META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic
Biology, ALife and the Arts
Annick Bureaud, Roger Malina and Louise Whiteley, Editors
Leonardo, Cambridge, 2014
691 pp., illus. eBook, $7.99
Reviewed by David Etxeberria
School of Arts and Design, Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, Portugal
META-Life: Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts is a fascinating book that will be of the
interest of many Leonardo readers, art and science enthusiasts. Most of
them will find a large number of familiar essays that were important in the
construction of a reflective thinking about the coupling of art, synthetic
biotechnology and ALife. Even if this book doesn’t go further enough in the
theoretically thinking of Meta-Life, surprisingly, it creates an excellent
theoretical field gathering 45 articles that inspired a growing practice in the
contemporary art of the last decades.
Thus, this is not just a book that tries to point a future to the couple of art
and science, but the construction of a real bridge between the past, the
present and the future of art and science collaborations. Consequently, META-Life:
Biotechnologies, Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts establishes, simultaneously,
several speeches which seem important to highlight: The theoretical and
historical context of artistic actions that operate between biology and life;
The combining of artificial life and artistic practices; Bioart; The emergence
of Bio-fiction, Biodesign and Bioarchitecture and, lastly, the DIY Biology.
All of these speeches are admirably discussed by authors derived from different
fields and try to present new discussions not only confined to art but to a real
approach of issues such as the risks of biotechnology and the ethics
surrounding art practices. But most important than these discussions is the
ability demonstrated by the coupling of art and science to bring ordinary
people to the process of making in order to play and discover new ways of participation.
These open contributions of art and science are precisely one of the most important
reasons to provide new challenges to the power structures and to the process of
decision-making in the creation and managing of life.
Most of this work seems to focus on the importance and on the need of the
creation of broader debates around the breaking of barriers between art and
life. This breakdown is constantly demonstrated in this book through personal
testimonies or across considerations of artists and scientists who, at one
point, decided to prove that nature is not a separate entity of humanity.
Therefore, in this book we can value reflections and experiences of artists,
researchers, art historians, among many others, trying to understand “life
as it could be”.
There are a few examples that illustrate this approach among several
experiences and reflections. But it seems more interesting to identify a common
thread among them. One of which is the “policy of openness” and the idea
that these new contributions between the intersection of art and life can
enrich society. This is especially noticeable in Morgan Meyer’s essay, when he
reveals the phenomenon of biology democratization at different levels:
spatially, technically, socially and economically. However, this policy of intervention
can be found transversely in almost all the testimonies given in this book. One
practical example of the necessity of the creation of social platforms through
art, of the compulsion of establishing new forms of social engagement are
artworks such as the Worry Dolls of the Tissue Culture and Art Project,
artworks that operate with and for the audience.
Despite the importance of the whole book, which presents several important
perspectives (historical, reflective and practical) that it must be given is
due prominence to the last section. Primarily, because this section was
especially commissioned to this edition, but mainly because the DIY Bio “community”
stands for a recent phenomenon that pushes further the possibilities for a
truly participation of citizens in the discussions about life. This question is
decidedly important to retain (even if this community is still somewhat limited
and still too heterogeneous) because it may enable the possibility of new
advances in educational and social goals in the establishing of a truly science
for the citizens and, in terms of market, a step forward to the empowerment and
autonomy of the citizen in the decision making processes about life.
The book is of great resource both for its ideas and for the theoretical and
historical compilation of essays. It should be noted, though, that many of the
questions raised in this book are still developing, but will subsidize new analysis.
It should also be noted, however, that it is a step forward in the answer to a
great amount of questions. Therefore, it is lacking testimonies or evidences
that these practices can truly benefit citizens’ engagement. In this sense, while
we can enjoy this book, we must recognize that is an excellent starting point to
other reflections and analyses to come.