Vital Dependencies: Bio-Art, Architecture, and the Forming of Life

Granted 2011-2012 seed funding by UW’s Research Growth Initiative

Vital Dependencies: Bio-Art, Architecture, and the Forming of Life

In recent years, the convergence of art, architecture, and biology has yielded a range of experiments that seek to generate and reconfigure living forms on cellular and sub-cellular levels.  Biological life is becoming raw material, to be manipulated, engineered, sculpted, and transformed from the bottom up; this living matter, in turn, is discretely isolated and instrumentalized to take on particular and programmed functions.  Nonetheless a certain amount of indeterminacy remains in any process that seeks to harness the complexity of life and the living.  As biological matter and biotechnological alterations more viably become the tools and trade of both artistic and architectural practices, newly malleable yet unpredictable formations of life are visualized, conceptualized and performed beyond the confines of the laboratory, drawing attention to what we can now do with and to life.

This book is concerned with the ways in which contemporary biological art and architecture, with their overlapping disciplinary trajectories, actively engage in the forming of life, and even more endemically, the ways in which art and architecture are vitally necessary to current and changing formulations of life.  Processes of generating, sustaining, and renewing living matter and forms have never been only biological, chemical or engineering techniques or technologies, but have always instigated visual and spatial, philosophical and political platforms of dialogue.  And we, in the arts and humanities, are already entangled in the conversation; our various systems of imaging, imagining, situating, building and experiencing things and beings in the world are tested and revised, challenged and expanded by twenty-first century modifications of living matter.

Attending to recent developments across synthetic biology, tissue engineering, extra-cellular matrices, systems biology and stem cell science, I suggest that biological art and architecture participate in the forming of life by positioning vulnerable encounters and performing unequal exchanges across a range and scale of materials, from organic to synthetic, micro to macro.  As a result, the unfolding dependencies between and amongst all manner and scope of matter become vital to biological life in our age of biotechnological manipulations.  Offering intertwined yet uneven correlations of matter, these encounters and exchanges are responsible for synthesizing, maintaining, contextualizing, systematizing and regenerating new and existing formations of life, as well as biological, technological and philosophical qualifications of life and the living.