Free Range Grain
Free Range Grain acts as a portable laboratory. Spread across a long table are a number of chemistry tools and instruments accompanied by the Bio-artists who will operate them. Guests to the installation are encouraged to bring along any foods they have suspicions about being genetically modified despite being sold in countries where such practices are illegal or are labeled "organic" but show signs of not being so. The chemists test these foods, whatever they are, for the most common types of genetic mutation. Within the 72 hour period of this installation's run time, the guests are given a fairly accurate idea of whether the food they provided was genetically modified or not (admittedly it is not 100% percent accurate, but they are able to produce "conclusive negatives").
This exhibition was all about finding truth. Not only finding the truth as to whether these food manufacturers had lied to their customers, but also to end misconceptions regarding GM foods in general. As the Critical Art Ensemble said regarding the piece:
"Biotechnology and the science behind it have to be one of the most misunderstood areas of production in the cultural landscape. Myths, fantasy, misleading speculation, disinformation, and so on abound in the public sphere. Part of the reason for this state of communicative disorder is that the scientific process never makes a public appearance, only the miracle products as commodity fetish. We want to bring the routinized processes of science to the public let them see them and act within them." Critical Art Ensemble. (2003). Free Range Grain.
They made a point of not using technical, professional grade science equipment for this work, instead opting for high school lab equipment. Having the tests done in plain view in a short span of time was meant to show the audience that this kind of testing could be easily done by anyone, regardless of scientific background or technical resources. This is a giving of power. Companies cannot hide what their customers can easily find.
As with a lot of bio-art, the topic arises as to whether this piece is better classified as art or science. It is a portable chemistry lab with no traditional art elements aside from the decorative posters the adorn the back wall. This being the case, what makes it any more an art piece than a science fair project? The answer there lies in not what the piece is but where it is.
"...the reason Critical Art Ensemble's project works in the logic of infrastructures is that the juxtaposition between art and biotechnology can't help but possess a poetic, performative quality. It is poetic to ask: why is this laboratory in a museum?" Thompson, Nato (2015). Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production. P. 73.
The point is to cross boundaries. Within the scientific community, particularly those focused on food production, the truth the artists are trying to get across is likely a well known topic of debate. But museums are public places welcoming all sorts including those who previously had no knowledge or interest in biotechnology. That is what makes it an art piece, the fact that it exists in a space where it is an unknown, where it doesn't quite belong. But they are also crossing the boundary between the goals of science and the goals of art. Science is meant to be conclusive, the answer questions- something the Ensemble clearly does. However, art's objective is just the opposite: to take existing knowledge and understanding and questioning it. This makes the Ensemble scientists and artists both regarding medium and motivation.
Like some of their other work, socially this acts as a peaceful protest and non-violent reaction. In the case of Free Range Grain, the public is being educated in such a way that food manufacturers do not want as it means they can no longer get by with refusing to or mislabeling food and thus loosing business. Even though it was performed a year earlier, Molecular Invasion (2002) almost feels like part 2. The Ensemble along with students of the Corcorcan School of Art and Design, where it was performed, assembled many crops known to be genetically modified (specifically corn, soy, and granola) and reverse engineered them to no longer be the hardy, roundup-ready cash crops they were created to be, instead reverting back to the weather susceptible, killed by harsh chemical plants that existed before modification.
Another notable bio-artist, Christine Chin, also explores this area in a creative way. Instead of the straight threats, occupation, and fear mongering typical of most protests, she does it in a way that is both humorous and grotesque. In her 2004 work Cook Book, she represents modified foods as body parts- carrots as fingers, toes as potatoes, eyes as eggs- in order to reintroduce the connection between food and consumers' bodies. She states that is is difficult to foster a connection to people's lives when always talking in terms of hundreds of cups of sugar. Seeing them in such a way serves as a reminder of the reality and implications of such modifications. Plus, it is difficult to see plants as organisms and living things in the same way we see ourselves and animals.
"The problem with GMOs, however, is that they are not open to the kind of destruction that occurs when someone kills a fly or swats a mosquito, because they are more than organisms-they are private property." Critical Art Ensemble (2002). Molecular Invasion.
But even still, these artists occupy a different area of protest. Chin acts in more of a satirical force while the Ensemble utilizes what they call the "fuzzy" area of the industry, specifically areas that are not yet highly regulated. The genetic modification, packaging, labeling, and advertising are all at this point widely covered, but the time before and after consumer purchase if free reign. There is nothing to stop testing and reverse engineering foods that have already been purchased. In Molecular Invasion, the artists stated that a good protest doesn't work by hassling people on the end of the chain, such as fellow consumers and distributors (in this case, the people who work at the grocery store). To make a true impact, you must impact the people at the top. But even then, too much careless, rash action can turn out in being labeled as eco-terrorists.
This is why works like this fall into the classification of activist art. And even though viewers may not see it as art at first, or even at all, it does what modern art often does: it takes a step back from the everyday to say something, to comment on the way of the world. It asks for change in a world that needs it be redistributing power to the people who need it to hold their ground against the companies who would rather be complacent consumers.