Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Cockroaches scuttled around a cubed vivarium. Their antennae wriggled at the sight of a fellow roach or the remnants of a vegetable that had been thrown into the enclosure. Three people examined the bugs’ sanctuary of dirt and transferred a few to a Tupperware container that came supplied with a slice of cucumber. A student needed to borrow them.
The student, Zelle Westfall, told Hyperallergic she was planning out a piece on stillness for a performing arts course. She planned to stand silently and let the cockroaches crawl over her while her classmates watched.
To find her co-stars, she didn’t need to go far or consult any entomologists. She simply went up to the second floor of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Fine Arts Building on West 16th Street in New York City. There, the SVA Bio Art Laboratory sat stocked with materials like insects, fish, petri dishes, plants, and lab coats — all reserved not for students of biology, but for burgeoning bio artists.
Bio art — artwork that uses living matter — emerged as a recognized genre some 25 years ago and has produced practitioners like Zheng Bo and Anicka Yi, in addition to some ethically challenged works that grabbed sensationalistic headlines early on, such as Eduardo Kac’s “GFP Bunny” (2000), which involved creating a “fluorescent rabbit through molecular biology.”
Bio artists and their supporters have long claimed that their work is misunderstood and underestimated by mainstream audiences. Still, the field has made strides as institutions, critics, and the public have come to better understand how the genre aims to examine issues including climate change, sustainability, animal rights, and more through the visual and plastic arts.
But now, some bio artists fear they are losing ground. The world’s first laboratory dedicated to the biological arts, SymbioticA, is slated to close on June 30, 2024.
The University of Western Australia (UWA) announced last year that it would not fund the lab any longer. Artist Oron Catts, who co-founded SymbioticA in 2000, said he is not in a position to discuss the specifics of the lab’s termination. But he noted that “we’re back to square one” when it comes to convincing institutions to support bio artists moving forward.
UWA declined to provide comment to Hyperallergic, but told Australian science magazine Cosmos last year that the school needed to “prioritize its resources to core teaching and research areas.”
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Catts noted that the biological arts are extremely resource-intensive. Artists who want to engage with cutting-edge, biotechnological processes, such as gene splicing or cloning, “require considerable financial backing,” as historian Frances Stacey wrote in a 2009 article for Nature.
At SVA, for example, the Bio Art Lab houses expensive equipment, including a BioBots 3D printer, biological microscopes, DNA quantitators, and laboratory fume hoods, for the sake of art. Funders and universities looking to cut budgets — especially in a climate that minimizes the importance of arts and humanities — may see considerable savings by cutting programs like SymbioticA.
Artist Suzanne Anker, who founded the Bio Art Lab in 2011 and led the total renovation of the SVA Fine Arts building that same year, said that university President David Rhodes was initially confused by the lab and its purpose.
“It’s not an easy sell,” she told Hyperallergic. “He didn’t really know what I was talking about.” Rhodes was unavailable for comment, but Anker said that he came to appreciate the work and is now proud that the school supports students in exploring bio art, from performing with a cockroach to molding a fungus’s growth into the shape of a heart.
In terms of biosafety levels (BSL), Anker added, the stakes were comparatively low. “Labs are rated by their ability to deal with organisms,” Anker explained. The SVA Bio Art Lab is rated the lowest level of BSL-1, meaning they don’t deal with high-risk viruses or deadly bacteria.
In contrast, students and faculty at SymbioticA, a BSL-2 lab, regularly work with materials considered biologically hazardous as part of their artworks. The laboratory is housed within UWA’s School of Human Sciences, rather than, say, the School of Design.
When Catts and researchers Stuart Bunt, and Miranda Grounds co-founded SymbioticA, they combined their backgrounds in the arts, medicine, neuroscience, and human anatomy. Under the continued direction of Catts and visual artist Ionat Zurr, the institution garnered international acclaim. Catts and Zurr are well-known for the Tissue, Culture & Art (TC&A) Project, a precursor to SymbioticA. Artwork that came out of TC&A was exhibited at and collected by institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
“Victimless Leather” (2004), for example, forced consumers to face the potential consequences of lab-grown leather in the fashion industry. A miniature, “stitch-less” jacket sat suspended inside a custom-made perfusion chamber that fed it nutrients. It was alive, grown from a mouse’s stem cells, a sampling of the kinds of materials that Catts and Zurr worked with at SymbioticA.
The New York Times took notice of the piece when it had to be literally killed at MoMA’s 2008 show Design and the Elastic Mind. Paola Antonelli, the museum’s senior curator, told the New York Times that the artwork was “growing too much.” The cells multiplied so fast that the incubator began to clog. “I felt cruel when I turned it off,” she said.
It was exactly the type of reaction and discussion Catts and Zurr had hoped — and still hope — to ignite through their art.
“We’re not shying away from presenting the reality of the blood and gore in the sense of the practice of manipulating [living] systems,” Catts said. “This is part of it and should be. People should be aware of it.”
When SymbioticA’s potential defunding was announced, a “Save SymbioticA” petition circulated and garnered more than 13,000 signatures. Messages of camaraderie poured in from around the world, Catts said, including from Anker.
Despite the response, UWA stood by its decision and implemented an 18-month transition period to allow postgraduate students to finish their studies.
“But what’s really nice to see is that there’s many other labs that have been developed around the world,” Catts continued, “most of them modeled after SymbioticA, most of them by people who have spent time doing research with us.”
American bio artist Amy Karle, who credits SymbioticA as an instrumental pioneer and voiced her support during the “Save SymbioticA” campaign, is one such international colleague carrying on the laboratory’s legacy. She primarily works in the computer technology sub-genre of bio art, a distinction made by Anker in her scholarship on the practice over the last two decades, and examines how technology and biotechnology impact the human body.
In recent artworks from the 2010s, she made a 3D-printed heart that pulses with imaginary blood (“The Heart of Evolution?”) and a scaffold in the shape of a human hand seeded with donated human cells that she hopes will grow into tissue and bone (“Regenerative Reliquary”).
At the heart of these works by Karle, Catts, Zurr, and Anker is a perceptual license to explore the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the life sciences that traditional biologists, neurosurgeons, or chemists are not typically granted.
“Most people can’t talk about that in their fields,” Karle said. “If it’s not so strictly scientific, they don’t have a lot of space to talk about it, at least in America.” She added that bio artists are in a unique position to guide humanity through “the philosophical questions, the ethical questions [that] are a lot harder than the technological problems.”
And that means, Catts said, that artists need the same access to resources as physicists, synthetic biologists, and others who are working with biological materials, even if they were not initially trained in biology. Karle has found financial support for her work from companies like HP Labs and Autodesk. Anker’s lab at SVA, like others around the world, continues to thrive.
Knowing this, Catts remains hopeful about the future of bio art and the essential questions the practice raises. It may be shocking to see the original center of such work closed, and the loss of materials, funding, and collegial interaction for artists will certainly have repercussions. But Catts is not despairing.
“Shutting down SymbioticA,” he said, “doesn’t shut down the field.”