Art to Biology Graphic

The Sixth Annual Life Sciences & Society Symposium 
will focus on the provocative new work arising from intersections between the life sciences and art. The conference will highlight emerging areas of research and practice across and between disciplines, examining biological contexts of our response to art and aesthetic contexts of our response to scientific visualizations, as well as the twenty-first century art that has found inspiration at their convergence. In the process, the talks will inquire into the relationship between artistic and scientific invention.

The symposium will take place on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.  It is free and open to the university community and the public and is designed to encourage dialogue across methodologies and backgrounds.

Symposium Speakers
Friday, March 12, 2010
Jesse Auditorium, Jesse Hall (Conley Avenue)

7:00-8:15 pm

Keynote Speaker Daniel Levitin
This is Your Brain on Music

In this talk, Daniel Levitin will review what we know about the music and the brain.  Are the brains of musicians different from the brains of non-musicians? Why do some people become experts and others -- with the same amount of practice -- do not? Why do we like the music we like? What are the neural similarities between language and music?  By the age of 5 we have all learned, implicitly, the rules of what notes go together and which don't; how is the brain able to do this?" How does music affects our emotions? Music triggers the reward centers in our brains and that implies we are hardwired for music. Is music more fundamental to our species than language?

Back to Home

Saturday, March 13, 2010
Bond Life Sciences Center (1201 Rollins St)
9:30-9:55 am

Coffee, Book Exhibit Browsing

10:00-11:00 am
Monsanto Auditorium

Ellen Dissanayake
The Arts in Human Evolution: the Artification Hypothesis

Archaeologists frequently assume that the appearance of “art” provides a window into ancient human minds and social groups, indicating their degree of human intelligence or cultural development. In contrast, Ellen Dissanayake claims that art, considered ethologically as a behavior of artifying” (rather than as artifacts or products of that activity such as engravings or paintings on rocks or walls, shell beads, or bone instruments), can be considered as a biologically distinctive and noteworthy characteristic of humans in itself, not simply as a subset or byproduct of their intelligence, symbolizing ability, or cultural level. In her view, artification—intentionally making parts of the natural and manmade environment (shelters, tools, utensils, weapons, clothing, bodies, surroundings, and other paraphernalia) extraordinary or special by marking, shaping, and embellishing them beyond their ordinary functional appearance—is a heretofore undescribed (or overlooked) capacity in the human repertoire. Her hypothesis about its evolutionary antecedents, motivation, and adaptive advantages provides a new approach to the concept of “art” in human evolution.

Back to Home

11:05 am -12:05 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Kathryn Coe
Dialogue with the Ancestors: The Arts, Anticipation and Cultural Change

Curiously, academic studies of the arts focus almost exclusively on creativity and its underlying biological structures, ignoring the fact that for most of human existence, art has been traditional.  Humans carefully copied the art used by their ancestors, generation after generation, often for thousands of years.  The ancestors’ songs continued to be sung and their stories continued to be told.  Scholars, however, tend to focus on a cultural explosion that occurred in a small area of Europe about 35,000 years ago, or on our own period in which creativity is common and highly valued, while viewing continuity with past behaviors as passive, inferior and not worth studying.  In this presentation, I reconsider the roles that continuity and innovation played in human evolution in order to supplement current theories of technological innovation and culture change.  I propose that continuity of traditions is an active and difficult process and that at least some forms of cultural change are the consequence of its failure.  I draw on the cross-cultural record to identify the mechanisms that preserve cultural traditions and to explain the evolutionary advantages of continuity, such as the avoidance of high-cost trial and error learning and the preservation of traits necessary for the formation of kinships structures that have eluded explanation by evolutionary psychologists.

Back to Home

12:05-1:30 pm
McQuinn Atrium

Buffet lunch

1:30-2:30 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Lisa Cartwright
Critical Art Practice in the Era of Biological Citizenship

This talk brings together the concept of 'biological citizenship' with art practices that take biological science as an object of critical concern.  At the turn of the 21st century citizens actively engaged with biological explanations and became more closely involved with figures of scientific or medical authority in the process of caring for and caring about their own health and the health of their communities. The concept of the biological citizen is adopted to consider the engagement of the artwork with notions of the body and biomedical knowledge in works such as Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube of 1963-65, which considered the interactions of physical and biological systems, and his critiques of laboratory workplace practice targeted at companies such as Allied Chemical; Nancy Burson's Human Race Machine, which engaged in ideas in genetics and race; and Critical Art Ensemble's installations and performances. The latter collective, launched in 1987, has engaged in participatory performances critiquing representation, products and policies relating to emerging biotechnologies, genetic modification of food, and germ warfare.

Back to Home

2:35-3:35 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac is an internationally recognized artist that gained prominence at the beginning of the twenty-first century with his transgenic work "GFP Bunny" (2000), centered on the green-glowing bunny named Alba that he created through genetic engineering. His presentation will offer an overview of his trajectory, with emphasis on his most recent works. Among his many career highlights, Kac will discuss his transgenic artwork "Natural History of the Enigma". The central work in the "Natural History of the Enigma" series is a plantimal, a new life form Kac created and that he calls "Edunia", a genetically-engineered flower that is a hybrid of the artist and Petunia. The Edunia expresses Kac's DNA, taken from his blood, exclusively in the flower's red veins.

Back to Home

3:40-4:40 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Panel Discussion with Ellen Dissanayake, Kathryn Coe, Lisa Cartwright, and
Eduardo Kac

4:45-6:00 pm

Reception, Book Exhibit Browsing

Sunday, March 14, 2010
Bond Life Sciences Center (1201 Rollins St)

8:45-9:45 am
Monsanto Auditorium

John Onians
Quality versus Speed: What Neuroarthistory Teaches Us about the Importance of Unconscious Mental Formation

We are used to thinking that great works of art are the products of highly conscious individuals and that the products of the unconscious mind are likely to be sloppy and inarticulate. Neuroscience teaches us that there is another story to be told.  Conscious decisions are liable to be taken in an instant, but the neural resources needed for their execution need to be built up over a long period, often as a result of unconscious exposure to the material and social environment. This talk explores the paradox that makes unconscious mental activity often more important for artistic quality than conscious.

Back to Home

9:50-10:50 am
Monsanto Auditorium

Barbara Maria Stafford
Whatever Happened to Selective Attention?

While researching Echo Objects,  I became increasingly aware of the intense scientific focus (as well as media focus) on the brain as primarily a self-organizing, largely inward-directed system preoccupied with its own functions.  What tends to get emphasized are the ways in which the brain’s activity is intrinsically in phase with things going on in the external world largely without our being conscious of it.  There are enormous social consequences (especially when coupled to the new reality of “tailored” medicine and the “chemical brain”) of this almost fatalistic “trapped in illusion” position. I will analyze the ways that different art formats variously engage and make viewers aware both of the fact that our brain activity is unpreventably in phase with things going on both inside of us and in the outside world and that we are simultaneously capable of breaking any unreflective alignment. Central to  my presentation  is the pressing need to foreground the creative and social work of  attention and conscious awareness in the contemporary world and finding credible ways of correlating biology with culture and culture with biology.

Back to Home

10:50-11:15 am

Coffee Break, Book Exhibit Browsing

11:15am -12:15 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Patricia Olynyk
(Re:) Visualizing Bioscience – Re-Picturing Art

Patricia Olynyk is an artist who frequently employs medical and scientific imaging technologies to investigate the often-tenuous relationships between human culture, science and the environment.  Her work frequently calls upon viewers to expand their awareness of the worlds they inhabit-whether those worlds are their own bodies or the spaces that surround them, or to contemplate the historical and modern desire to control and manipulate our corporeal selves and the worlds around us.   
In this talk, Olynyk will discuss her multi-media installation at the National Academy of Sciences, a design for a large-scale labyrinth garden commission based on growth patterns in nature and work produced during her residency as a Francis C. Wood Fellow at the College of Physicians and Mutter Müseum in Philadelphia.  In addition, she will discuss five recent video-projection vignettes created for the Digital Video Theater in the Hall of Science at Notre Dame University, which suggest that nature exists as one reality (substance), and that complex patterns of formation and movement found in it are self-organizing and reveal a multitude of embedded codes.

Back to Home

12:20-1:20 pm
Monsanto Auditorium

Panel discussion with John Onians, Barbara Stafford, and Patricia Olynyk

For more information, contact Stefani Engelstein at or Karla Carter at