Real Vegan Cheese and the Artistic Critique of Biotechnology

  • Rebecca Wilbanks Stanford University
Keywords: DIYbio, hacking, synthetic biology, design fiction, scientific authority, public engagement


Drawing on the case study of Real Vegan Cheese (RVC), a synthetic biology project housed in a community lab or “biohackerspace,” I argue that biohacking performs an “artistic critique” of the bioeconomy. Following Boltanski and Chiapello’s use of the term, the “artistic critique” pits values of autonomy and creativity against a view of capitalist production as standardized and alienating, represented (in the case of biotechnology) by Monsanto’s monoculture GMOs. In this way, biohacking is depicted as liberating biotechnology from the constraints of corporate and academic institutions. Through the use of design fiction and a playful aesthetic, projects such as RVC demonstrate a more legitimate––with respect to the values of the artistic critique––mode of production for a new generation of biotechnology products, one that is portrayed as driven primarily by ethical and aesthetic values rather than the profit motive. This analysis highlights the role that aesthetic and affective strategies play in advancing particular sociotechnical visions, and the way that biohacking projects operate in symbiosis with incumbent institutions even as they define themselves in opposition to them. Finally, it suggests that biohacking has certain limitations when considered as a form of public engagement with science.

Author Biography

Rebecca Wilbanks, Stanford University
Rebecca Wilbanks is a PhD Candidate in Stanford University's Program in Modern Thought and Literature.
02 Apr 2017
Research Articles