GenTerra

Scientists handling transgenic bacteria equipment.
Critical Art Ensemble, Clean Rooms, Genterra, 2002.

Participatory theatre project by Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa, shown as part of the CleanRooms exhibition

GenTerra is a performance by the artists Critical Art Ensemble and Beatriz da Costa. GenTerra is the name used by the artists to represent a company dealing with "transgenics" – the isolation of one or more genes from one or more organisms to create another, new organism. Products created through this process – for example, transgenically modified foods – have often caused controversy. GenTerra claims to produce organisms that help solve ecological or social problems.

GenTerra is essentially a participatory "theater" comprising a lab tent, four computer stations displaying the company’s informational CD-Rom, and a bacteria release machine. On entering the space, the public is invited to discuss the facts and issues surrounding transgenics with the artists and scientists, who are dressed in white lab coats. Materials are then provided to allow people to make and store their own transgenic bacteria in the GenTerra tent. Visitors become actively involved in the area of risk assessment by deciding whether or not to release bacteria from one of the twelve petri dishes of the release machine. Eleven of the dishes have wild (non-transgenic) bacteria samples taken locally, and one contains the transgenic bacteria. Should the dish with the transgenic bacteria be selected, a robotic arm will pick up the lid of the dish, leave it open for about 5 seconds, and then replace the lid on the dish. Participants are informed that the transgenic bacteria they may be releasing is a benign, crippled lab strain that is released in laboratories on a routine basis.

By setting itself up as a corporation that is driven by profit, but also by a sense of social responsibility, GenTerra highlights the complex relationship between for-profit ventures and the ethical considerations involved in transgenics research and product development. The project aims to make the general public more aware of transgenics, and the facts and fictions that surround it.

GenTerra was created in consultation with Dr. Bob Ferrell, Department of Genetics, University of Pittsburgh, and Linda Kauffman, Department of Molecular Biology, the Mellon Institute, along with Beatriz da Costa, Robotic Art Researcher, Carnegie Mellon University, Semi Ryu and Garth Zeglin, Robotics Consultants, Carnegie Mellon University.

Critical Art Ensemble is a collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory. Their books include: The Electronic Disturbance (1994); Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (2001); Flesh Machine (1998) and Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (2001). Since 1996, biotech projects - the most recent of which is GenTerra – have been their central initiative.