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The Artistic Perspective of Biotech

VISION Magazine

April 2009

(China)



Integrating art and science can lead to new discoveries in science and exciting art with new media and new meanings.  Both fields can greatly enhance one another.

Hunter Cole is both an internationally shown artist and an experienced geneticist.  She reinterprets science as art through the creation of living artworks, abstractions, digital art and installations confronting issues related to biotechnology in our culture.  Cole holds a Ph.D. and Master's degree in Genetics from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of California-Berkeley.

Hunter Cole is often listed with other artists who create what is often referred to as bioart.  Cole has taught both biology and art at Loyola University Chicago, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

She creates Living Drawings with bioluminescent bacteria. These Living Drawings depict the cycle of life and death calling attention to our own mortality.  Hunter Cole creates controlled line drawings using bioluminescent bacteria. The bacteria then grow on Petri dishes. Bacteria become collaborators in the art as it grows and dies. First appearing with bright light, bacteria in the drawing are photographed as it uses up available nutrients, gradually dying-off over a two-week period.  A very good example of that is "Rabbit" where the initial drawing, "Rabbit: Stage 1," shows a rabbit on the right and a rooster on the left.  After some of the bacteria die in "Rabbit: Stage 2," the rooster on the left becomes a wolf.  Hunter Cole created the initial drawing.  It would have been very difficult to predict the rooster would become a wolf.  The bacteria contributed to the story in the art.  Cole is working on a new series of bacterial drawings using bacteria genetically engineered to express fluorescent proteins of different colors.

In Hunter Cole's art related to cloning and stem cells, some of the viewpoints expressed are not popular among the public.  Cole's goal is not necessarily to change opinions, but to have people consider a new viewpoint they may not have thought of previously.

For example in digital artwork "Let My Family Live! Portrait of Randolfe Wicker, the First Human Cloning Activist," Hunter Cole puts forth the idea that a human clone would be a unique individual rather than the carbon copy that gets portrayed in the media.  Randolfe H. Wicker is the world's first human cloning activist. In the art are actual photographs of Mr. Wicker integrated with images from the microscopic world. In this artwork, Randolfe Wicker is shown at different stages in his life with the words "grandfather," "father," and "son" underneath the photographs representing him and his potential human clone descendants, all very similar but each unique. A human clone may have the same DNA genome as another, but would be an individual with a unique personality and soul.  The human clone would have different cultural influences in a different time in history and a different upbringing in a different family situation.  Some people assume that this artwork is intended to promote human cloning.  The intention of the artwork is to have people see a new viewpoint and for people to realize if a human clone, a later born twin, was ever born that that person is a unique human being and one should not be prejudiced against such a person.

In "The Art of Death: Viruses are Beautiful," Hunter Cole colorizes electron micrographs of ebola, herpes, rabies, influenza and HIV.  The color digital prints of the viruses are highlighted with neon.  Hunter Cole collaborated with Marj Inman and Jeff Kelley of Electron Eye Neon to create this artwork.  The artwork illustrates a paradox of something being visually beautiful yet intellectually terrifying.  Beauty is associated with goodness and ugliness with evil.  Sometimes something beautiful can be evil while something ugly can be good.

Hunter Cole also uses traditional media such as oils and acrylics to represent concepts in biology.  In 2008 Lynn Margulis, a famous scientist who is a proponent of the endosymbiosis theory, visited Loyola University Chicago in Spring 2008.  Inspired by her visit, Cole created an oil and acrylic painting titled "Endosymbiosis."  The painting features mitochrondria and chloroplasts which both have thought to have evolved from bacteria living within other bacteria over millions of years.

Hunter Cole joined the faculty in the Biology Department at Loyola University Chicago in the Fall 2004.   Notedly, in 2001, Cole created a course, Biology through Art, first offered at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where students have opportunities to create innovative artworks in a biology laboratory.  Currently she teaches this course at Loyola University Chicago.  Biology through Art helps students from all disciplines to think outside the box.  This course focuses on several areas in the biological sciences from molecular biology to human anatomy. Students view microorganisms, use DNA as an artistic medium, create music based on DNA sequence, and see anatomy as art. Contemporary artists that use biological concepts and biological materials in their art are discussed.

Beginning Fall 2008 at Loyola University Chicago, Hunter Cole taught a new course she created titled, BioArt: Exploring Living Organisms through Art.  The course focuses on art that incorporates living organisms.  The course also looks at art that incorporates actual blood as a medium in the art. With her extensive laboratory experience, Hunter Cole brings a unique and challenging perspective to the world of biotechnology via art. 

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