Adam Zaretsky is an artist, or "bioartist," working as a research affiliate in Arnold Demain's Laboratory for Industrial Microbiology and Fermentation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Biology. He received a master of fine arts degree in 1999 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied and researched with "transgenic" artist Eduardo Kac. Since then, he has worked with such pioneers of bio-art as Joe Davis, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Zaretsky will also teach an art and biology studio class in fall 2001 as a visiting artist at San Francisco State University. Besides his bio-art installations on which he is working, Zaretsky has created a large body of digital artworks, collage and photography.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Zaretsky learned of an unpaid research position at M.I.T. from artist Joe Davis. Although unremunerated, Zaretsky found this to be an interesting possibility to cultivate the research he had begun in Chicago. Zaretsky found himself in a sophisticated laboratory filled with scientists but also artists such as Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who are working with tissue aesthetics. He began experimenting with music, vibrations and E. coli bacteria. In one now notorious experiment, he played lounge music to the cells to see whether vibrations or sounds could influence antibiotic production.
"I have gotten interesting results from playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits for 48 hours at a time for 25 ml of an industrial strain of E. coli. I use some vibrating plate speakers from Acouve, a Japanese company that makes vibro-musical chairs for Sony. It appears that the production of antibiotics may have increased. There are multiple explanations for this, being narrowed down through further experimentation. One possible cause could be that the "Humperdinck Effect" is caused by annoyance. The cells may be bothered by being subjected to loud, really awful lounge music for two days straight. Then, they may produce antibiotics to fight against a perceived enemy the only way they know how." (1)
Although this project could be called frivolous by some of his fellow scientists, Zaretsky persists, naming the practice "artistic" in the tradition of recent biogenetic experimentation by those artists mentioned previously. The whole act of creating art from genes, cells and other living organisms for Zaretsky is a direct critique and questioning of the scientific world itself and the general complacency of the public in this regard.
"Scientific and industrial organisms, created for specific utilization or for the furtherance of comprehension, are also expressions of aesthetic choices. This is why I feel the learning of these technologies is an artistic pursuit. Instead of phobic reaction, I am attempting to critically embrace the processes of life's permanent and inheritable alteration. New reproductive strategies are opening the doors to rapid evolutionary trends, nationalized, racialized, popular and corporate. Are there more aesthetic organisms? The lack of a common global aesthetic and a historical track record of bad taste (i.e., ethnic cleansing, line dancing, liposuction, most painting) provides me with the impetus, the eclectic fecundity to guarantee iconoclasm in a situation which could all too easily lead to the erasure of the same." (2)
While humour remains a mainstay in Zaretsky's artwork and scientific practice, his endeavours are grounded in a very serious and complex understanding of biologic and genetic issues that are very much a part of contemporary society.
The new technologies being explored for scientific and medical purposes can equally be tested on artistic ground. As Kac's GFP bunny and Davis's E. coli experiments have shown, there is room to question the role of such technologies and their implications for human beings on moral, political and practical levels. Historically, these issues have been tackled before, and not in a positive manner.
Zaretsky's bio-artwork is motivated by his own set of ethical quandaries prompted by past history. Biology has been used for aesthetic purposes before, of course to horrifying consequence. "We slide into eugenics," Zaretsky commented. "We haven't always shown the best of taste. Not that artists have always shown better taste, but they have shown obscure taste. If we start engineering for enhanced humans, then somebody has to engineer for 'punk' humans, for plaid humans. What I'm realizing," he says soberly, "is that we are coming close to genetically altering human beings according to popular fads." (3)
This constant questioning of the alternative in bio-art, or in genetic research for that matter, will be explored in more depth in Zaretsky's next two projects funded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation. MMMM and WorkHorse Zoo
embrace the humorous while seriously examining the relationships between the public and scientific experimentation.