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Brave Bioart 2: Shedding the Bio, Amassing the Nano, and Cultivating Emortal (Posthuman) Life

Background:

BioArt is a well-known field within new media art that uses genetic engineering, cloning and transgenesis in modifying organisms and creating new life forms. Most often BioArt is limited to single cells and organelles and steers away from human modification, outside of Stelarc’ ear. To date, BioArt has no interest in human enhancement and life extension. Brave BioArt 2 refers to a transhumanist intervention of BioArt by bringing to the foreground earliest works with biology in the original field of Biological Art, which has been working with the human body and life extension for several decades.

Article start:

Contemporary biotechnologies, and especially emergent technologies, are taking art into wet yet nimble associations with science fiction, science fraction and science fact. Bioart and its subsets are working with genetics, cloning and hybridization, and its practitioners are “co-creators” alongside the gods, stirring up moral issues, and portraying the role of lab-technician, scalpel in hand. Science is a branch of knowledge based in objective observation and experimentation, and although this does not necessarily conflict with art, it offers opportunities in contingent reasoning. In lieu of a slippery slope in which artists and designers rely on freedom of expression in substantiating works of art, can art practices infuse visionary yet objective understanding of possible futures for more than messing around with biology and altering life forms? Is there bias or an evenhandedness of ethics concerning organisms and morphology? This paper addresses some issues related to these questions and is a brief study of bioart in exploring motivations and practices to determine evidence of revivification biomedia and further inquiry into receptiveness and/or resistance to extreme life extension. Additionally, it is an inquiry into the currents of bioart as a fecund medium for spawning new art practices in transition and involved in extending life indefinitely, which tools I refer to as “brains.”

1. INTRODUCTION

“In its purest form, the term “biotechnology” refers to the use of living organisms or their products to modify human health and the human environment. Ancient biotechnologists manipulated and modified organisms, [tampered] with yeast cells to raise bread dough…, bacterial cells to make cheeses and yogurts, and … bred their strong, productive animals to make even stronger and more productive offspring.” (Peters 1993) So what is so alarming and exciting about this brave new world of artists getting messy with biotechnology?

It is alarming because the world has awakened to the business of science producing potentially dangerous outcomes due, in large part, to genetics and bioengineering, only to learn that the most radical of professional practitioners, the artist, is also tampering with life forms and may even want to change the human genome. It is one thing for a scientist, geneticist, or biotechnologist to experiment in laboratories which are for the most part institutionally or financially governed. But with the highly creative personality type, things might get into some very murky waters. To understand what is occurring, it is necessary to first look at what bioart is all about.

Bioart is influenced by the time frame in which it is produced and the emergent technologies artists are using to explore and experiment. It can be logically placed within the Biotechnological Era and its influence can be traced to the 1953 discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA (Watson, Crick) with a resulting realization that mankind could design nature rather than nature playing the hand of fate. (Terra)

Bioartists work with living matter to alter the design or function of such matter. In a time frame when extending life is significantly mainstream, are bioartists’ practices working to extend the lifespan of the living matter? Are the currents of bioart as a fecund medium for spawning new art practices involved in extending life and/or extreme life extension? Can art practices infuse visionary yet objective understanding of biology and altering life forms? Is there bias or an evenhandedness of ethics concerning organisms and morphology?

2. BIOART

What makes biotechnology such an apt medium for expressing art and how does bio offer a new trajectory for artists whose level of sophistication toward technology has outgrown many of their traditional practices? According to Eduardo Kac, “bio” fulfills a “visceral” need of artists which stems from indulgence in a “cold digital art in an attempt to go beyond a detached medium.” In comes the genome and new opportunities in the bioworld.

Bioart is relatively new nomenclature without a codified definition and with a somewhat contested meaning. While there is no concretized definition of bioart, its practitioners have varied views on the parameters of this medium. Bioart is argued to be concerned with art practices that work with living organisms in which the manipulation of mechanisms of life “involves a wide array of forms both with respect to discourse and technique.” (Hauser) The term bioart and a newer term VivoArts, (Zaresky) is often used as an umbrella term to include artists working with varied types of biotechnology and living organisms. Jens Hauser claims that biotext and biovisual arts reflecting ideas and practices of biotechnology is not bioart because the artist must work with living organisms. Yet, he also believes that “Bioart interests more and more performance artists specializing in Body Art; structural relationships connecting both disciplines…. As a medium, bioart cannot be nailed down with a hard and fast definition of the procedures and materials it must employ.”

“Multitudes of people, including me and you, cannot know ‘Alba’ [the transgenic florescent green rabbit with a jellyfish gene] except as an idea.” (Gessert) “A key feature of every work of transgenic art is a sequence or sequences of DNA that is/are invisible to audiences, and consequently functions somewhat like ideas in the context of the gallery.” (Gessert)
It is true that manipulating mechanisms of life involves a large assortment of tools and methods, and especially terminology in discourse of bioart and because it is “constantly evolving” (Hauser), the conceptualization of future possibilities about the co-creating novelty while designing works of art that are “alive” is a constituent of bioart, if not an entirely new medium, especially in the future when the human’s cognitive processes are augmented with cognitive enhancing nanorobots.

Melentie Padilovski claims that bioart cannot be image-based, text-based, dead biomaterial, or solely software actions. It seems that bioart already has its fundamentalists and purists. This may help to define the medium but if bioart is an umbrella term, it may need malleable and hydrated boarders rather than impermeable walls.

One important question to ask is “What is it that [bioart] brings that we did not have before?” (Kac) Many artists, including myself, have experimented with blood and other bodily substances in our works. But using biological elements does not necessary constitute bioart. According to a consensus of bioartists, it has to be a “living medium” wherein the art is produced, and not bodily substances such as blood that has expired. In contract, the “living” blood used in Eduardo Kac’s “A Positive,” was funneled into a robot which then used the blood’s oxygen to create a spark and ignite a flame. If living organisms must be used in bioart, then wouldn’t my being alive right now and monitoring my bodily functions be bioart? This brings to mind a performance art piece I performed, known as “Breaking Away,” wherein I applied sunlight as the main source of energy attenuated by the Earth’s atmosphere to my body being sculpted to a rock formation at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The heat from the sun radiating through ultraviolet light acted as an antiseptic for my cellular structure and aided in the production of Vitamin D. As my skin and nerve endings were energized, a physical reaction occurred which energized movements which resulted in a dance as an embodiment of energy. As lovely as it may have been, according to performance artists such as Stelarc and I would merely be human performance artists tampering with our bodies and such works would not be legitimate bioart, or would it? It seems that Hauser’s understanding of this art medium is that it must be living. He also asserts that the medium itself is evolving. Therefore, I see no reason why there is a bias concerning how many cells are involved, its size, physical location, sex, or what species organism of cells ascends from. Some of this I discuss later in the section under “bias.”

Examples of bioart which are non-human related are seen in works such as “Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries” (Kac) is life in action. The images are comprised of “biotopes” which are living substances in perpetual flux, changing in response to internal metabolism and environmental conditions. The specimen images of biotopes are a self-sustaining ecology, somewhat like a biosphere, consisting of thousands of tiny living organisms in an encapsulated environment, as a constantly-evolving living exhibition. George Gessert’s stunning iris hybrid “Hybrid 488” is based in hybridization and aesthetics. Gessert draws upon Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and reference to aesthetics and breeding for ornamental characteristics. Marta de Menezes “NATURE?” exemplifies the alteration of physical characteristics by interfering with normal development of Bicyclus and Heliconius butterflies. She creates unique and stunning wings as she says, “never seen in nature before” in exploring possibilities and constraints of the biological system that are not the result of an evolutionary process.

One reason why I find bioart timely is because it offers unleashed exploration into a field which has been sequestered by scientists; has been fairly untraveled by artists, and thereby uncluttered for intuitive exploration; helps the public to get a little closer to the exotic and abstract elements of biotechnology; and provides a means by which artists can reflect upon the viewing publics’ bias, as well as their own.

3. BIAS – MONSTERS INSIDE

This time frame of historical, ethnographical, anthropological and technological query into what it means to be “human” is resulting in bioartists’ concerns about what it means not to be human. This no doubt has entered into artistic works of George Gessert and Adam Zaresky who reveal concern with what it means to be an “organism”—a germ, a virus, a molecule and whose environment or home this earth actually belongs to if not to every and all life forms together.
In lieu of a slippery slope in which artists and designers rely on poetic license for substantiating works of art, can art practices infuse visionary yet objective understanding of possible futures for more than “messing” around with biology and altering life forms? We can see indications of foresight by artists concerned with ethics, although some of the works do exude bias on the business of biotechnology, as in “Biopets.” Critical, objective reasoning is essential if the works of art are to be unbiased. Is there bias or an evenhandedness of ethics of concerning organisms and morphology? Yes, there is evidence of bias which I will address in this section.

In order for bioart to be recognized as a legitimate practice, do its practitioners need to deemphasize humans in emphasizing bugs, germs and other traditionally thought of lower life forms? Not necessarily. While there is an apparent bias of bioartists to openly denounce the human [hierarchy] in favor of a cell, germ, virus or insect as equally of value to the living environment of Earth, an approximately equal number of bioartists have no issue with performance art as bioart, and human interfacing being legitimate. Of note is that bioart is an engagement of the art and the audience, and as such shapes culture. And perhaps one dramatic element worth noting is the realization of what several bioartists call the “monster inside” meaning that the human genome has and has always had genes from other, conspicuously “lesser” organisms.

“The key question is whether the artist must necessarily contribute to the process of knowledge production or whether their role lies in the subversive questioning of emergent concepts and dogmas.” (Hauser)

Some bioartists consider their role is to inform and even scar the viewing audience. Critical Art Ensemble and Piccinini’s “We are Family” are examples of words that are casting a judgment about biotechnologies that could distress humanity. Are claims that technologies such as biotech and genetic engineering capitalistic and potentially commodifiable, logical and fair? Some of the incentive is driven by angst toward commodification as a possible result of capitalism. Another example is Adam Brandejs’ “Biopets”

Imagine walking into a department store or any big box store, and while browsing an aisle you find a display where packages hang; which, at first glance, seem to contain large action figures. Upon closer inspection, you realize they are actually bizarre, altered, bipedal mammals sealed in a plastic bubble where they uneasily rest in some kind of induced hibernation. A series of glowing and beeping heart monitors on the packages gives a hint that they are alive. They are there, ready to take home and add to your life as the next entertainment gadget; bioengineered creatures, mass-produced, and pre-packaged for your convenience. (Brandejs)

Of note are bioartists who think that the human might better be brought down from its hierarchical position, and others want total freedom to manipulate organisms. (Gessert, Zaresky)

Further, as I understand it, bioart has been criticized for being insensitive to life forms, no matter how small and seeming insignificant, and deliberately provoking the viewing audience into despair by exaggerating the mal-effects of genetic engineering.

These signs of bias may be necessary for the messiness of bioart, adding psychological incentive to cutting up and disposing of living matter. Although it might detract from the purity of the medium placing value, it might be received by its audience as intentionally propagating ambiguity for the sake of propaganda. Art needs to do more than tell and audience what to think. It ought to stir up novelty and provoke viewers into asking questions and forming connections between their world before and then after viewing such works.

Anna Munster asks how artists engaged in bioart practices co-determine aesthetic and ethical value in their work. She suggests that such works “implicitly adopt the consequentialist ethics espoused by ecological and animal liberationist concerns,” (Munster) She looks at the “strategies for artists for sustaining, domesticating and killing off their live artwork.” How does the artist situate him/herself? (Munster)

“Bioart poses a micro/macro, life/death relation that travels in waves of matter moving. The force of bioart is an ethics of affect that functions through the micro physics of power to effect strange new ways of becoming life. It calls into question the operations of indeterminacy at play in the constitution of the human. The human is forced to acknowledge its properly contingent existence as a macro construction that is formed in translation from the micro. The human is thereby encouraged to give up its claim to superior status and engage in an ethical relation with its surround. Like art, biotechnologies also affect new relationships between matter and life, human and non-human. Bioart must function in rhythm with these techniques in order to pose a critical counterpoint to their operations.” (Munster)

When bioart starts playing with Mother Nature, perhaps we all might heed a warning label. George Gessert thinks that the warning label ought to be “printed in red” because the word nature has so many, many meanings. When bioartists take life forms and manipulate them, their nature is of consequence. Is it ethical to take any living form and cage it in a frame and mount it on a wall like an animal in a circus? Without oxygen it will surely die and is the artist considered to be a murderer. Does live art imply a new relationship between the artist and the practice? Must we ask, “What does this artifact want? Where does it want to live? (Kremers) “With only a few exceptions, the arts of evolution have not been studied systematically, but could provide indications of how we are likely to use biotechnology.” (Gessert)

It is said that we are in a Post-biological Era. This is a misnomer. If anything, we are in a transbiological era, and the discovery and examination of the genome remains of great interest. Bioart is timely because it offers unleashed exploration into a field which has been sequestered by scientists and continues to be new and open for exploration. Artists participating in bioart are providing a genuine service to the public by giving a closer look at what goes on in scientific laboratories. As we have seen, there are biases to be sure, and there is plenty of time to witness consilience. One thing is for sure, bioart is not standing still and if artistic tools follow the trends, nanorobotics and other emergent technologies will enter the laboratories.

4. Carrying Art Onward

Poet Guillaime Appollinaire wrote, “One cannot carry everywhere the corpse of one’s father.” Perhaps it is the same for art mediums. Art history is our great teacher, but art cannot carry its past incarnations and extracts around as symbolic gestures for eliciting recognition or proving merit. Each art time frame must stand on its own and do what has not been done before, or if repeating it, do it differently, thereby stimulating us to think and ask questions. Unlike Appollinaire’s father who was biological and, as a consequence, mortal; roboticist Hans Moravec welcomes an art which regenerates and transforms and could give endless life to mankind, but not in its human form. Vernor Vinge, father of the Singularity, mathematician and science fiction visionary suggest the future of art will live on in what I call a “creativity augmentum.”

Imagining what creativity and aesthetic issues might be for early posthumans is very intriguing. For these creatures, creativity and art might be among the most pleasurable aspects of the new existence. I believe that emotions would still be around, though more complicated and perhaps spread across distributed identities.… In our era, almost everything we do in the arts is done with awareness of what has been done before and before. In the early post-human era, things will be new again because anything that requires greater than human ability has not already been done by Homer or da Vinci or Shakespeare. (Of course, there may be other, higher creatures that have done better, and eventually the first post-human achievements will be far surpassed. Nevertheless, this is one sense in which we may appreciate the excitement of the early post-Singular years.) (Vita-More)

Moravec asks us to “Consider the human form, [i]t clearly isn’t designed to be a scientist. Your mental capacity is extremely limited. You have to undergo all kinds of unnatural training to get your brain even half suited for this kind of work – and for that reason, it’s hard work. You live just long enough to start figuring things out before your brain starts deteriorating. And then, you die.” Moravec muses further, “But wouldn’t it be great,” he says, “if you could enhance your abilities via artificial intelligence, and extend your lifespan, and improve on the human condition?” (Platt) “Artists and especially transbioartists might encourage the people to think about what to do when their life spans are increased and eventually immortal.” (Moravec)

5. From Bio to TransBio

Could bioart lead to transbio practices engaging in generating a new human species in which the genome is altered and life is extended indefinitely and perhaps living beings that are embodied and disembodied, biological and synthetic? Leonel Moura says contemporary art is burnt out and we are on the cusp of “intelligent art” and close to the evolutionary mechanism of nature as it needs randomness in order to evolve. Like Moravec, Moura is an adjacent arm of the bioart medium and perhaps part of an extended family of Transbioart. He contends that “we are in the process of generating a new homo species where the extension of life is one of the components.” Like Moravec, Moura sees that human intelligence will be decisive.

George Gessert states that “with only a few exceptions, the arts of evolution have not been studied systematically, but could provide indications of how we are likely to use biotechnology.” While at first Gessert disagreed with my point, he later told me that, “Yes, you are right that nanotechnology is deeply involved in biology, and perhaps AI is or will become involved in biology as well. Your understanding that these technologies will intersect with bioart is no doubt correct.”
At the 2004 symposium of “Art of the Biotech Era” Melentie Pandilovski asked “Is the evolution of the human form at all possible? If possible, is the evolution of the human body at all necessary? If possible, should it be assisted by the humans themselves?” In his introduction “The Evolution of the Human Form?” Moravec seems to think so, along with Moura, and Zaresky and Stelarc who wonders if the human body is its ultimate form, and if evolution is not yet completed.

Practices addressing cyborg-type manifestations of biology brings different protocol into the domain of bioart futures. It also introduces new tools which would move biopractices outside the slicing and dicing of genes and the medium into new realms. I call it “brains.” Biotechnology, robotics, AI, and nanotechnology Robotics, and supercomputing tender new tools for artists for shedding the bio, amassing the nano, and cultivating emortal life.

6. Future

If it is determined inevitable that bioart has the potential to influence society and perhaps the future. But bioartists, by and large, are not practicing scientists, sociologists, or skilled in future studies of forecasting, systems thinking, scenario development, or the methodologies necessary to objectively produce researched results. Is bioart another means by which the artist become futurist (in the non-Marinetti sense)?

Lowry Burgess of Carnegie Mellon’s college of art’s “Studio for Creative Inquiry,” offers a pedagogical approach to artists and designers in learning about the future. The program’s mission elegantly states, “interdisciplinary projects bring together the arts, sciences, technology, and the humanities, and impact local and global communities.”  It seems that a wide-open view of the arts and personal responsibility ties in nicely to the field of “Future Studies.” Is it necessary for bioartists to be skilled scientific researchers in their unique practice area?

According to Stelarc bioart is an aesthetic and conceptual expression in a new medium, which is continually driven by a multiplicity of conceptual and fabrication processes. Artists are not in the business of methodical scientific research or even in the realm of science fiction, but bioartists are driven by pseudo-scientific desires.

According to Marta de Menezes “art always tries to see ahead and that it is, in many cases, a tool to prepare society for certain technological advances that raises ethical or conceptual breakthroughs.” (Menezes) Why is future studies important to artists? “More often than not we make the judgments without full knowledge of the issues, technologies and research involved.” (Menezes)

The interdisciplinary practices of the arts and design need to cultivate observational “polis pods” for discourse on the future. This is more timely than ever because technological change is continuing to accelerate. The future is a result of impacts of change that affect everyone, regardless of what domain the changes originally occur in and where the impacts are first felt. Since artistic endeavors do have a future and these impacts could affect our practices, future studies is pertinent for visioning potential outcomes of change in our practices and curriculum.

One of the richest ways to envision what may lie ahead is through science fiction, which has a profound bearing on how people think about the future. Decade by decade the future is marked up, erased and revisited with false starts, high hopes, and wide-ranging results. In the 1800s, visions of the future illustrated levitating sea vessels, aerial empires, steel highways, and flying saucers. H.G. Well’s “rude awakening,” McCay’s “urban jungle,” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” depict the gray skies over industrialization and progress. (Clute) The 1920s was an era of radio broadcasts, electric razors, frozen food and 16mm movies—a Flash Gordon epoch of invention before the 40s downward slide, followed by idealization, triumph over fear, and reunification of nostalgia. But low and behold, before our current century, apocalyptic vision sprung a leak in the accelerating engines of progress. With grave concern about terrorism, climate change, and an ideological divide, it is time for serious, highly-charged artistic practices to coalesce with scientific methods to bring credence to the art of conjecture.

Critical methods of framing and systems thinking are not all quantitative, mathematically-based fact and figure, research and analysis, survey and strategy. Qualities of spontaneity, intuition, and ad hoc inventiveness have a substantial role in envisioning the future. Simulation games and role playing create hypothetical structures for scenarios. Further, the comprehensive anticipatory design of complex systems incorporates holistic thinking, the futurists’ gestalt in pinpointing emergent trends and discontinuities in the endless cycles of change.

What can we as artists grasp from all this future discussion? The obvious answer is we either become utopian or dystopian—favoring massive change, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, artificial general intelligence, and other forms of manipulating ourselves and our environment from a “natural” state to a no longer “imitating nature” toward designing nature; or we become dystopian—attacking the concept of the Western world, capitalism, science as god, biotechnologies, DNA manipulation, and other forms of altering what it means to be “natural” and “nature” and cease attempting to take charge of our destiny, our future, through the applied use of emergent technologies. But these two alternatives are sorely outdated, pigeonholing the potential of artists and designers and offering little option.

7. CONCLUSION

The “brave new world” has come to represent the fears of society toward the possible outcome of emergent technologies and dictatorial hierarchy ruling humankind. This is a regretful paradox because Aldous Huxley borrowed this phrase from Shakespeare when he was inspired a soliloquy by Miranda in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest—

O Wonder!
How many goodly creatures there are here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!

“Shakespeare’s words originally meant something far different” than the intention of Huxley in his famed story “Brave New World.” Huxley’s satirical piece is fiction, not scientific prophecy. “Though Huxley’s vision seems, to the cynic or to the defeatist, to have prevailed in this strange age, (which has come to be “brave new world” as a forecast of the future), it is Shakespeare’s vision that resonates more strongly in its deep perception, in its profundity and in its power to inspire.” (Ciesla) Perhaps Transbioart will inject a little more Shakespeare and a little less Huxley-fear.

Even though, the directive of bioart is not to eliminate fear, but possibly to offer a means by which both visionary and objective ideas concerning life, nature and design can be explored and expressed. Silver Award Winning essay of The Economist/Shell World in the 2050 Essay competition, “Biological Technology in 2050” by Robert Carlson takes a look at consequences of distributed biological manufacturing moving from academic labs to home garage labs. Carlson suggests that the practices will be a continuation of what we are experiencing today with attempts to predict the behavior of designed biological systems. It is here that artists may seriously consider “abiding by the protocols for ethical conduct and established guidelines.” (Davis) Joe Davis, considered to be the “father” of bioart believes the “central problem with bioart today” is that artists “don’t’ like harsh scientific scrutiny.” Davis contends that “artists are dealing with materials as powerful and complex as living bacteria or transgenic organisms, that gives them a kind of responsibility they have never had before.” (Kennedy)

About the Author

Natasha Vita-More is an artist and designer. Her work “Bone Density” exhibited at the Evolution Haute Couture: Art and Science in the Post-Biological Age”, Moscow Film Fest and the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Kaliningrad Russia; her design “Transhuman” exhibited at the Niet Normal, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam; and her film “Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In”, London Contemporary Museum, London, UK. Vita-More encourages transbioart as a practice for those interested in life extension and expansion.

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