The Genetics of Desire

n the mid-17th century Holland and other parts of Europe became possessed by the genetics of desire. Tulipmania was the term coined for frenzied speculation on the most rare and aesthetically ex­act­ing form and color of tulip. Plants were bred according to ideals of beauty operating at that time. At the height of tulipmania, single bulbs of the variety Semper Augustus (pictured) were selling for over $2500 a bulb in today’s currency. This desire has operated throughout hu­man history in botany and animal husbandry. Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species identifies the processes by which humans have manipulated and acted as selection pressures on plants and animals. In addition he uses the phrase “unconscious selection” to classify the unknown effects of human selection on nature through time.

What unconscious pressures and desires do we place on nature in our times? Will genetics allow us to further manipulate the world so that we only see ourselves reflected in the environment? How does desire play out in our contact with and perceptions of landscape and nature? Do aesthetic judgments as those that produced tulipmania always already frame our contact with nature? Could we create new life forms out of a desire for preservation – species that are capable of cleaning toxic environments and restoring affected places to their former wild state. But would we recreate these environments as a more idyllic place? Would this be an ethically appropriate use of genetic engineering? Will artists in the future have genetic material avail­able as a palette?

Genes could be enlisted as a palette for designing new life forms as envisioned through artistic desires.

Rather than paint the landscape, the landscape itself could be created through our aesthetic criteria and principles. Thus, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion becomes the thing itself and ideas and desires can now be produced as natural objects that are set into the land­scape. The conceptions of the idyll, pastoral, and picturesque enter the realm of physicality shifting the environment toward a more anthropocentrically designed natural world. However, aesthetic operations and perceptions can backfire when the genetic code becomes plastic material for production and use.

To examine these issues this project group is producing new taxonomic structures to accommodate the aesthetics of new life-forms. To this end, we are classifying the flora represented in 19th century landscape painting in order to create categories that then could be determined genetically. For example, by genetically encoding the aesthetics of the plant life represented in a Thomas Cole painting we create a new taxonomic configuration for new forms of plant life – trees, grasses, flowers – that are aesthetically improved upon, bringing nature in line with our cultural and historical representations. Genetic material would be developed that would not just produce a certain species of cottonwood tree, but a species that would be uniquely aesthetized to invoke the realm of the sublime.

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