Chapter five: ‘Yuk!’ and the aesthetics of mouse biotechnology

Chapter 5

By stripping bio-science of its pragmatic function and recontextualizing it as aesthetics, gene artists reanimate issues Duchamp would have appreciated, especially those about authorship and originality and the nature and purpose of art[1].

Steve Tomasula


That artists are now showing living organisms as art is an incredible step in the aesthetic sense of human culture[2].

Dave Powell



Gut feelings and moral judgements

In the previous chapters, I have argued that the genetically modified mouse, despite its general use in the biomedical laboratory and its apparent domestication, still has for many people the appearance of a techno-monster. Its monstrous character is underscored by the myths, metaphors and vocabularies that mark the biotechnology debate. I have examined the two most dominant ones: the playing God metaphor and the Frankenstein myth. In this chapter, I want to examine the role of the yuk!-factor in the debate on animal biotechnology. What is it in biotechnology that is evoking a gut response? Of all the metaphors, myths and words that are used to express feelings of moral concern, the yuk!-factor is the one that most closely resembles Bernard Rollin’s definition of ‘aesthetic judgement’ in animal biotechnology. Rollin believes that moral concerns based on ‘aesthetic judgements’ are not genuine moral concerns. In his argumentation, Rollin makes a distinction between rational moral judgments based on objective measurable factors (such as animal suffering) and subjective aesthetic judgments based on feelings and emotionally-laden notions such as ‘nature’, ‘harmony’ or ‘quality of life’. In his perception of the animal biotechnology debate, the moral concerns based on objective reasoning and subjective feeling (also referred to as the ‘Frankenstein thing’) tend to get confused, and Rollin wants to see the two separated. For example, we have to understand that any appeal to ‘nature’ entails, in fact, aesthetic judgments and is therefore morally irrelevant (Rollin 1995, 1998).

However, there are two elements in Rollin’s vision that I find difficult to accept. My first difficulty with Rollin’s distinction of aesthetic feeling and ethical reasoning is that, as Mary Midgley argues: ‘In real life we tend not to find that reason and feeling are separate items. They are interdependent aspects of a person, divisible only for thought’ (Midgley 2003: 102). Moral convictions are always partly non-rational. This is not to say that moral convictions are contrary to reason. They are non–rational in the sense of being ultimately not based on, or guided by, any process of rational decision making (Hauskeller 2005). Moral convictions are always based on a mixture of both reason and feeling. Secondly, I do not see why aesthetic judgments should not be morally relevant. People who say ‘yuk!’ at being confronted with animal biotechnology are not, as is sometimes suggested, merely expressing an inarticulate disgust with the unfamiliar. As Midgley explains it: ‘Their further conversation shows that they are saying something intelligible, something that needs to be answered’ (Midgley 2003: 105). In opposition to what Rollin believes, I will argue that we have to take aesthetic judgements and yuk!- responses very seriously. Moral convictions are always based on a mixture of both reason and (gut) feeling. Exploring the roots of what we perceive as ‘yuk!’ is what ethics is about. People who say ‘yuk!’ at being confronted with animal biotechnology are expressing genuine feelings of moral concern, but apparently lack the vocabulary to do so in an articulate way. The question remains: What is expressed when people say ‘yuk!’?

I believe the yuk!-response in the animal biotechnology debate involves a number of things. First of all, there is a feeling of confusion that results from the fact that apparently self-evident notions such as ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are challenged and undermined. Secondly, it refers to the threat that animal biotechnology imposes on what we perceive as ‘a good life’, or a life worth living. This is what Robin Attfield refers to as the ‘quality of life’ (Attfield 1995, 1998); And, thirdly, there is the awareness that animals are acquiring more and more the status of ‘instruments’ or commodities, instruments with primarily economic value. What we perceive as a good life for a genetically engineered animal that is deprived of feeling (so as not to experience suffering from being subjected to animal experimentation) is basically a ‘matter of taste’. What we perceive as ‘natural’ is probably also based on aesthetic deliberations (at least in part). We tend to have a (more or less idealistic) vision of nature, but in fact an unequivocal and robust definition of ‘nature’ or ‘natural’ is not available. When people express their moral intuition about animal biotechnology and say that it is ‘unnatural’, they seem to appeal to a visual image, to an aesthetic norm that informs their vision of nature or what they believe to be natural. This also goes for the species concept. There is a strong concern that, at a certain point, genetically modified mice will no longer look like mice, will no longer look like natural animals at all. When Susanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin, whom I quoted before, state that (human) biotechnology will lead to a ‘gruesome parade of horribles’, they make a moral judgment by appealing to an aesthetic norm (Anker and Nelkin 2004). Others, who believe that biotechnological enhancement of the human race will lead to ‘perfect’ people, fear a world where there will no longer be room for (natural) imperfection. Perfection and imperfection in this much feared future of biotechnology can both be regarded as aesthetic notions. In these scenarios, biotechnology leads either to monstrosities or to beauty in its most extreme form. Both outcomes are apparently regarded as undesirable, both evoke a gut response. Finally, these ‘distasteful’ practices are only possible when commercial biotech companies are willing to invest in them. And these companies usually do so merely for the sake of profit-making.

Given the important role that ‘aesthetic’ notions play in the genesis of moral judgments on animal biotechnology, I do not find it very helpful to see the debate on animal biotechnology as a conflict between thought and feeling like Rollin does. Both are involved, both are intimately connected. As Midgley claims, to oppose feeling and thought has been especially unfortunate in the case of animal biotechnology. ‘People often have the impression that reason quite simply favours the new developments although feeling is against them. This stereotyping paralyses them because they cannot see how to arbitrate between these different litigants’ (Midgley 2003: 103). Therefore, a more fruitful approach than simply rejecting aesthetically-informed moral judgments as irrational, would be to study how moral and aesthetic judgments are connected in people’s appreciation of animal biotechnology, and to find out what people mean or fear when they express the feeling that some forms of bio-engineering are monstrous or unnatural. That is what ethics, the critical assessment of morality, is about.


Works of art as a source of moral inspiration

But, as I have shown, the vocabulary and approaches developed in the field of bioethics have serious shortcomings when it comes to addressing issues that are related to the way biotechnology challenges our vision of nature. The ethical framework developed for bioethical committees dealing with animal biotechnology roughly comes down to a trade-off between animal suffering and human benefits. From a practical point of view, this is an adequate approach, but philosophically speaking it is highly unsatisfying. I believe one of the reasons why the bioethical vocabulary is unsatisfactory is because, as a reflective discipline, bioethics is not as dynamic and lively as its object of reflection. It does not share the explosive creativity of biotechnology. In short, I believe the bioethical vocabulary suffers from an imagination deficit. Biotechnology is simply evolving at too high a pace for bioethics to keep up with it. Or, as Joe Tsien (the creator of Doogie the smart mouse) puts it: ‘We are in an era when breakthroughs in biology and intelligence are outpacing the culture’s capacity to deal with the ethics’ (Weiss 1999: A01). For most people, it is hard to imagine what it is really about. Although transgenic mice have become a commodity within the biomedical industry, to audiences outside the scientific and biotech community they are still highly invisible animals. The most important reason for this is that the mice in question spend their entire lives in laboratories and, as such, seldom enter the public arena. Not surprisingly, most people are unaware of the large number of transgenic mice (millions worldwide) that are used in medical research and (as a consequence of this) are also unaware of the state of the art in mammalian biotechnology. Another reason for the invisibility of transgenic mice has to do with the microscopic size of DNA. Genetic technologies are technologies of the invisible. Even if the mouse as such is visible, the genetic modifications of its genome remain invisible from the outside, to the untrained eye. So, even if we had the opportunity to see ‘real’ transgenic mice, we would probably see nothing peculiar or special. Usually one cannot tell from the outside whether or not a laboratory mouse is a genetically engineered laboratory mouse. Most transgenic mice simply look like ordinary laboratory mice. And, because most people are unable to ‘physically experience’ the genetic modifiedness of these mice, they remain abstract animals. As a result, the moral assessment of animal biotechnology remains an abstract activity. This abstractness is reflected in the bioethical vocabulary, which consists of rather abstract notions such as ‘animal integrity’, ‘intrinsic value’, ‘telos’, etc. The contrast between the very real and lively mice and the abstract and inflexible ethical vocabulary calls for a less abstract and a more creative style of ethical assessment. How can this be achieved?

In my discussion of the playing God metaphor, the sculptures Ecce Homo by Bryan Crockett and Mann und Maus by Katharina Fritsch were essential to my argumentation. These sculptures tell us something about mouse biotechnology that written discourses of bioethics can not: not simply as visual images, but by suggesting a ‘physical’ presence of the genetically engineered mice. These sculptures are ‘real’. Ecce Homo evokes mixed responses that include both aesthetic and moral judgments on the oncomouse. So does Mann und Maus. This sculpture is both comforting and disturbing: it is ‘unheimlich[3]. I believe these works of art are morally effective – by this I mean that they make a moral appeal to us – because the responses they evoke are as ambiguous as the technology to which they refer (or seem[4] to refer). The yuk!-factor is essential to the understanding of both Ecce Homo and my interpretation of Mann und Maus. Mann und Maus and Ecce Homo illustrate how, in discussing the meaning of a work of art, the aesthetic and the ethical cannot be separated. It is here that I see the great potential that art can have in the moral and social assessment of animal biotechnology, in particular where issues such as visions of nature, quality of life, identity, the normal and the abnormal are concerned. This leads me to the central question of this chapter: How can works of art assist us in exploring the yuk!-factor of animal biotechnology and our moral understanding and evaluation of animal biotechnology?

In the first part of this chapter, I will address this question by discussing the possible roles of the work of art in the age of biotechnology, building on an article by W.T.J. Mitchell about the work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction (Mitchell 2003). As an example of an art form that meets Mitchell’s criteria, I will discuss a ‘new’ form of contemporary art: namely, bioart. By bioart, I mean artistic reflections on the life sciences, either by representing and visualising biotechnological developments or by using biotechnologies as artistic tools. In the second part, I introduce the work of three artists whose artworks explicitly reflect upon the present and future practice of animal biotechnology: the GFP Bunny project by Eduardo Kac (2000), the Transgenic Mice Series by Catherine Chalmers (2000), and Genpets™ by Adam Brandejs (2005). These works are selected because they seem to convey something about the genetic engineering of mice, either directly or indirectly, that is important for our question. But as works of art they differ significantly from one another. They involve different media and seem to entail different forms of ‘intentionalilty’ as it were. By ‘works of art’ I do not only mean the physical objects that form the artwork. In my view, it also includes the processes of producing art, the responses to these works, and the role of the artist in the ensuing debates. In these three works of art I see the ambiguities of the genetically modified mice represented: their monstrosity, their unnaturalness, their promise, and even their innocence. All these artworks, – the ‘GFP Bunny’ project, Chalmers’s Transgenic Mice Series and Brandejs’s Genpets™ -, evoke yuk!-responses. It is these yuk!-responses I am after. Is something expressed in these yuk!-responses that can help us to understand yuk!-responses to animal or mouse biotechnology in general? What do these works of art express or reveal about animal biotechnology that is so difficult to articulate when we solely rely on current bioethical vocabularies?

Part One: Art, ethics and animal biotechnology

The work of art in the age of biotechnology

In ‘The work of art in the age of cybernetic reproduction’, W.J.T. Mitchell explores the possible new roles of artworks in the age of the contemporary technosciences. As ‘a target of inquiry’, Mitchell offers the concept of ‘biocybernetic reproduction’. Mitchell tends to use this concept in a rather strict sense: ‘the combination of computer technology and biological science that makes cloning and genetic engineering possible’. In a somewhat broader sense, the concept refers to ‘the new technical media and structures of political economy that are transforming the conditions of all living organisms on this planet’ (Mitchell 2003: 483). According to Mitchell, bio(techn)ology has replaced physics at the frontiers of science and has become the dominant technical and scientific discipline of our age. Mitchell, who is obviously referring to Walter Benjamin’s classic text The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936), explains how, during the biocybernetic revolution, the status of the original artwork and its copy have changed radically. First, ‘the copy is no longer inferior to the original, but is in principal an improvement of the original; secondly, the relation between the artist and the work, the work and the model, is both more distant and more intimate than anything that had been possible in the realm of mechanical reproduction; and, thirdly, a new temporality, characterized by an erosion of the event, and a vertiginous deepening of the relevant past, produces a peculiar sense of “accelerated stasis” in our sense of history’ (Mitchell 2003:487). We live in a time that is at best described as ‘a limbo of continually deferred expectations and anxieties. Everything is about to happen or has already happened without our noticing it’ (Mitchell 2003: 489). As an example he discusses the cracking of the human genome. This is what he calls a ‘non-event’. ‘The very “secret of life itself’” is decoded, and yet everything remains the same’ (Mitchell 2001: 490).

Now, this type of confusion is of course typical of revolutions. When a revolution is actually taking place, no one knows where it is heading. Initially, bystanders tend to underestimate the dramatic consequences for the future. They tend to think that, after some turbulence, their lives can be resumed as usual. It is only with hindsight that we are really forced to ask ourselves how life has changed as a result of the revolution. But the biotech revolution involves something that has never happened before, something that is radical and really new, something that calls for a critical mode of questioning the present. DNA technologies enable us, for the first time in history, to change the mouse’s and our own evolution in a controlled and directed way. It is a revolution that will allow us to ‘control’ ourselves. What could or should be the role of art in this age of revolutionary biotechnology? Mitchell discusses four tasks of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction: 1) to ‘reveal the codes and expose the illusion of the ultimate mastery of life’; 2) to re-articulate what we mean by the human, by humanism and the humanities; 3) to elaborate a ‘palaeontology of the present’, a discipline that should begin by acknowledging that the contemporary world is perhaps even more mysterious to us than the recent or distant past, challenging our insistence on the connectedness of all forms of life; and, 4) ‘to unleash the images, in order to see where they lead us, how they go before us’ (Mitchell 2003: 498). How can these four tasks be translated into something that is applicable to the biotech revolution, something that can be useful in exploring the yuk!-factor of animal biotechnology? The first task, ‘to reveal the codes’ implies a reading of the biotechnology language. Mitchell seems to imply that it is the task of artists to critically assess and inform their audiences about what the state of the art in technology is. The second task, ‘to re-articulate what it means to be human’, seems to suggest that biotechnology has an impact on our self-understanding. Artists, according to Mitchell, have to take a lead in reflecting on the impact that biotechnology has on what it means to be human. The third task, to elaborate ‘a palaeontology of the present’ seems to refer to a level of complexity and confusion that is typical for the biotech revolution of the present. Whereas previous revolutions were guided by future objectives, this seems to be a revolution without a goal, driven simply by the dynamics of science. A paleontology of the present would be the reconstruction of what is going on today in the age of biotechnology by putting together pieces of information that, seen in isolation, do not make much sense: pieces of information, for instance, that inform us about the state of the art in DNA technology and embryo and stem cell research, but that are so technical, leading to applications that are so difficult to imagine, that as such they hardly seem to make any sense. Too many things are happening at the same time that seem unrelated, but taken together certain constellations may emerge that may help us determine what the biotech revolution means. Mitchell seems to imply that by building these pieces of information into a coherent image (a reconstruction), artists can help us make sense of this revolution that is taking place right now. And last but not least, he believes that artists have the freedom to do this in a more or less ‘irresponsible’ way. They have to unleash the images and see where they go.


In the last two decades[5], a new art form has emerged that seems to correspond quite well with this idea of the work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction: namely, bioart. It is a general term used to refer to works of art that in some way relate to biology, biotechnology and life[6]. Preferably, these works are created with new visualisation techniques and tools borrowed from the life sciences, such as MRI, DNA gels, fluorescent bacteria, etc., as ways of representing bodies, identities. Contemporary bioart portraits are good examples of art that reflects (on) biotechnology. A well-known example of such an artwork is Marc Quinn’s portrait of Sir John Sulston. This portrait, Sir John Sulston: a genomic portrait, was made out of colonies grown from bacterial cells taken from Sultston’s sperm (Anker and Nelkin 2004). But also the works of artists like Alexis Roxman, Catherine Chalmers and Bryan Crockett who use ‘traditional’ materials and processes of representation like paint, photography and marble to comment upon the biotech revolution are relevant to my question (Anker and Nelkin 2004). In addition to these ‘dead’ or rather ‘non-living’ artworks, a new phenomenon within the biological arts can be observed: one that is very different from the traditional artistic engagement with science because, ‘with it, biological materials/life and scientific tools and protocols have become an integral part of the artistic process as well as the artwork itself’ (Zurr and Catts 2003, 2004). Bioartists who are involved in this latest type of bioart create living and/or semi-living beings. Life itself, the living organism, is the medium with which they work.

The discussion about bioart and the growing number of art exhibitions on themes, materials, technologies, etc. borrowed from the life sciences, such as the DNA code, genes, life and the post-human, indicate that the arts ‘have discovered’ biotechnology. ‘A molecular gaze’ has emerged in the world of contemporary art (Anker and Nelkin 2004). There are many different reasons for artist to engage with the (life) sciences. Art critic Sian Ede gives four: first, because artists are challenged by the new ‘materials’ provided by the life sciences; secondly, because they are fascinated with scientific paradigms that help us to view the world differently; thirdly, (in a few rare cases) because artists can assist with scientific investigation; and, finally, because they feel they need to engage in a complex, non-simplistic way with the political and ethical consequences of science (Ede 2002: 67). Working with new, sometimes living materials, and participating in ethical or political debates, bioart elicits two main types of discourse. One is technical: an assessment and categorisation of artworks according to the process of their production. The other one focuses on content. It is about bioart as a social, political and ethical commentary. It is this latter discourse that interests me.

The morality of bioart

The writings of art critics, or art historians and bioartists on bioart reveal both fascination for the new technologies offered by the life sciences and worries about the impacts of biotechnology on (our understanding of) life. In the light of the biotech revolution, some authors see it explicitly as the task of art to address the big questions concerning life. ‘The gaze of artists often dwells on the values challenged by a rapidly growing science that frequently seems to defy natural categories, common morality, and traditional understandings of human nature. Touching on the moral and ethical dilemmas of manipulating nature, the patenting of genes, and the concerns brought about by the changing status of humans in the post-genomic world, visual artists portray the expectations and salient anxieties of our genetic age’, write Anker and Nelkin in their book on bioart (Anker and Nelkin 2004: 4). Stephen Tomasula has a similar view on the task of gene artists: ‘By collapsing the metaphor of art as a mirror of life with life itself, by making art that mirrors biological processes and the network of commercial concerns that configure our dawning biological age, gene artists engage in questions raised by their scientific/corporate/government counterparts: What does it mean to alter a natural evolutionary process millions years old? How will people think of themselves and their relations to others once boundaries such as ‘plant’ and ‘animal’ have eroded?’ (Tomasula 2002: 138). In a similar vein, art critic and artist Dave Powell sees a specific task for artists in addressing these questions in the public forum. ‘In this age of ecological awareness and animal rights it is we, the artistic community, who should consciously and wholeheartedly embrace the asking of these vital questions as part of the greater art discourse. I would think that artists can be yet another powerful force ensuring that these matters are addressed in the public forum and not merely in closely guarded laboratories and behind closed doors of corporate boardrooms’ (Powell 2004, 340).

When discussing bioart as a social, political and ethical activity it is important to acknowledge that bioart is a heterogeneous practice, with various artists occupying a broad variety of (sometimes rather fluid) ethical positions. Bioartists may have many different (ethical) agendas. As a consequence, there cannot be such a thing as a ‘general theory of the morality of bioart’. And it is definitely not my intention to make any general statements concerning the role that bioart ‘should’ play in the ethical debate on animal biotechnology. Nonetheless, some artists involved in bioart do explicitly take an ethical position when talking or writing about their artwork. For instance, in their paper The ethical claims of Bio Art: killing the other or self-cannibalism?, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts of the Tissue Culture and Art project (TC&A) describe how some of the outcomes of biotechnologies bring into question ‘deep-rooted perceptions of life and identity, concept of self, and the position of the human in regard to other living beings and the environment’ (Zurr and Catts 2003/2004)[7]. As artists, they believe that it is their role ‘to reveal inconsistencies with regard to our current attitudes to life and to focus attention on the discrepancies between our western cultural perceptions and the new techno-scientific understandings about life’. Moreover, they also intend to ’further problematise ethical frameworks and shift the goalposts of contemporary ethics’ (Zurr and Catts 2003/2004). Transgenic artist Eduardo Kac has similar ideas about the critical task of art. He sees it as ’the urgent task of art’ to unpack the implicit meanings of the biotechnology revolution by revealing the cultural implications of the revolution underway and by offering ‘different ways of thinking about and with biotechnology’ (Kac 2000)[8].

Kac and TC&A do not attempt to give answers or find solutions to the ethical dilemmas raised by biotechnology. Rather they attempt ‘to generate further debate and expose our social inconsistencies towards the living’ (Zurr and Catts 2003, 2004) or to offer ’new perspectives that offer ambiguity and subtlety where we usually only find affirmative (‘in favor’) and negative (‘against’) polarity’ (Kac 2000). Kac who sees transgenic art as a firm rejection of the reductionist view that life is purely and simply a matter of genetics emphasizes our communication with transgenic life. According to Kac transgenic art can ‘help science to recognize the role of relational and communicational issues in the development of organisms’ (Kac 2000). The questions remain: What is it exactly that bioartists have to offer to the social and moral debate on animal biotechnology? How does bioart in practice address these bio-philosophical questions? And, finally, how does this affect the aesthetic and ethical quality of their work?

Part Two: Bioart on animal biotechnology: Yuk!

Bioartists are inspired in numerous ways by a wide range of biotechnologies. I am interested in artworks that reflect upon, are inspired by, or involve animal biotechnology. In particular, artworks that evoke yuk!-responses. These are the artworks that make a moral appeal to us, that challenge us to think (more deeply) about animal biotechnology. I have chosen three art projects that meet my criteria for further investigation: Kac’s ‘GFP Bunny’ project[9], Catherine Chalmers’s Transgenic Mice Series, and Adam Brandejs’s Genpets™. I have chosen these three art projects because they show the (future) potential of animal biotechnology and play a prominent role in social and moral debate, either by accident or on purpose. The artists who created these artworks are all visible artists, their work is discussed by academic writers and exhibited in galleries, travelling exhibitions, on websites, in newspapers and magazines.

In the following, I will analyse the aesthetic and moral quality of these artworks more or less along the lines of the four questions that I have ‘distilled’ from Mitchell’s four tasks of the work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction: First, what does this particular work of art tell/imply about the state of the art in animal biotechnology; what does it reveal about the technologies of manipulation; and what does it say about biology as the science that seeks knowledge about life and death? Secondly, what does it tell us about the implications of biotechnology for us humans? Thirdly, how does it make sense of biotechnology? In what sense does the artwork contribute to an elaboration of a paleontology of the present? And, finally, what kind of images are unleashed and where do they go? For each individual art project, I will discuss the moral appeal it makes, the yuk!-factor it entails (in particular the messages it seems to convey with regard to issues such as naturalness, quality of life and the commodification of life). By discussing these works of art, I want to demonstrate that, when discussing animal biotechnology, it is impossible to separate aesthetics from ethics.

The ‘GFP Bunny’ project

In 2000, Eduardo Kac surprised and shocked the (art) world by claiming to have created a green fluorescent rabbit for merely artistic reasons. Alba was the first living transgenic rabbit made for non-scientific purposes. Two years before, Kac introduced/defined the notion of transgenic art as a ‘new art form based on the use of genetic-engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings’ (Kac 1998). But the transgenic artwork ‘GFP Bunny’ was not simply about the creation of the green fluorescent rabbit Alba. Of much more importance to Kac was the public dialogue generated by the project and the social integration and cultural adoption of the rabbit (Kac 2000).

On his website, Kac keeps a record of the public debate on Alba. All kinds of publications about his rabbit can be found. However, as the webmaster, he decides what to put on his website and what not to include. For example, an article in Wired that is rather critical about the reality of Alba’s green fluorescence and the relationship between the artist and the scientist responsible for her creation, cannot be found on this website (Philipkoski 2002). This indicates the dubious extent to which Kac is not only inciting a public debate on Alba but also trying to control and direct it. Apart from this website, two images from the GFP Bunny project are very important. One is a photograph of a green (albeit compared with the green fluorescent OncoBrite mice (see Figure 2) rather unrealistically green) fluorescent rabbit (Figure 8a), and the other is a photograph of the artist holding a white rabbit in his arms in front of a wall, – or is it a studio? It is definitely not in a laboratory – as it is decorated with a somewhat oddly designed, 1970s style wallpaper (Figure 8b).

What was new and radical about Alba the GFP bunny was not the technology involved, but rather the fact that she was supposed to be a work of art. At the time Alba was ‘created’, the use of green fluorescent protein as a marker was an established and well-known tool in the field of molecular biology (Okabe et al. 1997; Yang et al. 2000). The ‘GFP Bunny’ project was not a genetic experiment but an artistic experiment. Kac’s fluorescent rabbit Alba was in a sense ‘ready-made’. The birth of Alba has always been surrounded by a cloud of vagueness. The one story about Alba I find most convincing is that she was created in a laboratory in the context of a routine process and picked up by Kac who took her in his arms and must have said something like ‘I name you Alba and from now on you are a work of art’ (Philipkoski 2002). Whether Alba was really created on behalf of Kac – on special demand as it were – or was in fact an ordinary (even non–transgenic?) laboratory rabbit that had her 15 minutes of fame simply because she was picked out for a photo session with an artist, remains unclear. But, even if Alba is a hoax, the fact remains that, by staging Alba, Kac introduced the concept of the GFP Bunny as a genetic animal ‘biopaint’ to a wider audience.

By choosing the GFP gene as the gene to be added to Alba’s genome, Kac made gene technology visible. Whether the green fluorescent colour was really the effect of a GFP gene added to Alba’s genome, or rather the result of photoshopping is in fact irrelevant. On the image of Alba that was sent into the world, you could really see that her genome was altered. By taking her out of the laboratory and showing Alba to the public, Kac pointed both to the state of the art in gene technology (a technology easily applied to mammals like us), and to our responsibility for, and moral connectedness with, these animals that are created with the aid of new genetic technologies.

The staging of Alba involves more that just presenting a green fluorescent rabbit to the world. With the GFP Bunny project, Kac was actually initiating a social debate on Alba and the social integration of transgenic animals. Kac is not only the initiator of the debate – his involvement goes much further than that. After unleashing the image of Alba, he continued to play a rather important role in this debate. He was, and still is, more or less its ‘conductor’. Raising our level of awareness is what he seems to be after. ‘More than making visible the invisible, art needs to raise our awareness of what firmly remains beyond our visual reach but which, nonetheless, affects us directly’, he writes (Kac 1998). There is something taking place behind closed doors that ‘in the safe harbour of scientific rationalism, nourished by global capital […] unfortunately remains partially sheltered from larger social issues’ (Kac 1998). Kac is particularly concerned about the ‘domestic and social integration of transgenic animals’. As a transgenic artist, Kac claims not to be interested in ‘the creation of genetic objects, but in the invention of transgenic social subjects’ (Kac 2000). In his article on the GFP Bunny, he explains that the project is about ‘the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy’ (Kac 2000). The most radical moment of the GFP Bunny project is the moment Kac takes Alba out of her cage and holds her in his arms for a photo opportunity. This is how Kac describes this moment: ‘She immediately awoke in me a strong and urgent sense of responsibility for her well-being’ (Kac 2000).

What do people find disturbing about Alba? Why does she evoke a yuk!-response? As Kac himself has noted, he did not break any social rule with the ‘GFP Bunny’ project’. Neither did the rabbit suffer from being fluorescent. Humans have determined the evolution of rabbits for at least 1400 years, and there were no mutagenic effects resulting from transgene integration into the host genome (Kac 2000). In other words, Kac did not do anything unethical to the rabbit. The procedure used in order to create Alba was fairly standard within accepted scientific practice. This is basically the most important information Kac gives about the state of the art in animal biotechnology. Nontheless, Alba was the subject of a public debate, a public debate initiated by Kac himself. What was so ‘yukky’ about Alba, was the fact as such that Kac had created her as a work of art. In doing so, he bypassed a dominant ethical rule: that there should be a clear human benefit that outweighs the use of transgenic animals. Alba was not meant to be used as a laboratory animal to help a scientist find a cure for a genetic disease.

More or less in response to this type of criticism, Kac put emphasis on the responsibility one has as an artist vis-a-vis transgenic artworks. He states that we have to love and nurture these new forms of life we have created just like any other animal (Kac 1998). Is he suggesting that scientists do not love and nurture their animals? What does Alba tell us about what goes on with animals inside the laboratory? Kac is suggesting that dramatic events are taking place behind closed doors, but he remains rather silent about what exactly those might be. He does not say anything about the millions of transgenic creatures like Alba that are living in today’s modern biomedical laboratories, nor does he say anything about her countless invisible transgenic brothers and sisters who live identity-less lives in laboratories that are closed to the public. By focussing on the social integration of Alba, rather than her monstrosity, Kac is in a sense elaborating a palaeontology of the present. He is making sense of something that usually remains out of focus, but is highly relevant. We are in many ways connected to these transgenic animals.

This takes me to Mitchell’s final point. How does Kac unleash his image, and where does the work lead to? Is the fact that Alba is art and not science relevant at all? Is there really a difference? And, if so, what exactly is the difference, from a moral point of view? Alba differs from her transgenic kin because she is a work of art. But in fact she is not really different at all. Yet, at the same time, she is different from all other laboratory rabbits because an artist claimed her to be a work of art and promised to take her home and care for her as if she were his pet. By displaying her as a work of art and potential pet, Kac changed her fate. Alba was set free from the laboratory. Is this innocent white/green rabbit the so-feared monster, the monstrous that has to be shown, and that sooner or later will escape from its laboratory premises?

Catherine Chalmers’ transgenic mice series

In 2000, six highly artistic photographs of transgenic mice, taken by Nature photographer Catherine Chalmers, appeared in The New York Times as illustrations to the article Fuzzy Little Test Tubes by Lawrence Osborne. The photographs, taken at the Jackson Laboratories, showed not only exemplary genetically engineered mice as they are used in biomedical science but also the price tag attached to them. The most expensive mouse Chalmers portrayed is Blind Sterile, a mouse that is used for research into genetically-related reproductive disorders and eye disorders. At that time, such mice made a fair price: $231.70 per breeding pair. The photographs that Chalmers took of these mice are not mere illustrations, they are portraits of these mice. The focus is on their face and its expression. As a result the photographs show something of these mice that might be called their ‘personality’. Pigmented Nude seems highly vulnerable, it is nude and seems to be shivering all over, it is a pitiful animal. Down’s Syndrome simply looks severely ill. It seems smaller than the other mice, and its body seems cramped and in a curved position. Blind Sterile seems more lively and normal, except for its creepy eyes. They are white/blueish. The animal is blind but still seems rather attentive. Obese is strickingly fat. It seems highly dubious whether he is still able to stand on his own feet. This gives us the impression that he is a lazy mouse (see Figure 9a). Curly Tail does not show his face. In this portrait, it is the curly tail that is pointing at the lens. The tail is its most dominant feature. Except for this strange tail, the mouse looks normal and healthy. The most active one seems to be Rhino, a pink nude with a spectacular wrinkled skin. He is standing high on his feet, and points his nose squarely at the camera. He is both monstrous and cute (see Figure 9b).

This publication of mouse portraits was not an isolated event. Rather, it was part of a series of events. In April 2002, Chalmers’s Transgenic Mice series were presented at Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics, a national touring exhibition in the USA that explored the implications of human genome research on human life and understanding (Stern 2003). The artworks presented at this exhibition were artistic explorations and imaginings of the social and economic ramifications of genetic and genome research. The idea behind the exhibition was to stimulate public dialogue about contemporary genetics. Especially for this occasion, the size of the photographs, originally taken as illustrations to a critical journalistic article about the mouse business and the Jackson Lab, were increased to a scale enormously larger than the original prints. Exhibited in a gallery, these photographs became impressive works of art. In order to explore the experience and response of the audience to the artworks presented, the Henry Art Gallery (where the opening of the travelling exhibition took place) developed a ‘visual thinking strategy adapted for dialogue’ (VTS). Described by the staff as an ‘interactive looking experience’, VTS had to ‘initiate dialogue by posing questions that encourage viewers to bring their own personal associations and interpretations to the work’ (Stern 2003). In order to set up a dialogue about ethics, questions were asked about the abnormality of Chalmers’s mice, the right we have to use transgenic mice for research, and the financial benefits Chalmers might enjoy from the artworks that exploit these mice.

Chalmers’s work was much praised for the feelings of ambivalence it evoked. ‘Enlarged in huge, full-colour prints to hundreds of times their actual size, it is impossible to ignore their disfigurement, and yet we can’t help guiltily thinking that many of them are still cute. The mice are both horrible and darling; they represent both a massively profitable industry and little bits of intelligent, furry life with whom we are fully capable of empathizing’, writes one art critic (Westbrook 2003). ‘Catherine Chalmers’ large-scale portraits of mice bred for specific diseases give a heightened sense of obligation to the control of actual lives, without resorting to easy emotions. These mice have a larger-than-life dignity; they very nearly dare you to feel sorry for them’ wrote another (Hall, 2002).

Unlike Kac, Chalmers did not write about her ‘yukky’ mice. She probably did not intend at all to participate in a moral and social debate on mouse biotechnology with her photographs. As a photographer, she documented what she saw in the laboratory. Not by taking snapshots of these transgenic mice, but by carefully picking some striking examples and putting them in the spotlight, she made portraits of these mice emphasising certain features. The photographs do not reveal the endless rows of (dirty) cages or other typical laboratory surroundings of laboratory mice. Neither do the photographs reveal the countless numbers of animals that are ‘genetically speaking’ interchangeable. The photographs show unique animals, individuals with their specific ugliness or beauty. These photographs show the mice in all their ambiguity. Some are cute, some are weird, and others are monstrous. ‘Make up your mind’, they seem to say. To somebody who is confronted with these to animals for the first time, they raise questions. What are these mice, and why do they exist? In what way are these bizarre creatures connected to our health?

Chalmers’s photographs of transgenic mice that appeared in The New York Times were probably an eye opener to the public. Gazing into the camera’s lens the mice confronted their audience with the bare fact of their existence. Animals that are normally invisible, abstract and anonymous suddenly look us straight in the face. They become real. These mice, in particular Rhino and Pigmented Nude, the two nude mice, have something uncanny about them, something yukky. Being confronted with these transgenic mice, the viewers are forced out of their comfort zone. The mice are both real and bizarre; they have something monstrous about them, they look emphatically unnatural. Chalmers shows them the way they are, ambiguous animals. On the one hand, these mice are mice like any other mice. On the other, they are grotesque, – technological artefacts. They are high-tech fuzzy in vivo test tubes. By adding to the mouse images the price tags and their specific use in biomedicine, these works of art inform the public about the animals behind biomedicine and biomedical industry in a disturbing way. The work reveals an uncomfortable relationship between human health, science and the biotech industry. A relationship that makes many people feel yukky. They seem to suggest there is not only a trade-off between animal suffering and human health, but also between animal welfare and profit-making. Chalmers took the pictures in 2000. At that time, the US law on animal welfare, the Department of Agriculture’s 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was highly debated. The definition on ‘an animal’ of the AWA excludes birds, rats and mice bred for use in research. As a result, laboratory mice are unprotected and their standards of care unmonitored[10]. A change in the status of the mouse could have an effect on profits. By exposing these mice in The New York Times, Chalmers made visible the ‘fuzzy little test tubes’ that Osborne wrote about. Behind the production and use of genetically engineered mice for medical research a ‘bioindustrial complex’ exists that is as much driven by economic interests as by scientific or medical ones. In his article mentioned above, Osborne estimated that the profit of private ‘mouse ranches’ nationwide amounts to $200 million per year (Osborne 2000). Chalmers’s Transgenic Mice Series ‘highlights this industry that has until recently escaped public scrutiny or calls for accountability’ as curator Robin Held wrote on the genesis website[11].

Adam Brandejs’s Genpets™

The work Genpets™ by the artist Adam Brandejs is presented on his personal website and was exhibited in several art galleries. The work represents both the virtual biotech company Bio-Genica and its products, – the Genpets. Bio-Genica is presented on a website ( that gives the impression of being the website of a real biotech company[12]. It provides information about the mission of the company and its products, and it contains a service and support page that gives online assistance, as well as ‘tech support’ for dealing with ‘your Genpet’. Genpets™ are mass-produced Bio-engineered pets made by Bio-Genica (see Figure 10). Genpets™ are actually ‘bizarre, altered, bipedal mammals sealed in a plastic bubble where they uneasily rest in some kind of induced hibernation. They are there, ready to take home and add to your life as the next entertainment gadget; bioengineered creatures, mass-produced, and pre-packaged as a fully self-contained unit for your convenience’ (Brandejs 2005b)[13]. On the website the catalogue of Bio-Gencia can also be found with interesting details about the company profile and the market potential of Genpets™.

The Genpets™ are made of plastics and electronics. They are not real living creatures but Brandejs does everything to give the spectator the feeling that these genetically engineered pets are really alive. As he argues, it is ‘easier to dismiss Genpets as a hoax or exaggeration when you’re not faced with a wall of them. The experience of a grainy photo is different than standing face to face with a breathing, sleeping creature’. The whole set-up of the Genpets™ artwork is designed to give the audience the impression that they are alive. The packages contain a series of glowing and beeping heart monitors, the chests of the pets rise and fall as if they are breathing and they occasionally twitch, shake and claw. Their movements are limited by tie-wraps, which keep them in place. All of this seems to confirm that these creatures are alive, that they are real, like biotech foetuses. But the sculpture is not about whether the Genpets are real or not. To Brandejs, the sculpture is ‘the physical representation of a question.’ And this question about bioengineering is not about its positive or negative ramifications, or where it can take us. To Brandejs, the question is ‘whether or not we are ready to go there’ (Brandejs 2005b). It shows us the future of biotechnologies that, at present, are in their foetal stage. Are we ready for the adult version?

Brandejs’s work differs from Chalmers’s and Kac’s in the sense that it is not about ‘the real thing’ and not about today’s scientific practice. Brandejs reflects upon the future of animal biotechnology. His work is a kind of science fiction. To Brandejs: ‘Art is something that pushes boundaries and stirs thought and debate as well as something that reflects the times it was created in’ (Brandejs 2005b). So, reflecting upon today, Brandejs is stretching reality and creating an image of the world of tomorrow. He is using mixed media: (imaginary) biological sciences and computer technology. In doing so, he is reflecting upon his world. When he looks around he does not see bronze or wood, he sees ’plastic, cement, steel, flashing lights, electronics, and LCD displays’. He sees ‘a mass media machine telling us to “buy, buy, buy”’, so these are the elements he uses to accomplish his artworks (Brandejs 2005b). Brandejs is showing us where biotechnology might lead.

Brandejs has a clear message built into his artwork. ‘Re-think nature’, he writes in Bio-Genica’s catalogue. ‘Nature has never been a closed system, nor has it ever been balanced – we as a species have been affecting it for thousands of years. It has been our inspiration, and by choosing the best it has to offer we have been able to create absolute perfection. Patenting of living systems has become slowly accepted as our outlook on life has changed. As it is obvious that Genpets™ have never, and would never exist in nature, it seems silly to even question them as patented technology. Unlike other domesticated pets, Genpets™ have not been torn out of their natural environment and forced to quickly adapt to a foreign habitat; instead they are fulfilling a pre-designed destiny. Now doesn’t bioengineering nature make far more sense?’ (Brandejs 2005a: 8)

The Genpets™ are explicitly presented as pets and not as laboratory animals. They are apparently made by a biotech company, but clearly in order to be useful at home in a pet-like fashion; they are high-tech living gadgets for personal use. With this artwork, Brandejs is implying that biotechnology will lead us, or has already begun to lead us, into a world where there is a growing (mis)use of animals by humans, even for purposes that many will consider as frivolous. But most striking are the responses of the public to his Genpets™. In his afterthought about the Genpets artwork, Brandejs writes how the piece was meant to illicit a reaction and how surprised or even shocked he was by the many positive responses, the eager acceptance of his Genpets™, eager to an uncanny extent. This notably applied to the responses he received from teens. ‘When I designed Genpets, I had no clue how people would react. It disturbed me to see such a positive acceptance of Genpets by people who wanted to buy a genetic pet’ (Brandejs 2005b). There are, of course, people that understand very well what the Genpets as an art project are about. And there were also people that ‘cried upon seeing them’. Overall though, was swamped with emails from people wanting to buy a pre-packaged pet. To Brandejs, this proves the importance and relevance of Genpets™ as an art piece. ‘It baffles me how one generation can be banging at a store window in absolute protest and outrage, while the younger is crying out and demanding I sell them’ (Brandejs 2005b). It is here I believe the artwork of Brandejs is a good example of ‘a palaeontology of the present’. The artwork gives a hint about the future, but by provoking a series of comments it opens up future scenarios that could not be predicted beforehand. The response to Genpets seems to suggest that future generations (Brandejs was born in the 1980s (1982), but a significant part of his audience in the 1990s) are likely to have less problems with using these kinds of biotechnologies in such a way. To them, Genpets™ are cool.

In fact, the artwork Genpets™ has two layers. The work has an upper layer that consists of the Genpets and the website. This is the layer of artistic fantasy, Brandejs’s vision of how a biotech company in future might look. But the artwork also has a second layer: the layer of physical reality. Some people take the website seriously, and really believe that they can order Genpets at Bio-Genica. To them, the Genpets are not simply images; Genpets are real. These people send in serious requests to As a result, a true conversation about gen-tech animals takes place between the artist and his audience.

What is yukky about the Genpets is that the genetically engineered animals are presented as commodities, packed for retail. This is what the work is about. ’Life itself is quickly becoming a processed commodity in the privatization of nature. Biological engineering by large companies, outside of nature has become a terrifying reality for my generation to contend with’, Brandejs writes in his artist statement about the Genpets series 01 (Brandejs 2005b). ’Today, we are well within the process of desensitizing an upcoming generation towards accepting bioengineering as “natural’’ (Brandejs 2005b). By presenting Genpets as commodities, he is highlighting the commercial interests that companies have (and will have even more in the future) in genetic engineering. When making profit is the number one incentive of the biotech industry, claiming to do animal biotechnology in order to save lives and to feed the world does not sound very sincere. It is marketing rhetoric: it is what people wish to hear. According to Brandejs, the work Genpets™ deals with three, related but different themes: fear, ignorance, and consumerism. ‘Bioengineering’, he explains ‘like any new technology promises a great deal of positive effects. We as a race, however, tend to put a great deal more faith into technology as a savior than it necessarily has earned. Through Genpets I question the negative effect that bioengineering can have, for we all know that when it all comes down to it, profit is the bottom line’ (Brandejs 2005b).

What is equally disturbing, or yukky, is the unnaturalness of the Genpets. BioGenica’s vision of nature is a vision of nature as malleable, a nature that in and of itself has no value. What has economic value is not given by nature, but rather determined by man. This vision of nature resembles Rollin’s vision when discussing animal biotechnology. But unlike Rollin, who prefers to avoid the issue of nature (by claiming that nature is irrelevant because strictly speaking individuals do not have natures), Bio-Genica has a rather radical vision of nature: a vision of nature that is by essence malleable. ‘Nature to us is nothing more than inspiration for rough parts. We have picked out the best of everything to create absolute perfection’ (Brandejs 2005a).

What strikes me most about Brandejs’s writing on biotechnology is that he seems surprised by the fact that the actual biotechnological developments (the ‘real thing’) are progressing much faster and further (are more ‘far out’) than he had imagined. In a ‘quick note’ about the packaging of the Genpets, Brandejs writes: ‘I don’t believe the pets in packages to be a far stretch. Take a look at any farm or pet store; we already package our animals. The idea behind the Genpet packages is that Bio-Genica places the animals into an artificial hibernation. Again, when I read in a newspaper that scientists have just combined sheep + spider to make stronger thread, is it far out to assume we could add a gene for hibernation from another animal? I think not. I think many of the concepts behind Genpets are far less ‘out there” than the majority of what is happening behind closed doors’ (Brandejs 2005b)

Part three: Making the invisible visible

Presenting the invisible

This chapter began with the hypothesis that bioart, sharing some of its ambiguities with the technologies upon which it is reflecting, but at the same time apparently being driven by a strong ethical agenda (the morality of bio-art), could offer something useful to the debate on the social and moral aspects of animal biotechnology. By making animal biotechnology visible in a way that confronts, disturbs and/or challenges our imagination, bioart can make an appeal to a variety of aesthetically-based moral judgments on animal biotechnology.

In the first place, I have described how bioarts makes animal biotechnology visible and even tangible (both the animals themselves and the technology), not by merely ‘informing’ the public about mouse biotechnology, and nor by merely presenting them with images of the mice, but by presenting mouse biotechnology in its full and often ambiguous meaning. By this, I mean presenting transgenic mice as monsters (Chalmers), as promises (Crockett’s Ecce Homo), as commodities (Brandejs), as innocent creatures (Kac, Chalmers), as individual personalities of unique animals (Chalmers), etc. When presenting the transgenic mice (or other genetically engineered animals), the bio-artists I discussed also present the myths and metaphors that give meaning to these mice.

Presenting the monster

Both scientist and ethicist – the former with their day-to-day experience and the latter with their focus on animal welfare -, have reduced the genetically engineered mouse to an ordinary laboratory mouse. In everyday laboratory practice, genetically engineered mice do not differ from non-genetically altered mice. Therefore, I see it as one of the merits of bioart to put emphasis on the fact that these animals are genetically engineered animals, and that there is something about biotechnology that deserves our attention. The genetically modified mouse is not simply a pitiful animal that is being used in science, it is the pioneer species of biotechnology. It is that latter role that is still in need of thorough investigation. What will biotechnology bring to the mouse, and, by implication, to us? What will FutureMouse look like? What will FutureMan look like?

I argued that ethicist and scientist when dealing with the transgenic mouse monster usually apply a strategy of containment. Genetically engineered animals are carefully locked away in laboratories. The outside world is a no-go-area for these gen-tech animals. By ‘creating’ transgenic pet animals and bringing them out in the open, both Kac and Brandjes have broken this rule. They have set the monster free. Kac set the monster free by literally embracing his monster and asking for her domestication. He asked us to welcome transgenic organisms like Alba in our homes. He did exactly what Frankenstein failed to do. Brandejs did a similar thing by offering Genpets for sale on his website. He introduced them to the world outside the laboratory, to the marketplace, to be more specific. When referring to animal biotechnology, both Kac and Brandejs speak about what goes on ‘behind closed doors’. But they keep the mystery alive. They do not reveal anything about what happens behind these closed doors of the laboratories. They only present what comes out.

Chalmers did go behind these closed doors, where she was able to take a closer look at these mice. But she focused on the mice as such. We do not see laboratory equipment on her mouse portraits; we do not see scientists wearing white coats. Yet, in her work the products of these laboratories are presented. And these products – monsters – are very real.

The work of Brandejs, in particular the public response to it, suggests that when the biotechnology is ready for it, transgenic animals might very well become part of our lives[14]. This is also what Kac believes: ‘As we try to negotiate current disputes, it is clear that transgenics will be an integral part of our existence in the future. It will be possible, for example, to harness the glow of the jellyfish protein for optical data storage devices. Transgenic crops will be a predominant part of the landscape, transgenic organisms will populate the farm, and transgenic animals will become part of our expanded family’ (Kac 1998).

The message of these works of bioart seems to be that we already seem to have accepted that, sooner or later, these monstrous products will enter the public sphere. Therefore, we can no longer (mentally) hide these animals in laboratories. The question how we relate to transgenic or genetically modified animals suddenly becomes highly relevant. Because at the moment, so it seems, we do not relate to them at all, they are invisible. By presenting them as ‘real’ (Chalmers and Kac) or as a future possibility (Brandejs), these bioartists have made the genetically modified animals visible and by doing so they are questioning our confused (reluctant) moral position towards these creatures. They present us with the state of the art; this is what animal biotechnology (potentially) is about. There are monsters hidden in laboratories, and it is our moral duty, not only to take good care of them, but also to be prepared to welcome them into our world.

The economy of hope

Another issue that is addressed in a provocative way by these bioartists concerns the supposed benefits of biotechnology. When discussing the blessings of biotechnology, Catts frequently refers to the ‘rhetoric of saving lives and feeding the world’[15]. By scientists, both from academic circles and from biotech companies, animal biotechnology is often presented as a necessary evil: ‘Only with the use of genetically engineered mice will we have a chance of finding a cure for cancer’, or, ‘We can only win the battle against AIDS if we have a reliable transgenic mouse model’. Presented like this, transgenic mice are the only hope we have. Bioartists seem to be more critical about this hope and the promise of biotechnology than bioethicists. They seem more willing to question what exactly is promised, and how this promise relates to the millions of mice used, or sacrificed, in biomedical science. Chalmers’s transgenic mice, like Bryan Crockett’s Ecce Homo and his Cultured (the mice representing the Seven Deadly Sins) pose a difficult question: How is the fate of these individual mice connected to human interests, both financial and medical?

On nature

Biotechnology is changing our vision of nature: ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’ seem rather vague notions referring to a world ‘out there’ not yet influenced by us humans, something that is quickly becoming marginal or even non-existent. The invention of recombinant DNA technology revealed, as no other technology had done before, that the raw materials of nature and life are by nature malleable. ‘Do not fight this idea’, ‘do not deny the power of biotechnology’ is what bioartists seem to say, ‘but learn to live with it and put it to use in a responsible way’. To Kac the image of a world that is visibly influenced by biotechnology is a highly realistic future scenario. ‘In the future we will have foreign genetic material in us as today we have mechanical and electronic implants. In other words, we will be transgenic. As the concept of species based on breeding barriers is undone through genetic engineering, the very notion of what it means to be human is at stake. However, this does not constitute an ontological crisis. To be human will mean that the human genome is not a limitation, but our starting point’ (Kac 1998). When we accept biotechnology as a fact, the question surrounding bioengineering is not whether it’s good or bad, or where it can take us; it is whether or not we are ready to go there.

The works of Kac, Chalmers and Brandejs, each in their own way, pose questions that are relevant to the social and moral assessment of the genetic engineering of animals, in particular where questions concerning our vision of nature, the normal and the abnormal are at stake. Like Alba, the fluorescent mice that inhabit the laboratories look very unnatural. But what is natural or unnatural when thinking about laboratory inbred mice? Any attempt to introduce an objective unequivocal notion of nature or the natural fails in the light of scientific progress. Biotechnologists have shown that nature is more malleable than we believed, and that we are more connected through our DNA with other species than we expected. In short, our (scientific) notion of nature is adrift as a result of the insights of biotechnology. Fluorescent rabbits and mice are the living proof of ‘shifting boundaries’. They are unnatural, but are in the process of becoming accepted as ‘normal’, at least by the scientific community. In his art project, Brandjes presents the question about nature as totally irrelevant in the light of future applications. The practice of patenting genes by biotech companies is illustrative of this changing attitude towards nature. Only what is created or adopted by the biotech companies has economic value to the biotech industry, not what is created by nature. Moreover, to care about the quality of life of individuals seems out of place in the light of the future commodification of genetically engineered animals. To most people today, Brandejs’s Genpets™ are both unnatural and do not have lives worth living. But as the public response to Brandejs’s artwork is pointing out, the attitude towards the genetic engineering of animals might be changing more rapidly than we can at present imagine. What is perceived today as totally unthinkable in terms of ethical acceptability, within a decade or two might be the coolest thing.

Concluding remarks: towards a more creative style of ethical inquiry

In answer to the question how works of art can be of assistance to our moral understanding and evaluation of animal biotechnology, we may conclude that art has something valuable to offer to the ethical debate on animal biotechnology, first of all by placing concrete applications in a broader, future-oriented perspective. Artistic visualisations are of vital importance when it comes to the moral assessment of a technology that not only takes place behind the closed doors of the laboratory and on the level of the invisible, the DNA molecule, but is bound to become visible outside the laboratory in the future. DNA technology is in a sense science fiction, a science of future promises. In order to understand the meaning and future implications of biotechnology, we have to rely on (artistic) imagination. This is what bioart in a broad sense – meaning art inspired by, reflecting upon, commenting upon, or involving bio(techn)ology – can offer. Artists have a long tradition of visualising the present and the future, the fantastic and the real, the good and the bad, using various media, varying from traditional materials to multi-media and biotechnology. They can visualise the effects of biotechnology by representing or applying it.

But there is another reason why bioart can play a valuable role in the social and ethical debate on animal biotechnology. Art can have a refreshing impact on the debate because artists open up a different perspective on biotechnology than scientists and philosophers or bioethicists usually do. Artists can reflect on science by ‘doing science’ and/or ‘ethics’ outside the existing scientific or ethical frameworks such as laboratories, ethics committees or philosophical discourses. Artists can create ‘truth’ by manipulating or disturbing facts. This artistic truth can be of great value to the moral debate. An artwork like Alba forces us to step outside the dominant ethical discourse and take another (second) look at the monsters we are creating. It is because Alba is art and not science that she forces us to look at animal biotechnology from a different, not necessarily ‘scientific’ perspective.

These works of art enable us to physically experience what usually remains unsaid and out of sight: the mice as monsters, but not perhaps monsters that we have to fear. On the contrary, these are monsters we have to take good care of. These monsters promise many good things. But it is our task to remain critical about these promises.

[1] Steve Tomasula (2002) ‘Genetic art and the aesthetics of biology’, Leonardo, Vol. 35, p. 137.

[2] Dave Powell (2004) ‘Chimera contemporary: The enduring arts of the composite beast’, Leonardo ,Vol. 37, p. 340.

[3] According to Freud ‘unheimlich’, as an aesthetic category, refers to something that used to be familiar but from which we have suddenly become estranged (such as a corpse). Certain locations are definitely unheimlich, such as graveyards or – laboratories, really a ‘locus suspectus’. Very ‘unheimlich’ are loose body parts (such as head, hands, eyes). According to Freud, this category used to be associated whith mechanics (with automata), but has moved to the life sciences where the new homunculus is now produced. Sigmund Freud (1919/1947) ‘Das Unheimliche’, in: Gesammelte Werke XII. London: Imago; Frankfurt am Main, Fischer.

[4] One can doubt whether it really was Katharina Frisch’s intention to express something about the mouse as it is used in biomedical research (see also Chapter 3).

[5] In 1982, artist Joe Davis walked uninvited into the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and walked out 45 minutes later with an appointment as a research fellow (Gibbs 2001). So, in fact, it is three decades, but Davis was ahead of his time.

[6] The definition of bioart is a topic of debate. Since I am primarily interested in the role bioart can play in the ethical and social debate and not in demarcating bioart from other forms of art, this dispute about the definition of bioart is irrelevant to me. I am interested in how contemporary art (or bioart) reflects upon current developments in biotechnology.

[7] The article by Zurr and Catts is accessed via the web, and therefore the page number is not available.

[8] The references Kac (1998, 2000, 2001) are all accessed via the Eduardo Kac website, and therefore page numbers are not available.

[9] GFP stands for green fluorescent protein.

[10] Today, the Animal Welfare Act in the USA still does not include laboratory mice. Researchers claim that the welfare of mice is adequately regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)/Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Good Laboratory Practice Standards (GLP), the US Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC).

[11] <>

[12] At the website of a real biotech company can be found.

[13] The reference Brandejs 2005b is a website, and therefore a page number is not available.

[14] Transgenic glowing fish are already available. You can order at

[15] Personal communication.