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October 24, 2002 Artists confront biotech ethics



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 Bioteknica’s research will focus on the teratoma, an unusual cancerous growth which contains multiple human tissues and which the corporation’s 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 week’s 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 Swift’s 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.

“It’s not necessarily a critique,” explained Bailey. “It’s 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 this.”

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 Bioteknica’s 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 biotechnology’s 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 duo’s 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.