Bioart through evolution: George Gessert

George Gessert is a bioart pioneer. He began as a painter in the 1970s and the organic growth of ink spots as they absorb into Japanese papers led him to incorporate other creative forces – like evolution – into his work.  From 1985 to the present, his work has focused on the overlap between art and genetics, with a particular interest in plant aesthetics and the ways that human aesthetic preferences affect evolution.

George Gessert, bioart pioneer & author of Green Light: Towards an art of Evolution

RB: You have combined your fascination with plants and your work as an artist in intricate ways.  Tell us about your garden.

GG: My garden, which is actually at least as much my wife’s as mine, is in the Oregon countryside on a ridge top with forest on two sides, meadow and oaks on the others. We grow food plants  and ornamentals mixed together. The only dedicated areas are for plant breeding – irises mostly. The garden is home to lots of birds and animals. This Christmas our present to one another was a wildlife camera, which we set up on our compost heap. Something was visiting but we didn’t know what. The very first night we got good pictures of two foxes sorting through the kitchen scraps.

RB: In Paradise Now, you shared that“ Plants, like ink spots, generate themselves. My job is to facilitate.” How does the process of facilitating – as opposed to a more active process of development or engineering – affect the way you view the new plants?

GG: The traditional view of the artist – the view that I absorbed in art school – is that he or she is a “creator” who expresses thoughts and emotions by manipulating various materials. This notion always seemed rather clichéd and constricted to me, but for a long time I wasn’t experienced or confident enough to offer an alternative. It wasn’t until my second child was born that I finally saw the obvious: creativity is not some special capacity of artists, but of everything that exists. The job of the artist is not so much to create, as to help what is latent in things manifest itself. In a way the job of the artist is to leave himself out.

In the light of art, the challenge for the plant breeder is to recognize aesthetic value in new life forms. This is easier said than done. In any breeding project there are always far more new plants than space to grow them out for more than a little while, so most have to be composted. Many times I’ve composted plants that in retrospect I’ve realized had aesthetic potential. What obstructed me from recognizing it was usually my original vision. Having a vision is necessary for any breeding project, but can becomes a hindrance when it is too rigidly adhered to. One must always be ready for the unexpected, for new life that is just as good or better than what one sought.  

The aesthetics of evolution, documented by George Gessert through iris breeding

The aesthetics of evolution, documented by George Gessert through iris breeding

RB:  Your work inspires questions about our relationship with nature that are increasingly relevant today as new tools and enthusiasm fuel the ‘biological revolution.’ How has your thinking on living art and the role it has to play in our culture evolved over the years?

GG: When I first began exhibiting live plants some thirty years my work got the attention of curators in part because of its novelty value. That no longer happens. In the context of art, plants have become one more accepted medium that can convey different, even contradictory values. Today bio art is still widely considered somewhat adventurous, yet Jeff Koons, whose work encapsulates dominant values of consumer culture, uses live plants in installations. Bio art and the “biological revolution” have become branding strategies.

Green Light: Towards an Art of Evolution

The bio art that interests me explores the question: who are we in relation to other forms of life? Can we interact with them, including on the genetic level, in ways that are not merely exploitative? Can our interactions bring joy into the world?

Thank you for speaking with us George!  George is supporting our crowdfunding effort to develop color changing flowers with signed copies of Green Light: Towards an Art of Evolution.  The crowdfunding campaign goes live 3 Mar – sign up here!