Imagine a do-it-yourself genetic piracy kit where you could clone genetically modified (GM) plants in your own kitchen and, if you were crazy or creative enough, set them free. Well that’s exactly what the Common Flowers / Flower Commons project has set out to do: revert flower cuttings into their genetically modified origins by transforming cuttings with basic kitchen utensils to create living flowers.
For this years Ars Eletronica art festival in Austria, artists Shiho Fukuhara & Georg Tremmel used as their specimen the “Moondust” blue carnation which was developed in 1995 by Japanese beer and whiskey brewer Suntory. The blue carnation quickly and quietly received approval for limited release and was promptly shipped to Columbia where it was clipped and cloned and shipped around around the world in the global cut-flower market.
How much say did the citizens of the world have in all of this? Not much, apparently, which is partly what gets exposed in Tremmel and Fukuhara’s exhibit.
The Moondust carnation was the first ever genetically modified consumer product not destined for a human or animal stomach (i.e. non-food). On the assumption that the modified genes wouldn’t work their way into the global food-chain, the approval happened without much public hoopla or scrutiny.
Common Flower / Flower Commons takes this apparent scientifically sanctioned sense of security in the global release of a GM flower and uses it to test the limits of how safe the public feels. From the artist statement: “…because the plants are ofﬁcially considered “not harmful” and therefore legally permitted to grow outside, we took the next logical step and released the blue GM carnation into the environment. This action should ask questions about the state of intellectual property, ownership and copyright issues surrounding the bio-hacking and bio-bending of plants.” Yowza. Sure should.
Fukuhara and Tremmel wanted to create an “opensource” population of Moondust flowers. And, lest the public, you know, freak out, they had a plan. “At the moment we content ourselves to a closed Beta release, as we still can not judge the wider public reaction towards the released plants. We can however conﬁrm, that the blue carnations have been successfully release in the areas of Setagaya, Japan and Cologne, Germany.”
A gesture for art outside of the gallery if there ever was one.
Now, as it turns out, festival organizers were also alarmed about the possibilities, and the flowers were not released. But, as Tremmel explained in a recent interview, part of the goal was to demystify biotechnologies. “The instructions for hacking the plants is quite simple, its possible that they are growing now in someone’s house, getting ready to be planted outside in the spring”.
As for attracting the attention of authorities – say the plant and animal copyright police – Tremmel says there has been very little concern expressed about the project. He did say that he and Fukuhara have received a letter from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Health, Subsection Gene Technology, but that because the matter is still ongoing, he couldn’t say much.
Got a question or concern? Contact the artists. I suspect they would love to hear from you.
And, in case you’ve been wondering, Suntory has indeed developed the next in their line of blue flowers: the once thought impossible blue rose – and, no doubt also coming soon, blue weeds in a garden near you.