Essay Trust me I am an Artist: It Takes Guts and Trust

It Takes Guts and Trust: The ethical assessment of the Mutate or Die: a W.S. Burroughs Biotechnological Bestiary project by Adam Zaretsky

From “Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration” a book by Anna Dumitriu and Bobbie Farsides which investigates novel ethical issues arising through art and science collaboration.


Q: A3.3.During which steps of the production process does quality control take place, which test methods are used and how are the tests carried out? A: “But words are still the principal instruments of control. Suggestions are words. Persuasions are words. Orders are words. No control machine so far devised can operate without words, and any control machine which attempts to do so relying entirely on external force or entirely on physical control of the mind will so o encounter the limits of control.”[1]

Trust me I am an artist?

How to deal the growing number of artists who are entering bioscience labs? Should we allow artists who want to work with living organisms and DNA under the name of ‘artistic research’ ‘to play God’? Is it OK to let non-scientists work with potential hazardous biomaterials and ‘tinker with life’? Can artists be trusted? How should we control their activities? Must the same ethical standards apply to art as to the life sciences?

To me the question is not whether the same ethical standards apply to art as to the life sciences. My answer to that question is a simple: yes off course. An artist does not stand outside the moral order. So, if an artists want to work with potential hazardous biological material, genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), or with human cells (which is only permitted in licensed bioscience laboratories), the same ethical and bio safety rules apply to them as for scientists. To me, the question is how those ethical standards can be applied to an art project. Are institutional bio ethics committees well equipped to assess bio art projects? The rationale behind most artistic research projects differs in fundamental ways from the scientific rationale. Artists and scientists have different agendas. They may speak a different language. Therefore, applying the same ethical standards to art projects is not an easy thing to do. How can a better understanding and respect of each other’s methods be developed? So that artistic projects can engage with ethical and health and safety issues and be taken from concept to production and similarly to open the scientific community to new transdisciplinary methods and innovative working practices. This requires the willingness from both the scientific professionals and the arts professionals to engage in a mutual learning process.

Mutate or Die

So, when I was asked to chair the bioethics committee assigned with the ethical assessment of the project Mutate or Die: a W.S. Burroughs Biotechnological Bestiary by Adam Zaretsky, I thought of this as a unique challenge. Would it be possible to apply the scientific ethical standards to such bizarre artistic research proposal?

The experimental procedures of this bio art research project were described as follows:

1: Take a glob of William S. Burroughs’ preserved shit (done)

2: Isolate the DNA with a kit (done)

3: Make, many, many copies of the DNA we extract (done)

4 Soak the DNA in gold dust (done)

5: Load the DNA dust into a gene gun (a scientifically modified air pistol)

6: Fire the DNA dust into a mix of fresh sperm, blood and shit

7: Call the genetically modified mix of blood, shit, and sperm a living bio art, a new media paint, a living cut-up literary device and/or a mutant sculpture.

And what would be the verdict? Should, bio-artist Adam Zaretsky be allowed to perform the experimental procedures with the naked DNA isolated from William S. Burroughs poop DNA as proposed in his ‘research’ plan in the Netherlands? I was told that the he committee should be ‘as realistic’ as possible and be modelled after existing Dutch bio ethics. The meeting of the bioethics committee was an experiment in the real sense of the word. Beforehand nobody involved in the project, all professional academics, could predict what would happen.

Rules and legislation concerning research involving GMOs, human subjects, and/or animals in the Netherlands

When people want to work with isolated DNA, GMO’s and/or do experiments involving human subjects or laboratory animals in the Netherlands, they are only allowed to do so in a licensed bioscience laboratory or a medical institute. And only if the research plan is approved by an acknowledged bioethics committee. Strict ethical, safety and health rules apply in the biosciences. When you want to work with animals you need to have an certificate and an approval of an animal ethics committee[2], when you want to work with GMO’s your lab needs to be licensed by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, and if you want to work with human volunteers in an medical experiment you need approval by the medical ethics committee (METC).

In the Netherlands bioethics has become an integral part of scientific practice in the 1990s when in response to public concerns about animal experimentation and GMOs specialized bio-ethical committees were institutionalized[3]. In the past decades these ethics committees have developed more or less standard procedures for the ethical assessment of scientific experiments. The usage of standardized questionnaires and checklists enables the committee members to make more or less ‘objective’ assessments and help them to keep the deliberation process controllable. Basically, the work of a bioethics committee comes down to a cost-benefit analysis and a risk assessment. Does the benefit of the research outweigh the potential environmental risks, animal suffering or human discomfort?

How would a typical Dutch bioethics committee respond to Adam Zaretsky’s project? What would happen if Adam Zaretsky would apply for an ethical assessment? This question was of course a hypothetical one. Adam did not intent to apply for ethical assessment to a real committee. For this occasion a special committee had to be created. But how would such a committee look? What kind of expertise is needed to make an assessment of an art research project? In the Netherlands there is very little experience in the assessment of bioart projects. And what procedures should Zaretsky follow? What application form would be most adequate?

Finding the right application form

In the case of the Mutate or Die project proposal two committees could serve as a model: the joint bureau for risk assessment of GMOs (BGGO) and the CCMO[4] or METC (ethical assessment of research involving human subjects). Since it was unclear what form was most adequate all the available application forms were handed to Zaretsky, who chose the Application form: Assessment of clinical study involving gene therapeutics in the Netherlands from the joint gene therapy office of the central committee on research involving human subjects (CCMO), the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment (IenM).

Zaretsky was than faced with a challenge because this form is specially designed for the assessment of scientific experiments and therefore not really suitable for the assessment of an art projects. Sometimes Zaretsky was simply not able to supply the necessary or satisfying information:


Details of applicant

A1.9.     Name of legal entity:                       Mutate or Die, LLC

A1.10.   Address:                                                   We are currently without home.

A1.11.   Postcode and town/city:              Wandering


Sometimes the miss match between the scientific language and Zaretsky’s biolistic poesis language was quite hilarious:

 Q: A2.17.What is the natural niche of the bacterial strain?

A: They live in shit inside of people, in their guts and are often squeezed out, into the world, where some of them can continue to live and, often, if not flushed immediately away in chlorinated water to a treatment plant, they may live on for quite some time.

And sometimes, like the poetry of Wiiliam S. Burroughs, Zarteksky’s descriptions of the scientific facts were hard to follow:

 Q: A2.1.Which virus is used as the parental virus to construct the GMO?

A: Name: Linguistic, trivial name: Language, commercial name: Propaganda/Public Relations/Persuasion, Strain Used: Genetic Isolate Used: AdenoCut-..up

 The hybrid genomic DNA may contain naturally occurring but genetically unweakened Weakened Adenoviruses (AV), Adeno-..associated Viruses (AAV), Herpes viruses and Retroviruses. Xeno-..transmissive and atavistic propagation notwithstanding, the meme seepage into the human subject is of a higher risk than the sequence data itself.

These small fragments taken form the dialogue between the application form and the artist clearly reveal that the two do not speak the same language. It is literally an encounter between two cultures. Words have different meaning in a scientific discourse than in an artistic discourse. And this is probably exactly what Zaretsky wants to tell us. In his case the written text of the application can no longer function as a tool for control. The reader gets lost in the Burroughsish language. This makes the application of the ‘same ethical standards’ that apply to other ‘normal’ scientific research proposals to the Mutate or Die project more or less impossible. One clearly needs to be able to ‘reed between the lines’. One needs to translate from science to art and from art to science. But who can do that?

Finding the experts

In addition to the right application form the right committee members had to be selected.

This was also quite a challenge. Usually bio committees are composed with experts from the scientific field: a molecular biologist that can assess the potential safety issues as well as the scientific and societal benefits of a research project. a cell biologist who knows all about the toxic effects of certain bacteria, a molecular biologist who knows everything about DNA transfer techniques. What expertise was needed to assess Zaretsky’s work? Where to find the right science experts with an understanding the value of art, in particular the works of William S. Burroughs? And off course we needed an art expert who could help the natural scientist by clarifying the artistic intentions. But where to find a Burroughs expert who would not be too intimidated by the scientific details (DNA talk)?

There was a lot of communication about who to ask for the committee. During the process Adam Zarektsky, who by then had apparently become a bit nervous, started to ask questions about the political views of the people I was addressing. “Do we have anyone green, antiGMO or at least non-green revolution sustainable?” Anna Dumitriu who was alerted by these questions, wanted to know if I was allowed to give that kind of information. “In a real situation would Adam be able to know who the people on the ethics committee he’s facing are? If he would be then also send the list to him (Adam you must not contact them though) if not then I’m afraid you’ll be going in blind! It must be as realistic as possible..”

At first I was struck by these questions. Apparently the artists were not aware of the fact that in the Netherlands committee members are asked to become members of ethics committees because of their scientific knowledge and expertise, not because of their political views. In addition, I had to explain that there is only one ethicist in the committee. But then, how could they know? As an experienced bioethics committee member I believe that most people, even scientists who work in laboratories and have to deal with ethical committees professionally, have little knowledge about what ethical committees do exactly.

I explained to the artists that an ethics committee in the Netherlands is a multi disciplinary committee. I told them that the members, who come from various disciplines, explain things to each other when discussing the details of a research project, and, that in the case of the Mutate or Die project, at least one of has to understand the meaning of Burroughs and at least one of them has to understand the implications (risks of) technical procedures.

It was not an easy task to find the right people for the job, people who were both knowledgeable and willing to take part of this experimental art project. Most scientists I addressed, responded to me in terms of ‘Am I supposed to take this seriously?’ And probably wondered ‘How will my colleagues react when they hear that I seriously discussed a crazy artist proposal involving a gene gun and the naked DNA of a dead poet?’ Some failed to see through the artistic rhetoric behind the proposal. “Are they going to fuck an innocent ovocyte with shit extracted from William Burrough’s dead arse and see what fucked up baby comes out?”

People outside the science community felt even more uncomfortable about the DIY bio element. A literary translator, whom I addressed in search of a Burroughs expert, replied to me “I am happy not to stand in your shoes, or William Burroughs shit (junkie and convicted for murdering his own wife – what, to my opinion, gives the use of his DNA a Frankenstienish flavour)”[5] Most of them felt inadequately equipped to do the task. One of the most literate bio-philosophers I know refused to take a seat in the ethics committee giving me the following arguments:

“I know the work of Burroughs a little, read it intensively when I was younger, but that is long time ago. Coincidently I reread Naked Lunch not so very long ago and in May I read a biography in Texas about him, but I cannot say I know his work really well, let alone would be able to connect it with bio art and biotechnology in an amusing and wise way. My knowledge is not thorough enough I am afraid. And I think you should really have this knowledge to do something as bizarre as to isolate and sequence DNA form Burroughs poop. I think Burroughs himself would have loved the idea.”[6]

In other words, it takes guts to participate in a bio art ethics committee assigned with the delicate task to assess the Mutate or Die project. Nevertheless, we were able to select a group of experts who were willing to do the job. And I believe some important lessons were learned. Both for artists who want to work in bioscience laboratories, for scientists, and for ethics committee members who will be confronted with artistic research proposals that are written in a totally different style and language, often not easy accessible.

Lessons learned

I think the most important lesson to be learned is that members of bioethics committees are normal human beings. By this I mean to say that they show typical human behavior when confronted with something they do not fully understand. An individual committee member feels, like any other normal person, insecure when s/he has to make decisions about things s/he has little knowledge of. It is one thing to have a moral intuition or personal opinion about a ‘crazy’ bio art project. It is another thing to be the one responsible for making the verdict: ‘you are’ or ‘you are not allowed to shoot naked DNA in a substance called felch and smear the resulting mutafelch out over voluntary human canvases’.

The life scientists in the committee did not have a problem with the Mutate or Die project because, according to them, there was, in contrary to what Zaretsky suggested in his proposal, no risk of creating GMOs. But it was hard for them to judge the aesthetic value of the art project. People from the art scene, on the other hand, were perhaps more able to understand Zaretsky’s artistic intentions but felt uncomfortable the ‘tinkering with life’ elements of the research plan. So when they were discussing the Mutate or Die project, the committee members did not only have to trust the artist, they also had to trust each other. They had to take a decision as a group and rely on each other’s information. I believe this is the other valuable lesson of the meeting that took place on the 10th December 2011 at the Waag in Amsterdam: bio ethics is complex and requires multidisciplinary teamwork.

If the current trend of artists entering bioscience laboratories is going to continue, both ethics committee members and artist will have to learn how to deal with each other. Bio artists need to understand that in order to be trusted they have to give reliable and comprehensible information about their research plans. They have to describe in detail what the experimental procedures will be. They have to learn to describe their work in scientific language. In addition, they have to explain to the committee why their artwork is valuable for society. They have to explain the value of their project to people that have little knowledge of art. It is very understandable that some of the committee members feel uncomfortable with bio art projects like Zaretsky’s Mutate or Die. Bio art project are often critical about the life sciences. This makes it even more difficult for bioethics committees to have an open mind about bio art. Why should they take artists seriously? They don’t have to.

It takes guts to trust an artist.

[1] Adam Zaretsky’s answer to a question of the Application form: Assessment of clinical study involving gene therapeutics in the Netherlands. The quote is taken from William S. Burroughs The Limits of Control, by William Burroughs (1975) Reprinted in Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader Grove Press, 2000, ISBN080213694X, 9780802136947

[2] Article 9 Certificate, described in article 9 of the Law on Animal Experimentation (Wet op de Dierproeven)

[3] The present Dutch law on animal experimentation that prescribes the assessment by an animal experimentation committee became effective in 1997. The medical ethical committee in its present form became effective 1999. And also the COGEM the national Dutch advisory board on GMOs was installed in 1999.

[4] The CCMO is the Dutch central committee on research involving human subjects, the METC, the medical ethics committee works at institutional level.

[5] The quote was originally in Dutch: “ik ben blij dat ik niet in jouw schoenen sta, of in de stront van William Burroughs (junk en veroordeeld wegens de moord op zijn echtgenote – wat dat dna-gebruik een Frankensteinachtig tintje geeft, vind ik.”

[6] The quote ws originally in Dutch:“Ik ken het werk van Burroughs wel enigszins, heb het vroeger best intensief gelezen maar dat is lang geleden. Toevallig heb ik nog niet zo lang geleden wel Naked lunch nog eens herlezen en las ik in mei in Texas een biografie over hem maar het is niet zo dat ik zijn werk echt goed ken, laat staan dat ik het op een interessante en vermakelijke wijze zou kunnen verbinden met bio-art en biotechnologie. Daarvoor reikt mijn kennis niet ver genoeg vermoed ik. En dat is toch wel vereist lijkt me om Wel een bizar idee om het DNA van Burroughs uit zijn excrementen te halen en dat dan te sequencen. Hij zou het zelf geweldig hebben gevonden denk ik.”

More information about Trust me I am an artist can be found the arts and ethics website by Anna Dumitriu, head of the Institiute of Unnecessary Research.

You can order the book here.