Why are defense contractors suddenly sponsoring art about games (Shift-Ctrl)? Why are biotech companies suddenly sponsoring art about genes (Paradise Now)?

The Industry Behind the Curtain
by Jackie Stevens (Visiting Professor of Political Science, Pomona College, and Biological Property Fund Manager, RTMark)

"Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution" (Exit Art through October 28), is a downtown art show with a Madison Avenue publicity budget. But one thing you could never learn from the billboards on Houston or Canal, the full-page ads in national media, the reviews and interviews, or (especially) the curatorial text, is that its sponsors hope the show will help biotech companies avoid in the U.S. and developing countries the marketing fiascos such firms face in Europe.

To a public skeptical that corporations will do the right thing, a Monsanto ad for Bt corn makes it as palatable as the pesticide DDT, so biotech¾like other beleaguered and "misunderstood" industries¾is turning away from Saatchi et al. and towards diverse groups of artists and curators, some of whom may even wish to highlight the industry's dangers and wrongdoing.

The reason is simple: art about biotechnology, especially with a critical edge, serves to reassure viewers that serious concerns are being addressed. Even more importantly, biotech-themed art implicitly conveys the sense that gene manipulation is a "fact on the ground," something that serious artists are considering because it is here to stay. Grotesque and perverse visuals only help to acclimate the public to this new reality.

While companies like Affymetrix, Orchid BioScience, and Variagenics all lurk among the sponsors of "Paradise Now," the "man behind the curtain," as one curator called him, is Howard Stein, who has joined forces with another "Paradise Now" sponsor, Noonan/Russo Communications, a public relations firm boasting a client list of dozens of biotech firms. (In reviewing the website I noticed they are employed by my own Claremont University Consortium’s Keck Graduate Institute, now fighting a local referendum and court challenge so that it can pursue partnerships with the biotech industry.)

Stein, who led the Dreyfus Corporation and is credited by some as the father of the money market fund, told me the secret of his business success: "My luck in the world is by being aware of things that have a future. Things like Haloids. Never heard of them? They changed their name to Xerox." Stein told one of the show organizers, Ann Pasternak, that he "knew to invest in biotech stocks because he always put his money where he sees the government investing."

Stein is investing in the government-subsidized future like there was no tomorrow, and with considerable imagination. "Had Monsanto done what they should have been doing," Stein told me, "then there might not have been so much of a problem." And what they should have been doing, à la Stein, is supporting art shows about genetics.

Not surprisingly, when Stein visits nonprofit art spaces and rattles his spare change¾all told he put up about $500,000 for "Paradise Now" alone¾biotech receives some good press. Consider the "Paradise Now" brochure: "The major benefits of sequencing the human genome are yet to come. Medicine will be transformed, diagnoses will be refined, and side-effect-free drugs will target specific diseases, working the first time they are administered." Not only that: "Biotechnology will be…increasing the nutritional value of crops and making them easier to grow."

These are of course not facts in an "objective," "unbiased" and "educational" show, as curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric tell the media, but an industry-friendly spin on hotly disputed possibilities. And these phrases echo, to the word, things Stein told me in our telephone interviews.

"Paradise Now," like Stein’s other genetic-art investments (e.g. www.geneart.org) is funded by his private charitable organization, the Joy of Giving Something (JGS). JGS means that Stein receives a tax writeoff for his media buys and no one knows who’s behind them. The JGS web page links to an art book celebrating commercial DNA analyses, an industry-affiliated webpage that soft-sells the inevitability of a corporate-genetic future, and even to Stein’s personal gene art collection.

Stein’s most substantial workhorse for the biotech industry, the Gene Media Forum (GMF), organized a panel for "Paradise Now" and fed "objective" information to the curators and Creative Time (which is responsible for the billboards). Stein initiated the GMF and remains its primary sponsor, funding it to the tune of at least $450,000 annually. The GMF, which shares a logo with Stein’s JGS webpage, is excellent for promoting the biotech industry because unlike Noonan/Russo, it operates under the unimpeachable imprimatur of the S.I Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Alan McGowan, GMF President, told me they sought the affiliation because "the Newhouse School has a name and presence in the media community; it’s a worthwhile association to have."

The tie misleadingly implies the GMF is a neutral clearinghouse. Yet its advisory board includes such genetics cheerleaders as Celera’s Craig Ventner and Cal Tech President David Baltimore, and not one representative from organizations questioning this work. When asked if the board was balanced, GMF Co-Director Don Torrance gave a fast "No." He said non-industry folks were invited, but he refused to name them. McGowan gave me a different account of the selection process: "I asked my friends."

The curators brush off concerns about Stein’s agenda and conflicts of interest. "In the world of art Howard is naïve. He really believes art can change people," said Kismaric, who co-owns a curatorial firm. Defending her independence, Kismaric pointed out that some of the "Paradise Now" installations criticize the corporate gene culture, including one by Candid at ®TMark, where I manage the Biological Property Fund.

Yet as Stein and Noonan/Russo understand, the show’s content is irrelevant. Stein told me he agreed with the lukewarm reviews: "I think the critiques in the New Yorker and Times were on target. The show’s really, you know, a mish-mash," and he volunteered that his favorite, a work by Helen Chadwick (which like several other pieces in the show is from Stein’s personal collection) was "hung badly."

Stein is less interested in the exhibit¾half a million dollars, after all, could put on more than 20 run-of-the-mill downtown gallery shows¾than in desensitizing the audience to its subject matter. Drawing an analogy to President Clinton’s impeachment, Stein explained that "open discussion" is more likely to alleviate anxieties "than if someone is saying here it is, take it or leave it. Once the information about Clinton’s activities was in the open, the public had the feeling ‘but I don’t want the president to be impeached.’ And so there was no impeachment." Likewise, exposed to shows such as these, the public will be inured to troubling and dangerous corporate agendas, and will more easily accept the latest biotechnological developments.

The "Paradise Now" curators on the JGS payroll are currently organizing other art projects on genetics as well as grants to artists who do work in this area. And GMF is gearing up to saturate the media in the developing world, with the aim of "educating" African farmers and activists opposed to corporate-designed crops. As Stein told me, "This is just the beginning."