TWO RISKS: Ethical Limitations and Scientific Advances.

Leonardo dissected animals, yet it is mostly now that ethical misgivings regarding artists tampering with biology is being debated. This indignation is directed at the presumptions of human dominion that are exhibited by artists tampering with biology through tissue, cellular, and molecular laboratory maniplations. Such misgivings were recently expressed on an eco art list serve in response to a post announcing the establishment of 'Biofilia – Base for Biological Arts', launched in 2012, that claims to be the only fully equipped biological lab that is operated by an art school. Its website explains its mission, "It provides artists, researchers, students and scholars with the ability to engage with the life sciences and their applications within an artistic and cultural context, thus creating creative and critical links between biosciences, engineering and the arts."

One objection to artists adopting living matter as an art medium focused on the assumption of hierarchies of life and that these hierarchies are measured against a human yardstick. Another was sadness that artists seem to manipulate life just because they can, ignoring the rights of small organisms, fungi, or other non-humans. The unknowns associated with such explorations were referred to as 'terrifying', and the absence of joy, connection, or knowledge passed down from our ancestors was described as 'distressing'.

It is not suprising that Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, artists and founders of the SymbioticA – Centre for Excellence for Biological Arts in University of Western Australia are affilitiated with this new program. What may be surprising is that they do not defend themselves against such accusations. Indeed, they dwell upon them, write about them, and stimulate public debate about them.


For example, they state “Whatever else it does, Bioart raises a profound array of ethical considerations in regard to the extent of the manipulation of living systems that range from interventions at the molecular level to the ecosystem and anything (living) in between.” The artists go on to suggest that concern about the manipulation of life “is rooted in the perceptions of humans as a separated and privileged life form, a perception inherited in the West from the Judo-Christian- and Classical worldviews.”

The manifold and perplexing questions that surround bio art is consolidated into the following question: Is Bio Art killing the other or self-cannibalism?

This ethical question is directed toward pragmatics in Catts’ and Zurr’s ‘victimless’ projects that invite considerations of both the laboratory procedures they employ and the goal of these manipulations. “Disembodied Cuisine” (2003), for example, is an effort to satisfy the human need for protein (meat) in a manner that bypasses the extensive catalogue of ethical issues related to raising farm animals. By culturing tissue cells to generate a steak, the ‘animal’ is eliminated from meat  production. This laboratory process ensures there is no animal mistreatment, no slaughter, and no butchering. Futhermore, ‘invitro’ production of meat avoids manifold environmental costs associated with farm-raised cattle. Consider the benefits of avoiding the functional and ethical aspects of resource consumption (it takes approximately sixty pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat), and waste management (animals produce forty pounds of manure for every pound of meat.)

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, with Guy Ben Ary, have backgrounds in law, product design and media. The fact that their training is not limited to science manifests itself in the concerns they share with the public regarding the human compulsion to tamper with nature. Indeed, this concern inspired their creation of a series of miniature ‘worry dolls‘. Ironically, these sculptures were created by seeding living tissue cells onto scaffolds in the shape of Guatemalan worry dolls, enacting the processes that distressed them. The artists said they were worried about “absolute truths, biotechnology, capitalism, demagogy, eugenics, fear itself, invisible genes, and the fear of hope.”

Regrettably, the dolls were more symbolic than useful. Indeed, there is an anecdote about a challenge issued by a person who was a vegan.  She asked if you biopsied your own tissue, and it grew to be a steak, and you served it, would it be ethical if the cells you put on the menu were your own?