Mixed Media

Art for Science’s Sake

Petri dishes serve as artistic palettes at Coalesce, a new experimental laboratory at UB

Stranger Vision: For this work-in-progress, Coalesce resident artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg created facial sculptures (top) from analyses of genetic material collected in public places, like this cigarette stub (right) found in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her related UB project, “SELL/BIO,” creates portraits of people using their own purchased cells, “giving a face” to biological exploitation and exploring the controversial practice of selling human DNA. Photo: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Bioart can serve as a bridge between the life sciences and the humanities.”
Paul Vanouse

Recent visitors to Coalesce: Center for Biological Art, a hybrid research space in Hochstetter Hall, may have wondered what was up with the locker room smell. There are no signs of any sweaty athletes.

Turns out, the potent aroma emanates from a work-in-progress called “Labor,” by professor of art and Coalesce director Paul Vanouse (BFA ’90). He’s looking at two common bacterial species that feed on sweat and produce what we describe as body odor. Vanouse says they pose a complicated question: Do we know what it really means to smell human, to be human?

“For centuries we have been debating who gets to be considered a person and when,” he writes on his website. An interactive art installation dominated by two large fermenting tanks emitting semihuman smells, “Labor” questions, writes Vanouse, “industrial society’s shift from human and machine labor to increasingly pervasive forms of microbial manufacturing.”

Vanouse is widely considered to be one of the world’s most accomplished practitioners of biological art—that is, art that uses biology as its subject and often its medium as well. Working for more than 20 years at the intersection of art, genetics, biotechnology and digital media, he jumped at the chance last year to create a hybrid art studio and teaching lab. It is, he says, the only bioart facility of its kind in the country, or even nearby (its closest relative is in Perth, Australia).

Paul Vanouse. Photo: Shasti O’Leary Soudant, MFA ’11

A collaboration between the Department of Art and UB’s Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM), Coalesce is an experiment in hands-on, interdisciplinary learning. There, for example, philosophers and architects can tinker with microbes while social scientists study genetics and writers expound on ecology. In Vanouse’s BioArt and Art in Life classes, students conduct basic cell culturing, DNA analysis and chemical experiments.

This year, eight international artists are on campus for Coalesce’s first residencies. Through the spring, they will work on and present projects, such as human facial portraits engineered out of found DNA and microbial “coats of arms” for various families made from samples of their gut bacteria.

The issues that bioartists explore can feel edgy and uncomfortable, and force us to reconsider our assumptions. That uncomfortable edge, Vanouse explains, is entirely the point: It’s where discovery often lies, he says, adding that bioartists tend to pursue discovery with a deeply ethical sensibility.

“Bioart can serve as a bridge between the life sciences and the humanities as our society contemplates nonhuman ethics, post-human ethics and our relationship to the biosphere,” he says. “I think these new perspectives may be key in developing new and ethical tools to make sense of recent advances in the life sciences—and of life itself.”