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Bio-art: adventures in ethics

Catherine Fargher

Catherine Fargher is a freelance performance writer creating performance texts from original bio-ethical fables as part of her Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Her radio play, The Woman Who Knitted Herself a Child was broadcast on Radio National’s Airplay, Dec 19, 2004.

SymbioticA wet biology workshop, Perth SymbioticA wet biology workshop, Perth
photo Catherine Fargher
“You are about to be implicated in genetic engineering, are you sure you want to go on?”, asks Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia as workshop lab scientist Gary Cass starts a procedure with a group of 12 participants to clone some glow-in-the-dark e. coli bacteria. We will create genetically modified organisms painted onto Petri dishes, which will not live beyond the duration of our experiment. They will later be destroyed in the ‘autoclave’—a kind of giant pressure cooker that kills biological waste.

In this way we confront one of many lessons that arise during a week of experiments and wet biology practices: we are responsible for the organisms we create. If they come into being it is because of us, and if they need to be destroyed, it’s our responsibility. It’s perhaps fitting that 2 of the students participating in the workshop, Tim Watts and Ali Bevilacqua from Edith Cowan and Notre Dame Universities in Western Australia, are doing research for their production of Frankenstein.

I’m participating in the SymbioticA Wet Biology Workshop, held as part of BEAP 04 (Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth, see RT's online coverage). There’s a group of us ranging from 82 year old Professor David Allbrook, formerly head of the School of Anatomy and Human Biology of which SymbioticA is part, to UK-based visual and performance artists Kira O’Reilly and Julie Freeman. As well as the drama students, Tim and Ali, there is an anatomy and anthropology student Megan Schlipalins, already an old hand at dissecting foetuses and asking ethical questions, and 2 bio-artist participants/ workshop leaders. Phil Ross is from San Francisco and sculpts with fungi, and Marta De Menezes is a Portuguese artist who creates visual art using biotechnology. Both artists exhibited in the Bio-difference exhibition at BEAP (see RT's online coverage). Most of us are interested in the ethics and practice of incorporating biology into our performance/installation/visual work.

“We want you to ask questions”, say Oron and Gary. “The more you get involved in the science, the more complicated the lines become and the more you will confront your audience and ideas. It’s so easy to paint a fantastic picture of what you can create with this science when you have never practiced it. Maybe if Patricia Piccinini did our workshop she would make totally different work.”

Oron stresses that rather than creating monsters, most of the partially living beings which can be made through cell culturing are in fact highly vulnerable and need to be taken care of in laboratory conditions. He also encourages us to think about presentation, rather than representation, of the science in our work as a means of taking the ethical debate to a wider public.

Throughout the workshop we’re working with hazardous chemicals. “We will deal with possible mutagens”, Gary tells us. We hear about lab explosions, contaminants and genetic materials that can escape. We have been warned.

The first day involves extracting DNA from plant material. It’s as simple as following a recipe and the result is thrilling. I cut and measure one gram of snow pea leaves and pound them in a mortar and pestle with an “extraction buffer” (a basic detergent like lauryl sulphate), literally breaking down the cell walls. We centrifuge it for 5 minutes and then add some ethanol to the extracted liquid that contains the DNA. We put in a glass hook to ‘spool’ the DNA strands. The strands hang off my hook like tiny threads, or tendrils that curl up, literally winding around it. A thrill runs through me—this is life. Later I find out that the DNA threads themselves can be dried and maybe even spun and knitted, which I hope to pursue for my new media work, Chromosome Knitting.

The talk between participants is excited and intense. How great are the bio-hazards? How often does genetic material escape from labs? Are people working on genetically modified organisms despite the 5-year government moratorium?

The next day the work becomes more intense. We’re in a cell-culturing lab working with cells from freshly killed meat, in this case a pig’s trotter straight from the butcher. Oron has outlined the work of 2 pioneering scientists, Dr Alexis Carrel and Dr Honor Fell, who were the first to culture living organs from embryonic cells. In our own experiments we work under a sterile flow hood, trying to keep the contaminants from our skin, nails and hair away from the cells we are trying to culture. There’s the roar of saws as we cut deep into the flesh and bone, locating the marrow, which is scraped out, pipetted into dishes with nutrient solution and placed in an incubator to culture. The atmosphere in the lab is a palpable mixture of fear, curiosity and excitement. Three vegetarian drama students, here for the day, are recoiling in the corner.

In the corridor outside the lab door, Julie spots an empty cardboard box. “Contents: six mice, one pregnant female.” We look at each other. Where is the pregnant mouse? This is a workshop full of lines to be crossed and questions to be asked. Would I be prepared to kill animals? Is it different if I work with cell lines and materials which are now ‘immortal’, but involved many invasive processes to reach that point?

I interview Marta about her ethics. She says she will not work with live animals but is prepared to work with cell lines or materials that are already in existence. She says that science can’t be stopped, but we can’t do everything just to know more. “It has to be flexible enough to be re-evaluated constantly... but you can’t just stop science, you can’t just go back, no matter how romantic you want to be.”

That night, when I return to the airy North Fremantle flat where I am staying, I close the door and am relieved no one is home. I feel the need for sanctuary after a day facing such intense questions, making decisions about life and dominion over others. Is this how surgeons feel? My mind is racing and my body is tense. I remember the first time I saw the cloning of a human embryo on film, and the strength of my gut reaction to that procedure. I remember the effect of the amniocentesis needle penetrating my uterus during antenatal genetic testing. This is not about glossy life science brochures with happy smiling faces and life-science solutions; this is also about invasive procedures on animals and humans in the name of science. I know it isn’t popular to question the progress of science, and a lot of these views can be seen as ‘pro life’ and aligned with the religious right. I can also see how seductive the science is, and how curious humans are; despite ‘gut’ feelings I might do it again in pursuit of a goal.

The next day the discussion heats up. The personal stories make this like a consciousness raising group. Tim has spent the night contemplating ethics. “I was playing with my dog and I thought, ‘I don’t want my dog to die.’ I just felt really hypocritical and guilty.” Marta, who grew up on a farm is unfazed “I always knew our pet pigs would die at slaughter time, I don’t have this ‘yuk factor’.” Megan on the other hand felt that as an engineer of genetically modified organisms, however tiny, she had a responsibility: “I am a creator, I take a moral responsibility.”

In our final discussion on selective breeding in plants, animals and humans, Kira recalls her friend, Matt, a performance artist in the UK with disabilities from a genetic abnormality. He performs without words, but with a sign around his neck that simply says ‘kill me’. We do have the power to question scientific ethics through art.


SymbioticA wet biology workshop, BEAP 04, Perth, University of Western Australia, Sept 20-24

Catherine Fargher is a freelance performance writer creating performance texts from original bio-ethical fables as part of her Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Her radio play, The Woman Who Knitted Herself a Child was broadcast on Radio National’s Airplay, Dec 19, 2004.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 17

© Catherine Fargher; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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