Ellen Sandor, Thomas J. McLeish, Fernando Orellana, Nichole Maury, Pete Latrofa, Keith Miller, Todd Margolis, Sabrina Raaf, Barry Flanary, Stephan Meyers & Janine Fron
Duratrans, Kodalith, Plexiglas
Genomic Issue(s): Art and Science, The Graduate Center Art Gallery, New York, February 25–April 5, 2003
SIGGRAPH 2001 Art Gallery: N-Space
SIGGRAPH 2001 Art Show catalogue
Gene therapy, bio-engineering, and cloning have captured the concerned attention of scientists, scholars, and artists alike. These fascinating issues are precursors to monumental debates that advances in DNA therapy will soon unleash. What is this cutting edge, DNA research about? In one word: Immortality.
Sound Credit: SkyBoy Productions, Inc. Steve Boyer
Currently, genetic researchers have convened their attentions on one discrete area at the end of the human chromosome strand where one finds telomeres. These gene-free DNA sequences are fractionated over time with each cell division. While loss of telomere material causes cellular aging, telomeres do not always degrade and can be regenerated by the telomerase enzyme. If scientists succeed in controlling the regenerating telomerase enzyme, they will have the remarkable power to not only neutralize Cancer and revive the immune systems of AIDS victims, but potential to make individuals immortal on a cellular level, initially doubling human life span. Researchers anticipate testing a life-prolonging pill or injection within 15 years that will indefinitely freeze age and health, hinting to the possibility of even reversing the aging process.
Radically futuristic though this may seem, it is tangible, invaluable, and ethically dubious. Who will receive and control distribution? Will longevity become a basic human right and should the "Everliving" procreate? Meticulous reverse-engineering seems reasonably justified to cure fatal disease and human suffering. But can wrinkling and aging be classified causes of unnecessary suffering? Why is immortality desirable and how would it effect our consciousness?
(art)n's "Telomeres Project On Imminent Immortality" contains interpretive sounds of a genetic environment, engaged by contact from participants' footsteps on the floor mats surrounding its base. Illuminated from within, eight PHSColograms evoke the feel of an imagined regenerative laboratory, embodied in the form of an octagonal sculpture.
Telomeres Interactive PHSCologram Sculpture
(art)n, formed by Ellen Sandor in 1983, is a core collaborative group of artists who use new technologies to explore the future of photography and sculpture with computer graphics and Virtual Reality. Much like a Media Lab, our collective works with other artists as well as advanced scientists, animators, and post-production staff in order to create artwork which reflects the most current issues in science and technology. Over the past 18 years, (art)n has continued to manifest its concerns with issues of the body in technology.
(art)n is currently involved in collaborations with outside artists and genetic researchers for the creation of pieces on Telomeres, a part of DNA, and the extension of the human life span. Recently genetic researchers have convened their attentions on one tiny area of complexity located at the end of the chromosome strand that, once mastered, promises near perfect relief from cancer, AIDS, and even aging. This area is where one finds what is called telomeres. Telomeres are comprised of gene-free DNA sequences which are slowly lost over time with each cell division. This natural loss of telomere material causes cellular aging and people to grow old . But telomeres do not always degrade. They can also be continuously regenerated with the help of an enzyme called telomerase.
Sometimes when this process happens, it can be a sign that the body is suffering from the effects of cancer. For cancer cells are immortal, their telomeres being always restored to a constant length through the patching action of telomerase. Their natural clocks are thus reset to a specific time/age at every cellular division. A process that allows them to escape death. This endless proliferation of immortal cells overwhelms the (mortal) immune system, prematurely aging it, and often ultimately pushing life from the host. Yet, if we are able to control which groups of cells are immortal and which aren't by turning on or off the regenerating telomerase enzyme, then we would have the power to neutralize cancer, revive the immune systems of AIDS victims, and in the least, reduce suffering and save countless lives.
What's more, if we turn ON the telomere renewal cycle for our non-cancerous cell proteins, we could conceivably turn these into immortal cells. This action could, at the least, double the human life span . and possibly even make individuals immortal on a cellular level. (It must be stated though that humans could, and would, still die of trauma, car accidents, etc.)
Scientists think that within just 15 years, they will be to the point of testing out this thesis in the form of a life-prolonging pill or injection. The essential effect would be to freeze the age and state of health of a person and to prolong that state indefinitely–as if threaded into a loop of time. But beyond the essential effect, this research hints to the possibility of even reversing the aging process. Thereby, if an elder person received the treatment, they would not only maintain their state of health–they will actually grow younger. Radically futuristic though this science may seem, it is tangible, invaluable, and also ethically dubious. There is no question that such malicious diseases such as cancer and AIDS should be excised, if possible, from our world. However, is age itself also a natural disease that can or should be 'cured' with a pill? Why is immortality so desirable to us? Who will receive this pill? Who will control its distribution? Is it possible that longevity will become a basic human right for future generations?
In addressing these matters in its artwork on telomeres, (art)n is deliberately placing the most current issues in science and technology into the public sphere. Though science does stop to ponder the meaning of it's experiments, those discussions are largely insular. Yet, the effects of this type of research concern our culture at large. In a refusal of passivity, (art)n points out the complex implications of this subject in its artworks and further broadens the critical thought base to non-scientists. (art)n's work on telomeres includes both scientific and artistic visualizations of hitherto overlooked microscopic structures. Such visualizations are essential to revealing the natural processes and systems in which such structures are involved. For, without a model or structure, attempts at simultaneously conceptualizing the dimensions and function of things that exist outside of human range of vision still gives us trouble. It is dizzying and this causes our comprehension to slowly flicker in and out of focus. A visual model, be it of telomeres on a winding chromosome strand or one of our own universe, gives us something to grasp, to relate and to relate to, and to further break down. Theorist Walter Benjamin once compared the camera to a surgeon's knife in that the camera operated similarly on the human body by seeing it in fragments and was thus able to penetrate more deeply into its true existence and reality.
With this in mind, (art)n's recent artwork includes layers of imagery of the human body which bridge the gap between the microscopic telomere viewpoint to the macroscopic level of our skin covering our form. For, today the lenses that penetrate the human body include not only those of the hand-held camera but also those of the SEM–the scanning electron microscope. The body is thereby fragmented on an increasingly vast range of scales. This has profound consequences on how we perceive ourselves. Where do our physical and emotional identities lay? Do they lay in our visage, our body form, our life experiences, or more in our genes? As both our DNA and our skin (through plastic surgery) become increasingly malleable, the allure of therapeutically altering them has grown exponentially. The meticulous mapping of our genetic structure seems reasonably justified if potential cures for destructive diseases and human suffering are the result. But what of classifying wrinkling and aging as causes of unnecessary suffering? Are we only becoming more vulnerable to vain temptations of modification by science? Or, are we finally, in bold and courageous steps–wrestling charge of our species evolution away from Mother Nature?
It is unlikely that art and science may ever render the human mind and body fully transparent and/or infinitely alterable. Interestingly, often what drives both scientists and artists is that as soon as any previously invisible world such as that of the telomeres is discovered and modeled, invariably it unfolds to reveal yet another world inside, both alien and familiar. The result being that with every demystification, there is a concurrent mystification of things. What's more, there is never one correct interpretation of each model as reality is compound and allows for many synchronous shades of factuality. A single cure for cancer, for AIDS, and for aging is enormously intriguing. (art)n's work not only educates through its groundbreaking visualizations of telomeres but, more importantly, it also raises social concerns over how this cure will effect the quality of our lives and that of future, immortal generations.