GenTerra was a participatory theatre project created by the collaborative art group Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa. The installation consisted of a lab tent, four computer stations, and a bacteria release machine. GenTerra is the fictional name of the biotech company responsible for the installation. GenTerra specializes in “transgenesis,” the process of genetically engineering an organism or genetic engineering. The four computer stations ran an informational CD-Rom that introduced the company with its mission statement:
“Welcome to the exciting world of GenTerra industries. It is a new millennium, and GenTerra is a new kind of company. Today, a great transformation is taking place in the way humans understand and relate to nature, and GenTerra is at the forefront of building a relationship that is safe for the environment and beneficial to people all over the world. Genera is committed to creating products through the use of new transgenic technology that will solve the many social and ecological problems that we all face. We believe that sound fiscal policy and social and ecological responsibility do not have to contradict one another. In fact, the two must be complementary if we are to create and sustain a desirable world.” (http://www.critical-art.net/Biotech.html)
As one made their way through the program’s interface, they were invited to discuss the facts and controversy surrounding transgenics with the scientists and artist dressed in white lab coats. Visitors were then invited to make and store their own transgenic bacteria in the lab tent. Afterwards, visitors were forced to asses the risk of releasing bacteria from one of twelve petri dishes. Eleven of the dishes contained non-transgenic bacteria, and one contained transgenic bacteria.
GenTerra has the optics and content of a legitimate scientific experiment, however it distinguishes itself conceptually by pushing this subject matter into the public sphere. The artists convert the scary world of transgenics into an informative interactive experience. The informative experience is backed up by a wealth of research the delves deep into the arguments surrounding transgenics and what it means to be a socially conscience transgenics company. They discuss the formation of a fourth domain outside of the original three (bacteria, plant, animal) through transgenics, and the associated fear and ethical imperatives that come along with creating a new domain. Their argument is summarized as such:
“During this period of molecular invasion, the fourth domain will be transformed more than it has been throughout all the previous periods of history combined. Transformative times are the most productive moments for subversive political and social change (which is a double-edged sword). The construction and manipulations of representation can have a profound impact on discourse generated by nonspecialists, and in turn, affect policy construction in both its process and product, but only if resistant representation is produced from a critical position with the interests of the general public in mind." (http://www.critical-art.net/genterra.html)
The cultural importance of this as an art form is highly valuable in bringing complex science to the masses and presenting it in a relatable and understand form. As they say in the summarization, we are in a “period of molecular innovations” and deciding on the ethical course of these technologies is essential.
Eduardo Kac is another artist who flamboyantly addressed the issue of transgenics. He made a spectacle out of his art, encoding a green fluorescent protein gene from a jellyfish with a rabbit’s genes. The strangely fascinating result sparked public conversation on the notions of difference and early talks regarding the ethical nature of eugenics.