Like lightwriting and waterwriting, and I’d like to consider a new category of (digital) text art - biowriting.

I’m proposing “biowriting” as a term for symbolic inscription in bioart.

What is bioart? Bioart is art which uses living biological organisms as material components. This definition encompasses biomasses of all sizes, from individual bonsai to complex arrangements of topiary, while the scope of the engagement ranges from microbe photography to visualizations of migrations tracked across vast distances.

With such a broad definition of bioart, what are the limits? Are the culinary arts all bioart as well? What about performance art that involves human bodies - is that ‘bio’ enough, or do the organisms involved have to be drawn from the worlds of ‘nature’ or ’science’? Does the sculptural plasticization of cadavers count, or would including dead organisms require us to consider wooden architecture and furniture, inks and ochre, fabrics, and so on?

One answer to limiting and refining the category of bioart is to focus on thematic concerns - particularly art which addresses the political and ethical issues raised by contemporary biotechnology such as DNA testing or GMOs. Much like the overlapping definitions of blog art, my impression is that, for some, bioart is a category defined by the issues it addresses, regardless of material approach, while for others, the opposite holds true.

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What are some examples of bioart writing, or biowriting? Examples might include spelling with naked bodies (and its long history), bioluminescent painting and bioluminscent sky writing, legible crop circles, and written branding, tattooing, body painting or other words on skin.

From a digital point of view, a particularly interesting example of biowriting is DNA biowriting. The structure of DNA is commonly represented in science and the public imagination as a long sequence of letters. Although folding and RNA interaction make the physical reality of DNA much more complicated, the idea of DNA instructions as a sequential alphabetic expression is a powerful crossover point for metaphors involving computing and information technology.

Most DNA bioart nevertheless focuses on non-alphabetic representations. This may be in part due to the difficulty and expense true sequencing. Indeed, a revolution in affordable instant-sequencing devices of the kind imagined in the film Gattaca might bring with it a revolution in biowriting, bringing to bioart many of the pattern matching and sequencing techniques already used in search art and generator art.

8 Responses to “Biowriting”

  1. 1 Malcolm Ryan

    > I???m proposing ???biowriting??? as a term for symbolic inscription in bioart.

    I don’t think it will float. Sounds too much like the writing of biographies.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    Other than Jeremy’s, there’s only one name in biopoetry in my book: Eduardo Kac.

    See his article on biopoetry.

    Although highly speculative, his work includes such possibilities as Atomic Writing (positioning atoms precisely to create molecules to spell words) and Xenographics (Transplant a living text from one organism to another, and vice versa).

    Is Kac serious? This is always the question. The answer is a resounding, ironic “Yes.”

    In an interview, he says,

    My whole use of technology is, in a sense, to humanize it, to bring it back to the human, individual scale…

    The artist is no longer someone that creates a closed structure to be pondered on, or gazed at. The dicotomy abstraction vs. representation no longer dominate the aesthetic discourse of our time. Artists can realize new ideas in a small scale, in the immediate present, ideas that can reflect or suggest models for new ways of thinking and for social transformation. I think that artists must have a sense of being uncomfortable, of investigating, of asking questions, of experimenting, or taking risks. When you look at stable three-dimensional works of art, the stability in these works seems to resist the fluctuation, the flow, the instability we experience in our thought processes, in our environment, in world politics, in our lives. I’m trying to acknowledge that instability and build it in the work itself.

    So Kac wants to explore, to propose, and to provoke. And also, to create glowing rabbits.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

    I’m not too concerned about confusion - for that matter, “bioart” sounds too much like making biographical portraiture, but it is understood well enough within an art context. Of course, the best term for “writing with life” would be “biography”… but that is already taken, as it turns out.

    Alternative suggestions cheerfully accepted, of course.

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

    Thanks for this, Mark. Funny, but I actually wrote this article as a long lead-in to a piece I was running in a few days on using critical code studies to consider Kac’s “Move 36.” However I wasn’t familiar with his work in general, and I hadn’t seen “Biopoetry” - it is an excellent article, and I wish I had read it first!

    I love the evocative imagination of biopoetry, but what I don’t like about using the term (as opposed to biowriting) is that it tends to present bio- techniques as short aesthetic novelties, rather sustained discourses such as stories, novels, dialogs, etc. If we transcribe “The Lady, or the Tiger?” into DNA, or spell out the Bill of Rights in naked human bodies, is that biopoetry? Or is it biowriting?

  5. 5 Mark Marino

    I agree with you about the novelty aspect. Kac’s are provocations, though I do think he has a sustained interest in the relationship between technology, culture, and creativity, perhaps most grotesquely and materially illustrated by his bunny.

    I also like this point about biowriting and am interested to see how these ideas play out. Kudos.

  6. 6 Jeremy Douglass

    Eduardo Kac has a new book out, Telepresence and Biowriting, which has been added to our library list.

  7. 7 Natasha Vita-More

    BioText is new to me, and I suppose this is what I have been doing, in large part, for some time now. I have written about the sciences and technologies for extending human life as essential ingredients for “Transhuman Art” or “TransBioTech Art”.

    But this does not exclude me from actually having participated as a BioArt artist, since I have used my own body and mind in my practice for two decades for the purposes of slowing down aging and toward extending my lifespan. Cryonics is just one element, and I cannot prove that or even experiment with it yet - it is far too dangerous and nanotechnologies, such as nanomedicine and nanorobotics is not available.

    But I can still conceptualize my ideas about life extension and write about it. But BioText simply doesn’t fit the bill. I am an “artist” first and foremost, a writer second.

    But thank you for providing me with some insights into this expanding field.

  8. 8 kamper

    Thanks for this, Mark. Funny, but I actually wrote this article as a long lead-in to a piece I was running in a few days on using critical code studies to consider Kac’s “Move 36.” However I wasn’t familiar with his work in general, and I hadn’t seen “Biopoetry” - it is an excellent article, and I wish I had read it first!

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