The University Record, April 23, 2001

Exhibition shows how effects of life sciences permeate society

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Above, panelists (from left to right) Carole Kismaric, Marvin Heiferman, Elizabeth Petty and Peter Ubel address key issues raised by the Museum of Art exhibition ‘Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution.’ Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
A video microscope, set up for viewing human cells, is among the installations in the Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution.” The cells originated from a woman’s malignancy in 1951.

Called “HeLa” for their donor, Henrietta Lacks, the cancerous cells were the first to be cultured outside the human body and propagated for genetic research. Viewed merely as genetic material, they make an interesting science exhibit. But artist Christine Borland has presented the specimen in the context of a human history.

Like the other works in the exhibition, this piece is the kind of conceptual art that makes people “walk out thinking,” Curator Marvin Heiferman said.

HeLa got Elizabeth Petty thinking. The associate professor of internal medicine and human genetics was one of four panelists who addressed key questions raised by the exhibition. Part of the April 11 Life Sciences Institute kickoff, the panel discussion was held at the Museum of Art. The audience, seated in the midst of the exhibition, participated in the dialogue.

Noting that scientists throughout the world have used the HeLa cells, Petty said the installation serves as a reminder of the importance of the human factor. “Many of the cells we use were donated by individuals,” she said. “Often, scientists don’t stop to consider the people behind the specimens of DNA.”

Another installation, a wall of sculptured chromosomes, prompted her to consider the language barriers separating scientists from non-scientists. The artist has placed a beaker partially filled with water a few feet from the wall. “When I viewed the chromosomes through the beaker, they appeared to be flying upside down,” Petty said. “It raised questions about how clearly we communicate about science with the public.”

President Lee C. Bollinger moderated the discussion. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Co-sponsored by the museum and the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program, the panel also included Peter Ubel, associate professor of internal medicine, and Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, partners in the New York-based company Lookout and independent curators of “Paradise Now.” President Lee C. Bollinger served as moderator.

An important component of the Life Sciences Initiative, the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program focuses on social and ethical issues related to the life sciences. Richard Lempert, director of the program, said the exhibition stands for the premise that no corner of society is untouched by life sciences and “graphically reveals the impact that life sciences have on social thought.”

Museum Director James C. Steward noted that a team of scientists made their first public announcement of dramatic progress in the Human Genome Project just as preparations were under way for the Ann Arbor presentation of “Paradise Now.”

Bollinger compared the current revolution in life sciences to breakthroughs in physics that dominated science in the 20th century. While the physics revolution did not engage many outside of science, “we now have a second shot at overcoming the two-culture problem,” he said.

Both the arts and humanities and scientific cultures need to address the broad set of issues and questions raised by this exhibition, Bollinger said. One is the overreaching of scientific claims. “I can’t imagine any technology or imagery that can account for consciousness or explain it,” he said.

Another issue is “the blindness of science,” the tendency to ignore important social and policy implications. “Will insurance companies charge you more if you have a genetic predisposition to risk?” Bollinger said. “Should genetics determine criminal accountability?”

The “Paradise Now” artists use various media to address these issues eloquently from a wide range of perspectives, Heiferman said. “Some are in awe of the genetic revolution and others critical and concerned about profit and privacy.”

Ubel warned against becoming obsessed with headline-grabbing findings in genetics to the point of missing the larger questions of life sciences. “Do we really need to know the number of genes humans possess to see the difference between chimpanzees and ourselves?” he said. Rather, we should concentrate on more important questions of power and ethics, Ubel suggested. What are the personal implications of knowing you have a gene that doubles your risk of heart attack? How will genetic markers impact health insurance and the rationing of health care?

The public needs to become more educated so such questions won’t rest in the hands of geneticists and lawyers, said Petty, herself a specialist in genetics. During a discussion on the nature of disabilities, she emphasized the need to “respect genetic variations. They aren’t necessarily bad.”

While the “Paradise Now” artists boldly tackle these issues, the curators had difficulty engaging the larger art community, Kismaric said. Sixty-eight percent of the people who attended the New York opening of the exhibition were scientists, she said. Skeptical at first, they warmed to the works when they saw how the artists represented their ideas with authority and accuracy.

The art world, on the other hand, didn’t seem to get it. “They didn’t deal with the issues or talk about artists using new language and nontraditional and traditional forms to express ideas. They just talked about the art being good or bad,” Kismaric said.

“What we’re talking about here is a process in which there can be an interdisciplinary, humanitarian-scientist exchange. I welcome you to do it as much as you can,” she added.