est eng

 

The New Old Dogma of Biomedia

Veronika Valk (4/2012)

Veronika Valk explores bio-art in a conversation with Oron Catts.


"Technology is the answer, but what was the question?"
Cedric Price, 1979

 

The development of biotechnology is exerting a profound influence on how we will perceive, use and shape the world around us – the living organisms – in the future. The pioneers of synthetic biology and geo-engineers promise us new (building) materials – medicines, fuels and chemicals not found in nature; they promise a better world and a triumph over climate change. But do these scientists and engineers grasp the field of influence represented by biotechnology in today’s cultural space and understand the (desired) future developments?

 

Crude_Life_139

The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr)
Crude Life 138, Crude Life 139
Project: Victimless Leather-A Prototype of Stitchless Jacket grown in a
Technoscientific "Body"
2012
Courtesy of the artists

 

In mid-September, the artist, curator and researcher Oron Catts, who uses biological instruments in his work, gave a lecture as part of a series of guest lectures hosted by the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) Faculty of Architecture. His presentation titled “Growing instead of Building, when life is becoming raw material” was an introduction to the “Tissue Culture and Art Project”, which he formed with Ionat Zurr in 1996 and which has since become a leading platform for bio-art. The lecture and the following interview with Oron Catts, joined by Piibe Piirma, a doctoral student in new media at EAA, helped in several ways to reveal the background to Catts’ creative work, where art and science, technology and symbols, pragmatism and philosophy intertwine.

In 2000, Catts founded the SymbioticA centre at the University of Western Australia School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology. Under his leadership, the centre has won several important awards over the years, including the Golden Nica for Hybrid Arts at Prix Ars Electronica in 2007. The focus of Catts’ interest is life itself, more specifically, the changes in how life is understood as new knowledge is gained and applied in innovation, the cultural space and society. Cooperating frequently with colleagues, artists and scientists, he has helped to create a number of art projects highlighting the need to articulate conceptions of life. Catts worked as a researcher at Harvard Medical School in 2000–2001 and the Stanford University Department of Art and Art History in 2007. Today, he continues as the director of SymbioticA based in Perth, Australia, and as a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art in London; in late autumn 2012, he will be instigating a bio-art centre at the Future Art Base at Aalto University in Helsinki. Catts’ ideas and works go beyond the boundaries that have so far been attributed to art, being an inspiration for material and food technologists, designers, architects, ethicists and, of course, science fiction authors.

How did all this begin for Catts? As he was studying product design in the early 1990s, engineers were showing the first signs of being interested in applying the discoveries being made in biology. Catts then reckoned that if engineers wanted to make biological products, there would also be a need for designers capable of designing these products. In his diploma thesis, he reviewed numerous different approaches in biotechnology: applied research in genetics, plants and bacteria, but also the tissue culture approach, which had only just emerged. This is how he first found himself in the laboratory 16 years ago “and never came out”, he says, smiling.

What, for example, does Catts think about Joe Davis, who visited the Plektrum Festival in Tallinn in 2011, and whose presentation at this year’s Ars Electronica Festival in Linz reputedly caused controversy and even some anger? Catts has known Joe Davis for 13 years now, since the year he spent at Harvard in Boston on the US east coast. “But the issue is familiar to me. The SymbioticA centre just had a big retrospective in Poland, in the course of which we also published a book. Among the members of the audience there were many scientists, several of whom quite surprisingly and angrily expressed the view that artists should not muscle into the scientists’ playground and force their way into scientific laboratories to do their own thing there. I agree that the artist must do a lot of homework – as they must when applying for a residency with us at the SymbioticA centre – and gather existing knowledge. He cannot show up at the doorstep as a complete layman, naïvely, expecting the scientists or technicians to do all the work for him, sharing their time and knowledge with the artist. I am also in favour of the integrity of disciplines, an independent, uncorrupted honesty to oneself: an artist should be and remain an artist, and a scientist a scientist. They can cooperate, but an artist who tries to do science without having the appropriate training will not be doing good science. The same goes for scientists who try to start doing art overnight. But it is strange when a scientist comes and tells an artist that he cannot do the type of work that uses scientific tools …when a scientist draws a clear line between what the artist can and cannot do. Today, there are, after all, so many engineers who have gone over to scientific disciplines. Why then can an engineer, who also lacks an appropriate scientific background, all of a sudden become a ‘scientist’, but the same is not permitted for an artist? Joe Davis is an interesting case because he knows so much about molecular biology that he could even teach scientists. He is certainly not a layman or naïve; he has studied the subject for decades,” explains Catts.

But how exactly does SymbioticA work, or function as an organisation? There are artists, designers and even a few architects working as residents there, but what about scientists? “The way SymbioticA exists is that it is run by the director, which is me, and additionally an academic coordinator, a manager and an assistant. As we are located within a school of biology, quite a few scientists are included in our work. The working model is mentor-based, where the artist or designer – or philosopher – comes up with the topic they want to take up. Next, we find scientists in a suitable field and with an appropriate profile, able to help the residents along in their work. The first thing that I say to newcomers to the residency is that if they ultimately carry out their project in the way they initially described it in their application, it will be a failure; this shows they have not learned anything during the residency. The point of SymbioticA is to develop new ideas, to study new ways of working, to experiment and as a result to arrive at new knowledge or skills that the resident did not previously have. Usually, people come for three to six months, which means that there is not enough time to actually realise a larger project. It is fairly common to return to us after some time or to set up at other laboratories, having achieved good contact with the scientists; this, then, is how an actual result is reached, and a project carried out,” Catts explains.

What expectations do architects have when coming to the centre? I guess interior designers would probably be very happy using “living” materials for decoration. “It is strange to think that for the past ten thousand years mankind has been struggling to protect itself from a wet, muddy and slimy nature by building stone walls. And now architects are coming up with the question of how to grow houses out of living nature. It has been said that dwelling inside a living organism, say, a tree, is somehow ‘romantic’,” Catts laughs. The life forms that he works with in the laboratory are fragile and delicate. They are not yet capable of surviving in the world outside the sterile laboratory environment. “Whatever we are planning to take out of the lab, we need to think through how to keep it from becoming an alien species that is a threat to living nature, a ‘weed’. I recently met the architect Mitchell Joachim, who has an experimental architectural lab in Brooklyn, New York, and has created the ‘living roof’ project there, which by now is ‘dead’ because it did not survive the environmental conditions,” Catts recalls. Mitchell Joachim is an architect for whom a “soft” means of transportation and residential buildings grown out of muscle tissue are not utopian science fiction, but a real physical experiment on his desk in the Terreform laboratory. In 2008, Wired magazine placed Mitchell Joachim among the 15 most important visionaries that the US President should listen to.

When the desire to “grow” one’s own house becomes mainstream in society, is there a danger of an even greater objectification of living nature? “Yes, it is interesting that even in Manhattan there are curious examples of attempts to ‘domesticate’ living nature and to get closer to it. There is a new trend of keeping chickens in small apartments to obtain fresh eggs, which are then supposedly very healthy. So a chicken is a tool for getting closer to nature. I have heard that some even hatch chicks using their own body warmth,” Catts smiles. Some curious news stories that link science and art cross the media threshold more easily than others. “SymbioticA is located in Perth, which is a long way from Melbourne and Sydney. Journalists rarely come there,” says Catts. He believes in the periphery, where he thinks there are more opportunities to delve into creative work – art projects and scientific research – and to come up with something really experimental. “Estonia is exciting,” Catts assures me.

Today, Catts’ works can be found in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 2009 the publisher Thames & Hudson included Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr among the 60 most important innovators influencing our future.1 Icon magazine even lists them among the top 20 shaping our future and changing the ways we work. Why? Catts’ work arguably has strong symbolic value. He is also co-founder of the “Synthetic Aesthetics” residency project, which, supported by the National Science Foundation in the US and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK, studies the effect that synthetic biology as a new scientific approach has on our cultural field.

 

Veronika Valk is a Zizi&Yoyo (an)architect and a doctoral student at RMIT University. She is studying the future of the living environment and has curated urban actions in Estonia and abroad.

 

1 See: 60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future. Ed. Lucas Dietrich. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

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