Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 16th, 2010

Oron and Ionat came to us with a unique idea, to translate what had been theoretical work into real living objects. To take their ideas out of an academic thesis and make them real. To attempt to grow semi-living objects in the real world.

Our department has a long history of having artist’s in residence. Hans Arkveldt, a famous sculptor has long had a studio in our department, and until recent cut backs, we had a resident graphic artist, Martin Thompson. This, I think, gave us the courage to take on such an unconventional project; little were we to know where it was to lead.

Oron is now manager of SymbioticA, the first art and science research lab in a biological department that we are aware of in the world. I find myself as a director of this facility and a whole new dimension has been added to my work by contact with Oron an Ionat. We have a queue of international artists who want to come and work in SymbioticA; social scientists who want to study the phenomenon; and scientists happy to collaborate with the artists.

Following their residency in our department (now its own school in our university’s restructure, one of the few departments to be considered diverse enough to stand on its own as a complete new school of Anatomy and Human Biology, helped in part, I am sure, by the presence of SymbioticA) Oron and Ionat went to work in Vacanti’s laboratory in Boston, the world centre for advanced organ culture. They brought many new techniques back to Perth to put into practice in our laboratories.

The quality of this work is there for all to see, and led to us (Professor Miranda Grounds, Oron and myself) applying and receiving funding from the Lotteries Commission to set up a permanent art and science lab to support further initiatives following Oron and Ionat’s lead.  This funding was matched by University of Western Australia, that recognized the pioneering and cross-disciplinary nature of this venture to enable us to literally “raise the roof” of the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology to form SymbioticA.

My collaborations with Oron and Ionat have also lead to my involvement with a large collaborative art project, Fish and Chips. This formed a major work at Ars Electronica in 2001. I would never have had a chance to participate in such a venture if Oron and Ionat had not laid down a good reputation (with their Tissue Culture & Art (ificial) Wombs installation, 2000) such that Ars Electronica were willing to fund their return in 2001.

I have also been challenged repeatedly by their new and different approach to science.  This has made me think very carefully about the background of my work and that of other neuroscientists. At the Perth Biennale of Electronic Art to be held this August we will all be participating in a forum, The Aesthetics of Care, about the ethics of the use of living material in art.

Oron and Ionat’s residency has had a lasting and continuing impact way beyond what even they may have anticipated. Their work continues to challenge, both the art world, the school of Anatomy and Human Biology, and the scientists that work there.

Stuart Bunt
Co-director, SymbioticA (Western Australia)
Dept of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia

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