Extra Ear 1/4 Scale — The Tissue Culture & Art Project in Collaboration with Stelarc
One of the events that triggered our interest in Tissue Engineering was the footage reels of the mouse with the human ear on its back (1995). We were amazed by the confronting sculptural possibilities this technology might offer. The ear itself is a fascinating sculptural form, removed from its original context and placed on the back of mouse; one could observe the ear in all of its sculptural glory. The outer human ear has a very unique and intricate form that makes it different from all of our other extremities, and artists seem to be fascinated by it.
When we met Stelarc again in 2002, we decided to explore a way in which we can use our knowledge in tissue engineering and our fascination with partial life in order to assist Stelarc in the quest for a third ear. We agreed to carry on with preliminary studies, a proof of concept, in which we will grow cartilage cells of different scale models of Stelarc’s left ear. Our hope is that upon successful proof of concept we would go on to a next stage of clinical trials on Stel-arc himself.
However, we are also very interested in the detached scaled-down ear as an object that holds its own right to be presented as an art object. This living, exact replica of Stelarc’s left ear — three dimen-sionally scanned and printed and seeded with living cells, grown in the gallery — can be seen as a stand alone soft prostatic that does not need a body to claim its independent existence.
The ear has been used as a symbol through human history and in human art. The semi-living extra ear cannot hear (and probably can-not listen) but it can defiantly evoke subversive future scenarios in regard to humanity and its relations to the semi-living entities and other alternative living systems.
Disembodied Cuisine: Semi-Living Frog Stakes
Some might say that the ultimate way of treating living systems is by consuming them for food. Throughout history humans have practiced some kind of division among living entities that are categorized as food or others (such as pets, ornaments, work etc.). These divisions are not always clear, and we must practice some kind of hypocrisy in order to be able to love and respect living things as well as to eat them. Dogs are an example of such confusion; in some cultures they are “man’s best friend” (pets), in other they are ornaments and being selectively bred for aesthetic qualities. Dogs, in other cultures are being eaten. Peter Singer refers to such division as: Speciesism in Practice — Animals as food.
As human society becomes urban and direct relations to what is considered to be “wild nature” weakens, this behavior is being fur-ther questioned. Furthermore, as our understanding of life increases, we employ different attitudes and hypocrisies to be able to continue this need to simultaneously cherish and kill living systems while employing some kind of value based hierarchy (sometimes rigid/ sometimes arbitrary) among the different living systems. (After all, vegetables are also living systems).
This piece deals with one of the most common zones of interaction between humans and other living systems and will probe the apparent uneasiness people feel when someone ‘messes’ with their food. Here the relationships with the Semi-Living are that of consumption and exploitation, however, it is important to note that it is about “victimless” meat consumption. As the cells from the biopsy proliferate, the “steak” in-vitro continues to grow and expand. Hence the source — the animal from which the cells were taken- is healing. Potentially, this work presents a future in which there will be meat (or protein rich food) for vegetarians, and the killing and suffering of animals destined for food consumption will be reduced. Furthermore, ecological and economical problems asso-ciated with the food industry (growing grains to feed the animals and keeping them in economically rationalized conditions) can be reduced dramatically. However, by growing our food we create a new class of exploitation — that of the Semi-Living.
The design of the laboratory is referencing the laboratory where the first successful tissue culture experiments were performed in 1910. This lab hosted the “Experimental Surgery” Group, led by Dr. Alexis Carrel of The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Dr. Carrel is a controversial figure in the history of Bio-Medical research. He was the first to develop tissue culture techniques. A 1954 article in the Collier Magazine describe Carrel as “A brilliant man… Dr. Carrel made valuable contributions to the science of tissue culture.”
Yet he is considered an eccentric mystic and fascist (or at least a Vichy- collaborating eugenicist). “His contemporaries criticized him on the grounds that he treated tissue culture as an occult art (he insisted his assistants wear flowing black robes and hoods in the laboratory) and promised all kinds of advances in the conquest of disease — promises he was never able to keep because of the limited tech-niques then used. The whole tissue-culture field suffered in the 1930s because of his eccentric behavior.” It can be argued that the Hollywood version of Dr. Frankenstein was based on Dr. Carrel, who received the 1912 Nobel Prize for medicine. Does his mystic and eugenic tendency come as a result of his obsession with partial life? Does the creation of the precursors of the Semi-Living usher in his intolerance to the other? Is that what is going to happen to us?
The Semi-Living are evocative entities that expose the gap between our belief and value systems and new knowledge that lead to our abilities to manipulate living systems. Our belief systems seem to be ill equipped to deal with the epistemological, ethical and psycho-logical implications raised by the life sciences and industry. Semi-Living entities expose our hypocrisies in regard to the living world and to the use of living systems for human centric purposes.
The use of biological technologies is admittedly a contentious issue. These technologies are becoming a major part of our lives, and affect our relationships with all living systems. The application of knowledge, acquired through directed research in life sciences seems to be driven by forces that are interested in short term gains for the few, often neglecting long term risks. The utilisation of knowledge gained as part of both basic and profit driven research into living systems seems even more alarming in the light of the war clouds hovering above. In addition to the obvious threat of biologi-cal warfare, the apparent decline in compassion to the “other” makes our times perilous for decision making about the manipu-lation and use of living systems.
One role that art can play is to suggest scenarios of ‘worlds under construction’ and subvert technologies for the purpose of creating contestable futures, and exploring variations that might have an effect. This role of art makes the emergence of the Semi-Living and the multi-leveled exploration of its use so relevant. Collections of cells cooperating/competing together for some sort of coherence that will enable survival are now being manipulated/exploited by us. We hope that the daily ritual of feeding and caring for the Semi-Living will remind us not to run away from our responsibilities and our compassion to others. We should not end up like Dr. Carrel.
Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr