Immersive Artificial Life (A-Life) Art
In this era of cloning, cyborgs, simulations and new biotechnologies, the term artificial life (or A-life) can refer to a range of creatures or organisms that are created and augmented through diverse medical, prosthetic and digital information technologies. Hybridity, emergence and symbiosis have become important metaphors for conceptualising life in this ‘neo-biological’ or bio-tech era. Perhaps not surprisingly, these themes are also present in contemporary new media art, especially computer-generated and biological art.1 A-life in art is manifested in a variety of ways, including computer-based, evolutionary life-systems (virtual ecologies); animated creatures with life-like behaviours (virtual creatures); living organisms and ‘semi-living objects’.2
The traditional understanding of A–life as a scientific and creative field rests on its concern with manifesting material or organic living systems and life-like behaviours in simulated (computer) systems or virtual environments.3 This article adopts a broader definition of this term to include biological A-life — new and hybrid life-forms created by artificial and technological means, such as cloning, transgenics or tissue-culture engineering. So, two interwoven strands of artificial life research in new media art are of interest here: computer-generated algorithmic art (digital or silicon A-life) and biological art (bio A-life). Digital A-life is a predominantly synthetic and digital medium.4 Bio-artists employ biological science knowledge, methodologies and technologies as part of their artistic practice to create new life-forms and -systems for aesthetic and ideological purposes.5 Both digital and bio A-life are human-made; reliant on digital technologies for their development and existence; and are concerned with redefining how life is conceptualised.
New digital and bio-technologies are transforming our notions of life and humanity, and these concerns are being negotiated in the work of new-media artists. A-life created through digital and bio-technologies brings into question what defines life; what it means to be human; and what it means to create new lifeforms. Additional questions raised by the artists working in this area include: What is A-life? Who defines life? Can life exist in a machine? What are our responsibilities to the hybrid and artificial offspring that we engineer? This article is concerned with exploring how the formal, technical and thematic elements of A-life art operate together in an exhibition context to immerse the participantviewer in a conceptual dialogue with the work. The process, content and exhibition experience of particular A-life works are analysed to consider how these works raise philosophical and ethical issues regarding computer and biologically engineered life.
At the heart of this project is a concern with investigating how A-life artworks engage viewers in perceptually and conceptually immersive experiences. Certain A-life artworks encourage viewers to contemplate the ethical issues surrounding the use of new information and bio-technologies in science and art through intereactive and immersive aesthetics. A-life art is a site of dialogue, debate and intellectual exchange about the meanings of life — artificial, organic or hybrid. In this article, I am expanding on art historian T J Clark’s argument that artworks can be treated as discourses because they are sites of exchange, contention and dialogue.6 Clark draws on Mikhail Baktin’s concept of dialogue, which asserts that discourses and languages (written, spoken, visual and audio-visual) are ‘open to dispute’ and infused with meaning.7 Artists, curators and viewers negotiate the aesthetics, content and ethics of a work of art within a particular socio-historical context. Considering that A-life artworks are often exhibited in public galleries as installations, what becomes critical is how this environment is inextricably linked with how A-life art is experienced and interpreted.
All the artists discussed here exhibit their work as multi-media installations in public galleries and exhibition spaces. This article focuses on the digital A-life artists Jon McCormack and collaborative artists, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, who develop computer-generated algorithmic A-life creatures and environments that draw the viewer into immersive, responsive and interactive relationships with these artificial creatures and ecosystems. The bio-artists of primary interest here are Eduardo Kac and the Tissue Culture and Art (TC&A) group: Ionat Zurr, Oron Catts and Guy Ben Ary. TC&A use biological technologies and methodologies to create new biological life-forms through tissue-culture engineering. They recently collaborated with Stelarc on the Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale (2003–2004) project.
Since new-media art practice and A-life research are interdisciplinary, this article also adopts an interdisciplinary approach to the ethics and experiences of A-life art. To construct my argument I will touch on issues in diverse fields, from histories of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, art, spectatorship and the biological sciences. I will also draw upon the writing of Christopher Langton, Simon Penny, Sarah Kember and Mitchell Whitelaw regarding definitions and critiques of discourses surrounding digital A-life.
Cultural historians and critics such as N Katherine Hayles, Kevin Kelly and Edward Shanken, who have sought to untangle the complicated discourses that link biology, philosophy, cybernetics and virtual reality, are also important to this project. This article is also indebted to new-media theorists and art historians Oliver Grau and T J Clark, Darren Tofts and Roy Ascott, who offer their own theories and critiques of models of participant-viewer experience and interaction with virtual environments, technology-based art and immersive aesthetics. Finally, this article draws on the artists’ personal accounts of their philosophical, ethical and aesthetic approaches to creating A-life. It seeks to contribute to the work of artists, researchers and scientists who are working in fields of digital and bio Alife art by emphasising their experiential and ethical dimensions.
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed historical account of Alife art and its origins in cybernetics, robotics, computer science and engineering. This extensive project has already been undertaken by Mitchell Whitelaw in Metacreation (2004).8 However, a brief introduction to the field of A-life is still necessary in order to analyse how artists are negotiating the contentious issues of creating and defining A-life in art.
A-life refers to an existence or entity that is made possible, maintained or augmented through artificial means. N Katherine Hayles contends that the attempt to create artificial life takes place in three main research terrains: ‘wetware’, ‘hardware’ and ‘software’.9 Wetware research is concerned with creating organic life and multi-cellular organisms within a laboratory and through biological procedures. Hardware research is more focused on developing embodied artificial intelligence within a mechanical form such as a robot. Software research is directed at generating life-like behaviours in computer programs and representing these performances and interactions graphically on-screen. Computer A-life software research is focused on creating programs that generate ‘emergent and evolutionary processes’.10
Digital A-life, and the related discourse of artificial intelligence (AI) emerged out of a convergence of biological and computer sciences and robotics. Despite their similarities, these fields of research take different approaches to the modelling of computer-generated intelligence. Early studies into computer AI and robotics adopted an ‘abstract logical reasoning’ approach to modelling intelligence in computer systems.11 Computers effectively mapped out complex problems in terms of a series of mathematical and logical equations to come up with a solution. A problem with this approach was that while computer systems excelled in ‘logical reasoning’ and resolving bounded problems such as winning a chess game, they failed to be able to work out everyday problems that required ‘common sense’.12 In response to the limits of logical systems theory, new studies emerged that were more influenced by complexity theory. They were variously known as ‘bottom-up robotics, alternative AI, complexity theory, artificial life, genetic algorithms’.13
Christopher Langton, who coined the term ‘A-life’, suggests that computergenerated A-life has a dual function: it attempts to recreate natural biological or living systems while also attempting to generate possible life-forms.14 According to Langton, A-life researchers create systems that allow people to study biological life and existing life-systems, or ‘life-as-we-know-it’, while creating new systems for imagining and representing ‘life-as-it-could-be’.15 Thus, it allows for the extension of the domain of ‘bio-logic’ beyond life as it exists, toward a zoology of futuristic and imaginary life. Instead of dissecting and deconstructing living creatures, as the biological sciences have traditionally done, algorithmic A-life attempts to envisage and create new life-like creatures. Consequently, digital Alife research can be seen as a productive and creative site for imagining future bodies and potential life-systems.
Sarah Kember argues in Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (2003) that the main differences between AI and A-life are their problem-solving skills and their agency.16 According to Kember, AIs require their own ‘agency and autonomy’ to develop better problem-solving skills, and ‘this shift towards autonomous agency’ represents a shift from artificial intelligence to artificial life.17 This focus on creating individual agency and autonomy in A-life has obvious connections to liberal humanist notions of what it means to be human and sentient. A-life designers aim for their offspring to be ‘adaptive, robust, flexible and friendly’, while focusing on clarifying and artificially reproducing the processes that supposedly constitute consciousness in living things, such as birth, growth, replication (reproduction), autonomy, evolution, adaptation, self-organisation, social interaction, learning and even death.18
Cultural critic Edward Shanken makes the point that digital A-life is grounded in ideas and theories of life, rather than in the materiality of life.19 Therefore, digital A-life artists are not creating new life; rather, they are creating representations of life that are based in biological theories of life. Shanken maintains that applying biological theories to computer programming does not represent a new ontology of life; instead, it is a manifestation of an existing biological epistemologies of life. It is for this reason that Shanken argues that it is more appropriate for digital A-life to be described as ‘synthetic biology’.20
Although A-life research is firmly tied to discourses of biological evolution and theory, it is also influenced by ideas of imaginary becoming. Artificial life as it is defined by Langton and other A-lifers, such as Thomas Ray, is marked by a decisive break from conceptualising life and (re)production as natural. Instead, the focus is on narratives of innovation, replication and rapid artificial evolution. As a concept and cultural metaphor, A-life evokes associations with posthuman (or at least post-organic) life as we experience it now through the hybridisation of organic bodies with non-organic or unnatural elements and processes. Simultaneously, A-life can be seen as part of a movement away from essentialist and naturalised ways of conceiving the body, toward a manifestation of Haraway’s metaphor of cyborg subjects.21 It links to postmodern and poststructuralist ideas of bodies and identities as being in a state of emergence and technological extension. At times, A-life discourse contains a prophecy of futuristic and imaginary posthuman or post-organic life.
In Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (1994), Kevin Kelly proposes that the old line between ‘the born and the made’ has become irremediably blurred.22 Self-replicating computer programs that mimic evolution by developing unplanned order and artificial intelligence, bringing the dynamics of living systems into digital systems, suggest that life can be synthesised. Simultaneously, the biological sciences, especially genetic engineering, have begun to insert technical processes into organisms. As Kelly states, ‘at the same time that the logic of Bios is being imported into machines, the logic of Technos is being imported into life’.23 The result is a culturally perceived meld between the organic and the technological, with mechanical and synthetic objects or systems becoming more life-like, and organic things (such as human bodies, plants and viruses) becoming more constructed and engineered. Ultimately, life is becoming more artificial and more hybridised:
The realm of the born — all that is natural — and the realm of the made — all that is humanly constructed — are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.24
The digital A-life paradigm shares with biology a tendency to reduce life to a simple genetic code and the inclination to interpret life as a form of information processing. Once life is symbolically reduced to code, this raw data can then be recoded or recombined into alternative patterns and systems — alternative lifeforms and ecologies. Life is often understood by A-life artists and designers as being a system of complex behaviours, rather than as related to matter, such as a biological body. As Langton claims, ‘life is a kind of behaviour, not a kind of stuff’.25 This raises questions about how we define life, and how we differentiate between living, non-living or semi-living creatures. Is life simply a series of behaviours and processes? Can life in all its complexity simply be reduced down to a string of numbers? What role does embodiment play in conceptualising and experiencing life?
It seems that embodiment is often removed from the A-Life equation. Bodies are either ignored completely, or viewed as vessels that can be refined and replaced. Simon Penny (1997) and N Kathryn Hayles (1999) have observed that the philosophic traditions that inform computer and cybernetic science affirm the Cartesian duality of the mind/body split. The mind is understood as the central site of identity and as a system that holds information (such as memories and knowledge), not dissimilar to a computer hard drive, while the body is viewed as a prosthesis to the mind. Theoretically, information can be transferred into another body or cybernetic system. Cybernetic research of this nature indicates a fascination with transcending and transforming the biological body. This paradigm is imbued with utopic ideals and transcendental longings for an escape from the physical body to a dematerialised world of data or ‘pure information’, as Michael Benedikt calls it.26 This idea of information as a pure, incorporeal substance is analogous to Christian notions of the soul or spirit.27 Similarly, the desire for an escape from the body to a realm uncontaminated by the chaos and confusion of the actual world and the corporeal body has striking similarities to the Christian notion of ascending to heaven.
Simon Penny critiques cybernetic and A-life tendencies of privileging the mind over the body and of conceptually separating thinking from embodiment.28 According to Penny, we should be reworking understandings of the body to see it as a whole system, and thinking needs to be reconceptualised as something that is distributed throughout the body, rather than being localised in the brain.29 Penny has critical and artistic interests in the role of embodiment and interactivity in engaging with A-life and new-media environments. Penny argues that digital art practice is in conflict with traditional art practices because it represents a movement away from embodied art practices and bodily knowledges. In his words:
The virtualization of artistic practice by the use of simulatory tools implies the eradication of kinaesthetic or somatosensory awareness and skills.30
While this might be the case for the artist’s experience of making digital art, it is not necessarily the case for viewers observing and experiencing these digital works. This is not to claim that all digital art installations present effective and complex embodied modes of interaction. Small computer monitors and keyboard interfaces are not necessarily the most effective ways of displaying and experiencing digital artworks. However, artists and curators have been developing more effective display techniques and interfacing systems for digital artworks that involve viewers in more bodily and psychologically immersive processes of interaction. In fact, Penny and artists such as Ken Rinaldo, Bill Vorn, Louise- Philippe Demers, Jon McCormack, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau have all developed A-life artworks that are designed to be immersive and affective environments for viewers. These artists have embraced immersive and interactive aesthetics and interfaces that stress embodiment and kinaesthetic experience.
Digital A-life art: embodied and immersive environments
Whitelaw maintains that while artists have ‘followed a-life science’ in constructing artificial environments, they are often less concerned with ‘replicating the dynamics of biological systems’ and are more concerned with creating environments ‘for human experience and interaction’.31 Artists often create A-life forms and artificial ecologies, or ‘cybernatures’, that effectively provide viewers with constructed environments that encourage interactive and immersive experiences.32
Australian artist Jon McCormack explores themes and processes of A-life, unnatural selection and artificial evolution in screen-based installations that physically, visually and conceptually immerse the viewer. McCormack has been working with video and computer-generated interactive and responsive screenbased installations since the late 1980s. One of McCormack’s most famous and dynamic works, Turbulence: an interactive museum of unnatural history (1995), extends Langton’s theory of A-life by generating digital A-life-forms that have an uncanny appearance of realness or liveliness about them. The digital interface of Turbulence symbolically links digital A-life-forms to biological and medical histories of collection, classification and experimentation.
Turbulence was recently exhibited at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. The installation consisted of an interactive projection of digitally generated A-life-forms (stored on laser disk) and a soundtrack amplified in multi-directions. Turbulence offered viewers the opportunity to enter and amble around an architecturally and visually immersive installation. To experience this museum of un-natural history visitors needed to enter the installation via a narrow corridor and entrance — a threshold to a turbulent and uncanny zone. The only light came from the touch-screen and screen projection, directing the viewer’s attention to the images on the screen. The digital component of the work featured apparently organic A-life-forms in a state of evolution and transformation.
Whitelaw has commented that McCormack’s works reflect an ambivalent attitude toward the possible outcomes of artificial life and artificial natures.33 These virtual creatures and worlds do not necessarily appear harmless or benign. In fact, they are sometimes in a state of rapid evolution and display frightening and aggressive behaviour.
Participants were able to use a touch-screen to interact with the work, selecting A-life-forms that were grouped according to biota (or type), and then projected in a process of emergence on a large screen. New media theorist Darren Tofts has said of Turbulance that:
The modest user interface of Turbulence heightened the sensation of being in an unencumbered experience, and its impact was such that you didn’t necessarily have to be in command of it to feel a part of the ‘place’ that was created within the installation.34
Tofts’s assertion that viewers were given a sense of being a part of the artificial environment while occupying this temporary installation implies that Tofts and other viewers had the impression of being embedded in, and immersed within, the aesthetic space of the installation and the digital projection. Arguably, this immersive experience was created for viewers through a combination of elements: the small entrance; the architectural space of the installation; the darkness of the space; and the projection of ephemeral digital A-life. The ability to enter into and wander through this space, and to interact with the digital artwork via the touchscreen interface, were central to the aesthetic experience of this constructed and virtual world as being both immersive and physically affective. Interactivity and physical immersion work together to increase the psychological immersion and connection that viewers have with the A-life environments and creatures presented on-screen. By becoming more immersed in the architecture of the work, viewers are also enticed into a more emotional and engaged relationship with the content of the work.
In 1994 Austrian-born artist Christa Sommerer and French-born artist Laurent Mignonneau completed their generative, evolutionary artwork and installation AVolve. This work was developed while the artists were ‘artists in residence’ at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana, USA. Soon afterward, A-Volve was exhibited at Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), where it won the Golden Nica Award.35 It stands out as an effective and affective example of a projected evolutionary artwork, in part because of its aesthetics, but also because of its exhibition presentation and interactive design. The title of the work calls upon the concepts of artificial life and evolution, implying that the work seeks to present a form of artificial evolution. What is not explicit in the title of the work is that the artificial growth and expansion implicit in the work refers to something beyond the virtual creatures generated by the software and hardware. The interactive viewer is asked to ‘a-volve’ their imagination and their notions of life and evolution as they immerse themselves in a physical, intellectual and emotional dialogue with the work.
A-Volve is an interactive, real-time installation that requires visitors to interact with it by designing marine-like creatures to inhabit a virtual pool. Visitors design the creatures by tracing a shape with their finger on a touch-screen. The interfacing system then translates this two dimensional image into a threedimensional representation that appears to come alive and swim around as a virtual aquatic life-form as it is projected into the real space of a water-filled glass pool. The imagined gap between virtuality and reality is partially bridged through the inclusion of the pool of water as a liquid projection screen that is part of the installation.
The virtual aquatic creatures are products of evolutionary rules and are influenced by human decisions made while tracing the original shape. The form, movement and survival probability of the A-life entity in the pool are related to how the creature is designed by the participant. Within the pool, the rules of evolution and survival in an aquatic environment come into play, with some creatures becoming predators while others end up as prey. As with real ecosystems, the introduction of a new species can totally reorganise the balance and hierarchy of the system. Darwinian notions of natural selection through competition, mutation and adaptation come to mind as one observes the organisation and perpetual reorganisation of this virtual aquatic world. Life, as it is played out in this pool, is dynamic and subject to radical change. It is in a constant state of flux and ‘becoming’ over the duration of the show.36
As Roy Ascott argues in relation to interactive artworks, ‘without the interaction between the viewer and the work, the work cannot be said to exist’.37 The meaning and the actual content of interactive artworks such as A-Volve evolve with the presence and interaction of the participant-viewer, who simultaneously makes, views and experiences the work. The viewer becomes the co-creator of the work. In the case of A-Volve, it is the participant-viewer who brings the virtual creatures to life by designing and engineering them, with the assistance of digital technologies and the interfacing system designed by the artists. The role of the viewer is transformed from distanced observer to creator, interactive participant and immersant. Participant-viewers become enveloped in the process of creation and the unfolding of this artificial life and aquatic ecology.
By creating their own creatures, participants become more psychologically attached to their virtual creatures and consequently become more invested in nurturing, protecting and ‘playing parent’ to these virtual offspring. Although these A-life creatures are virtual and non-material, some participants react to them as if they are real and organic life-forms. This connection between the image and the imagination of the participant-viewer is so strong that some visitors attempt to touch these creatures and to intervene in the open-ended evolution of this aquatic eco-system.38 Some viewers attempt to protect their creatures from being attacked and devoured by other A-life forms by trying to plunge their hands into the pool, as if it were a matter of life and death of a pet.39 So there is a sense of realness about the encounter with this virtual environment that heightens the responsibility that viewers feel for their artificial offspring. A-Volve invites participants to reconsider what they conceptualise as life; what their roles in artificial evolution might be; and what their responsibility to their artificial offspring are as they interact with this virtual ecology.
Bio A-life: designed, not born
Biological artists employ biological science knowledge, methodologies and technologies as part of their artistic practice to engage in acts of artificial evolution and A-life creation for aesthetic and ethical purposes. As an aesthetic practice, bio A-life art seems to generate more anxieties and uncertainties in regard to the ethics, processes and meanings of these works than digital A-life art. This is partly to do with the fact that bio-artists move beyond the digital realm into the organic, biological and physical realm. They deal with the materiality of tissue, cells and flesh in the creation of their new organisms, as opposed to the immateriality of digital code. Ambivalences about bio-art also emerge out of cultural anxieties that circulate around bio-technologies and genetic engineering more generally. Anxieties about the loss of the biologically human; the engineering of artificial life-forms; the re-emergence of old forms of eugenics; the suffering of animals in the name of scientific research and art; and human inabilities to deal with death are just a few ethical issues circulating around bio-art.
When artists utilise animals or techno-scientific knowledges, practices and procedures as part of their artistic practice, questions about the appropriate uses of these things seem to emerge. Ethical questions are raised about the legitimate use of bio-technologies and procedures as part of an aesthetic practice. Is it ethical for artists to use these technologies and techniques in this way? Is this a valid form of social and ethical creative critique?
Bio A-life art draws attention to the ongoing human project of manipulating life and creating new, hybrid living organisms for aesthetic and scientific purposes. Bio-art is not a new phenomenon; it has a history that is associated more with folk culture than with high art. American artist George Gessert refers to the aesthetic project of propagating and cross-breeding flowers, plants and animals as a form of ‘genetic folk art’.40 Gessert positions his own art practice, which involves creating hybrid varieties of wildflowers and plants, then exhibiting them within an art gallery context, as part of a folk art tradition. Enacting a process of unnatural selection and artificial reproduction, Gessert decides which flowers are most aesthetically pleasing to continue propagating and cross-breeding into new hybrids. His work alludes to human histories and processes of evaluating, interpreting and manipulating ‘nature’.41 Besides the fact that Gessert’s art questions definitions of art, it also highlights the human history of creating new life-forms.
Although Gessert utilises techniques of selective breeding and genetic engineering of plants in the production of his art, it does not seem to generate as much controversy or anxiety as art that involves animal experimentations, genetic engineering or other bio-tech procedures as part of the aesthetic practice. This is probably because humans create hierarchies of living things — usually positioning themselves at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. Furthermore, an imaginary division between sentient and non-sentient life-forms comes into play when we contemplate invasive experimentations with living things.
In 1998 artist Eduardo Kac generated impassioned debate about the use of genetic engineering and animal experimentation as a creative process and medium. Kac argued for a new medium that he called ‘transgenic art’: the transferral of genes from one organism to another to create (or engineer) a hybrid creature.42 In 2000, Kac commissioned a French Research Institute to create Alba, a rabbit that glows fluorescent-green when illuminated by blue light. The scientists engineered the transgenic rabbit by injecting the green fluorescent protein (GFP) of a pacific jellyfish into the egg of an albino rabbit. Alba was to be part of an installation and performance by Kac entitled GFP BUNNY (2000).
The engineered rabbit produced heated debate among scientists, artists, animal-rights activists and art critics about the use of bio-technologies in the production of art. People questioned whether it was appropriate for artists to use these techniques in order to reflect upon the bio-ethics of medical science. The questions exploded: Is it art? Is it exploitation? Should we be thinking of animals as research objects or art objects? What responsibilities do artists have for the living or ‘semi-living’ creatures that they create in the name of art? Just as Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of ready-mades into the context of the gallery pushed the limits of what was considered to be art, so too did Kac’s project of introducing a genetically designed animal as a design object extend the limits of what was considered to be art.43 One of the most interesting aspects of Kac’s work is that it raised questions about what was considered to be legitimate and illegitimate forms of animal research. It became evident that while scientists had a broad scope for animal experimentation, artists were policed far more rigorously by the general public and art critics when they incorporated live animals into their work.
Some critics argued that GFP Bunny was not just problematic, it was not even art. Paul Virilio describes transgenic art as ‘pitiless art’ because it utilises genetic engineering, a science that Virilio sees as one of the great evils of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as a creative medium.44 Virilio is highly critical of contemporary bio-art because he sees it as a new kind of ‘expressionism’ and ‘teratology’, where the monstrous is not an accident of nature or a fabrication of the artist’s imagination but a material manifestation of scientific and artistic experimentation.45 Virilio’s critique articulates an anxiety about the obliteration of the natural body and Christian humanist ideals of humanity.
Ironically, the main point of Kac’s ‘transgenic’ artwork is to generate debate about the ethics of bio-technologies and genetic engineering. The work is intended to create a dialogue between the artist, the creature-artwork and the viewer.46 Kac’s art does not just exist in the creation of the genetically engineered object but also in the discussion provoked about the themes and methodologies that are integral to the production of the work. Kac’s work is conceptual art with a material component. It attempts to immerse the viewer conceptually in an intellectual and emotional dialogue with the themes of his work: transgenic A-life, A-creation and A-volution.
Bio-artists often collaborate with scientists in laboratories during the development of their work. This collaboration symbolically replaces the Romantic notion of the artist working alone in their studio with the image of the artist as experimenter and collaborator in the laboratory. Collaboration between art, technology and science is not a new development, yet it has become more prominent in the past decade. As Oliver Grau comments in Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (2003), there has been a ‘renaissance of the classic alliance between art, technology and science’, which has contributed to the emergence of particular artists who have a reputation for using new technologies and sciences as part of their creative practice.47
Working closely with scientific researchers allows bio-artists to exchange ideas and skills with scientists in the development of living art objects, while also providing artists with an opportunity to discuss the ethics of the procedures being performed in these labs. The science lab can be a site of dialogue about the ethics involved in experimenting with life on a genetic or cellular level, and the creation of new A-life-forms. In some cases, artists see their role as challenging scientists’ ideas about their own research by encouraging them to think critically about the creative and destructive potentials of their endeavours. This seems to be the case for the Perth-based art collective Tissue Culture and Art (TC&A).
The TC&A Project was initiated in 1996 and is an ongoing project that uses ‘tissue technologies as medium for artistic expression’.48 TC&A are currently based at SymbioticA (The Art & Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia). SymbioticA is an artist-run research laboratory that was established in April 2000 with the aim of acting as a site where art and bio-medical sciences could interact and mingle.49 The members of the TC&A group, Ionat Zurr, Oron Catts and Guy Ben Ary, bring different aesthetic and technical skills to the group. TC&A’s tissue engineering technique involves growing cell-cultures from skin, muscle and bone cells over a degradable biopolymer support-structure. Tissue cultures are used to produce hybrid ‘semi-living entities’ that exist as art objects, rather than being engineered for transplantation into another body. Thus, they subvert the intended use of tissue engineering by using it for creative purposes, playing provocateur within laboratory and gallery environments.
In the process of producing new ‘semi-living’ artworks, the TC&A project engages with debates about artificially created life-forms, animal testing and the possible futures of bio-technologies. Ultimately TC&A call into question some of the myths of scientific objectivity, rationality and the idea that new technologies are controllable by scientists. By using bio-technologies and techniques in an alternative way, they pose the questions: What if we do something else with these technologies? And how can scientists control the outcomes of these technologies? In a recent collaboration with Stelarc, TCA worked on the Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale project. This project entailed the growth of an easily recognisable human body part, an artificial ear, out of animal skin-cell cultures. A quarter-scale model of Stelarc’s ear was produced before skin was grown over the model in ‘a rotating micro-gravity bioreactor which allows the cells to grow in three dimensions’.50
Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale confronts viewers with a miniaturised human body part that is semi-alive while also being separate from the body. This project is an extension of TC&A’s concerns with creating semi-living objects as artworks, while tapping into cultural and ethical debates about how we conceptualise and contend with life-like objects that are grown and sustained through technological means. For Stelarc, this project represents an addition to his continuing project of redesigning the body through technological augmentation and alteration. Stelarc uses prosthetic elements as ‘signs of excess’, rather than as signs of replacement for lacking or dysfunctional parts of the body.51
Strangely enough, artificial ears have become powerful signs of tissue-culture engineering and bio-technologies more generally. In the mid-1990s the ear-mouse appeared in scientific and cultural journals as a sign of a new post-organic, biotech era. Catts and Zurr claim that it was the footage of the ear-mouse that initially prompted their interest in tissue engineering as a provocative creative media:
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.52
The ear-mouse is a disturbing sign of human experimentations with bioengineering, and it acts as a reminder of the human-centric nature of these technologies. It is a powerful signifier for a posthuman era where boundaries between the human and the non-human have been completely breached. This nude mouse, with a human ear upon its back, is one of the most famous examples of a creature created for xenotransplantation — the transplantation of cells, tissues or organs from one organism to another, usually a non-human creature to a human. Xenotransplantation has emerged as a profitable scientific field partly because of the demand for organs to be transplanted into humans. Species boundaries are transgressed at a genetic level in the production of these donor animals, with the transplantation of various organs into human recipients blurring the imagined border between humans and animals. These experiments result in an actualisation of Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of ‘becoming-animal’.53 Xenotransplantation suggests that on a genetic level, engineered animals are becoming humans and, in the process of incorporating animal parts (their skin, organs and cells) into human bodies, we are becoming-animals. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with the hybrid, artificial offspring of bio-science.
An intention of Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale project is that it should stimulate debate about bio-ethical issues and concepts of life as they relate to scientifically engineered ‘semi-living’ organisms. Ironically, when the work was exhibited as part of the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) in 2003, the artists were asked to declare that the work did not ‘raise ethical issues in general and in particular in the biomedical community’.54 Seeking reassurance from the artists as to the political neutrality of their work seems paradoxical, given that the primary aim of TC&A’s work to date has been to generate critical dialogue about biomedical procedures and research. Zurr and Catts have made a point of stressing the political nature of the TC&A project in a number of articles and artist statements. In Zurr and Catts’s words:
As artists, we believe that our role is to reveal inconsistencies in regard to our current attitudes to life and to focus attention on the discrepancies between our western cultural perceptions and the new techno-scientific understandings about life … our role is to further problematise ethical frameworks … and shift the goalposts of contemporary ethics by drawing attention to the existence of partial life and semi-living entities.55
One of the ways that TC&A problematise ideas of living and semi-living creatures is through the ‘caring’ and ‘killing’ rituals involved in maintaining and ending the life of their tissue-culture artworks.56 Part of the responsibility associated with creating new bio A-life-forms is the role of sustaining and caring for these (semi-)living creatures. Zurr and Catts refer to the responsibility of maintaining bio A-life as ‘The Aesthetics of Care’. Artists who engineer new organisms, cell cultures and animals as part of their creative practice are not just involved in the creation of new A-life-forms, they also need to nurture, protect, feed and maintain these organisms or cultures. When artists are no longer able to care for their semi-living entities, they need to euthanase them. TC&A call this ‘the killing ritual’.
‘The killing ritual’ is probably the most affective immersive experience for viewers faced with TC&A’s semi-living objects because of its immediacy and tactility. Audience members are invited to participate in the killing ritual by touching the tissue cultures. On exposure to human touch, the tissue cultures become contaminated by the bacteria and fungi, which live in the environment and on humans. These evocative rituals bestow a meaning and value on the semi-living tissue cultures as living entities that they would otherwise be refused. Confronted with the tactility of this experience, which effectively kills the tissue-culture entity, participants are forced to question whether these organisms are really living or semi-living.
Paradoxically, it is during this experience of touching these tissue cultures and causing their death that participants have the strongest sense that these entities are semi-alive or un-dead. While they may not seem to be truly alive when viewed inside a bioreactor in a gallery, they certainly appear to die during the killing ritual. Caring and killing rituals encourage participants to contemplate the responsibilities that humans have for their artificial offspring and to think about the symbiotic relationships that humans have with their natural and artificial environments. For tissue cultures, humans are infectious agents and host animals for various bacteria, fungi and viruses, which effectively kill them. This suggests that there can be no purity of species or organisms without symbiosis and that humans cannot exist separately from the environment and other creatures. In the past ten years, new-media artists have been designing more immersive and affective environments that include more direct and corporeal forms of audience participation. This move toward interactive, immersive and affective aesthetics is partly generated by a desire to create more engaging and complex levels of aesthetic and conceptual interaction for viewers. In the case of digital and bio A-life art, immersive and affective aesthetics are often applied to encourage viewers to contemplate the ethical issues surrounding the creation, maintenance and ideologies of cybernetic, biological and creative A-life. The works surveyed in this paper suggest that digital and bio A-life artists often have an ambivalent relationship with the technologies and procedures that they utilise in their work. While the artists may not have the answers to the ethical questions that their works raise regarding the uses, regulations and outcomes of new information and biotechnologies, they do provide a space for participant-viewers to reflect on these issues.
1 Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1994.
2 Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, ‘Are the Semi-Living semi-Good or semi-Evil?’, Art in the Biotech Era, Adelaide International Arts Festival, Adelaide, Australia, 2003.
3 Christopher Langton, ‘Artifical Life’ in Timothy Druckrey and Ars Electronica (eds), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1999, p 261.
4 Artists working with digital A-life systems include: Karl Sims, Tom Ray, William Latham, Troy Innocent, Jon McCormack, Robb Lovell and John Mitchell, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Jane Prophet and Gordon Selley, Paul Brown, Richard Brown and Mauro Annunzianto.
5 Artists working with bio A-life include George Gessert, Mel Chin, Joe Davis, Eduardo Kac, Natalie Jeremijenko and the Tissue Culture and Art project (TC&A).
6 T J Clark, Farewell to An Idea, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1999, p 305.
7 Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Carl Emerson and Michael Holquist (trans.), University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981, p 276.
8 Michael Whitelaw, Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2004.
9 N Kathryn Hayles, ‘Narratives of Artifical Life’ in George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis and Tim Putnam (eds), FutureNatural: Nature, Science, Culture, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p 147.
10 Hayles, op. cit., p 147.
11 Simon Penny, ‘The virtualization of art practices’, Art Journal, vol 56, no 3, Fall 1997, p 33.
14 Christopher Langton, ‘Artificial Life’ in M Boden (ed.), The Philosophy of Artificial Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p 53.
16 Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, Routledge, London and New York, 2003, p 1.
17 Kelly, op. cit., p 3.
19 Edward Shanken, ‘Life as we know it and/or life as it could be: epistemology and ontology/ ontogeny of Artificial Life’, Leonardo, vol 31, no 5, 1998, p 384.
21 Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Neil Badmington (ed.), Posthumanism: Readers in Cultural Criticism, Palgrave, Hampshire and New York, 2000, p 91.
22 Kelly, op. cit., p 1.
23 ibid., p 2.
24 ibid., p 1.
25 Langton, ‘Artifical Life’ in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, p 262.
26 Michael Benedikt, Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, pp 122–3.
27 Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Doubleday, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto, New York and London, 1999, p 45.
28 Penny, op. cit., p 30.
29 ibid., p 35.
30 ibid., p 32.
31 Whitelaw, op. cit., p 63.
33 ibid., p 86.
34 Darren Tofts, Parallax: Essays on Art, Culture and Technology, Craftsmen House, North Ryde, 1999, p 34.
35 Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, website ‘Index’. Accessed 20 November 2004. http://www.iamas.ac.jp/~christa/index.html
36 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi (trans.), University of Missesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p 249.
37 Roy Ascott, The Shamatic Web: Art and Mind in Emergence. Accessed 10 August 2002. http://www.rhizome.org/ds./pages/ascott.html
38 Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2003, p 306.
39 ibid., p 308.
40 George Gessert, ‘Notes on Genetic Art’, Leonardo, no 3, 1993, p 205.
42 Eduardo Kac ‘Transgenic Art’ 1988. Accessed 15 January 2002.
43 Eduardo Kac, ‘Transgenic Art Online’ in Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle (eds), Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information, Routledge, New York and London, 2004, p 259.
44 Paul Virilio, Art and Fear, Julie Rose (trans.), Continuum, London, 2003, p 49.
45 ibid., pp 49–51.
46 Kac, op. cit., p 259.
47 Grau, op. cit., p 297.
48 Tissue Culture and Art, ‘Short Manifesto’. Accessed 31 August 2004. http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/atGlance/manifesto.html
49 Stuart Bunt and Oron Catts, ‘BIOFEEL-SymbioticA’, BEAP-02: The Exhibitions, exhibition catalogue, BEAP: Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth, John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, 31 July –15 September 2002, np.
50 Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale. Accessed 4 August 2004. http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/extra/extra_ear.html
51 Stelarc, ‘From Psycho-Body to Cyber-Systems: Images as Post-Human Entities’, David Bell and Barbara M Kennedy (eds), The Cybercultures Reader, Routledge, New York, 2000, pp 561–2.
52 Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, ‘The Art of the Semi-Living and Partial Life: Extra Ear — 1/4 Scale’, Technoetic Arts: An International Journal of Speculative Research, no 1, 2003.
53 Deleuze and Guattari, op. cit., p 249.
54 Catts and Zurr, op. cit.
56 Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, ‘The ethical claims of Bio Art: killing the other or self-cannibalism?’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art: Art and Ethics, vol 4, no 2, 2003 and vol 5, no 1, 2004, p 169.
Bartlem, Edwina . "Immersive Artificial Life (A-Life) Art," in Backburning: Journal of Australian Studies no 84, Helen Addison-Smith, An Nguyen and Denise Tallis (eds), Perth, API Network, 2005. ----- Originally published in Backburning: Journal of Australian Studies no 84, Helen Addison-Smith, An Nguyen and Denise Tallis (eds), Perth, API Network, 2005.
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