The Art of Life in the Anthropocene

Flower creation, maggot painting, microbe literature, and bio art.

By David BielloApril 13, 2013

    The Art of Life in the Anthropocene

    Photo: Eduardo Kac, “Natural History of the Enigma.” Courtesy Black Box Gallery, Copenhagen.

    THE RED VEINS of a certain pink petunia flower come courtesy of human DNA — the A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s that teach a cell how to build itself. With the help of a virus, Brazilian-born Eduardo Kac was able to stitch human DNA — his own — into a petunia, veining the flower’s petals in red by generating an antibody with a snippet of his genetic code. This so-called “Edunia” is neither the product of genetic research, per se, nor botanical gamesmanship. Kac is simply an artist, and the Edunia (along with limited edition seed packs) has been exhibited from Minneapolis to Barcelona, a show he calls “Natural History of the Enigma.”

    Or, as Kac puts it:

    The petal pink background, against which the red veins are seen, is evocative of my own pinkish white skin tone. The result of this molecular manipulation is a bloom that creates the living image of human blood rushing through the veins of a flower.

    Such is art in the Anthropocene, this new era of man necessitated by our ever-expanding impacts on the planet as a whole, from geology to biology. Kac’s work is hardly alone. Bio-art in the Anthropocene ranges from a book stored entirely in DNA to a poem “written” by a microbe, a living poem known as “The Xenotext” to its progenitor (not exactly author) Christian Bök of the University of Calgary.

    Here’s how Bök’s living poem, once translated into English from DNA, goes:

    Any style of life
    Is prim

    To which the microbe responds by writing out a protein that can be translated as this:

    The faerie is rosy
    Of glow

    The microbe itself emits a red glow, completing the uncanny effect. Spawned by word reaching Bök of scientists transcribing the lyrics of “It’s a Small World (After All)” into another living bacterium’s genetic code, “The Xenotext” represents a story written for humans in the medium of life.

    Synthetic biology is not just a new tool for creating the Anthropocene; it is also a new tool for art. The question is: does everything become art in some sense when the whole world becomes an artifact of human effort, from sprawling cityscapes to the weather?


    If you’ve ever held a maggot you know there’s something deeply satisfying about cupping a vigorously wriggling proto-insect in the palm of your hand and feeling it still in fear. To top that artist Julia Lohmann gives her patrons a chance to dip a maggot in (nontoxic) paint and let them wriggle their way to a name. You can make your own until May 11 at the Gowanus Observatory in Brooklyn. Just reach into a bowl of wriggling Fruit Loops, plop the maggot in the paint and place it at the center of your own “maggotype.” Once free of your hand, the maggot speedily squiggles its way toward the edge of the paper, leaving a trail of paint behind that intersects with a circle of names arrayed by Ms. Lohmann. My maggot’s bright red, gloppy trail revealed his name as William, which would be more euphonious if Willy really was a worm, rather than just looking like one.

    Or you can visit the headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, a health research foundation in London. There you can take in Lohmann’s sprawling mural of a reclining nude woman — made out of some 9,000 petri dishes of living bacteria in a variety of shades. Microbiologist Simon Park achieves a similar effect by pressing the back of cellphones into the microbe food known as agar in 2010. Fungal and bacterial blooms form, revealing the invisible world that is, as Park says, the “biological history” of our actions, such as texting. Or there is the bloom of micro-organisms in the shape of a human hand entitled simply Myself by German artist Edgar Lissel, perhaps best viewed while sitting in chairs grown out of fungus by artist Paul Ross.

    There are more traditional works of Anthropocene art as well. The epic paintings of nature artist Isabella Kirkland capture at life-size and full-color the many species of plants and animals threatened or already made extinct by the hand of humanity. Turns out the egg of the (extinct) great auk — a kind of North Atlantic penguin, if you will, eaten to death by hungry sailors — was, each one, as unique as a snowflake. Or, if butterflies are more your thing, there’s the Xerces Blue — once iridescent with the color of its name as it fluttered from flower to flower — last seen in the 1940s, wiped out by the growth of the beautiful city by the bay known as San Francisco.

    Which is more beautiful: a butterfly or a city? Put another way: Is a modern wind turbine a soaring tribute to human engineering or an unnatural blight on the landscape, as Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, asked in an Anthropocene dialogue held in Berlin earlier this year? Photographer David Thomas Smith creates symmetrical collages of our human-made landscapes and cityscapes — images captured by Google Earth and stitched together to resemble the patterns of a Persian rug. Other photogs, like David Maisel and J. Henry Fair, capture the beauty in industrial devastation, from strip mines to polluted waterways. All share in common this view from afar, this view from above, a kind of human oversight of the planet. Does beauty change when our understanding of the world and our place in it changes? Do we need an aesthetic for the Anthropocene?

    Regardless, art might provide a good way to date the Anthropocene itself. A totemic lion-headed man, carved in the ivory of the extinct woolly mammoth and found in a cave in Germany, stands nearly a foot tall and still speaks to the human eye down 40 millennia. Appropriately, the lion-head itself derives from the extinct cave lion, one of many predators that have disappeared thanks to the combined efforts of humanity and climate change.

    So the Age of Man may be said to be 40,000 years old and pegged to the start of large animal extinctions like that of the cave lion. Or it could be younger, marking the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, when a preponderance of grassy pollen will leave a picture of our time in fossilized grains for future scientists. Or it could be born of a far more recent and precise date in time — July 16, 1945 — the day of the first test of an atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico. As Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of that effort, declared: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” With this sudden emergence of unheralded radioactive elements, like plutonium, Oppenheimer and his fellows welcomed in the age of mutually assured destruction — what was once reserved to the judgment of the gods was now humanity’s to command. At the same time, the test sites, craters, and rare isotopes also represented creation: the beginning of a world-spanning sculpture in places from Alamogordo to Chelyabinsk, a record of our existence in the future stone of this planet, however brief or long that existence turns out to be.

    Perhaps this is why a mere figurative painting, sculpture, or realist novel has lost its power in the Atomic Age. Instead we have projects like Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s “mushroom clouds” of nonradioactive smoke at places like the Nevada Test Site or the deep hole he dug in Hiroshima’s central park to contain the explosion of three kilograms of gunpowder, a work entitled The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too. He is currently working on a project to memorialize the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in a grove of thousands of cherry trees, some potentially mutated by the radioactivity in the soil, according to the artist’s vision.

    Our plutonium legacy may span thousands of years but our most enduring art is likely to be that which we have sent into the void: Voyager I and II bearing golden disks that carry a slew of sounds and images we deemed important — Earth’s greatest hits as judged by humanity. Or the plaques we left on the moon, along with golf balls, a flag, footprints and other ephemera that will instead provide a lasting legacy. The play This Clement World relies on an alien to look back and deliver a history of the world to stress the fragility of our hospitable little planet. But when we make art out of the entire planet — whether it be the extended “scythe” graph of global average temperatures that reveals anthropogenic climate change or the circuit boards etched on the landscape by our quest for oil — it’s hard to be satisfied with the world on a stage.


    The Anthropocene itself is a meme, colonizing our shared mind-space. The idea is that we, humanity, are now in charge of the planet that gave us birth, a fact revealed by our ability to make or break planetary systems we used to think of as natural — climate, radiation loads, even the profusion of life itself.

    But if we are in charge of the planet now, who is this we? And why do we find atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen’s Anthropocene so much more significant than journalist Andy Revkin’s Anthrocene in the 1990s or, for that matter, an Italian geologist’s Anthropozoic first mooted in the 19th century?

    The Anthropocene is a fad, and it is such fashion that drives this new era. Our consumer lust drives faster and faster cycles of consumption and waste, whether women’s clothes or gadgetry. Your Do-It-Yourself hacking will become our source code, your rags held together with safety pins our high fashion. A movie set consumes the energy and resources of a small city to represent the existence of a neighborhood and its inhabitants in evanescent celluloid or digital bits. Resistance is futile and the ultimate art of the Anthropocene is co-optation.

    And what about all that waste? As cultural critic Slavoj Žižek argues: the pile of garbage is where we should feel most at home. Meaning, Žižek suggests, that we need to embrace ever more artificiality, like the Edunia but also the tobacco plant that makes a vaccine to prevent cancer.

    Žižek is resisting the nostalgia that may well be the dominant artistic impulse of this modern age. It is a dim, half-remembered nostalgia, perhaps summed up best by Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books as he mused over Wes Anderson’s jewel box-like films about our “thorough schooling in brokenness.” In Chabon’s estimation our common responses to that fundamental flaw include: simply making do, breaking the world further, or trying to pick up the pieces and figure out what might be done to put it all back together again:

    We have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits — the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience — is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered. Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models “works of art.”

    But maybe the world isn’t as irretrievably broken as Chabon and many others think. The broadest possible we — humanity — have never had it so good. There are more people alive today than ever. They will live longer than ever, barring unforeseen cosmic catastrophe, in lives less mired in absolute horror than ever before.

    At the exact same time, we stand at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence — and this spasm of death is all our fault. We have co-opted too much of the Earth’s supply of energy, too much of the planet’s surface and deep waters, with too many of our fellow living things impressed into our service or simply killed off by a lack of sufficient room to live. Life itself is re-shaped in the service of our art, which means art has never had more at stake.


    LARB Contributor

    David Biello is an associate editor at Scientific American and has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade.  He is also host of 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news, and is working on a documentary with Detroit Public Television on the future of electricity.


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