Shining (broken) Mirrors is not Gadgeteering

By Professor Oron Catts

We have inherited our current political systems, whether communism or liberal democracy, from the Industrial Revolution. And I don’t think that either of them can survive the completely different realities of biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
— When Computers and Biology Converge, Organisms Become Algorithms. Harari, Yuval Noah, New Perspectives Quarterly, 2016, Vol.33 (3), pp.6-10

What are the completely different realities that Harari refers to? Is it only our political systems, inherited from the Industrial Revolution, which will not survive? What about other systems such as the modern university, fields such as design or the engineering mindset? In particular what do the new realities of biotechnology and artificial intelligence mean to our ideas about life, self, bodies and being human?

Art can play a role in at least pointing the finger at areas which need more cultural scrutiny and articulation, developing new visual (and sometime verbal) utterances to create awareness of what cannot yet be named. The growing trend of requesting artists to participate in gadgeteering or somehow produce utilitarian outputs might not be the right way.

It can be argued that we are lacking a cultural language to even start to comprehend the new realties brought about by the new ways we engage with the concepts of life and thought. Art can play a role in at least pointing the finger at areas which need more cultural scrutiny and articulation, developing new visual (and sometime verbal) utterances to create awareness of what cannot yet be named. The growing trend of requesting artists to participate in gadgeteering or somehow produce utilitarian outputs might not be the right way. We may need to let art play its important role of shining (broken) mirrors back to both the public and the developers of the new knowledge systems and their applications.

In 2000 we set up SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia as an artistic research centre dedicated to the exploration of the above questions with a specific focus on what these new realities mean to our concept of Life. Our modus operandi of hands-on experiential engagement was unique at the time, and was based on a model Ionat Zurr and myself commenced in 1996 as part of our self-initiated artistic residency at the (then) Department of Anatomy and Human Biology (now the School of Human Sciences) at The University of Western Australia and as research fellows at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School.   

In 1996 Ionat and I established the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A). TC&A is an artistic research project that was based on a seemingly simple open ended question: could (engineered) living tissue become a valid form of artistic expression? The way we sought to explore this question was  by gaining entry to the biological laboratory to investigate in the most experiential way an artistic potential of manipulating living matter (in our case living tissue that grows outside of the complex biological body).  What we realised then, and is more obvious now, is that the life sciences are rapidly shifting into an engineering pursuit and that life is becoming a raw material. This means that a new, problematic, challenging and performative palette of artistic possibilities opens up; one in which life is both the object and subject of manipulation, one which offers a new means of artistic inquiry into questions of ontologies, epistemologies and ethics of new realities brought about by our new knowledge and its applications.

Pig Wings - The Chiropteran Version

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary)

Medium: Pig mesenchymal cells (bone marrow stem cells) and biodegradable/bioabsorbablepolymers (PGA, P4HB)

Nutrient Bug1.0: Stir Fly

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Robert Foster

Medium: custom-built bioreactor, fly cells, nutrients, cell bag

When SymbioticA was first established we chose to expand this artistic research question beyond tissue into the general idea of life in all of its manifestations: from the sub-molecular to the ecological. We also decided to extend the amazing resources made available to us; the biological laboratories, the expert advice, openness and collegiality that we found at the School of Human Sciences, to other artists and researchers. SymbioticA is recognised as the first artistic laboratory dedicated to providing artists with support for artistic research within a life-science department, and is referred to as a benchmark for similar labs. SymbioticA specialises in Biological Arts; develops programs such as artistic research residencies, workshops, academic courses and public engagement through exhibitions and forums.

To date, SymbioticA has hosted more than a hundred artist-researchers who were mentored to develop skills and utilise scientific techniques for life manipulation. Some examples of past residents are ORLAN (France), Critical Art Ensemble (USA), Kira O’Reilly (UK), Chris Salter (Canada), Abhishek Azaria (India) Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor (AU). Through their hands-on experience, these artists become deeply engrossed in scientific methodologies and technologies. As a consequence, their projects may intentionally provoke, expose hypocrisies, meditate and question the limits of ‘what is acceptable’ by current societal standards.

. . .the life sciences are rapidly shifting into an engineering pursuit and that life is becoming a raw material. This means that a new, problematic, challenging and performative palette of artistic possibilities opens up; one in which life is both the object and subject of manipulation, one which offers a new means of artistic inquiry into questions of ontologies, epistemologies and ethics of new realities brought about by our new knowledge and its applications.

Being based within a research university, SymbioticA needs to adhere to regulations concerning ethical conduct and health and safety. In most cases our research is scrutinised far more strictly than that of our scientific colleagues’ work.  A common criticism of the work undertaken by artists in residence is that this type of artistic involvement with life is frivolous and in some cases “shocking”. The apparent lack of utilitarian value seems to trigger such reactions but at the same time it does what art does best - create awareness and allows critical engagement that destabilises perceived assumptions and challenge perceptions.


Oron Catts is the Director of SymbioticA, The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia and a Professor at Large in Contestable Design at The Royal College of Arts, London. He is an artist, designer, researcher and curator who is consider as a pioneer in the field of biological art project. In 2000 he co-founded SymbioticA, at The University of Western Australia. Under Catts’ leadership SymbioticA won the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007),the WA Premier Science Award (2008) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008. In 2009 Catts was recognised by Thames & Hudson’s “60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future” book in the category “Beyond Design”, and by Icon Magazine (UK) as one of the top 20 Designers, “making the future and transforming the way we work”.

Catts was a Research Fellow in Harvard Medical School, a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University, a Visiting Professor of Design Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London, and a Visiting Professor at the School of Art, Design and Architecture, Aalto University, Helsinki. His work was exhibited and collected by museums such as MoMA NY, Mori art Museum, NGV, GoMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Ars Electronica, National Art Museum of China and more. His work was covered by The NY Times, Washington Post, Wired, New Scientist, Time, Newsweek and other TV, radio, print and online media.