Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 16th, 2010

In 1996 Oron Catts initiated the Tissue Culture & Art Project, an ongoing artistic research and development project into the use of tissue culture and tissue engineering as a medium for artistic expression. The idea for the project arose from Catts’ research into product design and how new biotechnologies could be utilised, beyond their current agricultural and medical applications, as a medium for product design and art creation. Ionat Zurr, a photography and media studies graduate specialising in biological and digital imaging, joined the project shortly after it was set up in 1996. Guy Ben-Ary, the third member of the team, has been collaborating with Oron and Ionat since 1998, bringing skills in microscopy and biological imaging as well as a background in programming and web development.

The Tissue Culture & Art Project works at the interface of science and art constructing semi-living artefacts and sculptures made from living tissue grown over/into structures made of bio-polymers and glass. The results have been exhibited as art installations in different settings (art galleries, science museums and public spaces) using a variety of modes of representation such as microphotographs (unenhanced, digitally manipulated), videos, web-based applications, 3D models as well as the actual objects fixed in formaldehyde. In the last two years they have been able to present living sculptures in galleries by constructing a fully functioning tissue culture laboratory as part of their installations.

By presenting their semi-living sculptures as artwork and exhibiting them in the public domain the group hopes to draw the public’s attention to the ethical issues surrounding the expanding fields of biotechnology. Their work uses art as a generator of critical and aesthetic debate to stimulate a dialogue between the scientific community and the wider community regarding new developments in biological technologies. The artists also explore the new relationships created with artworks that consist of living matter and the notion of caring for these artworks.

Scientists have already been successful in creating living skin for use in skin grafts and are now working at creating whole organs. Cloning and stem cell research are currently hot topics in the media along with plans to redesign the human body through genetic engineering. The artists follow these types of developments closely and comment:

“It is obvious that technological and scientific developments are exceeding the cultural capacity to comprehend those changes. This is why this kind of artistic expression is so important now. Art can be seen as the optimal medium for generating discussion and debate dealing with the contradictions between what we know about the world and society’s values which are still based on old and traditional perceptions of the world.”

Ongoing research and development is central to the Tissue Culture & Art Project with the team members forming close research partnerships with science-based organisations. This has enabled them to gain ongoing access to the necessary skills, expertise and equipment for their research. They have been artists in residence at the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia (UWA) for over six years; supported for six months of which by the ANAT Scientific Serendipity Residency.

This highly successful research partnership has been formalised by the creation of SymbioticA – the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory. The SymbioticA lab is now hosting the ongoing work of the Tissue Culture & Art project and the work of other artists and thinkers who want to explore the new possibilities and issues presented by biotechnologies.

Can you describe the process of developing the residency with the Department of Anatomy & Human Biology at UWA and the Scitech Discovery Centre in Perth?
The ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency represented a continuation of our research and our relationship with the department and the university, which we had already developed at earlier stages of the Tissue Culture & Art Project.1

Most of our research was done in the laboratories of the Department of Anatomy & Human Biology, which we used as a base to work with other scientific institutions and the other host of this residency – the Scitech Discovery Centre. The inclusion of Scitech as a host derived from our interest in exploring ways of presenting our work. Scitech specialised in presenting scientific concepts in approachable and entertaining ways. We were interested in learning some of their strategies and methods, which assisted with developing and setting up the installation for our exhibition The Stone Age of Biology.

Can you tell us more about the project you were working on during the ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency?
The residency represented Stage 3 of the Tissue Culture & Art Project, which stage began with research into the growth of skeletal muscle from mice, and neuron cells from goldfish over hydrogels P(HEMA). We grew muscle and nerve tissue over miniaturised replicas of prehistoric stone tools. The structures were made out of bio friendly plastics and produced using a 3D scanner and plotter. We titled this research and development residency Force (muscle tissue) & Intelligence (nerve tissue) over Plastic.

We also created time-lapse movies of the growth of spinal cord nerve cells. We experimented with the production of the P(HEMA) scaffold using CAD/CAM systems. The work developed during the residency (The Stone Age of Biology) was exhibited as part of the 2000 Perth International Arts festival (PIAF). In the installation we presented a new way of capturing and presenting microscopic imagery using a sophisticated computerised stage and specialised software. We also presented a seven minute video, the actual stone tools (from the anthropological collection of the WA museum), the P(HEMA) miniatures with the tissue fixed on them, and other 3 dimensional work related to this stage.

Do you have any advice for other artists about how to successfully maintain relationships with research hosts?
One of the main problems with artist residencies in places like science laboratories is that the role of the artist is not usually defined and is barely understood. This often leads to unrealistic expectations on both sides as to the ways the residency is set up and its outcomes. We found that our most rewarding residency was when we were appointed as research fellows (as opposed to artists in residence) and were on an equal footing with our fellow researchers. It took us more then four years to reach this level (being a research fellow in that lab was equivalent to postdoctoral research.)

In terms of advice, the important thing to remember is to do some research about what you are intending to do in order to understand basic principles and to be able to propose a feasible project. Work together with the scientists and be aware of not abusing their time. Help them if you can in their projects – find areas of common interests that can be useful for both of you. Be responsible in your lab work, clean after yourself; do as much as possible to eliminate damage to other experiments. We were also using our own grant money and using surplus left over materials from scientists. We were quite strict in not abusing scientific resources. It is a lot about getting along with people and finding common points of interest.

How do you see the relationship or interaction between art and science?
The interaction of art, science, industry and society is recognised internationally as an essential avenue for innovation and invention, and as a way to explore, envision and critique possible futures. Science and art both attempt to explain the world around us in ways that can be complementary to each other. Artists can act as important catalysts for creative and innovative processes and outcomes. There is a need for artists and other professionals in the humanities to actively participate in research into possible and contestable futures arising from these developments.

Can you describe some of the responses to your work from scientists?
The responses from scientists range from very enthusiastic to resentful, but the same can be said about the response we get from artists and from others. It is obvious that the scientists that choose to work with us are generally supportive and sympathetic to our cause. They get to look at their own work from different perspectives and are usually content with the issues we raise. Some may see our work as a way of informing and educating the public about scientific developments – ‘turning people on to science’ was one of the expressions used in regard to our work. Other scientists share our concerns about potential directions of technology derived from their research and join us in imagining different, alternative directions. There are also negative reactions from scientists who see what we do as a misrepresentation of science at best and as a waste of scientific resources at worse. Some scientists as well as members of the public and the arts tend to question our ethics and our morals. We welcome these reactions as we feel that a discussion regarding the ethics of using living systems for human-centric activities is acutely needed.

Scientists have to get clearance from ethics committees for their research. Did you have to go through a similar process with your project?
We are working very closely with the animal research ethics people at UWA. We have a very clear stance in regard to the source of the tissue we are using for the purpose of the Tissue Culture & Art Project. We will never kill an animal solely for our work. We are scavengers and we mainly use leftovers from scientific research and meat production for which we do not have to apply for clearance.

Matters are becoming more complex when live animals are being used or killed for art production, that represents a major challenge to the university. The ethics committee does not have the tools to evaluate potential benefits of an art project as opposed to the known suffering of the animals. To date, one project, which originated in SymbioticA was submitted to the university’s ethics committee, as it had scientific merits as well as artistic intention, it was approved based solely on its scientific components.

What animals have you sourced cells from?
To date we have grown: epithelial (skin) tissue from rabbits, rats and mice; connective tissue from mice, rats and pigs; muscle tissue from rats, sheep and goldfish; bone and cartilage tissues from pigs, rats and sheep; mesenchymal cells (bone-marrow stem cells) from pigs and neurons from goldfish.

Have you used human cells?
We have used some human cell-lines for our experiments, but we tend not to use human cells for two reasons. The first is that human tissue is considered to be more risky than other animals as the chances of the existence of pathogens that affect humans is much higher (human viruses such as HIV and hepatitis). The second reason is that at the level we are operating at there is not much difference between human tissue and animal tissue. Our work deals with a new kind of entity we refer to as semi-living; emphasis on human tissue may detract from dealing with our treatment of living biological systems.

What have responses been like from members of the general public? Do you get expressions of horror and outrage for playing around with living material?
Our work is often misrepresented as being to do with genetic engineering – a misrepresentation usually propagated by the media and ill informed commentators who perceive anything to do with new biological technologies as genetic engineering. This leads people to comment about our work with the same knee-jerk reaction they developed towards genetic engineering. This obscures the issues we are dealing with which are mainly to do with the shifting borders of what we perceive to be alive and the relationships we form with living biological systems. One of the best opportunities we had, gauging public reactions, was in Adelaide where we have shown the Pig Wings project. As part of the installation I had to feed the wings once a day, while giving a floor talk to the general public. Most responses I have received were of wonder and interest. I am aware of negative feelings towards our work, but it is very rare that people express these feeling to us directly.

What is your ethical stance on working with tissue culture and other related biotechnologies? What do you think is and isn’t acceptable in this area?
Working and manipulating living systems should not be taken lightly. Modern biology enables us to objectify living systems and to create semi-living beings. As wet biology art practitioners who use tissue technologies to create semi-living sculptures, we are acutely aware that the semi-living beings that we create are dependent on our care for survival and well-being. We try to formulate the broader questions to the extent to which we can morally manipulate and exploit living biological systems for human-centric activities.

What kind of relationships are we going to form with these entities? Will we care for them or abuse them? Where will semi-living objects be positioned in the continuum of life and how will this effect our value systems with regard to living systems including our own bodies – human or otherwise?

Have any new projects arisen as a result of the residency?
During this residency we experimented for the first time with the culture of goldfish central nervous system cells, as this knowledge was very important to the development of Fish & Chips.2 Following this residency we received funding from The New Media Arts Board of The Australia Council for a one year residency at The Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, where the Tissue Culture & Art(ificial) Womb (the Worry dolls) and the Pig Wings projects have been developed. We have no doubt that ANAT’s support was instrumental in our professional practice and development that led to our appointment as research fellows.

You have also set up the SymbioticA lab in conjunction with The Department of Anatomy & Human Biology at the UWA. How did that come about?
After being artists in residence in The Department of Anatomy & Human Biology for almost four years (six months of which were supported by ANAT), there was a mutual feeling that our relationship with the department needed to be formalised in some way. We also thought that the model of collaboration we developed could be extended to other artists seeking to collaborate with the Department. With Professor Miranda Grounds and Dr. Stuart Bunt we applied for funding from the West Australian Lotteries Commission for the purpose of building SymbioticA, a physical space for artists in The Department of Anatomy & Human Biology. The SymbioticA laboratory has now been running for 2 years, and has hosted 20 artists from Australia and overseas for short term and long term residencies.3

What are the goals of the SymbioticA lab?
SymbioticA is a venue where interdisciplinary research and other knowledge and concept generating activities can take place. One of the major roles of SymbioticA is to identify trends in science and its applications, and explore possibilities for the purpose of proposing alternative directions and contestable scenarios in order to initiate cultural debate. It also provides an opportunity for researchers to pursue curiosity based explorations free of the demands and constraints associated with the current culture of scientific research.

SymbioticA offers a new means of artistic inquiry; one in which artists actively use the tools and technologies of science, not just to comment about them, but also to explore their possibilities. There is a need for artists and other professionals in the humanities to actively participate in research into possible and contestable futures arising from the developments of biotechnology.


1. For more information on the first two stages of the Tissue Culture & Art Project visit

2. The aim of Fish & Chips was to assemble a semi-living artistic entity from fish neurons grown over silicon chips. This ‘wetware’ semi-living entity was connected to computer software and visual and audio art output devices allowing it to become an ‘artist’.

3. More information about the SymbioticA laboratory can be found at

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.