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The art of biology

Symposium surveys the junction of life science and human expression

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Published: March 8, 2010
Art Biology

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When Eduardo Kac commissioned a French laboratory to implant a jellyfish gene into a mammal a decade ago, he insisted the resulting specimen wasn’t just weird science; it was art. Alba, an otherwise ordinary albino rabbit, glowed fluorescent green in blue light — a feature that made her the poster bunny for transgenic art projects that merge scientific, social and aesthetic experimentation.

Alba is just the tip of the biology-meets-art iceberg. In a slew of interdisciplinary collaborations, artists are exploring biology’s influence on art, scientists are investigating art’s impact on biology, and multiple scholars—psychologists, anthropologists, historians — are looking at the neurological and evolutionary implications of such interactions. All come together this weekend for the sixth annual MU Life Sciences and Society Symposium,  “From Art to Biology and Back Again.”

This is not your typical show of pretty flowers, artistic nudes and affirmations about how art makes us feel good. Attendees can expect the symposium's eight featured speakers to pose probing questions about how we define art, where biotechnology is heading and what ethical considerations arise in genetic engineering. The guest artists push boundaries. Kac's Natural History of the Enigma series revolves around a Kac-petunia hybrid plant containing the artist’s own DNA. St. Louis artist Patricia Olynyk's work includes stark photographs featuring prosthetic devices, striking large-scale electron micography images of the sense organs and a labyrinth-garden-design multimedia installation at the National Academy of Sciences.

Art on the brain

The keynote speaker, Daniel Levitin, is a neuroscientist/musician/platinum-album-winning sound engineer best known for penning This is Your Brain on Music, a book that spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list. His talk focuses on the intersection of neurology and music: how musicians’ brains differ from those of non-musicians, how music affects the brain and whether music is a fundamental facet of our humanity.

Such explorations of the union of art with neurology — and related anthropological research — play central roles in the work of speakers such as art historian and philosopher Barbara Maria Stafford, anthropologist Kathryn Coe and music professor Ellen Dissanayake, creating a focal point for the symposium.

“We think in a certain way when we look at art; it’s useful to know what that is and why it’s good for us," explains Professor Stefani Englestein, director of MU's Life Sciences and Society Program (LSSP). “We’re looking at why art might have been an advantage adaptation, from an evolutionary perspective. Is this something that is part of our innate capacities? If so, why is there an evolutionary advantage to creating art or being the kinds of creatures who create art?”

Collaborative efforts

The multidisciplinary bent of the symposium arises from the LSSP Beyond Disciplinarity series. Organizers set out to unite researchers studying similar issues from different academic perspectives.

“The disciplines we have created are somewhat artificial, so you can get boxed into them and not notice things that would be helpful for the work that’s going on within the discipline," Englestein says. "If you reach outside of it, you can find whole new ways of looking at problems and solving them.”

Last year's symposium attracted attendees from 46 departments and 14 schools and colleges at MU, along with scholars from throughout the nation. This year LSSP hopes to engage the entire MU campus as well as the mid-Missouri community. All lectures and events are free and open to the public and offer ample question-and-answer sessions designed to encourage dialogue. Affiliated events, such as film screenings and exhibitions, take place throughout March on campus and downtown.

Want to go? Register online.

Read more in:  Arts & CultureHealth & MedicineOn CampusScience & TechnologySpecial Features & Series

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012