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Art Imitates Life Science

Shana Ting Lipton reports on how the bio-art movement is finding and (lab-)growing its wings in France

NANTES, France-
This was the birthplace of science fiction writer Jules Verne. And during World War I, it was here that surrealist king pin André Breton met a wounded soldier in a hospital ward whose conviction that art was nonsense was one of the catalysts for the Surrealism and Dada art movements. Verne was a writer who read scientific journals and incorporated them into his fantastical literary works. Breton and his ilk, called upon the Freudian world of psychoanalysis and dreams for inspiration in their artistic forays. These crude and early hybrids of the arts were conceived here in Nantes. They crossed boundaries and found ways to marry science and art.

It's March 13th, 2003. It's a chilly, gray day in downtown Nantes. A walk over a bridge and just past some railroad tracks takes me to the foot of the huge cement building. It used to be the LU biscuit factory, but just three years ago it was transformed into the cultural center, Le Lieu Unique. Founded by 'the French pope of alternative culture' Jean Blaise. Its raison-d'être is to provide an all-purpose locale (café/bar, gallery, lecture space, bookstore, restaurant) where the arts and everyday life can seamlessly co-habitate, far from the alienating snobbery of the Paris art scene. It's a sort of casual open forum for diverse ideas.

For the next couple of months, the image of a large fluorescent green rabbit is draped over the side of Le Lieu Unique (known to locals in its former nomenclature, LU). Beneath it are the words "L'Art Biotech" (translation: bio-art), heralding a two-month long exhibit and a one-day symposium in the name of a growing art-meets-science movement.

The partly cute, partly disturbing mutant bunny image-from Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac's controversial GFP Bunny project-- has come, in many ways, to be known as the icon of this movement called bio-art. Where Jules Verne and André Breton hinted at collaboration between the arts and science; bio-artists throw it--as if it were a vial of hydrochloric acid--in your face. In varying degrees these global artists (most of whom don't even come from scientific backgrounds) use science in different ways as a subject, medium and canvas for their work.

The GFP Bunny (named Alba) is a transgenic (genetically modified) animal that expresses GFP (a fluorescent protein) when she is exposed to a certain type of ultraviolet light. Just an outlandish toy for twenty-first-century trippers who are sick of their lava lamps? Kac seems to think not. The artist--who is the chair of the Art & Technology department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago-conceived the project (and altered life form) in 2000, in hopes of opening up a discourse on a very sobering topic: the use of genetic modification in animal research.

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