In the future depicted in Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, bio-engineering has gone awry. Dogs and wolves have been spliced together, as have skunks and raccoons. Scientists, in quests to both remedy various human plights and satisfy human desires, instead wreak havoc. Dystopia ensues.
I spoke with Atwood in 2009 when Year of the Flood—the sequel to Oryx and Crake and the second book in what became a trilogy was published—asking her specifically about the novel's message regarding bio-engineering. She said when she spoke with scientists in the field, she described genetic engineering as "… a tool, and what we choose to use that tool for is up to us, the human beings, not to the tool itself."
I thought of Atwood's book and words during an early look at the upcoming installation "Infinity Engine" by Lynn Hershman Leeson, one of 10 acclaimed artists who will exhibit in SITE Santa Fe's Oct. 7 Future Shock show, part of the museum's much-anticipated grand re-opening weekend.
Hershman Leeson's work replicates a science laboratory in which viewers can experience, confront and ponder, through a range of mediums, the field of bio-engineering and genetic modification and its concomitant ethical and legal ramifications. Among other features, the laboratory includes colorful wallpaper presenting multiple transgenic species and crops; video interviews Hershman Leeson has conducted with leading scientists in the field; and interactive facial recognition software that analyzes various elements of the viewer's face.
Author Atwood has historically bristled at characterization of her work as science fiction, preferring the term "speculative"—the type of genetic experiments described in her novel aren't fantasy; they are grounded in the real-world of bio-engineering. The novelistic consequences—the catastrophic obliteration of most of humanity—is Atwood's particular spin.
Hershman Leeson's work at SITE also doesn't traffic in science fiction. The lab replica was built in consultation with scientists. The mesmerizing wallpaper depicts real-world species hybrids. I was particularly drawn to the various glow-in-the-dark animals, created through splicing varied species with jellyfish: a rabbit (Alba), a cat and the Glo Fish, the last of which SITE promises to have for live viewing during the show.
Yet while the lab's contents are from the real world, stepping into the space (which was still under construction when I visited) engenders the sensation of entering a parallel universe—the scientific shadowland in which few of us are directly involved but which creates undeniable impact for us all. Hershman Leeson's art, unlike Atwood's writing, isn't existentially foreboding. Instead, the work illuminates the scientific endeavors geared at addressing any number of environmental and human challenges—from crop eradication to human disease.
Hershman Leeson's art does have futuristic aesthetic appeal, but it is driven by the artist's lifelong interest in science. Her mother was a biologist, her father a pharmacist, her daughter is a doctor. "I was a throwback," Hershman Leeson says during a phone interview. "I always felt that science was like magic." She also sees science, like art, as a creative process, citing inventions such as the use of 3-D printers to create human organs (an ear of this sort will be on display in the show).
The work is intended to educate and spark discussion, and includes a table of file folders of legal cases related to the field. Hershman Leeson's pieces provide access to the general public, through an aesthetic experience, of what she describes as "the crucial issue of today," and a way of thinking about the impact of the post-humanist era: "the identity of anything living."
Future Shock was the title of a 1970 book by Alvin Toffler and describes the state of unrest people experience in response to rapid societal and technological changes. In a time such as now, in which so much doubt has been cast on facts and science, Hershman Leeson's work is a nuanced riposte of the power of information and investigation to mitigate fear with curiosity and understanding.
Future Shock: Grand Re-Opening Exhibition
The Reveal: 6 pm Friday Oct. 6. $20-$300.
Public Events: Opens at 10 am Saturday Oct. 7. Free.
My Life in Art: Lynn Hershman Leeson in conversation with Anne Balsamo
5:30 pm Saturday Oct. 7. Free.
All events at SITE Santa Fe,
1606 Paseo de Peralta,
More info at sitesantafe.org/event/the-reveal
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a change for the Oct. 7 speaker.