Genetic revelations

The Weisman’s new exhibit questions the ethics behind scientific breakthroughs.

Katrina Wilber

I“Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
– Genesis 1:26

In an age of technology and life-saving medical breakthroughs, humanity’s power over the world seems necessary, almost divinely ordained. The race to cure various cancers and the need to discover new antibiotics put science in a heroic light. Sometimes this means that ethical considerations are ignored or avoided.

While scientists and artists usually keep within the boundaries of their own disciplines, a new exhibit at the Weisman focuses on the transgenic approach to art. According to the “Gene(sis)” glossary, a hybrid creature is “the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, e.g., a mule is a hybrid of a horse and a donkey.” On the other hand, a transgenic organism “contains genetic material into which DNA from a different species has been artificially introduced.” Scientists could create a transgenic organism from potato and quail DNA or from human and squirrel DNA or just about any other combination that strikes their fancy.

Hybrids and transgenic organisms differ based on whether artificial methods are used in their creation. Nonhuman processes can create hybrid offspring, while artificial, human-controlled interference is required for an organism to earn the title of “transgenic.”

“Gene(sis)” doesn’t skirt the tricky topics of ethical responsibility and accountability, but they’re not shoved in the viewer’s face, either. The exhibit’s artists have generated new life through their pieces, and the Weisman gallery shows the controversy over creation through basketballs, birthday parties and babies.

A particularly chilling piece, Catherine Chalmers’ “Transgenic Mice” shows the effects science has on our friends in the order Rodentia. The photos are enlarged to epic-mouse proportion, 30 inches by 40 inches, and the subjects, no matter which way their bodies angle, look straight at the viewer for sympathy. Each of the six subject mice was injected with specific human or animal genes and then used in research. One is morbidly obese with a body that dwarfs its tiny head; another one with Down’s syndrome peers at the observer with an almost accusatory eye.

As anthropomorphic as it sounds, Chalmers’ work yet again stirs the debate on the ethics of both animal and human research. If it’s inhumane to use humans in research, how far is too far in pursuit of knowledge when we use other species to benefit ourselves?

An exhibit by Eduardo Kac begins with the quote from the Book of Genesis that is then translated to Morse code, one of many artificial languages created in the 19th century. The Morse code translation was transposed into genetic code, and a scientist created two new forms of bacteria from that genetic code. The bacteria reside in a petri dish in the center of the exhibit, and the images of the bacteria are projected against the wall.

None of the translations in the exhibit are entirely word-for-word. If the process was reversed, the biblical quote might be missing a few letters or have words transposed.

The exhibit’s ultraviolet light creates an other-worldly feel, and background music brings a different aspect to a usually silent venue. Kac’s exhibit is closed in; it feels like an underground laboratory of a scientist run amok, but it balances on the tightrope between “Young Frankenstein” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

In an age of life- and time-saving inventions and miraculous surgeries, scientific exploits can seem both innocent and extraordinarily meaningful. However, the photographs, paintings and sculptures of “Gene(sis)” uncover the truth beneath the surface.