Australian artist Oron Catts is at the bleeding edge—literally—of a discipline that meddles with life for the sake of art.
When Oron Catts exhibited Victimless Leather Jacket at MoMA in 2008, it was not without controversy. It was a highly acclaimed work of "biological art," which uses and manipulates the materials of life itself (human or animal tissue, living organisms, cell lines), to create unclassifiable forms of life. The fleshy, stitchless "jacket" was created from human and mice stem cells, housed in a glass bioreactor, and tube-fed serum from the heart of an embryonic calf. It was living, growing thing, dependent on nutrients for survival. But events soon took a Frankensteinian turn. The jacket, it seemed, had a life of its own: Its cells multiplied so rapidly that it began to grow in an uncontrollable, unpredictable fashion. Its sleeve was starting to fall off, its bioreactor was clogged in a matter of weeks. In the end, the exhibition's curator had no choice but to deny the jacket its food, therefore "killing" it. The artwork was designed as a critique of the type of research that goes on behind closed laboratory doors, but its "death" triggered unease. What are the ethics of manipulating biology? And does it matter if it's for the sake of art, rather than the sake of medicine?
In an era of robots, aspirational cyborgs, and regenerative biology, it's comforting to believe solid lines can be drawn between man and machine, the organic and the synthetic, the living and the dead. But advances in science and art are dissolving these boundaries. To wax nostalgic about a "natural world" elides our present reality: one in which scientific design and bioengineering are silently (but significantly) reshaping the way we see ourselves and the world around us.
Catts, a globally renowned biological artist based in Perth, Australia, hopes to probe these distinctions. Biological art, he says. encompasses a hands-on engagement with the manipulation of living systems, ranging all the way from the sub-molecular to the ecological, and according to him, is still a nascent field even though Catts has been working with living tissue cultures since 1996. Today, he says, the field has "exploded," with thousands of artists now working with and manipulating biological phenomena in labs and biohacking spaces around the world. "When we started back in the mid 90s, there was no one," he says. "Maybe one or two people were working in a similar way to us as artists, engaging in a very hands-on way with living systems."
Catts founded SymbioticA in 2000, an artistic research lab housed within the biological science department of the University of Western Australia. Under his direction, the lab has been at the forefront of cutting-edge artistic practice and has attracted artists and scientists from all over the world. Just recently it hosted JJ Hastings, a US bioartist who has, among other things, processed photographs using her own blood. Perhaps there's something in the water on the west coast: Stelarc, a performance artist and head of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at WA's Curtin University, has been growing an implanted human ear on his arm. It's hoped the ear, which already has its own blood supply, will eventually be able to connect wirelessly to the internet and act as a remote listening device.
The thought of manipulating stem cells to create an artificial living system—meddling, some might say, with nature—has made some some uneasy about the ethics of biological art.
"I share those reactions, in a sense," Catt says. He doesn't make art to celebrate the triumph of manipulating biology, but to critique developments in synthetic biology and tissue engineering that are already taking place in research laboratories, biotech companies, and major corporations around the world. "Art is one of the last places—the last discipline, if you like—that allows this type of ambiguity and deals with things that are problematic while actually engaging with them," he says.
It's commonly said that the Inuits have 90 words to describe snow, Catt says, but English has only one word to describe life in all its forms, though biological life is hierarchical and exists on a spectrum. Lab-grown or modified lifeforms, for example, are often not quite "alive" in a conventional sense, but they're not quite dead, either.
When Catts first started to work with living tissue in the mid 90s, his laboratory used the cells in rabbit eyes. "The rabbits were killed for food in the morning, and we would only get them around lunchtime. We were initially working on eyes, so we would get them out of the rabbits' heads, put them in antibiotic solution in the fridge, and could only start to culture cells the morning after," he says.
The lab gave an inanimate carcass new life, he says, but a taxonomy for this category of specimen had yet to be coined by scientists. Instead, Catts and his team settled for "semi-living." Since then, Catts and Zurr have created works like NoArk Revisited and Odd Neolifism, which aimed to ask questions about where such lab-grown specimens fit in our ecological systems, as well as the ethics of their creation.
This October, Catts and other members of SymbioticA will exhibit Futile Labor, an installation that uses the tissue-engineered muscle cells of a mouse to delve into the relationship between life, engineering, and automated labor. Like the Victimless Leather Jacket, it too will be housed and nourished in an incubator, but the muscle will be stimulated by electricity and its movements will be translated into vibration, light, and sound. The mouse is 35 years dead, but its cell lines have been "immortalized" by scientists: that is, they've mutated to multiply and divide ad infinitum. Not only will gallery-goers watch this specimen twitch and contract before their eyes, they must also confront how they feel about it—and about engineering a kind of life that is, in some ways, not so far removed from their own.
Follow Gillian on Twitter.