Living Gems: The Evolution of Aesthetic Design and Genetic Engineering in Fish


From decorative pets to a food stable, few types of organisms have been as manipulated as fish -they have been sculpted according to our every need, desire and fantasy for centuries. This project explores the origin, growth and contemporary practice of artificial selection/genetic engineering in fish through a series of field-trips and a resulting installation. The unconscious selection of our ancient ancestors shifted to selective breeding or artificial selection and has now evolved into the manipulation of individual genes to create entirely new species. By visiting archaeological sites, pet stores, urban parks, seafood markets and biotech laboratories Ballengée attempts to trace the history of humankind’s struggle for dominance over natural evolutionary forces. Using traditional 35 mm photography and neo-digital techniques such as scanner photography, the artist generated numerous images of manipulated species/breeds.

As a beginning to the visual journey, photographs of neolithic fish containers made from stone, may demonstrate early attempts at aquaculture. Colorful gourami and carp represent early manipulated species from Asia. Images of Middle-Eastern, African and American species reflect the urge to keep exotic species in Europe during the Renaissance. By the Victorian Era, goldfish were commonly kept as pets throughout Europe and North America. By the twentieth century, hundreds of types of engineered fish existed in the pet and fish farming trade. Today the manipulation and harvesting of genes in fish, have created numerous transgenic species- types that have never existed in nature and may have unknown environmental consequences if released.

In collaboration with
Hong Suk Michael Oh (scientific advisor)
Peter Warny (scientific advisor)