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Interesting and somewhat scary article in Seed Magazine on Art from living Tissues

From Seed Magazine April 12 2009
Paola Antonelli of MOMA
Photographs on
http://seedmagazine.com/slideshow/paola-antonelli_20090411//
AT SOME POINT DURING THE SHOW, VL STARTED GROWING TOO FAST. IT WAS TIME TO STOP IT. BUT DID THAT MEAN KILLING IT?

Paola Antonelli is the senior curator of design and architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and writes the DESIGN column on the interface of science and design.


Art and design cannot be told apart according to formalist criteria. A chair does not necessarily design make, and a bas-relief in molded resin that looks like abstract expressionism could actually be the germ of a new mass-produced design for a building façade. To find a subtle principle of distinction, one has to transcend aesthetics and fly into the sphere of ethics: While an artist can choose whether or not to be responsive and responsible towards other human beings, by definition a designer must be. In good design, ethics are as important as aesthetics.

The ethical reverberations of design are part of its nature — positive, progressive, economical, necessary, beautiful, modern. And yet so much contemporary design is about experimenting and tinkering, looking for answers that might not yet have questions attached. Moreover, with new fields of design affecting people at deeper levels — think of the psychological impact of a chair versus that of an interface or an interaction — designers can learn a lot about how to grapple with ethics from scientists.

Two case studies provide us with distinct yet complementary insights: SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the study and critique of life sciences located within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia, and Dunne & Raby, a unique design practice based in London.

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Oron Catts, the artistic director of SymbioticA, studied product design before undertaking a more dedicated and nimble exploration of deep ethical issues. He is now an artist. Together with Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, he started the Tissue Culture and Art Project, an influential think tank that gives life to some of our most deep-seated dreams and nightmares: autonomous products made of living cells that are not organic replacements of body parts, but rather new designs that use the same tissue engineering technologies. They call them “semi-living entities.” The value of this research is immense and flows into worldwide biotechnology efforts, providing much-needed design support for scientists while stimulating designers’ minds. Equally valuable is the debate that SymbioticA’s creations incite.

In “Design and the Elastic Mind,” the 2008 exhibition at MoMA which I curated, SymbioticA presented two projects: Pig Wings, a group of three mummified wing-sets that had originally been harvested on scaffolds out of pigs’ mesenchymal cells, and Victimless Leather, a semi-living entity. I will never forget VL — I shouldn’t have given it a name, I guess, but as it turns out, that is exactly how the artists expected me to react. VL was the small-scale prototype of a “leather” jacket grown in vitro. Like all in-vitro tissue, it was a living layer supported by a biodegradable polymer matrix, only in this case that matrix was shaped like a miniature coat. The artists started the project in a bioreactor at Columbia University and then brought it to MoMA, where it was installed in the exhibition galleries within its own incubator, fed nutrients, and monitored. At some point during the show, VL started growing too fast and one sleeve almost came apart. It was time to stop it, the artists decided. But did that mean killing it? Was that a transformation from semi-living to undead? That first question was the inkling of an awesome chain reaction, just the first button the artists were able to push. Their work asked: If the things we surround ourselves with every day can be both manufactured and living, growing entities, will we “begin to take a more responsible attitude toward our environment and curb our destructive consumerism?” There were many more buttons, as it turns out, and the conversation about VL became very public and extraordinarily opinionated, involving not only ethical but also religious points of views, along with some misconstructions — VL was not made of stem cells, as some argued. The discussion continues today and VL is now immortal, at least in people’s minds.

As such technologies progress, VL and other entities will undoubtedly raise questions about the cultural and aesthetic implications of biotechnology’s ability to manipulate living systems for human- centered purposes, ranging from vegans eating in-vitro meat to, very simply, the meaning of life. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are among those responding. For many years, they have focused on a new form of design practice that some call Critical Design, others Design for Debate. Dunne has described it as “...a way of using design as a medium to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.”

Design for Debate does not seek to produce immediately “useful” objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios. In an early-2008 interview, Dunne explained, “Usually, designers would make technology more user-friendly, easier to use, more attractive. But as technology is becoming more complex, and the impact it might have on our lives becomes more dramatic, designers are starting to use imaginary design products to debate and discuss future possibilities. Design in that way can facilitate a debate about whether we want these futures or not.” In “Design and the Elastic Mind” Dunne & Raby presented a group of needy and moody robots, light-years from the Jetsons’ superefficient caretaker Rosie, whose neuroses mixed with ours to create a new domestic psychological landscape that 20 years from now could be great fodder for French movie directors. Of course these projects only scratch the surface of Dunne & Raby’s archive, which has had tremendous influence on contemporary design practice worldwide.

As a matter of fact, the duo is also responsible for shaping some of the brightest young design minds on the planet through their role at the Royal College of Art in London, where Raby teaches and Dunne is the head of the design interactions department. In 2007, Dunne presented the students with SymbioticA’s research and launched them into an acrobatic bio-design and ethics exercise, asking them to design the Meat of Tomorrow, based on SymbioticA’s first in-vitro patty. One of the students, James King, designed a beautiful steak based on a cow’s MRI scans. “We’re not just talking about new forms of media,” Dunne said, “but redesigning parts of people, redesigning animals using tissue as a component in a product. I think what design can do is fast forward and imagine what happens when those technologies enter everyday life and what kind of new products might emerge.” Dunne & Raby and SymbioticA have shown us that the dialogue between designers and scientists is mutating design and therefore mutating the world. The implications splinter in all directions, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics being only one of them. Stay tuned.

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Comment by Frank Shifreen on April 14, 2009 at 12:20pm
Shamanism is a nativistic religious practice that varies a lot but can be found in cultures all over the world. The hallmark is direct experience of spiritual worlds though what is called journeys.
a journey is like a meditation by listening to a sound of drum or bells, singing. One experiences traveling in spiritual worlds and meeting spirits, animals or people. I have been doing it for a long time and have many powerful experiences while in the shamanic state
Comment by Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa on April 14, 2009 at 9:22am
Trees have life & can feel pain in a different way. What is Shamanic?
Comment by Frank Shifreen on April 13, 2009 at 2:40pm
Me either but Krishna think about it. If a living cell- one cell of the billions that we are composed of is a living thing in itself, and they are, then the cells are like a city of humans,
the cells cooperate for life. I wonder what cells feel. In shamanic practice, everything is alive
and has consciousness, Rocks, stars, I wonder about that, but i have conversed with trees and rocks in a shamanic journey. Just because they cannot test for pain, does not mean it is not felt
Comment by Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa on April 13, 2009 at 12:52pm
Sorry, for my absentmindedness. I read something & link something that is away. Okay. There is a debate going on in the scientific world about the definition of "life". If the tissue is "dead" it doesn't feel pain. If it is "living" & has nerves or at least chemicals that carry the sense of "Pain", it does. Again you should have a "brain" or something that can analyse this data & tell you that you are in pain. Have you ever seen the severed tail of a lizard immediately after it is separated from the main body? It will feel pain & shivers & shakes for sometime even though it is not attached to the body. When the head of the cockroach is cut off it can still "live " for seven days. It will die of hunger after that. So some local nerves still control the body!
A mass of cells derived from a fertilized egg will have some "life " too. Each case is different & we in the scientific community want to analyse each case separately & differently depending on the data available. We can't generalise things. I am against even scientists playing with life.
You will be surprised to hear this, I refused to do an experiment in my final year M.Sc. practical exam because it involved a process called "pithing" in which you have to insert a sharp javelin-like knife into the brain of a living frog & derive blood from it. My external examiner thought I didn't read about it- not prepared & therefore I was refusing to do that. When I explained the entire process orally, he was shocked. "When you know how to do it, why aren't you ready to do it?" , he asked me. Then I shocked him more by saying "I am against killing an animal so cruelly just for a few marks". He changed my experiment without saying a single word!
So I will never support anyone- artists or scientists- playing with living tissues.
Comment by Frank Shifreen on April 13, 2009 at 11:52am
brain lab edit
Comment by Frank Shifreen on April 13, 2009 at 11:51am
Krishna. I did not curate this show! Where did you read that? I am also against, very much against artists playing with life. The english artist Damien Hirst, cutting animals in half and displaying them in tanks of formaldehyde. I think these developments smack of Nazism. I worked in a brin lab- NYU- and saw slaughter of animals, not for necessity, I believe, but for grants, NSF and NIH here. It was disturbing. I think artists should make models that are not living objects. I think this smacks of cruelty.Can these tissues feel pain?
Comment by Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa on April 13, 2009 at 11:00am
"Shocking" is the word I want to use after reading this, Frank. Artists should never try to do these experiments without the supervision of scientists. Having said that I want to add some scientists too do stupid experiments. I painted a picture on this topic. " Extreme Science " is the name I gave to this painting. " Scientist at crossroads" is another painting I did which deals with the ethics. And you curated this show! Well you seem to have some knowledge about science.
I am ready to hear more.

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