Critical Art Ensemble on the import of garage biology today

Steve Kurtz interviewed by Alessandro Delfanti:

The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of artists and activists based in the USA that work on the boundaries between science, technology and radical politics. In 2004 Steve Kurtz, one of the members of CAE, was arrested by the FBI under the charge of bioterrorism after the police found the home lab and the bacteria cultures that were used for CAE projects on the politics of biotechnology. Their book Molecular Invasion theorized the use of do-it-yourself biology as a tool to challenge the structures of power within the biotech industry and the role of biotechnology in today’s capitalist societies. In this interview, Kurtz explores the differences between CAE and the emergent movement of garage biology – such as the DIYbio network – its political role and its future.

What are the main differences between CAE and the new wave of garage biotechnology?

CAE has a politics. We are not interested in science for its own sake, but in how its materials, processes, and discourses can be marshaled in the struggle against authoritarian practices.

How and why garage biologists might be persecuted by the authorities?

From the point of view of the authorities, the three sins of garage biotech are:

1. Referencing the politics of biotech (as opposed to presenting it as value neutral).

2. Suggesting that policy regarding research initiatives should have public input,
rather than being the sole domain of corporate, military, and scientific experts.

3. Combining biotech research or usage with political activism.

Doing any or all of these will get a reaction from authorities in the U.S. Happily, in the post-Bush era the intensity of legal violence has been reduced a little. The Justice Department appears to be depoliticizing to some extent.

Can you see any real sinner around nowadays?

One of the greats right now is Adam Zaretsky. He covers his radicalism with an excentricity that makes his provocations less scary to authority. We think he is perceived as a lone crazy without much of political agenda. But what he suggests really pushes the limits, as with his germ line interventions or his liberation of recombinant ornamental creatures.

Do you think that DIYbio and today’s garage biologists have a critical approach to science?

It’s premature to say at this point. Public labs and supply shops are hardly common yet. It’s not like with information and communication technologies (ICT), where everyone owns a computer and there are distribution outlets in every mall. What little we know of this emerging subculture is that there are a number of curious enthusiasts, and those coming out of the green movement have a more critical approach. But at this point, everything is so far off the mainstream cultural radar that we really have no way to know what the tendencies are now or what they will be in the future.

But isn’t it already political to claim that anybody should be free to pursue biological research in one’s garage, outside institutional settings? That’s what DIYbio does…

Yes, it is. One can be disciplined just for making that statement. It also implies a defense of amateurism. To say that there is a need for biological literacy (especially during a revolution in biotechnology) is also political. However, stating and even enacting these imperatives is not enough. There needs to be more than a modest, latent progressive politics if we are to change the current situation.

Do you think that DIYbio will be able to avoid the contradictions and controversies surrounding garage biotech? Will they suffer backlashes?

If any group can avoid the backlash, it’s them. Their ties to universities and their commitment to keeping politics on the back burner should keep them in the realm of legitimacy, but one never knows. If bio-paranoia ramps up again, even they could become a target.

They are directly engaging in a discussion with the FBI, for example, and with the US Presidential Commission on Bioethics.

Speaking with the PCB, OK; but speaking with the FBI endangers everyone. To the FBI we are the enemy (although many agents feel that way about all science and the university in general, which they mistakenly believe are bastions of the liberal to radical left; many agents are radical right Christians and Mormons and hence have a real dislike for science). The FBI itself is a really schizophrenic institution—a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, they have put away dangerous criminals, white-collar criminals, corrupt politicians, and organized crime figures in a manner befitting an upright law enforcement agency. However, there is another FBI that from its inception has mercilessly and often illegally attacked the left. This is the FBI that is coming to visit garage hackers. And believe us, the Mr. Hyde version of the FBI does not care about justice or rights—it’s about ideological enforcement.

So what is garage biology? A new site where scientific research takes place?

No. Science is much too capital-intensive to be done in a garage. However, technological invention is another story. While we may not see anything groundbreakingly new come out of a garage, we could very well see existing technology mutated in ways that offer new possibilities.

An attempt at opening up science’s institutional boundaries? Is it about participation and democracy?

It could be that, but to quote William Gibson, it’s the street finding its own uses for things.

An individual right?

If one thinks free speech is a right, then yes.

A new type of innovation regime attuned to the needs of capitalism?

It could be that. Capital seems to be arguing with itself over the function of garage hackers and basement tinkerers. Unlike in ICT where open source seems to be emerging as the better business plan, biotech seems to be going to the privatizers. It appears these industries want everything to be proprietary. And if the ultimate goal of patenting all life forms is to be accomplished, indulging property scofflaws seems unlikely, but not out of the question. If profitable applications are discovered in garages, this situation could change; however, CAE would not bet on it.

Open source is emerging as a new mode of knowledge production and diffusion even within corporate genomics. I think DIYbio and other actors are not only pushing towards more open models. They are mostly concerned with the creation of a new entrepreneurial environment. Their “enemies” are incumbents, more than patents. Their Microsoft and IBM are universities and big corporations, even though they rely on those institutions to get access to materials, tools, informations, skills… isn’t this similar to what happened with the rise of free software and open source software?

Free software might be a slightly different story, but the similarity between some of the new bio initiatives and open source is certainly there. Yes, many are working on models that will yield profit (unlike free software) by improving business environments, and yes, their enemies are those who want to continue with the traditional proprietary model of making profits.

But currently, garage biologists are not innovating or producing “good science” according to any standard. Yet they are receiving lots of attention from the media and the government. Is it just hype? I think that their symbolic power is huge and they manage it very carefully – depicting themselves as “hackers” of biology for example.

Capital’s quest for novelty has something to do with it, but CAE is not sure we agree that garage science is getting so much attention. An occasional mention in science journals or an even rarer mention in the popular press covers the print. There are a few art exhibitions. No popular movies have been made, nor books written. CAE doesn’t even see the level of passing fascination that ICT hackers got in the late eighties and early nineties. CAE had hoped that by this time we would have made reasonable inroads in popular consciousness and in activist communities, but no such luck yet.

I disagree. They recently made it to Nature. They’ve been covered by the general press, and I mean The Economist, BBC, etc., and they are pretty aware that the press is an important battlefield. They are way more visible than most important research projects… Ok, we don’t have popular novels or movies. But don’t you think DIYbio is more a communication project than a scientific one? Their powerful narrative is what they’ve got and they know that very well.

Pretty much all amateur initiatives are more about culture and/or politics, than about science. Hence DIYbio is a great human-interest story, but until there is a real culture of garage biologist visible in everyday life (like skate culture or vegans) that’s all it will be. Right now it’s just a novelty.

What can we do to give citizen science a critical direction again?

We don’t think citizen science ever had a critical direction, which was why it was tolerated in past decades. This is the big problem; no inspirational micro-histories exists yet, and we believe this is a key need for the emergence of a science-based activism that moves beyond progressive scientists and their organizations. It’s really up to the youth generation to start it.

Which issues would you like to see addressed by a critical citizen science movement?

We would start with issues contested by the right that have no scientific basis for contestation, such as global warming or stem cell research. The more scientific narratives become a part of everyday life, the less likely is the possibility of making anti-science campaigns (like the right’s “junk science” campaign, which was used to explain away any scientific conclusion the right did
not like). Then would come the re-evaluation of topics like nuclear power. It’s not the 70s anymore. The world has grown too complex in terms of population and energy needs. The old narratives have to be rethought, and new tactical solutions devised.

What is CAE doing right now?

Nothing with the life sciences. CAE is currently working on new, temporary forms of monumentality. We just finished a temporary monument to the appropriation of radiation myths by the state, in which we demonstrate how the U.S. government has used the myth of the “dirty bomb” as a propaganda mechanism to produce the fear that allows for the toleration of war. We are currently working on another temporary monument to economic inequality in the U.S. After 30 years of neoliberal policy, the US has the greatest separation by wealth in the nation’s history, between a tiny population of rich citizens and the mass population of poor and working people. We’ll be marking that victory for the rich—or desperation of the poor, depending on one’s perspective.

Interview by Alessandro Delfanti

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