Shiho Fukuhara: Interview with KansaiTV on behalf of Ars Electronica October 8th, 2009
Here’s also the PDF.
Here’s also the PDF.
Interview conducted and provided by the Biopresence Press Office. Part 1. Part 2.
Q. Wait as second. You released genetically-modified plants into the environment? Isn’t that highly illegal?
Georg Tremmel. As mentioned before, the company who originally made the carnation had to get the permission to grow, cultivate and sell the flowers. And of course they got it for the markets they want to sell the flowers, and therefore it is legal in these countries to grow the flowers.
So by releasing the flowers we do nothing that is illegal. Because the permission exists, the plants are declared harmless, despite being GMOs.
The goal of the project is to create “Flower Commons”, that means shared, common places, marked by the presence of “Common Flowers”. On a more poetic level, one could say, that we are trying to return the flower ‘back to nature’, to give the flowers a change to discover and create their own nature.
SF. Like probably all cut-flowers, the plants are grown – or better: produced – in large greenhouses. They are harvested before the develop seeds, so the have to chance of sexual reproduction. What we are trying to do, is to give the flowers this ability back. And only because they transgene plants, we should not discriminate against them.
Q. Hmm. I am still not convinced that this is legal?
GT. Well. We believe so, OK Center does not believe so. Or maybe they believe, but being a public institution they have to insure themselves.
Another aspect of the work, which is maybe a bit more dark-gray is the fact, that we are basically violating the copyright of Suntory by growing the plants.
Q. What exactly do you mean by that. Please elaborate a bit more on this?
GT. Well, Suntory created the blue carnation with genes for blue pedal colour and longer shelf-life. The have the copyright on the blue carnation and it’s DNA. But by re-animating the carnations from cut-flowers, by bringing them back, we basically are growing them again. And of course, growth means cell division and cell division means DNA duplication. So basically, we are making illegal copies of the carnation’s DNA. The question is, whether these are copies for private use (“Privatkopie”), or whether it counts are piracy? And is it reverse bio-piracy if we “pirate” the carnations?
Shiho Fukuhara. We don’t have answers to that yet. Maybe it’s also more important to ask questions rather than answering questions at this stage.
Q. Can you talk a bit about the DIY aspect of your project. The plants in the installation look quite professional, whereas the plants in the video have a more ‘home-brew’ feeling to it…?
GT. The plants are the same. Only the containers are different. Whereas the AEC have their own BioLab where they were so kind to cultivate the flowers, we don’t really have access to a well-equipped bio lab. But that’s actually part of the project. We are deliberately using a very low-biotech approach. The purpose of this is to lower the barrier of access to the technology. And access can create understanding.
SF. I think Freeman Dyson mentioned in a quite recent essay, that Biotechnology is currently at a stage at which the Computer Industry was in the late 70ies/ early 80ies. Computer Laboratories were still quite big, only accessible to Universities and large Corporations. But a bottom-up ‘Home-brew’ Computing scene was blossoming, it seemed everybody tried to build their own “Personal Computer”. Of course then came the PC revolution and ignited a democratized access to Computer technology. I guess with biotech we are still in the late 1970ies, but it will be interesting to see where a possible Personal Biotech explosion can take us.
Q. So your artistic interest is in the biotechnology itself?
Well, our interest in biotechnology is on several level. Of course on the one hand on the practical aspects of manual laboratory work, but the conversion between bio- and info-science means, that most of biotech works is actually done in-silico, that means in a computer simulation rather than in-vivo, in the actual physical experiment. The level of code is an important bridge between the two worlds, but maybe most important from an artistic point of view are the social implications and ethical consequences that the technology evokes.
As artists, we feel we have the obligation to engage with the technology. And the best we to engage is to immerse, that why we are trying to get access to the lab work protocols and also try to communicate this bits of knowledge we hopefully gain.
It’s a bit like learning a new computer programming language. Or actually the learning of a new IDE, a new developing environment.
Q. I saw your installation at the OK Center in Linz? Is there a specific reason for the high security there? I mean, a permanent guard, several layers of bullet-proof glass, and titanium locks to secure the plant containers. Isn’t that a bit excessive?
SF. We were quite surprised too. But it seems the OK Center had to take all possible precautions to prevent the accidental spread of the flowers. We were told, that after the Ars Exhibition, they are even going to seal the room off, so if you want to get a close look at the plants, better be there soon.
Apparently the politicians of this region (Upper Austria) have adopted a highly negative view on GM plants, the goal is to make the region “free of genetic modification” (“Gentechnikfrei”). But of course, there are EU laws and legislation that clearly states, that if plants pass the test and obtain permission, then they are legal.
Of course, the so-called “fight against GMO” is mainly an emotional issue, where the facts get twisted quite a lot. One has to consider, that – for example – with canned tomato or tomato paste there is certain threshold…
GT. … I think it’s 5%.
SF. Yeah. 5 percent. So if 5% of the product is made up from genetically modified plants, it is not necessary to label is as GM.
GT. … Basically if it does not say, that no GMO are used for the product, you can be 100% sure, that GMO are used.
SF. Only if it say “No GMO used”, then there are really no GMOs inside.
Q. It sounds you have a positive attitude to GM. What exactly is your stance on Biotechnology. Are you for or against it?
SF. I don’t think it’s question of being for or against it. Biotechnology is a technology and nothing else. It is the same question, if one is for or against Computertechnology, or for or against Writing-technology. I hope this shows, that the question is absurd. It depends what the technology is used for, it depends how we deal with this emerging technology in a responsible way.
A good friend of ours – and probably the most interesting artist working with biotechnology – , Joe Davis, once said that “There are a lot of bad dreams about biotechnology, but somebody also need to have some good dreams.” We are here to dream the good dreams.
Q. I was told that your work is the only living GMO in the exhibition at the OK Center. Is that true?
GT. Yes, it seems that way. I just heart before, that the other work dealing with plants (Eduardo Kac’s Petunia) is just shown as a documentation. Apparently they could not get the legal procedures of importing the flower sorted out. I think it’s particularly funny, because Kac has a certain – shall we say – ‘history’ of presenting his artworks to the public. Especially the controversy about his Bunny project, which evolved around whether he actually made the bunny or just took ownership of it as some kind of found footage. Anyway, he did not really do enough to dispel the doubts some are having.
Watch out for Part 3 for more about hypothetical biotechnology, blue roses and the genetic modification of already genetically-modified plants.Coming soon.