delbruck's "Riddle of Life").
Human beings have manipulated the DNA of living organisms for many
thousands of years. Long before there was specific knowledge of nucleic
acids, countless species have been genetically modified by the agencies of
human intervention and most of these modifications have been undertaken for
aesthetic reasons: to make the smoothest silk or the best tasting corn or
the prettiest flower. Insofar as the DNA of any subject organism is
concerned, it makes little difference whether it is modified manually with
the tools of molecular biology or otherwise, through the sexual
intercessions of horticulture and animal husbandry. Either way, the same
enzymes and biochemical machinery are ultimately utilized. Few, if any of
the ornamental plants and flowers, fruits and vegetables, or pets and
livestock with which we are so familiar have ever previously existed in
nature. They are all "monstrosities" by definition. We are now so familiar
with them that it is difficult to think about them in terms of "monsters" -
but it is an obvious conclusion. A common rose is in fact a monster much
the same as the fictional one Shelly described in "Frankenstein" yet, the
rose is non-fiction. We Homo sapiens have modified the genetic environment
to such an extent that we have become the phages of, and are quite
dependent upon the monstrosities we have produced. We have co-evolved with
them. In fact, if it were necessary for us to survive solely on the natural
progenitors of our now familiar genetic modifications, we might very well
have to genetically modify ourselves to recapture phenotypes that are
closer to those of earlier species of hominids such as Homo habilis or
Australopithecus africanus in order to be more physiologically suited to
consume such fare.
The decoded sequence of DNA that is called the "human genome" will almost
certainly precipitate a more 'perfect knowledge of the human body' than we
have ever known. It is at this point difficult to predict the implications
of that knowledge. What nightmares and wonders may be delivered into human
hands by way of it can be no more precisely predicted than perhaps the
revolution in genetics and molecular biology may have been predicted in
1953 when Watson and Crick first resolved the double helix. The very least
that can be said is that these developments will be undoubtedly profound.
The entire so-called digital revolution will almost certainly shrink by
comparison. Thus, to get an idea of how this new knowledge will effect the
arts we may multiply the effects of computers, digital networks, and so on.
It would be an unprecedented negligence of human potential if art and
artists were suddenly relegated merely to interpretation of genetics and
molecular biology. Artists are among both the oldest and the newest
mediators of the technology of the life sciences. There is certainly a
place and purpose for art that seeks to interpret or illustrate technology
and technological advancement. There has also been an historical role for
art that seeks to incorporate technical and scientific advancements
directly. Now, for instance, we can find many examples of illustrations and
renderings produced by artists in order to interpret or describe polymerase
chain reaction (PCR). We can also find a few artists who have used PCR
directly for the production of artworks. This is the difference between
interpretation and mediation that you refer to and I think, an answer to
M: Subsequent to the cosideration of "organisms as monstosities",
is a dialectic of art with evolution. V. Flusser defined "habit" as the true
aesthetic criterion: "
The world "new" here mean objectively any situation that emerges from
toward ever-growing probability, and such an improbability may exactly quantified
by probability calculus ". Thus, he seems to emphasise the contemporenaity of the
artwork : "And the world "new" means subjectively any situation which
makes us tremble, because it is unexpected. Thus a cow with
a horse's head (Russel's example) is newer than an ordinary cow, because
it makes us tremble more." Is this concept proposing a new potentiality for the artist; one
of producing new patterns for life by aestheticising evolution ?
D: I thought I was clear about "monstrosities" and human evolution.
Ultimately, Homo sapiens/monstrosities are inextricable parts of nature.
Both are ancient and coeval. I do not wish to further qualify secular
debates over the separation of nature into so-called "natural" or "organic"
entities as opposed to things that are not. These notions call for some
pretense or disregard of history. Perhaps in other solar systems we may one
day find varieties of nature that have been "pure" and inviolate and
untouched by human hands. This has never been the case for the natural
world inhabited by human beings. I would deny that there is any dualism at
all between what we think about as "nature" and "monstrosity".Ideas that
preclude sustainable, ethical human manipulation of the natural world must
also presume some unnatural "impurity" and environmental irreconcilability
of humanity itself. It's "Kevorkian" politics.
The hypocritical edict "don't mess with the handiwork of God" has always
been the source of much pain and darkness. We lament the fate of Bruno and
Galileo and yet it remains currently illegal to teach the theory of
evolution and natural selection in several states in the United States. I'm
sure there were many qualified scientists and scholars on hand to present
the facts and facts and figures fueled the fire. What lessons have learned?
The fact is that there is no such thing as an ordinary cow. Evolution has
long since been irreversibly aestheticized. It will undoubtedly continue to
be at least in part, a profoundly artistic undertaking.
I wonder what formulae we might apply in order to predict the future
probabilities that will connect those double tendencies of blanket
opposition to human intervention in the natural world and persecution of
dissemination of the history of art and science.
M : Is the artist in a position, from a socio-political perspective,
to direct this intervention ?
D: Artists would be if they were creators of public policy, law, or the
officers of regulatory agencies. I suggest that at least in general, they
are not. Even in cases where actors and playwrights have been elected to
positions of authority, no government that I know of has ever been
accomplished through the agency of their artworks. On the contrary, in
relatively recent times we have witnessed large-scale destruction of
important cultural legacies of art and literature in China, Eastern Europe,
and Afganistan as a result of purges and iconoclasms driven by social,
political, and/or religious ideals. Politicians, historians, theologians
and others are frequent interpreters of art and artworks which have been
either co-opted to assert various other-than-artistic agendas, or else
prohibited, censored, or forcibly destroyed. In this way art has indeed
propelled political discussion and political action but sometimes it is out
of the artist's hands and even, the artist's intentions. Sometimes it's out
I would also suggest that the difference between science and the abuse of
science is part of the reason that there are different words for science
and technology. Knowledge of molecular genetics is not synonomous with
genetic exploitation of the third world or the impliments of biological
warfare. We are afraid of science because these technical innovations arise
from misapplications of scientific knowledge. These are emotional issues
because human lives and welfare are at stake. They are for this reason
important issues that deserve public scrutiny and political action and
artists will participate with a view to their own interests and values. Yet
science, technology, and policy are disciplines beside art.
I will grant you that science, technology and politics are all invariably
creative, but that fact alone is not enough evidence to claim that they are
the same thing or that they should become the same thing. Having lived in
both worlds I have come to understand that cognitive substructures
supporting creativity in science are profoundly different from those
supporting creativity in the arts. On one side there are for instance
conditions such as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), cycothymia and the
depressive illnesses and on the other, obsessive compulsive behavior and
paranoia. It's not that there are no scientists on lithium, for certainly
there are. It's just that certain psychopathologies are statistically more
frequently diagnosed in practioners of the arts than in practitioners of
science and vice-versa.
We do not automatically become engines of scientific or political
intervention simply because we are artists. My art does not gain value
simply because it is contrived to be an artistic treatment of an important
political controversy. Great politics does not necessarily make great art
and great art does not necessarily make great politics.
I am not interested in molecular biology and the life sciences simply
because right now it happens to be a hot political issue and the subject of
what many observers have termed "public hysteria". I am interested in the
molecular mechanisms of living organisms because artists have always sought
after the secrets of life itself: knowledge of those qualities that
distinguish life and death. The fact that I can now construct tiny bits of
matter from an assortment of inanimate materials and then "bring them to
life" is a sculptor's dream.
I hope I have not misinterpreted your question. I think artists have every
reason to continue intervening in biological processes. I don't think that
we should "direct" intervention for others or that we should presume to
occupy a pre-eminent position among other investigators of the natural
As far as socio-political perspectives are concerned, I don't think artworks
are vehicles for political expression like the newspapers are. It doesn't
always make for great art.
M: It would be nteresting to insisit on the the interelation of art and illness or madness.
D: I don't mean to suggest that artists and scientists are all ill or
insane. My implication was that the tendencies or precursors of assorted
pschopathologies must already reside within the human mind/brain and that,
based on my own limited observations, these seem to be different in people
who choose to specialize in either art or science. Further, I was
suggesting that these conditions might help to explain creativity in
general and that they may point to a fundemental difference in the way that
artists and scientists engage in creative activity. Currently, creativity
in art and science has become so specialized that, contrary to classical
notions about the universal creative "genius", an individual with
competency in one area cannot automatically be expected to demonstrate
competency in another. Individuals with truely multiple creativity in art
and science are distinguished not only by their historically infrequent
appearance but also by their lack of correspondence with standard cognitive
pychological models. Yet no models of the "genius" of creative individuals
can ignore the extraordinary, even abnormal nature characterizing such
cognitive processes. Many current psychological models of extraordinary
cognition are in fact profiles in psychopathology. Howard Gardner's "Seven
Intelligences" is a good case in point. Populations of creative
individuals have been shown to exhibit a much larger incidence of both
cognitive and affective disorders than does the population at large [see:
Jamison, K.. "Touched With Fire" (Simon and Schuster, Free Press
Paperbacks, 1993) pp. 88-89].
Special relationships between mental illness and creativity has been
recognized in all historical epochs and research into the nature of that
relationship continues. Although there is a significant body of literature
addressing the topic of psychopathology and the arts, there is a surprising
lack of material admitting relationships between creativity and "madness"
in the sciences - perhaps this is because the authors of many of these
studies are scientists themselves. Perhaps science is reluctant to admit a
role for creative thinking in the context of objective detachment that has
come to characterize empirical scientific models.
Still, it would be difficult to compose a list at random of five or ten
creative individuals - in either the arts or sciences - and not find among
them several who have been diagnosed as suffering from some form of
cognitive or affective disorder. Evidently, cognitive structures that
facilitate creative processes can be activated by operations of the
pathological mind. It may be that the existence of such structures in
healthy individuals represents a susceptibility to illness.
Certain cognitive structures may function as 'scaffolding' that - possibly
according to externally-mediated circumstances - may be overlaid with
either the condition of creativity or, of illness.
M: Going back to the issue of the human body, I would like to ask you to comment
on the possibility of the genetic intervention -could such a process be tinted
aesthetically, given its association on the social level with eugenics?
D: The real question is "Can such (inevitable) intervention be carried out
without aesthetic components?". So many of our previous physiological
interventions have been just so: tatoos, piercings, circumcisions, wigs,
haircuts, shaving, bathing, cosmetics, dental and orthopedic prosthetics,
I suppose even the prehistoric use of "fashionable" raiments of animal
skins and later, of woven animal or vegetable fibers; rayon, polyester,
etc.. all might be considered to have been aesthetically-propelled
interventions of human physiology.
When successful, even more subtle medical intervention to correct injury or
to avoid or eliminate genetic and acquired disease must obviously make for
far more aesthetically pleasing human experience than any one less modified.
There are arguments about who may or may not be entitled to these
interventions and these raise the spectre of eugenics, "supermen", racism
and "master races", and the like. We want to know if we will be allowed to
freely obtain or avoid them.
It should require no special gift or insight to suggest that Homo sapiens
may be expected to continue to perpetrate exterminations, deprivations,
persecutions, and exploitations of each other (and of other species)
through the application or lack of application of whatever resourse or
technology which may happen to become available. I don't think anyone
expects to be entering "paradise-on-Earth" anytime soon. Even if there were
some point to it, could we somehow prevent life from becoming more
technologically complex? Could some prospective artifice, edict, or
"benevolent" repression possibly succeed? It seems to me that, however
aestheticized, neither technological innovation nor any imaginable
prohibition will ever manage to prevent human cruelty.
copyright : Joe Davis-Melanitis Yiannis/ September 2001