The Common Flowers project is based on the first commercially available GM flower, the blue-mauve Moondust carnation. Developed and marketed by a Japanese beer-brewing company, carnations with blue petals were created by inserting genes from other flowering plants into the genome of the Dianthus caryophyllus (carnation). The Moondust carnation was the very first commercially available GM consumer product intended purely for aesthetic consumption. Unlike previous GM products introduced to the general markets (such as Flavr Savr Tomatoes), the GM carnations are not used as human food nor as animal feed and therefore bypassed any potentially damaging discussions and sensationalist uproars in the media. The plant and its transgenes are not considered part of the food chain and are therefore considered ‘environmentally safe’. However, like any other GM product it was subjected to strict scientific testing to ensure that the flowers pose no threat to animals and wildlife, and can be kept under control.
Common Flowers grows — technically, clones — new plants from purchased cut flowers via basic plant tissue culture methods, techniques used to grow plant cells, tissues or organs under sterile conditions. The slowly dying cut flowers are brought back to life using DIY biotech methods involving everyday kitchen utensils and materials.
Because the Moondust carnations are officially considered not harmful, it is not illegal to release them into the environment. Therefore, the artists decided the next logical step was to introduce (and in a poetic sense: set free) the blue GM carnation to its natural environment — the outdoors. This action raises questions about the state of intellectual property, ownership and copyright issues surrounding the biohacking and biobending of plants. Common Flowers makes these flowers available as shared ‘common flowers’ and gives the plants access to spaces where they can grow happily: Flower Commons. The Flower Commons act as a self-sustaining source for Common Flowers. Until now the only choice to propagate the blue carnations was to purchase them as cut-flowers. With Flower Commons the artists introduce another — free and open source — choice.
By freeing or ‘jail-breaking’ the flower from its destiny as a cut flower and establishing a feral and more ‘natural’ population of blue carnations, the flower will be given a chance to reconnect to the general gene-pool and to join evolution through natural selection once again. What Common Flowers hopes to touch on is the question of patents on plants and on life forms in general. In particular, what form of legal protection for their plants are companies granted, and does the act of simply growing plants constitute a copyright violation? Is this reverse biopiracy?
We came across the blue GM carnations during our research in Japan for another project, Biopresence. Having lived in the UK before, we were surprised by the lack of any critical response to the introduction of the blue GM carnations in Japan. After deliberating what we, as artists, could do with the flowers, we decided the strongest statement would be not to work with the flowers as ornaments or decor, but to highlight the legal processes at work behind the scenes. An important aspect of the work is the ability to “grow your own” blue GM carnations. They are available at flower shops across Ireland and Europe, and the tissue culturing of the plants can be done DIY-style by virtually everybody — we believe that to be an important part of the process of turning these ‘special flowers’ into ‘common flowers’. The moral question of releasing the cultured GM carnations is in the hands of the audience and the home growers.