Who are the Houston Bio-Artists?

by Henry G. Sanchez May 27, 2019
Details from the works of (clockwise from right) Sarah Sudhoff, Francis Almendárez, and Angel Lartigue

Details from the works of (clockwise from right) Sarah Sudhoff, Francis Almendárez, and Angel Lartigue (details)

In early April, my project space LOCCA: Law Office Center for Citizenship and Art hosted a mini-conference and panel discussion about a bio-art practice emerging from Latino/a/x artists in Houston. 

Introduced were three artists suggesting new pathways for expanding the definition of what is considered “bio-art”: Sarah Sudhoff, Angel Lartigue and Francis Almendárez (who occasionally collaborates with his mother Jacqueline Posada). By inference this also suggests an expanded definition of Latino Art, as Houston is currently experiencing the ‘Primavera’ of Latino Art Now.

Bio-art is a highly challenged term, since there are so many subcategories of artwork that transcend disciplines in the various sciences. According to the working definition as outlined by the eminent, pioneering bio-artist and theorist Suzanne Anker, there are three types of aesthetic genres that emerge from this interdisciplinary practice.

First is the more traditional bio-art by way of mimesis, depiction and appropriation of images that come from the science sectors, or reference scientific images. This artwork can manifest in the form of paintings (with or without traditional mediums), photography — but also in MRI body and head scans, sonograms, photos of laboratories and other aesthetic presentations.

Second is the introduction of the technology — primarily the usage of science tools, laboratory equipment, microscopes, 3D modeling software, high-tech robotics or A-I theoretical models. See also: New media, interactive video, digital sculpture, hi-tech installations and other new emerging technologies ubiquitous in contemporary art.  

Third is the category known as “wet laboratory practices,” or the use of bio-materials. Bio-matter is living art medium. The use of plant stuff, attempts at bio-engineering, and working with live specimens and bacterial samples in petri dishes are among many methodologies that dictate the form of the work presented.

Suzanne Anker,

Suzanne Anker, (L-R): Laboratory Life (Dresden), 2004, Inkjet print on watercolor paper, 24 x 36″; Remote Sensing (installation view), 2016, plaster, pigment and resin, 4 x 4 x 2″ ea.; Astroculture (Eternal Return), (detail), 2015, vegetable plants, LED lights, galvanized steel cubes, soil, no pesticides., dimensions variable.

Tying this together is an underlying proposition that many scientific practices and their intersections with art can and should be questioned. Inquiry into the ethical, political, societal, biological and economic implications and ramifications of the new frontiers of science become a central theme in the most effective bio-art works. Without such inquiry, the artwork becomes just an aesthetic exercise. Pretty, scientific images and forms devoid of any awareness of what they imply lack a rigor necessary for evaluating bio-art.

Ultimately, bio-art becomes a philosophical investigation, as much as it is about the science and art processes meshing together to make it look “scientific.” Because this is Art, it does not actually have to work scientifically. Firm scientific protocols do not have to be met, and thinking outside the box of science problems is a bio-art virtue. Artistic freedom begets scientific speculation. There are notable instances of the bio-artistic processes making scientific discoveries. Nevertheless, accepting or bestowing the title “bio-art” or “bio-artist” insist on questions such as: Is this work a truly interdisciplinary practice of art and science? Are ethical practices considered in the use of bio-materials? Does the work consider the socio-political, bio-scientific implications? 

How does the work of Sudhoff, Lartigue and Almendárez fit into the working definition of bio-art? These artists explore a certain wedge into the bio-art definition — one that Anker alludes to as the “cultural imaginary.” If the term is stretched it can mean these Latino/a/x artists introduce their particular cultural practices, ethnic backgrounds and biological-biographical histories as another facet to an expanded definition of bio-art. Each use bio-material with an ethical concern. They evolve towards a deeper interdisciplinary practice that also includes performance iterations. While still experimenting with various scientific and biological methodologies, their work is guided and imbued with degrees of the autobiographical.

Sarah Sudhoff

Sarah Sudhoff, (L-R): Circular calibration device, 2012, Archival pigment print, 30 x 24”; Surrender, 2013, video still, 45min performance.; Tipping Point 1.1, 2013, Archival pigment print, 22 x 15”; Tipping Point 1.14, 2013.

Sarah Sudhoff’s body of work can be seen as a textbook case on how the development of bio-arts interdisciplinary practices evolve. A photographer, Sudhoff’s taxonomy of comparing and contrasting medical devices, hospital rooms, used medical supplies and evidence of body fluids on surfaces dominate her early work. Recently, she has found inspiration in her own body as an art-form in durational performances, such as Supply and Demand, which involves the socio-medical implications of breast milk, and Wired 2.0, which stages the testing of bodily stimuli in order to measure arousal response. Her personal history and experience give the work a new background, structure and philosophical framework for ongoing art and science projects. Though thematically the experience of motherhood and female biology are familiar in contemporary art, Sudhoff’s approach to her personal “bio-material” from a scientific vantage point stands out. In what would otherwise be artwork that is medically removed — disconnected from emotions and theoretical — it instead layers personal, in-depth, emotional and autobiographical facets not always recognizable in bio-art.

Angel Lartigue

Angel Lartigue, (L-R): Substance Storage, 2017, mixed media; Operation Psychopomp, 2018, performance, Xoloitzcuintle, necro-bacteria, maggots & pupae.

For Angel Lartigue, the body as canvas was a starting point. Photoshopped images of herself encountering her own corpse in an urban nature gave way to role-playing and hybrid installations of altars, to science and the folkloric. Lartigue embodies the alter-ego Sub-Scientist (a submissive for her audience and the scientific process). Sub-Scientist asks participants for DNA samples (via swabbing the inside of one’s mouth and depositing it in vials with solutions to extract the DNA) to exchange, collect and intermingle. These are incorporated into ceramic abacuses and folk-art sculptures. Drawing connections between her body and sexuality and the scientific processes, she continues with new iterations, with cross-dressing roles wearing petri dishes containing necro-matter of avian and human cadavers. Lartigue, as the Sub-Scientist and Operation Psychopomp’s ring-master, explores the connection of our biology to the earth by way of gender roles, spirituality and ethnic heritage. She becomes a modern-day curandera (traditional native healer), equipped with an innate knowledge of the cycle of life, brandishing the tools of science while questioning its scientific purpose.

Francis Almendarez

Francis Almendárez, (L-R): Home away from home, 2019, performance, multimedia; Para el día de mañana I (maximizing the temporary to imagine potential futures), collaboration with Jacqueline Posada , 2019, multimedia; Para el día de mañana, (detail), 2019.

Francis Almendárez’s recurring theme of culinary heritage depicts crops and food play in a central role in his video installations. His videos narrate the food on his table, and ruminate about for whom and why the food is made, and recall scents and tastes. Almendárez’s recent exhibitions permit plant life to take proper place alongside video hardware. Potted in common plastic and recycled containers, the staples in his family kitchen — sources for seasoning and food ingredients — take sculptural form in an art space. Its materiality and witnessing of plant growth aid in the interpretation of ideas about sustainability, D.I.Y. permaculture, and culturally inherited knowledge. His collaborator, his mother Jacqueline Posada, insists on the necessity of such practices. Raised on a farm in Honduras, Posada knows that in the U.S. there are few opportunities to value this expertise. Posada and Almendárez present the physical fruits of a kitchen garden, which transport and transcend a cultural lineage in an age of scarcity. The ethical care of food questions the modern practices of corporate farming and mass consumption. 

Let’s look at some other contemporary Houston artists who may fit in subcategories of what is considered bio-art. 

(L-R): Dean Ruck, Big Bubble, 1998; Carrie Marie Schnieder, Survival Creativity in Scale Models, 2019; Shrimp Boat Projects, Zach Mosur and Eric Leshinsky, 2010-15.

(L-R): Dean Ruck, Big Bubble, 1998; Carrie Marie Schnieder, Survival Creativity in Scale Models, 2019; Shrimp Boat Projects, Zach Mosur and Eric Leshinsky, 2010-15.

Carrie Marie Schneider’s Survival Creativity in Scale Models, aquariums as mini-cinematic theaters, asks participants to play and reimagine life in a post-Harvey Houston. Lina Dib’s recent sound installation, North to South and Back, of bird songs and of people making bird calls becomes, from an ornithological perspective, sonic-art, transforming into an avian taxonomic system. Shrimp Boat Projects, by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, was a working shrimp boat the artists harnessed for seasonal fishing, and allowed access for the public to gain a rare waterscape experience. Dean Ruck’s Big Bubble, in downtown Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, is a consistent presence for the unaware tourist while oxygenating the waterway.

In fact, the first show at the newly built Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1972 exhibited pioneers at the intersection of art and natural science. Historically, Texan artists are known for bringing natural elements as medium into their work. But is the use of natural material as medium enough to fulfill an expanded definition of bio-art?

Sudhoff, Lartigue and Almendárez’s specific personal history, heritage, gender and cultural practices, combined with an ethical concern for the bio-material, indeed contribute to expanding definitions of bio-art. They reveal facets of the science-art aesthetic which intersect with spiritual and sociological speculations, suggest metaphorical loss, and explore bodily intimacy mediated through technology. These types of frontiers in art-making multiply the purposes of bio-art beyond an interdisciplinary practice with theory, and give greater meaning to the “cultural imaginary” in bio-art today.

Henry G. Sanchez is a Houston-based artist. Sanchez’s recent BioArt Bayoutorium — a social-practice, bio-art project located along Buffalo Bayou in the 2nd Ward of Houston — included a shipping container outfitted with microscopes, imaging equipment and nature tours on pontoon boats.


Anker, Suzanne and Flach, Sabine, The Glass Veil: Seven Adventures in Wonderland, Art / Knowledge / Theory. Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers. Bern, Switzerland, 2015.

Gershon, Pete, Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985, Texas A&M University Press, 2018.


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Robert Boyd May 28, 2019 - 09:12

My problem with this kind of art–art that intersects science–is similar to my problem with a lot of social practice art. Artists might be educated laypeople–even very well-educated laypeople–but they aren’t scientists. They don’t typically have the years of training and experience that a biologist has. As Sanchez writes, “Because this is Art, it does not actually have to work scientifically. Firm scientific protocols do not have to be met.” But those protocols are there for a reason, and their rigor is what allows one to feel confident in the results of scientific exploration. (And to be honest, science has had a big crisis of confidence in the past few decades–the replication crisis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis).

The reason I compare it to social practice art is because social practice art does usually seek to accomplish a social outcome, but often fails to live up to what non-artist activists and social workers achieve. Because artists aren’t experts in these fields. But we often accept their deficiencies because their hearts are in the right place.

Anyway, if the art is inherently interesting (and much of what Sanchez wrote about above is very interesting indeed), I don’t much care if it doesn’t live up to actual scientific practice. I just hope we as viewers and and as those who experience this work can tell the difference.

David A. Ross June 2, 2019 - 09:25

I appreciate the comment above, but want to thank Henry for such a clear and well-reasoned take on this complex subject. What I feel Mr. Boyd seems to side-step, is that artists working with the language and tools of scientific research do not intend to do science. Rather, they are trying to create new knowledge by other means. This may or may not be of interest to conventional scientists, but I’ve spoken with a number of more conventional researchers who find both direction and inspiration from the work of so-called bio-artists. And of course, it seems clear to me that bio-art practice provokes an extraordinarily useful conversations about the ecological crisis that defines our era.

Henry G. Sanchez June 4, 2019 - 21:47

I have faith that viewers can tell the difference from what it being strictly protocoled in the lab and the making of bio-art. Science has blinds spots in analyzing its social, ethical and political implications (see: genetically modified foods, eugenics, the use of pesticides and the corporate misuse of science for the sake of profit). In traditional science there is no room the artist prerogative for “speculative fabulations”, “magical thinking” is left outside and the idea of play is verboten. I would venture to safely say that 99% of all science experiments are unsuccessful, and as for the social outcomes of activism one doesn’t have to look far to see the disproportionate triumphs of the right-wing and regressive policies on the majority of people and social activists who did not vote for “you-know-who”. But nobody is perfect.

Aisen Caro Chacin April 14, 2022 - 14:09

I’m so thrilled to find this article about bioart in Houston. As an artist in working in the intersection of medicine and engineering, I think that not all bioart is representative or solely aesthetically concerned with science. Great bioart contributes to scientific knowledge, not only by the questions it poses but how it challenges bioethical discourse beyond utility and towards its aesthetics and humanistic approaches to technological advancement.
I am a huge supporter of bridging the gap of art and science in Houston, especially with bioart and medical art. We are so uniquely poised to have an incredible interdisciplinary city-wide conversation that dives deeply to investigate and express the human condition.
Thank you, Henry for sharing your knowledge and research about bioart practices here in Houston. It is so important to propel more of this kind of art discourse in our city.
Beyond my practice, I am also actively working to bring more artists in the field to Houston who can infuse our city culturally and help us bridge the gap between the “two cultures” with their knowledge. Hopefully, we will see a lot more biort amd art|sci programming in this area, and if any of you are interested in supporting me to bring artists such as Stelarc, Joe Davis, Mary Maggic, Marc Dusselier, Kathy High, Victoria Vesna, etc., it would be immense. Let’s keep the conversation moving let’s get in touch!

Shameless plug for UH students, take my class next semester! ARTS 4397: BioArt T/Th 5:30_8:30p FALL22



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