SymbioticA: provoking dialogue about artful science
Art is supposed to do the avant-garde, be radical and ask the deepest questions about life and about the position of the human in this world. For almost 20 years, UWA’s SymbioticA has been interested in the growing gap between our understanding of life and what we know about life through science. But more importantly, what we choose to do to life through technology.
The birth of SymbioticA
Since it was established in 2000, SymbioticA, The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts has been dedicated to the research, critique and exhibition of living biological systems within an artistic and cultural context. Mr Oron Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr established SymbioticA with the idea of creating a laboratory that would be available for artists to do research that involves the life sciences, and where they could feel that their research is important is as valid and equal to any other research.
This kind of art is opening up windows to worlds under construction.
More than 120 residents have since come to SymbioticA, including visual and performing artists, science fiction writers, art historians, political theorists, geographers, scientists and musicians. Artists in residence are encouraged to engage with curiosity-based research around ethical and cultural issues on the manipulation of living systems, whilst cross fertilising ideas with other labs in the School of Human Sciences at UWA.
The research results in provocative, playful, risk-taking projects including workshops, symposiums and exhibitions that spark dynamic conversations about our changing world. Their aim is to engage the public in discussion about the direction of humanity, through art.
Art first of all is not about giving answers, it’s provokes and makes us feel uneasy about things so we can reassess them and think about them.
Oron Catts started as a product designer in the 1990’s who was interested in the potential of designing living biological products. The appearance of the Vacanti mouse with a human ear around the same time sparked his interest in tissue engineering and the ability to sculpt with living biological material. He contacted Miranda Grounds at UWA with the idea of using living tissue as a medium for artistic expression. To his surprise, rather than throw him out, she invited Oron and Ionat to join the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at UWA.
Ionat Zurr’s background is in photography and media. Initially collaborating with Oron to photograph living artistic sculptures that used tissue engineering, Ionat quickly developed her own skills in tissue culturing techniques and began working with living materials herself.
From 2000 to 2001, the team were invited to act as research fellows at the Harvard Medical School at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory. Working with Professor Joseph Vacanti, they developed technologies needed to keep living tissue sculptures in a gallery setting.
A new cultural language
The most radical shifts in how we think and treat life, happen in places like SymbioticA; where art and science collaborate. Whilst the team had the ability to manipulate living material, they had to develop a new cultural language to engage in what they were researching. There was also a psychological barrier to talk about this kind of art. Now, Biological Arts is an artistic and academic field.
SymbioticA have made Biological Arts approachable to the wider community.
Artists are almost like the medieval court jesters. We are allowed to tell the truth because no one takes us too seriously. Our agenda is very different to scientists so we can engage with the same materials and techniques that they’re using, but open it up for other questions.
Exhibiting the manipulation of life
SymbioticA were pioneers in the field of Biological Arts which now sees exhibitions and festivals around the world from hundreds of artists dedicated to this type of art form. Many of them have been trained by SymbioticA or were trained by people who have been trained at SymbioticA.
Their work is exhibited all over the world in leading cultural institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, National Art Museum of China and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. They have also won a number of prizes including in 2007, the Golden Nica in Hybrid Arts as a part of the Prix Ars Electronica and in 2008, WA Science Awards Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Science Communication Outside the Classroom.
Some notable exhibitions and shows include:
This collaboration between SymbioticA, the WA Museum and the Art Gallery of Western Australia displays museum pieces and living and artificial specimens in luxury display cabinets that defy traditional classification. The exhibition agitates discussion around where are we going with new technological approaches to life.
Victimless Leather, 2004.
The team grew a semi-living jacket made from animal tissue. The exhibition provoked questions around the idea of killing semi-living beings in contrast to killing animals used in the creation of real leather.
Examined the cabinet of curiosities and the systematic way in which curiosities and oddities have been collected and displayed, to create an understanding of the world.
The Pig Wings Project, 2000-2001
The exhibition generated discussion around ‘genohype’ – the hype generated by scientists, the media, the public and the arts with regard to genetic research and highlighted the use of pig organs in human transplantation.
In 2000, the team were internationally recognised as the first to grow meat in a lab. Three years later, they were also the first to consume in vitro meat.
The in vitro meat technology developed by SymbioticA has since seen a growing number of companies’ world-wide manufacture vitro meat for consumption. Whilst consumers may be excited by the seductive notion that in vitro meat is ‘animal friendly’, the lab grown meat cells actually require foetal calf serum to grow.
By 2012, Oron hosted his first of many Iron Chef style ‘cooking shows’ using in vitro meat products. The shows discuss new technologies to create a sustainable, ethical and just food system for the future. As well, they highlight the success of western society in hiding the victims of our consumption, more than removing them.
The research had a personal impact on Oron who subsequently became a vegetarian.
We want to challenge the audience in regard to rethinking their relationship to life. What they then choose to do is really up to them.
Museums of the future
There is a new generation of odd things and life forms that are being created throughout the world in labs like SymbioticA. An increasing number of ‘bizarre oddities’ blur the boundaries between the natural and artificial, between man-made and grown. One well known example is Dolly the sheep. Dolly is found in the technology section of the National Museum of Scotland, despite being a stuffed animal that would usually be found in the Natural History section.
Since 2007, SymbioticA has encouraged discussion into the way oddities and curiosities have been collected and categorised and have been approached by local and international museums to envision museums of the future. Oron consults on an international advisory board for Biotopia, Munich who are trying to reimagine their natural history museum for the 21st century.
Our work is really about trying to identify and narrow gaps between our 21st century technologies, our 20th century mindsets, and the 19th century institutions that we still operate from.
The work is also being used for submissions to the American Congress and the European Union which deal with ethics on areas that our work points attention to.
A FRANKENSTEINian approach
Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein was first published in 1818. It is from Frankenstein that many of society’s cultural references to biology and the creation of life in labs have originated.
The team are often being referred to as being Frankensteinian in their approach and have embraced the bicentenary. Their Unhallowed Arts Festival including Quite Frankly: It’s a Monster Conference, which happens in Perth from 17-19 October, 2018 will host around 30 different events, each one of them referencing the legacy of Frankenstein.
The group has developed new technologies, influenced policymaking and articulated cultural ideas around scientific knowledge in the pursuit of critiquing the ethical and cultural issues of the manipulation of life.