From Mainstream Bioart to Situated Bioart
The Argentinian Case
by Lucía Stubrin
Taking as its point of departure a relatively new way of linking the arts with biotechnology, known as bioart, this article explores the crossing and merging of disciplinary boundaries. Unlike sculpture, painting, installation or any other form of art, bioart operates as a practice whose direct antecedents are scarce, given that its presence is partly linked to the opening of biotechnology laboratories where artists and scientists started working together only in the late 1990’s.
Bioartists seek to generate a critical debate about biotechnology and life processes in general, often adopting a conceptual perspective that can be materialised in multiple forms. In our current times, video and robotic installations, 3D printing, data visualisations, sound interventions, interactive immersive sensory environments – such as virtual reality – coexist with botanical designs, handcraft techniques, and DIY (Do It Yourself) laboratories; to mention just a few artistic practices that continue to push the boundaries of art, technology, and life science’s representations.
When I first started studying and researching bioart in 2010, Argentina did not have a wide range of bioartists. At the time, I had to work with international bioart laboratories such as Symbiotica (Australia), Biofilia (Finland), Incubator and Fluxmedia (Canada); and special programmes like the Swiss-artists-in-labs-Program (Switzerland), Arts Santa Mónica (Spain), and TRES Art Collective (Mexico), among others.
Even though Argentina had the only Latin-American bioart laboratory (BIOLAB), founded in Buenos Aires in 2008, very few artists had residencies there. Most of its artistic production was sustained by students and teachers from Maimonides University in Buenos Aires, where BIOLAB was set up. The regional scene was small and the presence of bioart expressions in galleries, festivals, and museums was minimal.
International references such as Eduardo Kac, Marta de Menezes, Paul Vanouse, Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, Stelarc, Beatriz de Costa, and Natalie Jeremijenko, among others, had imposed a biotech laboratory aesthetic that was difficult to follow over these latitudes, partly due to the lack of resources and difficulties to access different lab techniques and materials. Biotech laboratory aesthetics consisted in the manipulation of microorganisms in laboratory conditions where artists had the possibility of creating transgenic works using techniques borrowed from genetic engineering and molecular biology.
Over time, as I have continued studying bioart in my home country and in Latin America more broadly, I have come to realise that this region has produced a situated and particular kind of ‘Art, Science and Technology’ expression. I have worked on rethinking bioart practices from its first manifesto in 1998 (Transgenic Art by Eduardo Kac published by MIT’s Leonardo Review) into the present time, taking into account differences between mainstream lab aesthetics and local appropriations, but also recovering particular imaginaries involving art, life sciences and technology.
In 2019, I established the research group Grupo de Estudio Biosemiótica, Arte y Técnica (GEBAT) at the Universidad Nacional de Entre Ríos that is working on recognising trends in Argentinan bioart practices. For example, within the ensemble of groups and artists dedicated to the practice of ‘situated bioart’, we have identified three main expressions:
- interspecies communication: where hard, soft and wet technologies are combined;
- development of biomaterials: from microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, yerba mate, etc.; and
- randomness in living processes: where artistic works await organic transformation for later registration.
This classification originated from the analysis of the corpus of artists, institutions, awards, exhibitions and festivals surveyed from 2000 onwards. I will now explain each one of these categories through examples for readers to better understand the conceptual background from which this classification emerges.
In Arquitectura textil, artist Karina Salinas builds a fabric with an assembly of small textile fibres made by bichos canasto (a type of moth, its name literally translates as ‘basket bugs’). The artwork generates a symbiosis between various species: humans, insects and vegetation. Since 2012, Salinas has been raising bichos canastos, a species that has otherwise disappeared from the local landscape in recent decades, due to the use of pesticides on the outskirts of the city. She provides a suitable environment for them to live in her garden: a rectangular device with a door covered with a mosquito net and with a small tree inside. The bugs, known as ‘baskets’ because of the appearance and shape of their shells, undergo metamorphosis similar to that of butterflies, marked by the egg, larva, pupa and adult stages. The bichos canastos thus use these rectangular devices as a protected habitat to build their cocoons. The artist waits a year for the end of the life cycle of the species and uses the empty cocoon to build a cape that grows larger each year in a collaborative, interspecies interaction.
Bioartists have also looked to interspecies communication centring the plant world.
Rizósfera FM (2016), for instance, was created by Colectivo Electrobiota, which consists of the Argentina-based Mexican artists Guadalupe Chávez and Gabriela Munguía. The Rhizosphere FM is a research project stemming from the idea to generate new networks and channels of interspecies communication. Being sensitive to what the rhizosphere hides, the work “opens a door to what it means to be interconnected and interdependent with other species”. The artists believe that “understanding interspecies relationships builds knowledge, destabilises the centrality of language, consciousness and learning”. Thus, this project imagines this living micro-territory, porous, interwoven, interconnected, amorphous and colonised by roots and infinite communities of species and microbial types as a territory and tool for co-creation and expression of the living. These latent organic forms become constant vibrations under the earth, waiting to be heard.
Development of biomaterials
Within the expression of bioart we find processes where materials are created from organic agents and a great awareness of the ecological effects produced by waste. Artists highlight the importance of a ‘circular economy’ in their experiences; a responsibility towards their forms of production, use, and waste generated by each biomaterial they create.
Ana Paula Hall created an art installation called Liminal process (2021), where the artist exhibits a large number of samples of biotextiles, bioplastics, biocomposites, bioceramics and mycelium fungus biomaterial plates. In the description of their work, Hall explains that “Liminal process constitutes information exchange and research on social networks, forms of community and records of processes and information with open source access”.
Verónica Bergottini creates a biomaterial called TILEX – Tela de Ilex paraguariensis, in allusion to yerba mate, which is one of the nutrients that allows the growth of ‘yarn-spinning’ bacteria. Yerba mate is made of edible leaves used in the traditional mate beverage. TILEX is not only biodegradable and compostable, but it also represents a circular design which seeks to add value to the cellulose resulting from yerba mate waste and to transform it into sculptures and design items. At first sight, the texture of this biomaterial resembles that of cardboard or plant-based leather. The yerba mate industry is very important in Argentina, especially in the region of Misiones, where the artist is from. In this sense, we can identify in this work a situated approach that seeks to reuse the waste generated by local industry.
A third and different approach can be seen in the work of Ana Laura Cantera, who specialises in the cultivation of mycelium fungus to create various objects including thermal and acoustic insulation panels. I am particularly interested in highlighting her 2021 work Tejidos desde el útero (Weavings from the womb). This piece is a living tissue of temporalities, bodies and memories, which seeks to reflect on the private and the public, the personal and the political, the internal and the external. It proposes to visualise women’s biological processes in order to unveil the act of being a woman with all that this implies. As Cantera explains:
“Menstrual blood is used as matter and identity, as expelled material. It is the residue, the remainder; it is human non-reproduction. Its use implies perpetuating biological memories, re-signifying it and changing its state in order to objectify it. It is to accept its agency and interaction with the environment. It is to reappropriate it.”
The bio-threads created by the artist are an interspecies conjunction: they are human fluids in communion with seaweeds. The woven objects are fragile but rigid organs, they represent anonymous bodies and at the same time they are made with part of the artist’s biological fluids. “They are clots, wombs, they are our endometrial tissues”, Cantera tells us. “We are ourselves made of matter”.
Randomness in living processes
Finally, I will present two pieces that deal with chance as the axis of the artwork. These projects seek to create devices or controlled environments where non-humans are the protagonists. In this type of poetics it is possible to identify the artificiality of ‘the natural’ or of the concept of nature itself, while also trying to raise awareness about the need to care for it.
Biogeneradores de microbestias. Proyecto microbestiario del Paraná (2019-22) is a project developed by artist and biotechnologist Luciana Paoletti. Biogeneradores de microbestias translates as ‘Microbeasts Biogenerators’, while the subtitle references the Paraná River in the artist’s home-city of Rosaria. The river and its delta are suffering from the burning of wetlands and historically low water levels. Microbestiario del Paraná approaches this issue in a scientific-playful-loving way, through a succession of stages.
In Phase I, the artist interacts with the place, studying its geography and biology, its texts, poems and novels. In Phase II, she gathers and analyses samples in order to capture the area’s microscopic inhabitants. This data allows for the beginning of Phase III, in which she generates microbeasts by placing together species that are not, under natural conditions, in physical contact. Luciana uses invitro techniques to allow artificial species coexistence. In this installation twelve ‘Microbeast Biogenerators’ created through experiments by S. Winogradsky (Phase III) facilitate the interaction and development of microorganisms from different areas, and situations such as before and after being burnt, and soil samples exposed to extreme drought.
In this last example, artist Virginia Buitrón proposes an Interspecies Drawing Device (2019). After several years of observation and coexistence with the species Hermetia Illucens (black soldier fly) she designs an installation-habitat-shelter based on Hermetia’s life cycle. This species transforms organic waste into compost and draws in its prepupal stage.
The installation consists of three closed and interconnected wooden modules where the flies feed (compost bin), draw and pupate (drawing generator and pupatorium), and reproduce (hermetiadero). The ink with which they impregnate their gait is compost leachate (the liquid that drains from the compost). The active period of the art installation corresponds to the active cycle of the flies between December and March. Then the insects go into diapause.
The impact of human beings on ecosystems needs to be assessed from a critical perspective that requires an interdisciplinary approach involving art, science, and technology studies. The irruptive and creative impulse of Bioart helps us imagine other ways of relating and coexisting between and amongst species. The ‘situated’ form of Bioart in Argentina, reveals a particular expression of the mainstream biotech laboratory aesthetics reflectinga local sensitivity to local flora, fauna and knowledges, and with respect for living processes.
David L. Denlinger and Peter A. Armbruster, “Mosquito diapause”. Annual Review of Entomology 59, 1 (2014).
Donna Haraway, “Antropoceno, Capitaloceno, Plantacionoceno, Chthuluceno: generando relaciones de parentesco” translated by Alexandra Navarro and María Marta Andreatta, Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios Críticos Animales, 1, (2016).
Eduardo Kac, “El arte transgénico,” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 6, 11 (1998).
David H. McNear Jr., “The Rhizosphere – Roots, Soil and Everything In Between”. Nature Education Knowledge 4, 2013 (3).
Lucía Stubrin, Bioarte. Poéticas de lo viviente, (Santa Fe: Eudeba/Ediciones UNL, 2020)
Mariela Yeregui, “Prácticas co-creativas. Decolonizar la naturaleza”, Artelogie , 11 (2017).
LUCÍA STUBRIN is Professor and Researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Entre Ríos, Argentina. She is the author of Bioarte. Poéticas de lo viviente (2020) and director of the research group Grupo de Estudio Biosemiótica, Arte y Técnica (GEBAT ). She also works as art curator in the field of art-science-technology with special emphasis on life sciences and bio-art.
Additional editing and proofreading by JAGJEET LALLY