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Making History

A Garfield museum explores how humans remake the world in their own image


On Penn Avenue in Garfield, in the Center for PostNatural History, we enter the realm of the truly weird.

Here there are Biosteel goats, which have been gene-spliced with silkworms to produce milk laced with spider silk, whose incredibly strong fibers are used for body armor. There are the GloFish, whose eerie underwater colors are right out of The X-Files. Everywhere are chickens of varying breeds — black fighting cocks and blue hens and the truly remarkable silkies, with feathers like rabbit fur, blue skin and black bones — "every recessive gene in the business," offers organizer and curator Richard Pell.

"This is how human beings shape the planet we live on," he adds: "the stuff we eat, enjoy, live in."

Pell, who also teaches video and electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University, created this mini-museum to explore the social implications of emerging technologies. And what more emerging technology is there than biotech, the industry mankind increasingly turns to in order feed and sustain itself — and to exercise greater control over the planet?

"PostNaturalism" — a term Pell coined — "is like architecture," he says. "The same desires and fears that shape buildings also shape living things."

Although such gene-bending ideas may smack of Brave New World and The Bourne Legacy, they're as old as the book of Genesis, where Jacob bred sheep for particular colors. And they can be as benign as Luther Burbank's apples, almonds and potatoes.

And while some react with primal fear to the more hideous Alien-type experiments, bio-engineering goes on unabated.

These days, at the top of the list is good old American genetically altered corn — manipulated to produce better or more efficient fuel, food, plastic, sugar. Fruits, too, are bred to resist herbicides and fungus, modified for size, color and flavor. "They're easier to industrialize that way," Pell says. "We treat them like chemical factories."

PostNaturalism's exhibits run the gamut from the relatively harmless — transforming rapeseed into hardy, low-fat canola oil — to the truly demonic, including the Nazi attempts to create a race of sterile workers, human drones produced bee-like through multiple births.

Although he began to investigate the field seriously in 2006, Pell opened the center last year to introduce the public to PostNaturalism's benefits and concerns. (Why Penn Avenue in Garfield rather than Oakland, the city's intellectual core? "This is where we could afford to be," Pell says with a shrug.)

From orchids to oranges, carnations to kittens, he says, "We're interested in what these organisms tell us about people."

For example, while all chickens have a common ancestor, they're genetically manipulated for different uses. In the Philippines, they're bred for fighting. In Southeast Asia, for aesthetics — sharply contrasting black and white plumage, for example, is highly prized.

In America, chickens are bred to be fat, tender and entirely edible. "In the United States," Pell says, "we like chickens to have big breasts and look the same."

Sort of like Miss America.

And humans have altered themselves as well, using steroids and human growth hormones to bulk up whippet-thin baseball hawks (read Barry Bonds) into Incredible Hulks.

"Gene therapy is already a reality," Pell says. "Once we get good at fixing broken things, the idea of improving things wouldn't be far behind."

Hello, Dr. Mengele. But like it or not, fearful or not, the PostNatural inflects everything from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. As proof, Pell whips out photos of monstrous, bloated pumpkins — a 1,360-pounder the prize winner.

"Some people are terrified by everything they see here," Pell gestures. "They are concerned with genetically modified organisms from the lab. There's an almost mythological fear of monsters escaping."

Does Pell share that fear? Does he hope his museum will scare the pants off an unsuspecting, and preternaturally complacent, populace?

Not in the slightest, he says: "I'm not a scientist. I'm an artist. I do not take an advocacy position. My job is to present this stuff to people and let them draw their own conclusions."

So without comment he displays anti-malarial mosquitoes, all-white mice bred for experimentation, seedless watermelons and grapes, ruby red grapefruit, and lab rats glowing with jellyfish genes, obese, bald, cancered.

"We share an open-endedness with the Smithsonian," he says. "We exist for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge. The collection is here for people to interpret."

He pauses, perhaps ominously. "With all the stuff that's invented all the time, our job is never going to be done."

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