by Scott McRae
Last week in Osnabrück, Germany, Shawn Bailey and Jennifer Willet
launched Bioteknica, a corporation working to control the human genome.
The bulk of Bioteknicas research will focus on the teratoma, an
unusual cancerous growth which contains multiple human tissues and which
the corporations founders hope will provide the key to the future
development of therapeutic cloning technologies.
At least, that is what the company would do if it was real. Bioteknica
is a sham corporation, a five-year art project which had its vernissage
at last weeks prestigious European Media Arts Festival when Bailey,
a Fine Arts assistant professor, and Willet, a Fine Arts part-time lecturer
and PhD student, unveiled their trade booth, corporate paraphernalia,
including T-shirts, mouse pads and pens, and a detailed digital showcase.
Their Web site currently features company literature and will later expand
to include a program to create designer humans and, eventually, a simulation
of cellular-level interactions.
Like Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal, the Bioteknica project
is designed to shock and provoke discussion with its frank description
of questionably moral corporate goals. However, Bailey and Willet stress
that this is not didactic art.
Its not necessarily a critique, explained Bailey. Its
not an anti-corporate or anti-biotechnology project, although we are uncomfortable
with the corporatization of the biosciences and the body. Yet at the same
time, we see that there is a very strong potential [for good] in all of
Picture biotechnological research as a Möbius strip, Willet said.
It simultaneously eats and creates itself as scientific gains get mired
in ethical dilemmas.
Although the art-going public at the European Media Arts Festival has
been wrest-ling with Bioteknicas ethical dilemmas, it is the secondary
audience which really excites Willet, the thousands of Internet surfers
who will find the Web site and mistake it for a genuine biotech corporation.
She hopes this will get many people thinking.
She and Bailey want people to ponder biotechnologys emphasis on
normalcy. When gene therapy is used to make someone fit a certain mould
whether thinner, smarter, taller or stronger the process
carries a frightening undertone of eugenics, Bailey said. This should
really scare people.
The duos extensive knowledge of the biosciences comes from many
years of immersion. Bailey first studied to become a doctor, Willet has
read widely on the subject, and both have endured cancer in the family.
The horror of cancer is a principal theme of the project, for while the
company is fictional, teratomata are not. They are rare cancers that grow
hair, teeth and skin. Until recently the Catholic church considered them
as virgin births and would give them Christian burials; biotechnology
companies now consider them the holy grail of gene therapy and give them
top research priority.
This research is underreported, and the two artists, who have known each
other since their undergraduate years at the University of Calgary, felt
strongly about bringing it to the public forum. Though they tried several
times in the past to collaborate, their early attempts proved disastrous.
This time around they are both more sure of their artistic personalities
and collaboration has been quite fruitful.
This project is unlike anything we would do by ourselves,
said Bailey. My work tends to be very cold and analytical. [Willet]s
work tends to be very visceral and about the self.
The result, they explained, is a critique of authority structures with
an empathy for the individual, a post-Marxist analysis wrapped in a post-modern
consciousness that is at once esthetic, artistic and intellectual
soon to be unsettling the biotechnological dilettanti and sparking dinner
conversations worldwide, they hope.