Marnia Johnston

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Marnia Johnston’s artwork recalls the nightmarish figures of bioparanoia propagated by government bodies and officials in the wake of September 11 and the Iraq War. Her “Paranoia Bugs” embody the way fear was gripping the US during that time.  “The paranoia of the US was a kind of swarm,” she said, “where fears fed and bred upon each other, crawling and overtaking everything in their path”. She gave paranoia a dark body and spindly legs with these sculptures.  When the paranoia of US government agents directly targeted her own artistic practice, the “Paranoia Bugs” took on a new life.

Inspired by the work of Andre Brodyk and Adam Zaretsky, Johnston became involved with DIYbio (Do-It-Yourself Biology), a group made up of citizen scientists, to learn how to use genetic tools to craft her own living creatures. Her involvement with the group attracted the unwanted attention of the FBI and the CIA who began tracking her activities. Subsequent encounters with government officials slowly revealed to Johnston that she, and other “biohackers”, were figures in their nightmares – possible disruptive threats to existing arrangements among species, peoples, institutions and nations.

Johnston’s encounters with government fantasies about bioterror prompted her to stop tinkering with the tools of transgenic biology, and return to her practice as a ceramic artist. The she made a new swarm of “Paranoia Bugs” that were decidedly fleshier and less steady on their legs–reflecting the more elaborate and speculative paranoid fictions growing within institutions and government bodies. “They are stem cells gone wild. Some have mouths and cannibalize their brethren, others have wings but still can’t fly. Fearing their own kin, and suspicious of the motives of others, ‘Paranoia Bugs’ are always on the lookout – to make sure they don’t get eaten.” Amidst wild hopes and wild fears – at the intersection of fabulous dreams by biotechnology enthusiasts and paranoid nightmares of government agents – the “Paranoia Bugs” are figures of the political dimensions of anxiety.

“Twins” by Marnia Johnston (2008) were featured on the front cover of the journal Cultural Anthropology.

Marnia Johnston was a key member of the curatorial swarm that brought the Multispecies Salon to life.  In 2008 she co-curated the exhibit in San Francisco with Eben Kirksey.  She populated the Kawliga Gallery in New Orleans with bioart in 2010, exploring the theme of “Life in the Age of Biotechnology.”

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a companion to the book