Live at the AM podcast: HumanNature series – Oron Catts
For more than two decades Oron Catts (Director of SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory at the University of Western Australia) has been at the forefront of experiments in the manipulation of fragments of living systems for artistic ends. This lecture explores the role that art has played and continues to play in shifting understandings of what life is and does.
This talk took place on 24 May 2018 in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Sue Saxon: Good evening and welcome to the Australian Museum. My name is Sue Saxon and I'm a creative producer here at the AM. On behalf of all those present, I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and to their elders past, present and emerging. They are the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.
Tonight we're really excited to present the fourth of nine talks in the inaugural Human Nature lecture series. We're almost halfway through this stimulating, landmark series, a collaboration of four major universities with the Australian Museum and leading national and international academics in the environmental humanities.
The Australian Museum seeks to make nature, Indigenous cultures and science accessible and relevant to everyone. It is the custodian of a collection of more than 19 million objects, providing a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian Pacific regions.
The museum's scientific collections and ongoing research informs our understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, including the loss of biodiversity, a changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.
So the past meets the future at the museum. Exploration and care for our world is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists; by our exhibitions and by our extraordinary events, such as this Human Nature lecture series, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture and the natural environment.
Please join us after tonight's lecture for the second half of the series too, and let your friends and colleagues know, because we have an outstanding line-up of speakers in the wings.
And so, to introduce our special guest, it's my great pleasure to invite Dr Astrida Niemanis, senior lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, and one of the organisers of the Human Nature lecture series, to introduce Professor Oron Catts.
Astrida Niemanis: Hi, good evening. I hope you will indulge me this short bio. It's really truly extraordinary, and it's my great pleasure indeed to introduce Oron Catts tonight. Oron is the director of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts in the School of Human Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Oron Catts is an artist, researcher, designer and curator, whose pioneering work in the Tissue Culture and Art project which he established in 1996, is considered a leading biological art project.
In 2000 he co-founded SymbioticA, a biological art research centre at UWA, and under Catts's leadership SymbioticA has gone on to win the inaugural Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art in 2007, as well as the WA Premier's Science Award in 2008, and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008 as well.
In 2009 Professor Catts was recognised by Thames and Hudson's 60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Futurebook in the category 'Beyond Design' and by Iconmagazine in the UK as one of the top 20 designers 'making the future and transforming the way we work'.
His interest is life. More specifically, the shifting relations and perceptions of life in light of new knowledge and its application. Often working in collaboration with other artists, primarily Dr Ionat Zurr, and scientists, Catts has developed a body of work that speaks volumes about the need for new cultural articulation of evolving concepts of life.
Catts was also a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, a visiting scholar at the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, and a visiting professor of design interaction from 2009 to 2012, and a professor-at-large in contestable design from 2015 to 2017 at the Royal College of Arts in London.
From 2012 to 2013 he set up a biological art lab called Biofilia, the base for biological art and design at the School of Art, Design and Architecture at Aalto University in Helsinki, where he remains a visiting professor.
Catts's ideas and projects reach beyond the confines of art. His work is often cited as inspiration to diverse areas such as new materials, textiles, design, architecture, affects, fiction and food. He has curated 10 exhibitions, developed numerous artistic projects and performances. His work has been exhibited and collected by museums such as the MoMA in New York, the Mori Art Museum, the NGV, GOMA, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Ars Electronica, and the National Art Museum of China, amongst others.
Most recently he has also been named one of the three international advisers of the Advisory Board of Biotopia in Munich, which is re-imagining the natural history museum for the 21st century. I think it's worth pointing out that the other two international advisers are the Chief Curator of Design and Architecture of the MoMA, and the Head of Collections at the Wellcome Trust. So indeed Oron is in very fine company.
And in addition to all of that, Oron is a warm, generous, humorous individual who truly values curiosity and collaboration, and those are the reasons why I am most delighted to welcome him to the podium now.
Oron Catts: Well, okay I can go home now. I think that's enough. Maybe I'll start with the trigger warning. First can we dim the lights a bit, please? So I'll start with the trigger warning. Some of the images might be disturbing. Some of the concepts hopefully would be very disturbing. And I tend to swear, as well. So just, you know, stick with it.
And also this is another form of trigger warning in the sense of we need to remember the idea of idealised social contracts because, as you heard, I'm wearing quite a few different hats. And whatever hats you choose to listen to me as, will determine how seriously you're going to take what I'm going to say. So let me start by saying that I really self-identify myself more than anything else as an artist. And as an artist I have a licence to tell you stories that are not necessarily verifiable. So by definition don't trust a word I'm going to tell you.
But then on the other hand, I have no interest in not telling you that I'm lying to you, so maybe you should trust me more than you trust all of those other professions up there. Because they've got an interest to hide the fact that they're telling you stories. And it is getting quite confusing now. Those boundaries between those idealised contracts that we have as professionals—and even more importantly that institutions like this institution here have with you—are starting to blur. We are all being bullshitted. Fake is everywhere, and this is something that I want to maybe try and unpack even more.
So people like Yuval Noah Harari, this popular historian that wrote the book Sapiens, is talking about the fact that we inherited our current political systems and by extension actually quite a lot of other institutions—and he talks whatever communism or liberal democracies—from the industrial revolution. And he doesn't think (and this is one of the very few points that I actually agree with him), he doesn't think and I don't think as well that either of them can survive those new and different realities that are coming upon us through biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
So I'll be talking more about the first, about biotechnology, and how those new, different realities are really going to mess up with all of those current institutions. Now, it's not just Harari that was talking about that. It's even the World Economic Forum that's obviously trying to establish their continuous kind of dominance over our lives and over our economies that recognised it in a recent publication titled Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A handbook for citizens, policymakers, business leaders and the social influencers.Just by that title you know that there's something wrong about that.
But anyway, they're talking about the fact that we face the task of understanding and governing the 21st century technologies, with 20th century mindsets and 19th century institutions, like this one that we are in at the moment. Institutional change is therefore critical to overcoming those challenges. But so—and this is the important bit—the mindset adapted to the 21st century challenges we face.
So what I hope to do is at least to provoke you into thinking about the fact that things are starting to fall apart. Quite a lot of what we see in the world at the moment is a kind of push-back towards a realisation that those institutions are breaking down. Our mindsets are not able to cope with the technologies that are coming upon us.
And one of the best examples are the fact that life is becoming more like technology. At the very same time, technology becomes more like life.
So we are in a very, very interesting time in human history, where we are starting to treat human-made systems as if they are natural phenomena, as in the sense that we already relinquish any possibility of controlling bottom-up systems that we as humans have created—like our economy, like driverless cars, like killer drones. We give autonomy to those systems and treat them as if they are alive at the very same time that our psychopathology of control is forcing us to try and control something else. So the ambition to go to Mars, for example, is a great example of that. The realisation that we've fucked up this place so badly that we'll go to one of the most inhospitable places in the world and try to live there rather than try to fix what we have now.
And controlling life. So controlling systems that already existed independently from our control, we have this fascination of trying to figure out how we're going to control them, and this is the field of synthetic biology, for example, that is all of the rage.
The link between life and industry is not new. There's a really beautiful story about Henry Ford going to those meat-packing factories in the United States in the late 19th century; going to those 'disassembly lines' where complex independent systems existed and then been abstracted to their components, for him to realise that we can maybe reverse it and start to take abstracted items and bring them together into complex systems, and this is kind of the assembly line. So we had to first disassemble life forms in order for us to start to assemble machines.
Jacques Loeb, he was a German-American scientist that worked between the 19th century and 20th century. He was credited as…basically the term artificial life was actually initially coined to describe his work. He was doing things like he developed systems of doing parthenogenesis of sea urchins, so basically creating life in an artificial way.
And he already in the late 19th century was talking about his dream to see biology moving from a merely descriptive discipline, which is what we see here in a museum, for example, to a prescriptive discipline. To an engineering pursuit.
So already, not that long after Darwin came out with the theory of evolution, people already were starting to think about okay, if we start to understand the principles of how life evolves we can start to think about life as a raw material for us to engineer. And this is something we see now.
Another player in the game is Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1912. He set up the Laboratory for Experimental Surgery up on the roof of the Rockefeller Institute. He was the one who was credited with being not the first but the one who was able to kind of systematically figure out ways to keep fragments of complex bodies alive outside of the original body from which they originated. And this is what we refer to now as tissue culture, so you basically you can grow cultures of cells and tissues that are taken from complex animals and organisms, and keep them alive for long durations of time using artificial and technological support. And this is my area of interest.
Carrel also in 1935 wrote a pseudo-philosophical book calledMan, the Unknown. It was talking about immortality. Actually a lot of the ideas that we hear now about transhumanism are already embedded within his original book in 1935. In that book he also wrote—or recommended—the use of gas chambers to eliminate undesirable elements in human society. So after the Germans invaded France he went back to France to set up the Institute of Man, and because they lost the war, he was wiped out of history. We should remember those stories.
The culture of amnesia that we are all suffering from is one of the worst things that we can imagine because many of the conversations that we have around life now were already played out in the early to the mid 20th century, and were totally deleted from our memories in order for us to kind of re-imagine them now, and to some sense even in a worse way.
But one of the really interesting things is that one of Carrel's assistants, with him, already recognised something which is quite obvious, that through the discovery of tissue culture they discovered, so to say, a new type of body in which to grow the cells, this technological body.
Now as an artist, and as someone who's interested in mindsets, I was also really interested in what does it mean and where those bodies would go. Where are you going to put them? You need to find a way to culturally articulate the appearance and the existence of those new types of body.
So a great example of what happens when we can't culturally articulate very well what's going on with life, is this example here. This is a photo from Buffalo in upstate New York from 1901. This represents the first premature baby ward in the United States. Babies in incubators. Now notice those crowd control rails over there, and the reason for that, it was part of a freak show. And we know that because when the Pan American Expo shut down—and they were actually put within the oddity section rather than the technology section at the time—the whole installation moved to Coney Island, to be one of the very first permanent displays in the fairgrounds there. And you can see over there, it says, 'Infant incubators with living infants'.
And even when the medical establishment started to recognise the fact that we have about 80% success rate as opposed to almost zero if those babies would be left to their own devices, they still distributed them for hospitals and amusement parks.
Now, there's many reasons for that. One of them was that the Americans were actually the worst in eugenics. They were basically saying those babies don't deserve to live because they're broken. Anyway, why would you care about keeping them alive? But the other thing which is more important for what I'm trying to say is that there was no other cultural place to put babies in incubators. There was no other place to put human bodies inside technological bodies besides a freak show.
Because we didn't have the ability to culturally articulate the existence of bodies in machines at the time.
And this is kind of the current situation as well in regard to quite a lot of those life forms that exist in the line between technology or between culture and what people refer to as nature. So those life forms that exist between those two places are as good as the freak shows, or those babies in incubators in the freak shows that we've seen in the early 20th century. This lasted for about 40 years, by the way.
As far as we know, the first manipulated living systems that were exhibited as art was in 1936 in MoMA in New York. That's the work of Edward Steichen the photographer, who was also manipulating different types of flowers using different types of mutagenic agents including his asthma medicine to kind of try and create those monsters. And when he was happy with them he ended up showing them as part of his exhibition in MoMA in New York. So this is historically considered to be the very first time—although I would imagine that if you think about bonsai, if you think about other, if you think about flower arrangements, there's different types of monsters that were created by humans for aesthetic reasons that have been displayed in this context—but this is the 'new way' of thinking about deliberately manipulated life forms that were put within a cultural context.
But you have other things. This is from the Medical Museum in Riga, and that was a Soviet era experiment of trying to basically put…do a head transplant. And we hear a lot about it recently. This specific one was actually made specifically for the museum. So about 20 or 30 years after the scientists were doing it, and they wanted to have one on display, so they commissioned the scientist to do one for them. We were in contact with the curators and according to them, this double-headed dog was alive in the museum for the first few days and then the story was that the small dog actually chewed the ear off the big dog. And you can actually see it on the display. And then after it died they sent it to be taxidermied and brought it back to the museum as a museum object.
Obviously the most famous object, cultural object in a sense, that really impacted me, and I think hopefully impacted quite a lot of other people. From my perspective this is the most important image of the late 20th century, the mouse with the ear on its back.
As an artist, that was what triggered me to start to work in this field. That work was done by scientists, but to a large extent it was done specifically for the visual impact in capturing the imagination. And I can show you, and I'll tell you the story shortly, about why it is. But in a sense this is the surrealist dream comes alive. This is something that we, human imagination always had this idea of this human animal chimera, and suddenly it comes alive in 1995, and being presented across our TV screens that was actually part of a documentary that the BBC produced around the future of bodies, back in 1995. Interestingly enough, if you watch this documentary now you would imagine it was produced now, because the same kind of promissory kind of rhetoric of 'body spare parts are just around the corner', happened in '95 in the same way that they are happening now, those kind of promises. But speaking about mindsets, it's obviously quite important to think about it as really a watershed event.
Now, what's quite interesting is something that you start to see more and more, this stage, the petri dish. So there is a new stage on which life operates and that's the petri dish, the laboratory, and it keeps on creeping up more and more. Because the scientific images, in the scientific paper that those scientists produce, you don't have the petri dish obviously. You don't have this type of staging. The staging was done deliberately for the TV cameras.
Now, one really, really interesting story: so there were four main scientists involved in the creation of this mouse. So you can see, there's Ye Lin Xiao, a Chinese plastic surgeon; Vacanti, Joseph, and this guy over here, Charles Vacanti, he's the one that took the credit for the mouse with the ear on its back.
It's often being referred to as the Vacanti Mouse. He, against the advice of his collaborators, decided to show it to the BBC. All of the others said don't show them. You can talk about everything else but don't show them the mouse. According to his story—I went and basically collected the oral histories from all of those scientists—according to his story he couldn't stop himself. So after they already folded the cameras, he said, 'Hey, do you want to see something cool?' And they said, 'Yes!' So he pulls them to the back room, shows them the mouse with the ear on its back, they pull out a camera and say, 'We can't not show it.' And they show it, and in his words, he was an American in Boston, he basically says, 'Ah, yes, it was like a small, regional TV channel in the UK, the BBC. I never heard about them. And off they go.
Obviously overnight it became a sensation. He realised the importance, suddenly, the cultural importance of it, and the first thing he does, he cuts the ear from the back of this mouse and casts it in resin as a museum-ready piece. It is transformed into a cultural object. There's no science you can do on a piece of tissue stuck in resin. There's no data you can obtain from that. But from his perspective, he realised that this specific one—because there's quite a few mice, as we can see here. We can see there are quite a few mice there, but this specific one, the hero of the BBC documentary, became the one that had his ear cut off.
Now, another kind of thing similar to what happened in the medical museum in Riga, in 2003 the Chinese are opening one of the biggest science and technology museums in Shanghai, and they commission Ye Lin Xiao, this Chinese plastic surgeon, to create a mouse with an ear on its back specifically for the museum.
And again, a similar story, this mouse with an ear on its back was alive for the first couple of weeks; it was alive for the opening, people can interact with this mouse, and then when it died it was platinised and put on display in the museum there.
Vacanti, realising that this mouse became a cultural icon, because as part of this exhibition I curated in 2015, I was collecting also popular culture references to the mouse with an ear on its back. And it's unbelievable. Things like South Parkand The Simpsonsand CSI. It lists 50 different TV shows that were using the mouse with an ear on its back as an example of… for whatever.
So it came this really important cultural icon, and Vacanti says, 'Hey, you know, this is mine.' And he did something which is quite extraordinary for a scientist to do. He copyrighted any depiction in any media of an image of a mouse that has a human ear on its back. So you can see, this is a sculpture, you have some drawings, and a photograph. And the way I found out about it was also quite extraordinary, when I told him I was going to have this show, he said, 'I give you permission.' I said, like, 'Fuck that, why do I need to get permission from you?' And he said, 'Because I copyrighted it.' I checked with lawyers; there's no way he can hold…but just this idea that a scientist is copyrighting and trying to control the public imagination in regard to the depiction of this whatever we want to call it, a creation, a monster, this hybrid—as a cultural object, is something if we start to think about it in more seriousness.
And this is one of the biggest conundrums about how do you treat those cultural objects which are both living and a technological artefact. Because Dolly the Sheep is a really interesting case. She was this technological marvel, in a sense. She was this breakthrough event within the progress of technology, but she looked like any other farm animal. There was nothing special about her. The advancements that produced Dolly the Sheep are obvious, but what do you do with something that looks like any other animal but it is such an important historical, technological and cultural artefact?
So if you go to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, you would see Dolly. This is her being wheeled in the museum towards her display, because she was moved from the Natural History section—where she was under the control of the curators there because they're the only people who know how to preserve and maintain a piece of previously living artefact—into the technological section, where she lives now (or is stuck now) on a rotating petri dish next to the aeroplanes and the computers and many other technological artefacts. So this is kind of this conundrum.
But what do you do, also, how do you kind of worship something that looks like just a farm animal? You can do this. When I went to the Science Museum in London, in the Wellcome Collection, in the Wellcome wing, I was able to encounter and worship Dolly's droppings. This is amazing. You can start to fetishise even the shit of a technological artefact as a museum object. But what we never see, and no museum would show it to us yet, is those 277 failed attempts. So we can worship the sheep, but we can't even give thanks to all of those poor other animals that died in the process of creating this clone.
Museums are funny places. I like museums, but they are really funny places. This is from the Natural History Museum in Nantes, in 2003. We tend to think about museums, and we see it over here and in the dead zoo here, that we tend to kind of worship and privilege the form of the organism. When you go and see those stuffed animals, the only thing that actually belongs to the original organism is the hide. It's been stretched over an idealised form of the animal.
Obviously there's two ways; one is the specimens are being collected for research that are just stuffed as the most convenient way, and then there's those that are really elaborated, kind of taxidermy where the organism is being seen as if it's in action, somewhat.
So those are those idealised forms. Obviously when it comes to humans it's a bit of an issue. This is a very disturbing image because this is from 2003 from France and they still had severed Maori heads in collection; Egyptian mummy and the hide or skin of a French soldier that died in the 1816 war. But this is how the museum collection looks now. So we are moving away through this fetishisation of technological approaches to life to engaging and privileging the information that is embedded within the tissue and the DNA of the organism. Totally decontextualised. Okay, granted, the stuffed animal is also decontextualised, but this is to a large extent even more decontextualised from those specimens on display here.
And it's not that exciting, you know, trying to take my kids to go and see like frozen bits of vials is not that exciting. What museums are doing about it, how museums come to terms with the idea that we've now moved away from privileging the form to privileging the information. Both of them are extremely problematic. And in a sense, as Ionat and myself are writing a lot about this concept of NeoLife-ism, the fetishisation of technological approaches of life, we talk about it, we say that living fragments of biological bodies, form of lab-grow life, because that's the other aspect I'll talk shortly about, require different epistemological and ontological understanding—and by existence, different taxonomy of life. This liminality of this kind of technological approach can lead to a form fetishisation or fetishism which we call NeoLife-ism. And this is something which you see time and time again.
Now, museums are interesting as well. This is from the—as I said, this is kind of an interesting museum for a different reason—this is the Natural History Museum in Vienna which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. So it's basically a museum of a museum. So 80% of the museum has to stay as it was, so the curators and the director of the museum basically, their job is just to keep things unchanging. But they have the 20% where they can do the changing exhibitions, and they try their best to do something different about that.
So when in 2009 when there was the big celebrations around the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Speciesthey decided to have an exhibition titled 'Evolution Revolution'. And they were trying to show kind of where that might lead us, so our friend Frankenstein is over here, Russian dolls, this idea of where are we going in regard to the future of life. Obviously our friends Dolly and the mouse were there as well, so we had the death mask of Dolly and the mouse on the stage, on the petri dish. But they also had a section dedicated to transgenic art. So artists who are working with genetic engineering as their artform, with a specific reference to an artist called Eduardo Kac, who made a name for himself in the year 2000 by publishing an image of a green bunny, which I'll show you later.
And they basically…some of you might read German would understand what they're talking about, but basically talking about this new move of doing creative evolution in a sense by allowing artists to interfere with this information that makes us who we are. Or that's their perception.
But what they decided to display was quite astonishing. They picked up one of the most scruffiest hares from their collection and shined a green light on it. So this is Eduardo's image from 2000; this is the image of the museum, which actually appeared in their catalogue as well, with a reference to Eduardo's work without ever asking permission—which is really strange—so if we go back to this idea of social contracts, where is the social contract of the museum at the moment with regard to this object?
Are they truth-telling? Are they telling us the whole story? What's happening there? How are we going to respond to something that stands for an artwork that we're not even sure it ever existed, because no green fluorescent protein positive organism would ever look like what Eduardo depicted it, but he's got a licence to tell a story. No one was going to take him into account for telling us stories. But what's with the Natural History Museum?
So I had dinner with the director of the museum, and I said, 'What the fuck?' And he said, 'You artists are moving into my world; I can move into your world.'
So here we see kind of the breakdown of those contracts, kind of happening in front of our very eyes. I don't have time to talk about this, but this is another really interesting example which you might have to do your own homework, but this is also an interesting scientific object that became a cultural object because of a PR disaster.
So I think by now you understand that it's important to artists to engage with those things—or I hope that you understand it's important for us to engage with those things. So in the year 2000 we establish SymbioticA, which is now the Centre of Excellence for Biological Arts. We are extremely interested in this idea of engaging in a most experiential way with the manipulation of life forms. So we are not just looking over the scientists' shoulders, we don't trust scientists. I love scientists, I love science, but I don't trust their stories. I want to know things for myself, so I want to understand the technologies they're using so I can do it.
And that's what we do. And we train artists. So we have our own level two lab. We are one of the very few places in the world…we were the first that actually opened a level two laboratory specifically for artistic research and exploration of biology and life.
We are very, very interested, obviously, in exploring those shifting perceptions of life, as you heard in the introduction. But also, as I mentioned at the beginning, if life becomes a raw material to be engineered, we are having a new palette for artistic possibilities, one in which life is both the subject and the object of our manipulation.
And you know in a sense this is our dream as artists from the dawn of time. Life was always something we were interested in, and here, now, life is both our new palette and our new subject—or not that new subject—for us to engage with. For better for worse, you know, your value judgements are extremely important but keep them to yourself at the moment.
But we do also, and this is something that is very relevant to here, we research strategies and the implication of what does it mean to present living, and especially manipulated living biological objects within cultural contexts and other different contexts. Now, museums are by definition places of death. They are an acropolis. They are places that are designed to keep dead things as dead as possible for as long as possible. What does it mean to put something living inside there? What does it mean to put an object which is a cultural object that changes and shifts over time within the context of the art gallery and the natural history museum?
How do you deal with those people? So at the moment we are working on a big project to be presented at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in collaboration with the West Australian Museum. The curator just wrote a beautiful essay where he basically says, 'I'm scared shitless. I don't know what's going to happen there.' And this is kind of the approach we get time and time again.
This morning I got an email from Pompidou Centre saying, 'Unfortunately we can't show your live art or your live work in an exhibition titled 'Designing for Life'. This is what I need to constantly engage with. What does it mean to put this manipulated life form within those contexts where the most resistance, the whole institutional apparatus is designed against it.
And we are developing our technologies for basically research and display of living biological systems. As artists sometimes our needs are very different than scientists. More often than not we don't really have the budget to buy scientific equipment, so we build our own equipment as well for the specification of artists.
So this is a work that was designed by an amazing designer called Matt Johnson for an Australian artist called Alicia King for a show that we had in Dublin.
So in SymbioticA we develop all of the…we have to play the game so we are an academic institution so we run courses, academic courses; we run a masters and a PhD. We organise exhibitions, and I'll plug one shortly. More than anything else we were established as a residency program, so since the year 2000 we had more than 120 residents. It's really unfortunate we don't really have the budget, so people who come to do residencies with us actually pay us. But because we are the first, and the only ones for a really long time doing this work—and then we run seminars and workshops.
So this is the plug: in October this year we're running a series of exhibitions and a huge conference called Quite Frankly. Some of you might know this year is the bicentenary of the publication of Frankenstein. We couldn't let it go so we had to do something around it, and we decided to have this Unhallowed Arts festival, so at last count we have about 23 different events going on around town in mid-October. Perth is not that far. Come over.
We decided also that SymbioticA is a research lab that deals with questions about life from the sub-molecular to the ecological, so we're trying to not be too ambitious with our needs. So we are doing anything from the sub-molecular working with different types of materials and elements all the way up to ecological systems. But we also have, and this is something that we found quite intriguing, that once we opened up the doors for residencies we got cultural geographers and ethicists and philosophers and other professions that we were the only conduit for them to be able to come into the lab and engage in an experiential way with what's going on in the lab. Again, not just trusting the scientists but actually having the ability and having the facilities that allow them to engage themselves with the materials.
That's our masters. We think it's the most useful MBA around, because it's a master of biological arts, ignore all of the other bullshit. And yeah, it kind of worked.
Now, I'm moving to my own work. In 1996 I wrote my thesis as a designer, so my background is product design. I was imagining a future where design and biotechnology might come together. So basically imagining this idea that we can change our culture from a culture of manufacturing to a culture of growing. I was very naïve, I thought that's going to solve a lot of problems of the world. Luckily 20-odd years later I realised that's not really the case, and the promises that we have now are something that I actually engage a lot in because it's an extremely problematic proposition. Maybe in the questions and answers we can talk more about it.
The shifting in our understanding of life really changed. This is how we imagined we repair the body in the '80s. This is true regenerative medicine in the '90s. The body becomes its own technology. I won't have time to talk too much about it because I want to talk about a couple of projects. But in 1996 I set up with Ionat Zurr the Tissue Culture and Art project as a project that explores those questions, especially around the use of tissue technologies from an artistic perspective. And it was an open-ended research at the time. Australia was opening up to support artists with open-ended research questions rather than with outcome-oriented, audience-building type of approach that we face now.
And they gave us money to basically ask a question; can the use of living tissue ever become a valid form of artistic expression? And funnily enough this is a question I'm still asking myself every morning. While obviously now there's hundreds of artists working with living tissue as their medium for artistic expression, but for me what drives me is still the question, is it really valid?
Anyway, the first lab…we were able to get into a lab, the first lab we worked in was the Lions Eye Institute in Western Australia, and here it's kind of a bit disturbing but this is what we were confronted by.
We would get those half rabbits' heads or the lab would get those half rabbits' heads in around lunchtime. We were told the rabbits were killed in the morning for food. The heads were sent to a brain research institute, and then the brains would be pulled out and then those half rabbits' heads would arrive to our lab around lunchtime.
We would then…or the researchers, but that's we as well, that's Ionat, would take the eyes out, because the lab was really interested, they were trying to develop artificial corneas, they were interested in how the skin over the eye would respond to all the different materials they were developing at the time. And we would then put those eyes in the antibiotic solution and put them in the fridge overnight. So this obviously for all intents and purposes, this is a piece of dead meat. Those are eyes that were pulled off the piece of dead meat. More than 24 hours after the animal was obviously killed and dead, we would have a chat with the scientists and then we would look down a microscope and we would see living cells.
And this is where—someone promised you I'm going to tell you what is life—I can tell you how poor we are, the poverty of our language to describe what life is. Because we have 50 words to describe shit in the English language; we have only one word to describe life in all of its manifestations.
So those cells are alive, but obviously not in the same way that the rabbit was alive 24 hours earlier. So that's when Ionat and myself started talking about this idea of the semi-living. And we started to grow the skin over glass figurines and then we basically were able to start to grow sculptures and show them in cultural contexts. This is in Ars Electronica in the Bruckner House. We set up a fully functioning lab in order to show our live tissue engineered sculptures in the cultural context. What's quite interesting in this context is that we actually were… that's—everything you see here is a technological frame. The actual work was those tiny worry dolls that we'd grown. But in most cases I can guarantee that most people only saw a bunch of artists taking stuff out of the lab and de-contextualising—or re-contextualising it within a cultural context.
And this is the problem that many artists working with technology have, is the technological frame takes over the actual content that that they are interested in engaging with.
I won't have time to talk too much about this but we're killing them as well as part of their existence, so it's really important for us also to show people what the fate of the life forms that we're involved with is. But I want to talk to you about the latest project Ionat herself has been developing together with Tarsh Bates and all of those people over here, so it's a research collaboration that we have with the University of Edinburgh, with the Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology, and the Centre of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, which is basically social scientists who are doing what's called in the UK RRI research—responsible research in innovation—and this is kind of work in progress where we're trying to fuse a human and a yeast cell to create a life form that exists across kingdoms.
They are using a technique which actually ended up using is quite new but cell fusion is not that new. It actually started in the 1960s. And basically it's really work in progress. Also the install crew, as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival really fucked up, so it doesn't look the way we would like it to look, but it at least gives you some example. We exploded an incubator, the environment we were trying to bridge those membranes, both of the life forms, so basically get the membrane of the human cell and the yeast cell to kind of fuse together, but also the technological membrane of the incubator was kind of breached and opened up.
And I'll just show you a short video, so we think that we were successful. The green ones are the yeast cells, the red one is the mammalian cell, and it seems that we were able to get this yeast cell into the mammalian cell.
As I said, cell fusion is not that new. You can actually mail-order cells that exist across species, so this is, for example, what's called a hybridoma, which is a fusion of a mouse, an Albanian hamster and another mouse, so three different organisms, two different species created, one life form that exists and can be mail-ordered through this catalogue.
And the same with this one, this is a mouse and a human. Those hybridomas are generated in order to create human antibodies in this context, and exists in places around the world. Those are life forms that fall under no system of taxonomy besides the catalogue numbers in those tissue banks.
Where do we put them? Where do we put them in the context of the museum, where do we put them in the context of culture? Are they going to be relegated to the freak show, or are we just going to treat them as technology that produces stuff for us? Which is one of the questions I constantly ask. Is there something special about those life forms that requires some special consideration, or are we now, by treating life as a technology, it's like any other piece of technology that we have around us. So is there something special about life is the question, rather than what life is.
All right. That was in GoMA. That's a different version where we had a two-headed bird and a bioreactor, so the only living thing in this whole arrangement were abstracted cells within a technological frame.
I'll just finish with this project. I didn't have time to speak about meat and leather, but let me just finish with this, because this is another interesting project that's not that recent. It's already about four years old, but to do with cultural amnesia. In 1911 a French scientist called Stephane Leduc wrote a book called The Mechanisms of Life.Now, 1911 was also the peak of the kind of philosophical struggle in regard to vitalism. So when I say there's something special about life, I'm not a metaphysical person, I'm a materialist, but I still think there's something about life. But at the time obviously you can imagine there were fights between the vitalists and the mechanics and the materialists. Leduc was obviously very much on the side of the materialists, and he wrote a book where he basically said that life is merely a complex chemical reaction. And in Chapter 10 (1911) he already titled the chapter, 'Synthetic Biology'. So synthetic biology is not that new.
The term was actually coined in 1911. And in there he talks about the fact that we know enough, or we're going to soon know enough about life that we'll be able to synthesise it. That's even before they knew about DNA. And you already had the hubris of saying we can start to treat life like we treated chemistry, so we can do synthetic chemistry now. Because we figured out how to make organic compounds in the lab, we can do the same thing with life.
One of the simplest examples—so he had like a series of recipes there—one of the simplest examples of how you can make life-like behaviour using chemical reaction is this experiment here, where he basically referred to as artificial liquid cells that are basically formed by coloured drops of concentrated salt solution and less concentrated salt solution and Indian ink. So it's ink and two different types of salt solutions.
So this is 1911. This is 2014, this is our work. And we basically used the three dimensional printer that we had to actually work with an amazing artist engineer called Corrie van Sice, where we basically automated this 1911 protocol to create those things that in a sense for a while look like living tissue. They look like cells that have nuclei; they're creating some kind of a tissue, again on this stage of the petri dish. The thing is that after about 20 minutes it just dissolved into this kind of murky water, and this is where we are now in our relationship to life. Thank you very much.
Astrida Niemanis: All right, we have at least 15 minutes for a Q&A with Oron, so I know that Professor Catts is eagerly awaiting your difficult and challenging questions. So who would like to start us off?
Audience member 1: Thanks so much for that. That was wonderful. I was really interested in what you were saying about how museums privilege form. And I wondered if you'd say just a little bit more about…you then made some comments about how they exclude sort of creative engagements with life as a sort of socio-technically mediated process.
Oron Catts: Did I say that?
Audience member 1: You didn't put it in those terms. Sorry, so you said something about how they exclude certain engagements with the life sciences, and I wondered if you could elaborate on that.
Oron Catts: I don't think I said that. So what's really interesting, I think museums are really confused at the moment, which is nice, it's a nice time for us to intervene with them as well. The traditional role of the museum, and that was going back to the kind of Jacques Loeb kind of reference of moving from being a merely descriptive to a prescriptive, is that life and the life sciences, and by extension this idea of natural history, is moving away from being solely descriptive. So they would send scientists on exploration, they find species and would name them using an out-dated system of Linnaean taxonomy and put them in the collection and think they'd done their job.
Now we're starting to have life forms, and as I showed with those hybridomas, that are in a sense part of the natural history but they don't exist under any form of classification and any form of cultural articulation. And those are exactly the life forms that I'm interested in and those are exactly the problematic life forms that within the context of the museum fall, like Dolly, in between the natural history and the cultural history.
And I don't know if I'm answering your question, but I think that this is the area where there's a resistance of museums, and this is something I've seen also within my work with museums. The heads of collections are very, very possessive. So curators of zoology, for example, would find it really problematic to…how do you deal with like the life form that we just created, which is a yeast-human hybrid, which exists only within a microbiological context.
But those are becoming more and more important life forms to our existence. That is our new ecology, in a sense. So our new ecology is really those life forms, because they're going to escape our control, and this is by definition. So in a sense we are going to have life forms that we were involved in, responsible in generating, that exist outside any formal taxonomy and natural history, that are creating the new ecology. So how we are going to engage with this new ecology is a question that we will have to answer in some way. And, rather than those things being relegated to the freak show, I think museums have to play a really important role in leading the way in positioning them both scientifically and culturally.
Audience member 2: Thanks so much for that really interesting talk. I would suggest that the cultural form that those life forms have is intellectual property. I'd say that they would have been patented, and that that is their value, as intellectual property, and I would also…added to that I think what's really interesting is that Vacanti sought to copyright and not patent the mouse ear. Just a comment.
Oron Catts: It is a great comment, and this is exactly the problem of what does it mean to make life in a new liberal economy. And what responsibilities we have around it in regard to that. The interesting thing about patents that have a finite life, in a sense, so 19 years. The interesting thing with copyrights is they have 99 years after the death of the author. And actually there was a company in France, for example, who was trying to basically copyright DNA sequences as music, as a way to get copyright protection over the DNA sequence as opposed to patent protection, so it would have a longer term royalties of the use of those sequences of the DNA. They didn't manage to get it, but it's kind of interesting to see.
The question is, is this really the right way to think about the future of life, if we are allowing those types of—okay, another segue but an interesting story in this context. CRISPR. So CRISPR is this new found way of…the claim is that it's the most accurate, the most precise way to do genetic engineering, as opposed to what happened before, where you would just kind of basically carry a piece of genetic material on a virus as a vector and it will go in and put it anywhere.
The rhetoric of the synthetic biologist is that this is finally giving us the way to rationally design life. And 'rationally' design is the operative word here. At the very same time, at the moment there's a huge legal battle between Harvard and Berkeley, between George Church and Jennifer Doudna about who's the prime primate, that is the head of the pack as the patent holder of that. Which is in a sense just advanced primate grooming behaviour, totally irrational.
So how can an irrational living biological system can ever claim to rationally design other living biological systems, when we are engaged in those shared fictions that have no grounding in any biological reality of copyrights and patent laws.
Audience member 3: Thank you for your talk. I was just wondering, just because of the recent cultural shift towards humanism and how the public is now very against animal testing and against GMO crops as well as other animals, even though I know GMO has been around for centuries. How does that affect us as scientists and artists in this context?
Oron Catts: I want to show you something in this context.
So animal rights organisations are now claiming that—and I'm sorry, the image I am about to show is quite disturbing—but basically they recommended the use of tissue culture as a way to reduce animal experimentation. They're recommending actually the use of tissue culture as a way of growing meats in the lab as opposed to an animal. The problem around most of those is they are to do with the aesthetics of our relationship to how direct the victim is in our viewfinder. Those are the realities of tissue culture. Those are the realities of growing meat in the lab. We're still using foetal culture.
The problem that we have in our times is that we are much more happy to hide the victims of our existence. Not eliminate them but hide them. So a lot of what we see in our technology is not about removing the victim and eliminating the victim. It's about just removing them from our sight so we can go and consume the world around us without feeling guilty.
So yes, it's really nice to see that people are opposing animal experimentation, and more and more people are moving towards a more ethical relationship to other life forms. But in most cases it's not the real case. They're being duped into thinking that they're doing good in the world.
So let's put it another way, and this is something actually I failed to mention when I talked about our control of other systems. When I talked about our control of other living systems, I should add, by definition, any attempt to control another system that existed outside of your control previously is by definition an act of violence.
So what we need to make choices are the degree of violence that we're willing to exercise against the world, not whether we are violent or not. By definition our existence is a violent existence towards others. And we need to somehow get away from the self-righteous idea that we're doing good in the world to a more self-reflective idea that we're not, but we should minimise how bad we do in the world. What I refer to as informed hypocrisy.
Astrida Niemanis: We're coming near to the end. Could I just see a show of hands of how many more people want to ask questions?
Audience member 4: I'm trying to keep my analytics going while I have this visceral response to this image.
Oron Catts: That's good.
Audience member 4: But I was also thinking about the covert organ trading that's going on that's also not on display so much. But the question I wanted to ask is, you've emphasised the rational, pseudo-rational scientist, the artists, all our attempts to make sense of this—display or not, hide and conceal and reveal. But what about the intelligence of the life itself that's on display, so the question of consciousness. I was also thinking of the immaterial human service provisions that is being unequally distributed across the globe and life forms.
Oron Catts: So you're talking about the human or the non-human…?
Audience member 4: Both, actually. I think to me, I'm an anthropologist so I see everything in humanoid terms, yes.
Oron Catts: I think you're totally right, and this is something that we tend to forget about. When we talked about the fact that growing meat in the lab creates a new class of exploitation, philosophers and ethicists came to us and said how dare you say that? We are doing good in the world because we removed it from the animal…let's say they found a solution for this foetal calf serum, we still believe, even in the cellular level, we're still exploiting other systems for our benefit.
There is still kind of labour that is being given to us which is like moving away—this becomes the interesting thing, and that's why I started with the pigs, the meat packing. Animal labour was the thing that drove us, and other human labour which was considered to be less than human. Then the industrial revolution came and we kind of relegated it to non-human labour within kind of technologies.
Now we're bringing it back to biological labour. And this is kind of the fourth industrial revolution, as the IMF is talking about. So we want to highlight exactly those cases that we are. I'm not taking a high moral ground here. I'm implicated and this is part of my experience as an artist. I want to be implicated in those things in order for me to actually have the ability—and this is also what I tell anyone who comes to my lab—by coming to the lab you're implicated, you have to figure out a more nuanced way rather than a self-righteous way to engage with those issues.
Audience member 5: I'm wondering if you've ever worked with Henrietta Lacks's cells, and also if you've come up with your own definition of what life is through your research.
Oron Catts: Great question. There were two projects that I worked with Henrietta Lacks cells. Obviously they've got a very interesting history, but in the level of time operating with cells I don't really see much difference between Henrietta Lacks cells and cells that were taken without consent by so many other organisms, human and otherwise. So the fact that she is being pitched as the poster cell line is…
Audience member 5: It's interesting because her daughter wanted to go meet her mother, you know, so it has this human relevance.
Oron Catts: No, no, there is a lot. I can tell you a story, we had one project specifically where we actually embodied her shadow, her silhouette, using her own cells as well. But in a death chamber, so we designed this device that actually in some stage in the exhibition moved from a life-giving system to a death chamber of the cells that were kind of growing over the silhouette of Henrietta. So it was all about the indeterminacy of what the cells are and when they are living or dead.
But just as another example, I also run workshops and I often use cells and I often, because of the story around Henrietta, I ask to work with HeLa cells when possible. And at the end of the workshops we always have this—I ask the participants to think about how they're going to dispose of the living biological material that they were involved in manipulating. And it's their choice, because in the lab what we usually do we just bleach them and throw them down the drain, or we sterilise them and then we dispose of them. And I ask the artists, is there anything special you want to do about those cells and most people would basically say those bacteria we worked with is not interesting, those animal cells, maybe; the human cells is something we want to give kind of thanks to.
And in that specific workshop we're using the HeLa cells and we were just about to do it and one of the participants says, 'Those cells are not really human cells, they're not Henrietta's cells, they're actually the cancer that killed her. And my husband died exactly a year from today from cancer. And for me this is the cancer that killed my husband. It doesn't stand for Henrietta, it stands for the cancer that killed my husband. Kill the fuckers.' And she was really violent towards those cells.
So those kind of different relationships that you can have with those things is really important as well. And again, it's how are we going to articulate. So going back to your next question about if I've made a decision about life. I'm very carbon life biased. So I don't really care for artificial life, although I think that some other people should care for it, but that's outside of my kind of jurisdiction. My plate is full already.
But I want to believe that there's something special about it. I'm still trying to find what it is that makes it special—besides the fact that I'm a carbon-based living biological system myself, and the things I care for most are also other carbon life forms. So I think I would like not to treat them the same way I treat even my phone or my car or my furniture, or any other inanimate object. I don't think I'll ever find an answer, but this is really one of the main motivations of my work. It is to figure out how we can develop this form of secular vitalism, that actually believes that there's something special, that there's some things that we maybe have to think about when we start to manipulate life, and not treat it as yet another raw material that seems to be the case now.
Audience member 6: Thank you, Oron, for your inspiring talk. I was just wondering if there has been, given the context of your talk here in this museum, if there has been—and the sketchy provenance based around a lot of our collections—has there been any luck in harvesting human cells from patina and creating an artist from an artwork?
Oron Catts: So, okay, we demonstrated that you can harvest viable cells from animals that were killed, for about two weeks. After that it's getting a bit difficult. So I would imagine that you were talking about maybe one of the masters, one of those… Yeah, it's a nice proposition; I don't think it's possible. And when someone…and we've seen some conversation around this idea of DNA, so you might be able to get the DNA of the artist from those things. Personally, I'm a DNA denier. I don't really care about DNA that much. I think that in the future people will look back at our times and realise that this is another form of what I refer to as DNA chauvinism.
The reason why we're so obsessed about DNA is because this is the only thing the male contributes. So anything else is not important. And it's similar to this idea of the immaculus, when they looked down in the microscope and looked at sperm and saw already the little human there, because the female body is the empty vessel where it can cook. So our focus on DNA is some obsession which I find problematic, so if you tell me that you found human DNA in the patina of a painting which might be of the artist, I say, 'So what?'
Audience member 7: I just had a question, just to draw you back into the world of art, not that it's oppositional, but as well as the museum. And I guess I'm a sort of child of that hopeful era that you started working in as well, where we were looking at open-ended research possibilities for what we were doing. And this evening on my way here I walked past an advertisement for the Archibald that said, 'The Archibald is the Melbourne Cup of the art world.' And basically I was like, well that's kind of where we're at the moment. And I just wanted to ask you about what your hope is for the future of the kinds of practices that we are interested in, and in this kind of neoliberal, last-gasp context. And whether this turn away from science engaged practice or interdisciplinary practice is also another hiding, another way of hiding from the questions that are difficult for us to answer.
Oron Catts: Okay. So many things there that need to be unpacked. First of all let's start from the end. Internationally actually there's a huge resurgence of so-called art in science. And personally I don't really like this term. I see myself as an artist who's interested in life and our relationship to life. So the most radical things happening to life at the moment are in the lab. So I park myself there and there's enough material for me to work for generations.
But this whole field of art in science is actually becoming even more problematic in light of the new liberal approach, because artists are losing their contracts with society and they are becoming those promoters of the innovation paradigm and because they have a licence to lie, they are the ones being pushed forward to capture the public imagination, or actually worse than that, to capture the investors' imagination into investing in those kind of new techno-babbles that are upon us.
So this is kind of a really problematic area, and I have like special talks that I only talked about that. But to do with also the loss of this idea of being able to operate in an open-ended way, again, it's part of the much, much, larger…we see what's happening to universities all over the world. The Royal College of Arts in London closed down their humanities program, closed down any critical approaches within the art world, the art school, I think there are little islands there that are still allowed to do it, but within the Design School where I did most of my work, they shut down any form of criticality, because this is the last thing that this new paradigm needs, yeah, critical reflection into the bullshit they are feeding us.
And what we see is that artists are being coerced to do so as well, so they are becoming those either very pleasant kind of, very tested lapdogs, or active promoters of the very same thing that they are supposed to question and shine a mirror against. And I don't know if there's a way out of it. I'm in an extremely privileged position as well, and I don't know how long I'm going to last. Maybe after this talk I want to come back to a job…
But artists I think have to resist this idea of being co-opted within that, because we have a very, very important role in society, and again because we have the licence to lie, we are also in the end becoming the most trustworthy because we've got nothing to lose in this context, and if we are to start to play the game of outcomes and all of the other ticking boxes, we're basically going to lose any justification for our existence.
Astrida Niemanis: I think that's a wonderful note to end on. Before we thank Oron once again I just want to announce that the next Human Nature lecture series talk is being held three weeks from tonight on June 14th right here, where Alice Te Punga Somerville will speak about 'Taupata, taro, roots, earth: the (Indigenous) politics of gardening'. A little different than tonight's talk, but maybe not. So hope to see you there as well. But now let's give one final thank you to Oron.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.
Oron Catts is the Director of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, School of Human Sciences, The University of Western Australia and a Professor at Large in Contestable Design at The Royal College of Arts, London (2015-2107). He is an artist, designer, researcher and curator who is consider a pioneer in the field of biological art. Under Catts’ leadership SymbioticA won the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) and the WA Premier Science Award (2008). In 2009 Catts was recognised by Thames & Hudson’s book 60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future in the category “Beyond Design”, and by Icon Magazine (UK) as one of the top 20 Designers, “making the future and transforming the way we work.” His work has been exhibited and collected by museums such as MoMA NY, Mori Art Museum, NGV, GoMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Ars Electronica, National Art Museum of China and others.