Oron Catts. Image courtesy of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr).

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity, thanks to GV Art, to interview Oron Catts, an artist, designer and curator, who is a frontrunner in the emerging field of the biological-arts. Having been a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School and married to Ionat Zurr, award winning artist and curator, they set up the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996 in the aim of exploring the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. In 2000 they launched SymbioticA as the first research laboratory of its kind to offer artists and researchers the opportunity to engage in wet biology practices.

In the first part of the interview I was able to ask Oron about his inspiration for choosing the scientific course of art that he did and spoke to him particularly about The Pig Wings; a piece of art grown from pig bone marrow stem cells. It was interesting to hear about the politics of such a work; particularly surrounding the Human Genome Project, alongside the methodology and the role that music had to play in the project.

Stephanie: How did you become a bio artist? Am I allowed to call you a bio artist?!

Oron: I’d rather not, it’s shorthand for what I do. 16-17 years ago I was studying product design and in retrospect I realized then that life is becoming a raw material to be engineered and that the next step is for designers to come in and start to design those biological products that would be engineered by engineers. I found this prospect challenging, exciting and extremely disturbing, so I decided to look at it as an artist. But as an artist I don’t need to resolve anything. In a social context, as an artist your role is to problematize issues instead of trying to resolve them. I was never overly optimistic about this prospect, I was very challenged by the notion that if life is becoming a raw material to be engineered, then we have to be very careful about how we go about it. I also recognized that with every new product there were possibilities. As an artist, there is a material, a very old material – that is life – and now we have the capacity to engage with it and manipulate it in ways that have never been possible before.

My area of interest was a particular technology called tissue engineering. The reason I found this so amazing is that it provides the opportunity to basically grow sculptures out of living tissue. In 1996 there was a mouse with a human ear growing on its back and this was one of my inspirations, provocations and motivations for me to look at this technology. So that year, I approached scientists from the University of Western Australia with the idea of using living tissue as a material for artistic expression and Prof Miranda Grounds invited me to come into the lab. I had no official biological training but I had some generosity and help with this and other scientists who invited me to the lab. Ionat Zurr joined me shortly after and we started what is now called the Tissue Culture and Art Project. I’ve worked with living tissue ever since, it’s almost been the only thing! In 2000, myself and two other scientists were able to get some finance to build a dedicated research lab for artists working with biology which is now SymbioticA.

Could you go a little bit into the specifics of some of your projects? Such as Pig Wings, what was your inspiration for this project?

Pig Wings was a really interesting project. What’s interesting about living tissue as a medium for artistic expression is that it’s this very zone of life and uncertainty that manifests itself through the fact that you work with living parts of complex organisms but outside their original context. Which means that if I take cells from your body for example, and I start to culture them into something else, it’s not you as such, but it is living and it is being manipulated. We actually came up with the term semi-living to describe the type of living tissue that we were working with because it was living to the extent that the cells and the tissue were living but it wasn’t living as we perceive it as an organism with life, human or animal.

The Pig Wings. Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Guy Ben-Ary. Description: Pig mesenchymal cells (bone marrow stem cells) grown over/into biodegradable/bioabsorbable polymers (PGA, P4HB). The construct was grown for eight month in a microgravity bioreactor.

The Pig Wing is an interesting story, it’s a very long story. In 1999, I was invited to give a talk at MIT, and I used the opportunity, being in Boston, to meet with a scientist who was considered the pioneer of the whole field of tissue engineering. After a half an hour discussion with him, he invited Ionat and myself to be research fellows in his lab, so we spent a year at Harvard Medical School in the tissue engineering lab as research fellows and we started to develop quite a lot. The type of knowledge and experience we gained from spending a year there really fueled our creative practice for many years afterwards as well.

While we were in Boston, we were approached by an organization that will remain nameless for a moment, it was staging an exhibition to celebrate the completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Project (HGP). In June 2000, there was a big event with Clinton and Tony Blair and the head of the National Institute of Health in the US, and the equivalent here in the UK with a few public and private organizations involved in the HGP. They declared the first draft of the HGP complete. That was a political stunt and it wasn’t really a scientific achievement. It was a problem that they had when a private company tried to take over the public funded HGP. The media attention was directed towards the competition between private and public and in order to to get the media off their back, everyone decided to declare it complete so that everyone would be happy about it. Everyone but the scientists, because they were aware of the fact that political motivations were actually driving this, and it was a scientific achievement that wasn’t really achieved.

The Pig Wings. Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Guy Ben-Ary.

It’s a story in itself about the politics of science. The HGP was one of the scientific endeavours that was most hyped in the popular press. Therefore, the whole perception of the HGP was actually skewed by a very expensive and sophisticated public relations exercise. So when we were approached to do something for this so-called celebration, we chose to critically engage with the hype that surrounded the HGP and there were quite a few different statements that came about and one of them was that now that the HGP is complete (which it wasn’t), that the impossible is possible. We said okay, and pigs can fly. We decided to see what shape the wings would take and so we used bone marrow stems cells from pigs and grew them into three evolutionary solutions of flights in vertebrates; so it’s the birds, the bats and the dinosaurs. Therefore it became a political science project in this context.

It was commissioned by the organization that invited us, but once we submitted the proposal for the project it was rejected in the most honest way. We got this really nice rejection letter saying that we didn’t represent the public opinion in regard to the HGP, which is a very strange thing to require an artist to do, and of course they questioned the artistic and scientific merits of our work which is fine by me. So the rejection letter from that organization became part of the project because the project was also about public opinion and the way it is being engineered by those developers in order to perceive the image of the project as one thing. It was on our website for quite a while.

Then this organization decided to have an exhibition and in the curatorial statement it said that that they approached artists, anticipating some of the works to be controversial, but to their surprise none of them were. Therefore there was another layer of fabrication and basically they were saying that there was no curatorial decision and agenda driving the way the exhibition was constructed and they didn’t talk about the rejected works. About 3 years later, the organization realized we had the website that involved the exchange between us, and they tried to sue us and remove funding from my university, because that organization was also funding scientific research. It was a very brutal way of doing things.

It got to the point that the very same organization that threatened to sue us then expressed interest in actually buying the Pig Wings to keep us quiet, but they didn’t accept the high price we put on it!

It is a really important lesson to learn about how, in this field, there are attempts to govern how artists interact with issues, there are attempts to control their agenda and the type of narratives they distribute. Especially with The Pig Wings project, it’s something we are very happy to have happened to us because it’s proof that what we’re able to do is poke, provoke and disturb. And because we’re based in Australia and, in a sense, I don’t give a shit, we were able to do it. That was 2000, five years into our practice with very few artists working in this field, we just moved out into the world stage and they didn’t really take us seriously, but since then, the power relationship has somewhat changed as we are one of the main centres of this field. It got to the point that the very same organization that threatened to sue us then expressed interest in actually buying The Pig Wings to keep us quiet, but they didn’t accept the high price we put on it!

Can you say who the organization is?

No but I can send you a link to a paper that contains this information. [Big Pigs, Small Wings: On Genohype and Artistic Autonomy, Zurr, I. & Catts, O. (2005). Culture machine, 7, 30-37]

So could you explain a little bit about the methodology surrounding Pig Wings?

As I said I’m not interested in science or contributing to scientific knowledge, it’s not my role, but in the case of The Pig Wings, some of the things were so absurd that we felt really obliged to do it in a way that would actually made sense. The process of making the Pig Wings was actually introducing the protocol of the computer aid design into the lab. The other thing was that we faced a real problem of trying to distribute the cells throughout a 3D scaffold that we constructed. So the way that we used to grow, and to some extent still do, is we create a 3D scaffold out of a degradable material and we then distribute the cells and grow it in special environments which will allow the cells to grow and replace the scaffold. The Pig Wings were, at the time, actually one of the biggest tissue-engineered constructs to ever be made, within the art or the science world, especially to do with their thickness. And we had a system of developing a very porous scaffold in the shape of the wings and this was part of this protocol and we were trying to find ways to distribute the cells throughout the 3D scaffold so we could get a nice thick growth of the tissue in the shapes we wanted. The way you do it is that you grow a monolayer in petri dishes and then you expand it so every few days you use an enzyme that breaks down the glue that holds the cells and you can separate then and put them in 1 dish and then 2 dishes and then 4,8,16,32 so it’s an exponential growth until you have enough cells for what you want to do. Then you can use this enzyme you created; essentially a soup from the cells.

The Pig Wings. Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Guy Ben-Ary.

I believe you incorporated the effects of music into your Pig Wings project in collaboration with Adam Zaretsky. Could you explain a little bit about your findings?

What we postulated was that if we created some vibrations throughout the time that the cells are settling in, we would be able to distribute them throughout this 3D scaffold. And we decided to use music. At the time, Adam Zaretsky was doing a project to research the effect of vibrations on cells and did some interesting work in MIT Biology on the effect of music on living systems. So we worked with the systems he developed of those vibrating speakers, we developed this dynamic seeding musical bioreactorwhich allowed the cells to be distributed in a fairly even way throughout the 3D structure. We had sessions every week where we played music to our pig cells. That was just before Napster, one of the first music sharing programs, was about to be shut down and we put the keyword “pigs” into there and basically played pig music to our pig wings. That was one of the very few times we actually played scientists in that experiment. What we found out was that, as we anticipated, we had much better distribution of the cells throughout the 3D scaffold and, interestingly enough, the morphology, the way the cells were growing, attaching and behaving, was closer to the actual morphology of bone because we used a bone marrow stem cell which we differentiated into bone. And then those we didn’t play music to didn’t really work so well but on those that we did play music to, after 8 months, had bony structures which were approximately the original shape of the wings that we provided them.

All images courtesy of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr).

Watch this space for the second part of the interview with Oron Catts where he discusses his and Ionat’s Victimless Leather project alongside some of the work being done at SimbioticA.