Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

The Way of Some Flesh


Puppetry of the Petri Dish
Tissue Culture and Art grows semi-living sculptures that push the boundaries of science, art, and social responsibility.

Imagine training a climbing shrub into topiary: Seeds are planted at the base of a wire-mesh armature, growth is both sustained and manipulated by a human master to ultimately assume the desired shape of shrub. Exchange flesh for foliage and you have the work of the Australian artistic research and development group Tissue Culture and Art. “Advanced gardening” TC&A’s Oron Catts calls it.

Catts, 36, and his co-director and partner, Ionat Zurr, 34, originally from Finland and England respectively, have been cultivating just such “semi-living” artworks since founding TC&A in 1996. Using existing stem cell technology, they nurture tissue growth over a synthetic armature. Cells are collected from the detritus of the meat industry and cultivated inside a bioreactor, an environment which can be likened to an artificial womb, its purpose to emulate the body with a temperature of 37c, 5% CO2 and a nutrient solution which the cells feed upon. Sounds like the stuff of flying pigs? In 2001, TC&A completed Pig Wings, a project in which bone marrow cells were harvested from discarded pig tissue and grown over bioabsorbable polymers designed to support wing shapes. Catts explains of the absurdity driving the Pig Wings Project, “Advances in bio-medical technologies such as tissue engineering, xenotransplantation, and genomics promise to render the living body as a malleable mass. The rhetoric used by private and public developers as well as the media have created public anticipation for less than realistic outcomes.”

Catts and Zurr don’t intend to sell aviary pork anytime soon. Rather than fodder for the R&D department of some capitalist machine, they insist the products of the laboratory are sculptures. TC&A has exhibited its fascinating if somewhat revolting creations at the Boston Cyber Arts Festival and the Biennale of Electronic Arts in Perth, for the express purpose of provoking discussion about the mores that underlie scientific inevitabilities. Pigs Wings, for instance, delves into such controversial subjects as xenotransplantation (the transplantation of cells, tissues, or organs from nonhumans into humans) and stem cell research. By suggesting, however humorously, that the body can be farmed, TC&A shows how harvested natural or artificial organs can be perceived as mere commodities.

“Our intention is not to provide yet another consumer product but rather to raise questions about our exploitation of other living beings,” says Catts, who trained as a product designer the University of Western Australia and, along with Catts, is a former research fellow at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School.

TC&A’s Disembodied Cuisine, part of the 2003 “L’art Biotec” exhibition in Nantes, France, provided another opportunity for Catts and Zurr to explore SymbioticA’s mission that, “artists and other non-scientists actively participate in research into possible and contestable futures arising from the application of newly acquired knowledge.” Over the course of a month, the two turned growth into public spectacle using a frog’s cell line, which can divide indefinitely provided temperature, air and nutrient solution are maintained at optimal levels, in a gallery under the public’s watchful gaze.  The research reached a bizarre apogee at a gallery dinner in which the pair consumed, performance-art style, the TC&A version of frog’s legs to a mixture of curiosity and disgust.  If the world’s growing consumption seems insatiable, then TC&A imagines feeding the masses in less natural and less violent terms.

From SymbioticA: the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia School of Anatomy and Human Biology TC & A nurture their newest creations with guidance from the University’s science faculty. The laboratory space SymbioticA has secured in the science department is vital to their ongoing research, as is the funding they receive aritsts in residence. The lab time as well as advice and guadiance from the department is crucial to these two artists’ whose backgrounds are in the arts rather than sciences. The interdisciplinary abyss they inhabit calls for constant scrutiny of the apparent contradictions of their oeuvre: As in all of TC&A’s work, no lives were lost in the making of a froggy meal. But, coining themselves scavengers, Catts and Zurr admit their dependence on existing cell lines or discarded tissue to begin the growth process.

The team’s most recent project, which addresses the role of clothing in our lives, might break this reliance—without sacrificing their message. Victimless Leather is grown from cells to form a garment that, unlike the leather we know, remains alive. Supported by a biodegradable polymer matrix, the cells are modeled into a miniature stitch-less coat of ersatz hide, unlike conventional leather these coats continue to feed on a nutrient solution which sustains rather than sacrifices life. The implications are far-reaching. The future of the garment industry could lie in the cultivation of bespoke tissue tailoring (possibly of our own cells), grown to measure for the discerning dresser. Curiously, while single-step garment production may be our future, a world without seams, stitches, or cloth would also herald the end of crafts such as weaving and tailoring.

TC&A’s critics aren’t so troubled by these concerns. At a recent textile conference in Perth, an attendee voiced disgust that TC&A had been invited to speak as keynote speakers, voicing incense that the duo applies such technology for artistic rather than medical ends and, moreover, that their research appears to condone cloning. But Catts and Zurr are emphatic that they are doing the opposite. “Our intention is not to provide yet another consumer product but rather to raise questions about our exploitation of other living beings and provide tangible example of possible futures,” says Catts. Not to mention that, for the time being, Victimless Leather can’t live outside the stable environment of a bioreactor. But as Catts and Zurr are first to admit, the prospect of a new class of semi-living objects, one that is also open to exploitation, is far too crucial to ignore.

Jessica Hemmings is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

ID magazine (March/April 2005: 68-69)