To Deny Nature: Bio-Arts and the Post-Natural Post-Human Landscape

Meghan Evans and Helen Frichot ask what benefits, insights, innovations and collaborations exist for the architectural arts to shape a world where science, medicine and technology dominate and direct the possibilities of the future

March 8, 2012


The contemporary world wants immunity from the troubles of nature. Immunity from its sickness, catastrophes, mutations and unknowns; we want immunity from everything we can not foresee, control or reproduce. Yet we desire its secrets, miracles, and its ingenuity translated for profitable human benefit. We’re creating a world where printed kidneys, simulated black holes, neurological feedback systems and life from scratch will populate our children’s daily reality. They’ll have no concern for medical waiting lists, they’ll learn of outer space in their virtual classrooms, and they’ll grow pets of their own genetic design who will take readings of their neurological and psychological well-being. In a world where science, medicine and technology dominate and direct the possibilities of the future, what benefits, insights, innovations and collaborations exist for the architectural arts to shape it? This paper briefly examines the prophetic role art and design plays in determining our post-natural and post-human landscape and the ethical and moral conundrums that are awakened by it.


Alexis Rockman’s painting titled The Farm depicts a diachronic perspective of farming development. On the left side of the painting “ancestral versions of internationally familiar animals” fade toward a vanishing point on the horizon whilst genetically modified foods and animals dominate the right and foreground.  The modifications and mutations implemented by the industry have increased the exchange value of the products.  These are not the ‘natural’ animals and plants of blind evolution, nor have they been simply domesticated and mass produced, these are the six winged, cubic formed, over-weight, and award-winning products of a post-natural landscape. Rockman was interested in “how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures – human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical appliances among them.”


There is one moment in the painting that is not, however, a depiction of the future or of a past mutated for the present. It is of a mouse with an ear on its back found centre stage. The mouse is not part of either the agricultural prophesy nor of the butchers profits, it is a scientific invention designed as a case study for medical opportunities by Charles Vacanti in 1989. Though the ear is in the shape of a humans it is actually made from the cartilage cells of a cow’s knee, and the hairless mouse is the progeny of a “random mutation in the 1960’s” which also left it without an immune system (useful for not rejecting the cow cells). Rockman’s interest in “medical appliances” is found in this famous little mouse. For Rockman the mouse is just as much a product in the service of consumers, business and contemporary humanity as are the genetically modified fruits and vegetables and the enhanced meats we bag at our local grocery store. The three poles of time, past, present and future are not so widely spaced and he seems to suggest that whilst we are developing a post-natural landscape we are also devising a post-human one too. But his stance is quite obviously not without a moral quip that faces not quite so bravely toward our blue-ribbon future.


This raises the question of what is natural, and further, what is human. To consider ‘human’ as an animal with exceptional intelligence, articulate speech and erect mobility may hit the definitive Hominidae mark but misses and obscures the use-value of alternative definitions and depictions. Under the biological lens we can only be credited for being 10% human, the other 90% is all bacterial, living in or on us and integral to our life. We exist in a symbiotic communal relationship with creatures that not only predate our ‘human’ cells but out-number them 10:1, and yet we prefer to remain completely unaware of them, and further, kill as many of them as possible with our expansive repertoire of cleaning aids and antibacterial cleansers. Under a psychological lens humans are portrayed as mechanical actors and respondents caught in a self-deceptive game of repressions, desires and drives fighting it out on a communal stage. As for the political point of view humans are citizens, the integral parts that collectively contribute “to an abstract concept, the state”, and populate a community that share in their obedience to laws, regulation by institutions and observance of culture, all of which constitute a society. Citizens can be punished, rewarded and even expelled by the state, hence only ‘humans’ can be citizens but not every human is a citizen. And philosophically speaking, ‘human’ is an idea, separate to ‘human’ the herd species that uses symbols, and has currency in reality only through ideological subscription to the term and its function as prescribed by language.


Legally defining ‘human’ is proving to be exceptionally problematic.  Unlike pornography, it seems that we don’t yet know it when we see it. In a 2003 case presented to Judge Judith Barzilay in the U.S. Court of International Trade the question of what it means to be human came up. She was having to determine if X-Men figures were human or non-human, or more precisely whether they were dolls or toys, (the former remaining in the class of humans and therefore subject to higher customs duties). Her determination became a feature article in the Wall Street Journal for she deemed them toys. According to the journal Chuck Austen, “current author of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men comic-book series the verdict is incredulous”, for he went to great pains to show “that they’re just another strand in the evolutionary chain”. Although they share many characteristics with dolls such as hands and feet, facial features and torsos, it seems that their non-human or super-human features find them outside the class of human beings.


Judge Barzilay’s clear response, though it solves the financial frustrations of Marvel, opens a larger problem for the U.S Patent Office; where is the line that separates humans from non-humans in the topic of patents? The work of Jeremy Rifkin and his patent lodgements and appeals highlight the blurry line that law has set forth for determining what is human. Since the 1980 Supreme Court case Diamond v. Chakrabarty where the first living organism was patented the definition of a “product of nature” and what is born of human invention has ceased to be clearly defined. This landmark case opened the way for biotechnology industries to own the right to life, life in the sense of whole species and their components including proteins, cells and genes, and life in the sense of ‘natural products’ mutated for our benefit. Humans are no longer simply custodians of nature but owners of inventions cultivated from evolution’s billion year old R&D department. If the genetic future of humanity lies in the directed evolution of our biological code, providing us the leap from homo-sapiens to homo-superior, then perhaps X-Men toys will one day be reconsidered dolls and the patent office will become the copyright holders of our genealogy.


The definition of nature seems to be finding itself woven into the same conundrum. Since the introduction of patents on living organisms, nature, including the “products of nature”, are being synthesized in laboratories, developed by medical and pharmaceutical manufacturers, mimicked and applied as solutions to design problems by engineers and designers into reasonably patentable inventions.   We’re amidst a bio-technological boom where databases like “biobricks” (registry of biological parts) and “ask nature” are to go-to for innovative and lucrative minds. Beyond the chimeras of geeps, beefalo and ligers there exists bio-factories of transgenic animals producing pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, beauty products and even textiles for military uniforms and even tennis rackets. And beyond cloning we now have genetic engineering, DNA printers, bug-bots and nanotechnology. As Paul Root Wolpe notes, the survival of the fittest gave way to the survival of the best equipped or situated, now we’ve taken evolution by the horns and are now deliberately designing the ‘nature’ of the future. And yet again we go beyond even nature. Xenobiology, where DNA and RNA are substituted with XNA (a substitution of the sugar backbone holding the genes in place) such that ‘nature’ cannot ‘read’ the genetic code and therefore cannot mate or reproduce with it, provides not just a new leaf of inquiry but a whole new tree of knowledge cloned from ‘nature’ (V1) intact with a “firewall”. Xenobiology opens a door to a parallel ‘natural’ universe that, although it cannot “integrate” with ‘nature’ V1, provides the ability to ask probing questions about abiogenesis and to research novel species, genes, cells and proteins without consequences DNA-based organisms.


In the hands of designers biology provides some deep insights and nifty solutions to a constellation of aesthetic and pragmatic concerns. Magnus Larsson endeavours to put a stop to desertification whilst creating permanent living spaces for the villagers whose homes have been engulfed by the moving sands. Rachel Armstrong has a novel approach to saving Venice from sinking, Ginger Krieg-Dosier has invented a biological brick that requires urea to feed bacteria which ‘glue’ sand particles together. For Janine Benyus biomimicry is not simply a smarter way to approach design problems and developments, it is perhaps the only way to approach the future of the future. Learning and appropriating from natures catalogue of ideas has lead to new train design, farming procedures, water reticulation, catchment and filtration, cement production, harvesting solar energy and new ways of storing it, and structural design techniques just to point out a few.


The Arts have long been associated with morality through providing society with the means to comport themselves to the important issues, events and concerns we face. It has the ability to communicate the ideas and concepts that inspire or haunt us, and to open paths of dialogue in addressing them. Advances in science and technology are bridging the gap between science fiction and science fact and the time for society to openly discuss our dawning future is already here. Deciding on our moral and ethical obligations to ‘nature’ and ‘human’ are increasingly harder to interpret and justify by means of lives saved or income potential. Perhaps a new paradigm is necessary to reveal the central question that remains unasked: what is “humanity”? Nature is not interested in life or death, humans are. It is not interested in survival but in the possibility and diversity of a communal systemic ecology. Perhaps it is not a denial and immunity from nature that ‘humanity’ seeks but rather a communion with it.

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