Biological processes and structures have inspired artists for centuries, but it’s only in the last two decades that artists have started to collaborate with biologists to create works that use live human and animal tissues, bacteria and living organisms as materials. This emerging field of “bioart” can be extremely provocative, and brings with it a range of technical, logistical and ethical issues. Wired.co.uk investigates.
The fact that the structure was actually made out of bovine cells did not diminish the startling image of a tiny bald rodent with what looked like a full-size human ear jutting from its back, its skin straining to contain it.
Although this strange, lab-assembled hybrid — nicknamed Earmouse — was created with purely scientific objectives, it was such a powerful idea that it inspired a new wave of artists to experiment with using biological structures as a medium. Ionatt Zurr, Ph.D. candidate at artistic laboratory Symbiotica, who was working as a photographer at the time, explains: “It was such a strong image for artists — a surrealist’s dream becoming a reality. We realized that life can be used as a raw material.”
Of course, we have been fascinated by creative meddling with nature for centuries, with fantastical experiments of this sort being documented in works of fiction such as H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that a new field of art began to emerge, using tissues and cells instead of paints and clay — partly down to the emergence of bioengineering as a science and partly because of a few open-minded biologists who saw the value of supporting such a discipline.
In the case of Zurr, the open-minded biologist was Miranda Grounds at the University of Western Australia, who welcomed Zurr and her colleague Oron Katz into her laboratory. This allowed the duo to better understand the limitations, the possibilities and the ethics of growing tissue for artistic endeavors.
It was at around this time, in 1997, when artist Eduardo Kac gave a name to this new discipline — bioart — which he used to describe his piece Time Capsule, where he implanted a microchip into his own ankle. The word is now used to refer to the practice where artists work with live tissues, bacteria and living organisms. The discipline lies under the broader banner of artistic pursuit that some refer to as “sciart,” which involves artists and scientists working together to explore scientific topics through the arts.
Three years later and artistic laboratory Symbiotica was established by Miranda Grounds, neuroscientist Stuart Bunt and artist Oron Catts, the latter of which had been working with Ionat Zurr on her Tissue Culture and Art Project. The lab — based at the University of Western Australia — was designed as a space for artists to engage with science in various capacities, sharing resources, ideas and exploring new technologies.
Fast-forward to today, when we are seeing more and more scientists collaborate with artists. Jenny Paton, arts adviser to the Wellcome Trust, says that applications for its Arts Awards, which fund arts projects investigating biomedical science (this covers a broad spectrum of collaborations, including those that use biological materials within the artworks), have more than doubled since the program launched in 2006.
She believes this is down to a number of factors, including a movement toward more interdisciplinary practice at universities and the increasing importance of science communications to explain the impact of a scientist’s work. She told Wired.co.uk: “Usually the scientists say that collaborating with an artist helped to communicate their practice to a wider community in a way they hadn’t done before.”
Collaborations in the bioart space require particularly close ties between artist and biologist, mainly because they often require the use of laboratories and scientific apparatus or a deep understanding of biological processes. Headline-grabbing artworks within this field have included Andrew Krasnow’s Flag (1990), which is made up of sections of donated human skin; Stelarc’s surgically implanted ear structure in his left arm (2007); George Gessert’s genetically modified hybrid plants, and The Tissue Culture & Art Project’s Pig Wings — tiny wings created out of lab-grown pig cells.
These artworks are provocative and raise a wide range of technological, logistical and, crucially, ethical issues. So knotty is the area that very few galleries even show these works, and those that do tend to be large scientific institutions.
Firstly, the pieces that use animal and human tissues tend to need to be grown in situ and often in laboratory equipment that simulates the body in which the cells grow naturally — i.e. wet and warm. For example, one of Symbiotica’s pieces is called Semi-Living Worry Dolls. These are tissue-engineered sculptures inspired by the Guatemalan worry dolls that are given to children. In the bioart world, fabric is swapped for living cells that are seeded onto degradable polymers and placed within a microgravity bioreactor that acts as a surrogate body. Throughout the exhibition, the living cells grow to create doll-like fleshy structures.
When the dolls were shown at Dublin’s Science Gallery, Symbiotica had to share the technique with local biologists to replicate the bioreactors on location.
This raises a second issue of designing scientific equipment that displays the specimens for viewing in a gallery context, but also gives technicians access to maintain the pieces. In “wet” bioart’s early days, the best artists could hope to exhibit was photographs and videos documenting the in-vitro process. But the likes of Symbiotica have pushed to rethink the design of apparatus that conventionally sits hidden away in labs, with the emphasis on being able to view the pieces. This has led to the creation of cheaper apparatuses for artists to use — thankfully they don’t need the same scientific precision as researchers.
As Zurr says: “More standardization and cheaper tools mean that more and more people can experiment with less scientific knowledge.”
Galleries looking to display bioart also need to take into consideration the fact that they may need a Human Tissue Licence, should they be using any pieces made using human cells. Artists such as Krasnow, Art Oriente Objet and Julia Reodica (of Hymen Project fame) frequently use human tissues in their work. In order to display such tissues in the United Kingdom, one needs to apply to the Human Tissue Authority, which was launched in 2004 following the Alder Hay organs scandal.
The license is mostly required by academic institutions (such as medical schools), research departments, mortuaries and museums. It requires organizations to ensure that the human donors of tissue collected after 2006 have consented for use in public display (as opposed to just medical research). This requirement for consent isn’t retrospective and doesn’t apply to existing pieces, but you still need a license to display the material if it’s less than 100 years old.
GV Gallery is the only private gallery in the United Kingdom that has one of these licenses — sharing the certificate with the likes of the Wellcome Trust, Huntarian, Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. GV Gallery’s Robert Devcic explains: “It regulates and maintains confidence and makes people work ethically. It took me nine months to get a license. They don’t regulate tissue that’s from outside the EU, but nevertheless I’m keen to keep those standards.”
The license has to be on display at all times during exhibitions including human tissue, and visitors need to consent to viewing and not damaging the works.
Despite the effort to be able to display bioart — through licensing or logistical issues — the results can be incredibly powerful. Merely moving lab instruments into the context of an art gallery can be enough to provoke debate. Should these things be on display at all? Is it denigrating living organisms? Is it better to display animal cells than human cells?
Zurr warns: “We have to be careful of human arrogance. We need to be post-humanist. For us, species is not important.”
One area of ethical concern is how to dispose of the living tissue at the end of an exhibition. Once the pieces have been removed from the lab, they cannot be put back in because they are contaminated, Zurr explains. “So they need to be culled. We have a symbolic device to raise discussion — the killing ritual — where we invite audiences and curators to expose the tissue to the external environment and touch it and contaminate it.”
The idea is to engage with people, involve them in the ethical decision-making and encourage them to understand some of the scientific pursuits being illustrated by the artworks, be it bioengineering or stem cell research.
It is very easy for bioart to be outshone by sensationalism. GV Gallery’s Devcic exhibited some of Andrew Krasnow’s work in the United States in the late 1990s, including a flag and a hamburger made from human skin. Politicians tried to censor the work and eventually Devcic was ejected from the country by Homeland Security. “When I came back I felt distressed and upset, but determined to show the artists’ work,” he said. He is now allowed back into the United States but only under a visitor’s visa.
Devcic — who is, notably, vegan — is keen to emphasize the importance of tissue banks and donation. “We must not sensationalize, because it means that fewer people donate their bodies to science,” he said.
Often the bioartists are simply exploring the techniques already employed in laboratories by researchers behind closed doors, and usually in close collaboration with the scientific community. Zurr says: “Artists make the work visible, but don’t shoot the messenger. A lot of research takes place hidden away in labs that we don’t know about, but artists make that visible. This makes them very vulnerable to criticism and it is easy to make them the scapegoat.”