Semi-Living Art: Artistic explorations of tissue culture

In the past fifteen years an increasing number of artists have begun to use various technologies from the natural sciences in their artworks. This project focuses on those dealing with cell and tissue culture – a field opening up the living body as a unity in time and space and also challenging the boundary between life and death. When for instance the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A) builds up a downscaled version of the artist Stelarc’s ear in Extra Ear ¼ Scale, it is with ‘HeLa cells’ cultivated from Henrietta Lacks who died of cervix cancer in 1951 (Catts and Zurr; Landecker). And in MEART – The Semi-Living Artist, SymbioticA makes a robotic arm produce a drawing by connecting it to neurons in a Petri dish via electrodes, wires and the internet (Bakkum et al.).

These artworks thus investigate how the development in the life sciences have shaken the way we consider the body, identity and subjectivity – shifts that add up to a posthuman turn. Separating tissue from its body of origin opens a range of ethical and biopolitical questions: who owns the tissue and for how long can it be stored (Foucault 2008; Lemke; Rose Waldby and Mitchell; Andrews and Nelkin)? Furthermore, intensifying the modern problematization of identity in living organisms (Locke), the idea of a stable subject has been questioned by postmodern philosophers (Deleuze and Guattari; Derrida: Foucault). This instability, then, gets a biotechnological base in the posthuman figure of the cyborg that dissolves the boundaries between human and machine, and between human and animal (Haraway, Hayles).