Aesthetics in the Cyborg Gallery
by Tracey Heatherington

Source - Issue 26 - Spring - 2001 - Click for Contents

Issue 26 Spring 2001
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What does 'science' look like? Pictures of the laboratory, its human protagonists, its instrumentation and its objects of knowledge come to us from fictional genres, textbooks, newscasts and popular magazines. When we look for classic models of scientific practice we may think of the gentlemen of the Royal Society in Victorian England, describing their experiments in the refined society of the drawing room, or the mad scientists of old horror movies, whose intellectual pursuits are profoundly antisocial. What we take for granted about the relationship between science and society, with all its possible utopic and dystopic transformations, is ultimately fixed in these images at large in the cultural imagination. Inasmuch as we expect science to shape the ways we live and work in the future, our visions of that future have changed along with our changing visions of science.

'Discovery' is about the invention of fresh perception. We see new things, both metaphorically and literally. Microscopes, telescopes, satellites, ultrasounds and particle counters open unknown vistas to the human gaze. In 'the hunt' for new data and new ways of understanding that data, scientists depend on technological extensions of the human senses. 'Science in action' is therefore a cyborg art; scientists with their unfamiliar organs of mechanical awareness are always at work to redefine the domain of the real and the possible for us all. For those who stand outside the laboratory, with our noses pressed against the dark glass to peer eagerly at the unfamiliar, we watch this cyborg wizardry with expectation. We strain to make sense of what the scientists see, strain to grasp and remember the new shape of the future implied in a graph or a test tube, a spectogram or a binary code. These things become familiar icons. As anthropologist Rayna Rapp points out, new technologies of scientific vision make it possible to catch and fix glimpses of the infinitely distant and the infinitely small, revealing apparently discrete new objects of scientific knowledge and introducing them as well to the cultural imagination'.

Each original set of scientific breakthroughs brings a harvest of meaningful glimpses that become part of how we see the world. The nuclear age has been rich with images of eccentric physicists such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, the stylized symbol of the atom, the visual remembrance of devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the technological landscapes associated with nuclear power plants and the energy-intensive industry that has supported material development throughout the first world. The space age has given us images of astronauts, moonscapes, close-up pictures of other planets in the solar system, pictures of the Earth itself, and pictures of the ships that carry human vision and agency beyond the confines of our own globe. The photographic traces of exploration in science, from satellite pictures of other planets and phenomena in outer space, to increasingly detailed visions of cells and atoms, have supported assumptions about the increasing human control over nature. Science fiction eagerly appropriates these new images to give us both naively optimistic and deeply critical appraisals of what the pursuit of scientific knowledge might result in.

The rapid advance of the human genome project was the breaking news in science last year, and it renewed our visual fascination with images of what scientists are actually doing. The genome project is an attempt to decode all the information contained in human chromosomes, and identify the ways that lethal and complex diseases are inscribed in the genetic structure. It began as public research with a projected completion date of 2010, but private corporations invested heavily in genetic research technologies and, with the invention of new DNA- sequencing computers, the project has leapt forward and may be finished by 2003. Accelerated successes have raised fears about the privacy and the ownership of new knowledge about genes that is being developed in the private sector. The media have taken initiative to report on emerging gene patenting debates and the ethics of compiling databases of individual DNA profiles. These narratives incorporate a new repertoire of images of scientific practice associated with cutting-edge biotechnology.

If we look at this new cyborg gallery of scientists and their machine partners, engineering the raw materials of life, we discover an aesthetics of the future that is just a little different from the images we have seen before. The boundary between the natural world and the human one has not simply been pushed forward by the accumulation of new knowledge, it has actually become less distinct. Discoveries in genetics and microbiology generated visual narratives to show us how new science might once again reshape the future. Consider the sequence of images that accompanies Focus magazine's August 2000 story on 'The gene snatchers'. The cover presents a naked woman imprisoned within a colourful computer-generated representation of the famous double-helix, the structure of genetic material that is often used as a visual condiment to biotechnology debates. That is, the anonymous woman in the picture is both defined and contained by the information concealed in her own DNA, which teams of scientists are currently working to decode and even patent. The cover asks what lies ahead as the human genome project nears its end, and suggests that 'billions are being pumped into stealing your genetic identity'. If we could once upon a time take for granted as a fact of nature that the shapes of our own bodies were unique and lawfully possessed by ourselves alone, the image tells us, we can no longer do so. The human body itself has become a cultural artifact, its essence vulnerable to scientific curiosity, fantasy, and market economics.

By juxtaposing a photograph of a real, naked body with a computer graphic, the image dramatizes the erosion of the domain of nature by the developing human capacity to know and alter the basis of biological life. Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has called this the erosion of the divide between 'nature' and 'culture' in the western world. She suggests that new forms of biotechnology, and particularly those related to human reproduction, call into question our most deeply-rooted assumptions about what is natural and legitimate in society. New reproductive technologies that create distinctions between social, genetic and biological progenitors now make it necessary for us to debate what constitutes a parent, and what is the nature of a parent-child relationship. Considering the ethics of new forms of fetal research, we must even redefine what a 'person' is. And, as genetic materials enter the world of the marketplace, the 'nature' of biological property becomes a question in itself, inevitably transforming the material relationships between people.Image: David Barker, Science Photo Library 
Image: David Barker, Science Photo Library 

The human genome project forces us to reconceptualise not only biology, but also society. Many of us have learned to recognize multiple layers of meaning at a glance when we see the picture of the double helix. It has already become part of our cultural repertoire of symbols. Focus magazine's August Cover story gave us a whole set of images portraying the science of genetics in action. It is these images that recast our vision of science in the context of cutting-edge biotechnology, telling us how our personal relationships to the future are mediated by scientific actors and instruments. We can usefully reflect on the representations of science contained in this photography, remembering that Focus is intended for a general public of science enthusiasts without expert background knowledge.

First, there is the way scientific objects are made interesting and exotic through the use of light and magnification. Pictures of the basic research materials used by scientists show us what these expert actors are looking at when they search for the knowledge that will change our lives. We may not understand what signs to read in the bacterial colonies where DNA samples are cloned, but we can look at the trays of petrie dishes bathed in reddish glow as a source of wonder. When the camera zooms in up close, we Can see the selection of DNA samples, their preparation for sequencing, and the reading of the DNA code. Our attention is focused upon the DNA itself, the key symbol we've already learned to recognize in abstract representations of the double helix. It is the ability to understand and manipulate this DNA that alters our relationship to the natural world, and so we can identify the scientific practices revealed in these photographs as elements in an ongoing ritual transformation that changes society as a whole.

Second, we can note the powerful presence of technology in these images. In one photograph, a robot picker is used to select colonies of DNA from trays of bacterial cultures; no human appears. In another shot, a single lab technician stands in a large room, surrounded by banks of computers. Where the scientists themselves are pictured, the objects of knowledge take precedence over the people - research technicians hold capillary tubes and syringes in front of them that obscure their own individuality and centre the reader's gaze upon these arcane instruments. Lighting tends to cast focus away from faces, towards hands, instruments and objects of analysis. In one photo, a technician works in a dark room to cut electrophoresis gel for use in sequencing DNA fragments; the man's face is completely obscured by shadow, and a dim blue light reveals his hands at work.

These technology dominated settings emphasise the distinctiveness of the laboratory from everyday social life, and lend authority to the cyborg nature of scientific vision. We look at magnified printouts analyzing base-pair sequences, or, in another Focus article in February 2007, on DNA profiling, a computer monitor showing banded DNA sequences. In the latter, only an anonymous finger appears to mark the human presence. Representations of recorded data become an aid to the cultural imagination of science because they represent the body of legitimate expertise and technological sophistication required to interpret it. We think of everyday knowledge as merely social, caught up in the meaning-making activities of people in ordinary human contexts. Scientific knowledge, as the pictures tell us, is generated not in the mundane human world, but in particular kinds of cyborg environments specially set apart from it. The absence of natural daylight in most of the laboratory photographs emphasizes the ascendancy of the artificial in these sacred spaces. Endowed with the eerie colours of science fiction films, the places that host research experiments in the new genetics, like the Sanger Center in Cambridge and Celera Genomics in Maryland, are special places beyond the realm of everyday life where powerful futures are crafted.

The idea of a science that transcends society and is separate from it has tremendous power over us. On the one hand, it can inspire a reluctance to participate in the process of public, political debate. Many people see scientists as expert witnesses on the future, and abdicate responsibility for cultivating informed opinions on the funding and legalities of new research and new technology. Because science appears to them as a black box of monstrous proportions, they leave it to others to guess what will come out of it. Scientists themselves are often reticent to engage with social and political issues, whether because their energies are directed inside the lab or because they themselves feel they lack the training in human sciences to open the Pandora's box that the social world represents. That leaves so-called civil society to the science fiction writers, explaining perhaps why we often find ourselves looking to the plot scenarios contained in Gattaca or Brave New World whenever they want to discuss the potential impacts of biotechnology.

Popular science magazines like Focus make an important contribution to the field of science communication, as they explain new research techniques and their implications in an accessible way to the general public. The ethical debates attached to scientific developments are addressed in a comprehensible, if sometimes melodramatic, discussion. Yet the visual narratives incorporated into these stories often overwhelm and subordinate the text, recreating the world of science as fanciful, exotic, mysterious and finally, impenetrable by our own too- ordinary eyes. This encourages us to think of science as a sphere of knowledge that is specially set apart from everything else. The aesthetics of the photographs in the cyborg gallery of the new genetics are other-worldly.Image: James King-Holmes, Science Photo Library 
Image: James King-Holmes, Science Photo Library 

At what point do we imagine that the science of DNA ceases to be 'natural' and becomes the instrument of 'unnatural' manipulation? How is the cyborg gallery of science photography caught up in this implicit distinction? We are used to debates about the potential social impacts of new science, but there is a level of cultural self-interrogation that must take place before we can define where technical issues appear to end and social ones appear to begin. What is the relation - or the distinction - that we tend to take for granted between the laboratory and the social world? Are politics, economics, gender, class, race, religion, cultural frameworks and emotions perceived to have a role within the laboratory, or are they envisioned to affect science only outside the sacred spaces of scientific practice? Is the social world perceived to have a positive or a negative influence on science? Is science understood to have a positive or negative impact on society? Assumptions about the relationship between science and society are written into the visions of 'science in action' constructed through the use of photography in science journalism.

We live in a society that encourages us to be increasingly engaged with the material and ideological outcomes of science. Science gives us important new technologies that mediate our work, our social interaction, our physical experience and our health, our cultural expression, our explorations of nature, and even our attempts to formulate new knowledge. Science also gives us new metaphors, that become intrinsic to cultural visions of our own relationship to the environment and also to one another as citizens, social groups and polities. As the double helix becomes recognisable to the general public as essential and determining of human life, and the cyborg images of cloning emphasise our uneasy abilities to reshape it, the parameters of our debates about 'human nature' are fundamentally transformed. While some people may look to various national genome projects as biological evidence of distinctive identities, for example, others recognise our growing knowledge of DNA as proof against racist explanations of human difference. The human genome project therefore changes the physical circumstances of our lives, but it also changes what we think we can take for granted about ourselves.

No wonder we are fascinated by the photographic genre of what the science ethnographer Bruno Latour has called 'science in action'. As Latour points out, however, science is as entangled with the Social world as the social world is with it. From funding decisions and actual research practice through to its applications and the ethical debates it engenders, Science research is caught up in its human contexts of cultural perception, experience, hope, fear, need and imagination. It is a profoundly cultural space in which we are constantly reordering our understanding of human similarity and difference, constantly debating the meanings of the past and the 'nature' (and the artifice) that might determine the future. The point of exploring issues in the new genetics is not merely about understanding science, but actively negotiating how we relate to it. The visual craft of science journalism cues modalities of thinking and feeling about the scientific process. The laboratory settings we see in science stories speak to fictional genres of dystopic and utopic representation, and styles of photographic emplotment make readers vulnerable to a sense of doom or destiny.