The term “bio art” is often linked to works from the late 1990s and early 2000s that involved the manipulation of genetic code. One might recall Eduardo Kac’s fluorescent bunny or the ear implanted in Stelarc’s arm. The curators of “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere,” however, have gathered 14 contemporary bio artists who look beyond code as they attempt to forge humble, reciprocal relationships with other-than-human agents.
The works spread out over the MIT List Visual Arts Center’s three galleries often model forms of symbiosis: mutualism (both species benefit), commensalism (one species benefits and the other is unaffected), and parasitism (one species benefits and the other is harmed). Gilberto Esparza’s Plantas autofotosintéticas (2013–14)—a campy amalgamation of microbial fuel cell towers that contain mixtures of pondwater and sewage, and a suspended aquarium—enacts a mutualistic exchange between human and nonhuman entities. When bacteria called Geobacter, endemic in the pondwater, siphon electrons from waste particles, the sewage is slowly purified. The process also generates sparks of light, with which the tentacular plant in the aquarium performs photosynthesis. Candice Lin’s Memory (Study #2), 2016, a white mass of lion’s mane mushrooms ballooning out of a red ceramic vessel, demonstrates a similar repurposing of human waste to foster plant growth, sans vitrine: Over the course of the exhibition, staff members collect their own urine and use distilled samples of it to mist the fungus, which has been shown to improve memory when consumed. This bodily fluid, albeit purified, is a nod to the artist’s previous installations that utilize “communal piss” as a metaphor for collectivity and its potential discomforts.
Sculptures by Nour Mobarak enact a quaint but incomplete vision of commensalism, as vinyl beach balls are made into incubators for turkey tail mushrooms. Given the framework of the show, one might wonder, is symbiosis exclusive to living organisms? Perhaps humans’ treatment of the environment now requires us to think more broadly about the beneficial repurposing of objects to support organisms. Kiyan Williams presents a more conceptually developed project in which theychallenge America’s parasitic grip on Black people and their labor. In Ruins of Empire II (2022), using white mycelia, Williams replicated the face of the Statue of Freedom (1863), a bronze figure that crowns the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. (the Capitol was built primarily by enslaved people, and an enslaved man was key to engineering the statue). Crude oil trickles onto the pale, pitted face, hastening its decomposition and suggesting associations between chattel slavery and environmental extraction.
Other works suggest extensions or disruptions to symbiotic relations. Pamela Rosenkranz’s visually striking She Has No Mouth (2017) is a low, circular mound of pink sand baking under LED lights. The sand references cat litter, through which a parasitic infection known as toxoplasmosis is often transmitted from cats to other species. In rats, the parasite causes increased sexual arousal in response to the scent of cats. Seduced by their predators, infected rats enable the parasite’s reproduction cycle to continue. The gallery staff again play a role here, this time in extending the interspecies phenomenon to humans, as they are required to maintain the scent of Calvin Klein Obsession for Men (a perfume that includes a synthetic version of a pheromone secreted by catlike mammals called civets) in the air around the artwork, turning the gallery into a hothouse of pheromones and confused desire. Skotopoiesis (2015), a durational performance by Špela Petrič presented as a two-channel video, for which the artist repeatedly casts her shadow over a bed of herbs, asks, with a dose of humor, if states of extremity might prompt humans to develop greater empathy for nonhuman life-forms. Standing for a total of 20 hours over the vegetation, blocking light from it until a person-shaped patch begins to wither, the artist strains all parties in her experiment.
Within this dizzyingly wide-ranging show, works like Rosenkranz’s and Petrič’s stand out, highlighting the tension and desire latent in coexistence. So do those that acknowledge the all-too-human stakes of biomedical advancement: Crystal Z Campbell’s glass-entombed portraits of Henrietta Lacks and her cancer cells—her unwitting but impactful contribution to medical research—and Jes Fan’s drooping glass orbs containing crystalline silicone injected with Depo-Testosterone, Estradiol, and melanin, substances related to cultural conceptions of gender and race. Other pieces, like Pierre Huyghe’s Spider (2014), which plays on visitors’ fear of vermin by having staff release 20 daddy longlegs in the gallery at the start of the show, are memorable but conceptually less convincing.
When symbiosis manifests as a humble interaction between the organisms or elements on view and the museum staff, a theater of maintenance emerges. “Symbionts” is thus concerned less with the specific technologies or procedures of bio art than with the questions bio art can raise about labor and efficacy. This ultimately conceptual, relatively inconsequential labor appears banal when we consider the scientific work necessary for environmental reparations, bodily alterations, or agricultural modifications. But in reminding us that we’re part of the system, persistently, this art, however humble or absurd, might jolt us out of complacency and alert us to the tasks ahead.