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UB bio-artist Paul Vanouse recognized at prestigious Prix Ars Electronica

Paul Vanouse's "The America Project," uses DNA from the saliva of hundreds of people to create such iconic images as crowns and fighter jets.

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published June 19, 2017

Paul Vanouse, professor of art and director of Coalesce: Center for Biological Art, received the Award of Distinction in the Hybrid Art category of the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica, the world’s premiere cyberarts festival and competition.

His work, “The America Project,” was one of two projects to receive the award, taking home one of the three top prizes from the more than 1,060 entries submitted from 106 countries. Vanouse will receive his award at the Ars Electronica Gala on Sept. 8 in Linz, Austria.

“The Ars Electronica festival is an important summit for emerging practices in the arts,” Vanouse says. “For bio-art in particular, it affords the platform to engage highly topical debates on the aesthetic, ethical and even ontological dimensions of the emerging field. And, of course, I feel highly honored to receive the award.”

UB art professor Paul Vanouse won the Award of Distinction in the Hybrid Art category of the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica for his bio-art installation "The America Project."

The America Project is a bio-art installation that revolves around the idea of a shared identity that was once a part of the utopia of America. The work was described by the Ars Electronica jury as producing “the very icon of the melting pot, the U.S. flag, as the result of a live scientific experiment.”

After rinsing their mouths with a saline solution, visitors pour the solution into a spittoon that comingles the DNA of hundreds of people.

Visitors are asked to rinse their mouths with a saline solution and then spit into a spittoon that comingles the DNA of hundreds of people. The DNA is processed in a custom DNA amplification procedure that Vanouse and Solon Morse, his colleague at Coalesce, use to develop iconic images of power, such as crowns, fighter jets and flags, that are visualized as live video projections.

Vanouse, who is also head of the Emerging Practices program in the UB Department of Art, has worked in emerging media forms since 1990. His electronic cinema, biological experiments and interactive installations have been exhibited in more than 20 countries and across the U.S. in venues that range from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the Louvre.

An image of a crown created from the DNA in human saliva.

 

For the past decade, Vanouse has been concerned with forcing the arcane codes of scientific communication into a broader cultural language. His recent projects have used molecular biology techniques to challenge “genome-hype” and confront issues surrounding DNA fingerprinting.

His award-winning work has been discussed in journals and media outlets that include Art Journal, Art News, New Scientist and The New York Times. His art has been funded by numerous organizations that include the National Science Foundation, Creative Capital Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Renew Media Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts.

An image of the American flag created using the DNA in human saliva.

 

As director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art, housed within the UB Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM), Vanouse helps attract artists from around the globe to participate in biological art residences through which they can form mentorships with UB faculty in the life sciences, gain access to laboratory equipment, and receive the creative space and technical support to study genomic and microbiomic concepts.

Coalesce artists-in-residence Byron Rich and Mary “Maggic” Tsang also received an honorable mention in the Hybrid Art category of the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica for their project “Open Source Estrogen,” which aims to develop a system of protocols for the emancipation of the estrogen biomolecule through low-cost, do-it-yourself tools for collecting environmental estrogens.

“We are thrilled with the success and international recognition of Coalesce, of Paul Vanouse and Solon Morse, and of our Coalesce artists-in-residence,” says Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“GEM seeks to engage scientists and non-scientists alike to explore the science of the genome and the microbiome, but also to engage in broader ethical and cultural discussions. These outstanding creative endeavors embody and illustrate the power of art to stimulate these discussions.”

Vanouse holds a MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and a BFA from UB.