Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.
The first early human human fossil found in Africa that provides a key evidence to support Darwin's theory of human evolution (and in particular the origin of anatomically modern humans to sub-Saharan Africa) was discovered by a Swiss miner in 1921 in a lead and zinc mine in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia.) An upper jaw from another individual, a sacrum, a tibia, and two femur fragments were also uncovered. Anything else was lost during the mining exploitation of the area. The skull, dated to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, was taken to London by the British colonial authorities -in violation of protocols put in place by the British South Africa Company- and it is still there, as part of the collection of Natural History Museum. Meanwhile, the Lusaka National Museum, in Zambia, is only exhibiting a replica of the cranium.
Except that right now, the Lusaka National Museum is not even exhibiting a replica but an identical model recently purchased online by a Thai artist. A replica of a replica, thus. The replica itself is on show, all alone in a big room, at Chisenhale Gallery in London.
Pratchaya Phinthong has loaned the replica skull and asked the museum guide, Kamfwa Chishala, to travel to London for the duration of the exhibition in order to communicate the history of the skull to the visitors of the art gallery, as he does in Lusaka. Kamfwa Chishala is thus the only genuine participant to this exhibition. He was invited by the artist to bring his own subjectivity and perspective to the story of the Broken Hill skull. Something he certainly does with passion. I'd recommend that you get to the gallery, listen to his presentation and have a chat with him. He's a lovely man.
The replica skull is displayed with a copy of the wooden box where the original is kept at the NHM and with the export license that the artist had to obtain from the National Heritage Commission in Zambia because the replica skull is classified as a national relic. I thought the Zambian government was quite brave to allow the replica to travel to London since their attempts to repatriate the original to its country have all failed so far (tell that to the Greeks!)
Broken Hill explores the provenance and the authenticity of artefacts but also the way human interference further complicates their status. The exhibition is the outcome of a network of personal relationships between individuals living in cities as different from each other as Lusaka, Bangkok and London.
After all these years seeing skull after skull in art galleries and contemporary art fairs, it was time some artist put a skull in a context that is more than simply anecdotal, sensational or sloppily 'zeitgeist'-conscious.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest tomorrow will be Marco Donnarumma, a young performer and sound artist who gained fame across the world for a series of performances and instruments that use open biophysical systems to explore the sonic dimensions of the human body. His interactive instrument Xth Sense won the first prize in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and was named the 2012 "world's most innovative new musical instrument" by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, US.
We'll be talking about Xthe Sense and also about a work that intrigued me a lot: Nigredo, a 'private experience of altered self-perception and biophysical media' that uses Xth Sense. One visitor sits in a blacked out room facing a mirror and wired to sensors that capture the low frequency sound pulses of their heart, muscles and vein tissues. The signals are augmented, and fed back to the subject's sensory system as auditive, visual, and physical stimuli. Marco will tell us more about the effects the installation had on the public during the show. It includes sensory deprivation, feeling of being physically touched, etc.
The show will be aired this Wednesday 17th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Photo on the homepage: Marco Donnarumma, Hypo Chrysos. Image Chris Schott.
I just realized that there is only a few days left to see the Degree Show of the Design Interactions department at the RCA so i'd better speed up and mention at least one projects i found interesting before the exhibition closes on Sunday.
Set in a medical context, Agatha Haines' project Circumventive Organs brings the whole "We are all cyborgs now" mantra into a new light. In the future, maybe the health and enhancement of human beings won't be entrusted solely to artificial pace makers and other embedded electronics or robotic parts. Instead, our bodies might one day be fixed and improved with the help of hybrid organs that will be custom-designed, printed and inserted into the body to overcome a specific illness.
With the introduction of bioprinting the possibility of new organs is becoming a reality. The ability to replicate and print cells in complex structures could mean different cells with various functions could be put together in new ways to create new organs we would take millions of years to evolve naturally. Frankenstein-esque hybrid organs could then be put together using cells from different body parts or even different species.
The organs are using animal parts to respond to the risk of suffering from a stroke (Cerebrothrombal Dilutus), a heart attack (Electrostabilis Cardium) or cystic fibrosis (Tremomucosa Expulsum),
I had a quick online chat with Agatha:
I'm curious about the shape these organs have: does the shape reflect their function? The exact space they can occupy in the human body? Why didn't you make them look more appealing to the human eye?
Yes, I researched how these cells and tissues exist and look in humans and other species already and how they might look when they are joined to things they aren't usually attached to. I then tried to design the shapes they are in based on the functions they have to perform. I also spent a long time testing colors that could give a sense of what the organ does. So I hoped the form might be slightly descriptive of the function. They are also lifesize to show how much space they may take up when inside the human body.
After looking at lots of viscera I felt people may believe in them more as objects if they look more disgusting like the weird and wonderful things designed by nature that already exist inside us.
Could you detail to me some of these organs?
Electrostabilis Cardium is an organ designed for people with heart problems and is designed to act like a defibrillator. It has a suction pad that attaches to the heart and then a tube, which has walls lines with cilia cells similar to that in the human ear. These cells can recognize vibrations, and if the heart goes into fibrillation (a heart attack) these cells will cause the muscular wall at the base of the organ to contract. Behind this muscular wall is a series of blobs which contain rows of electroplax cells, which are similar to those found in an electric organ of an electric eel. When the muscular wall contracts these cells discharge causing an electric shock to travel to the heart which then defibrillates it causing it to revert back to its normal beating pattern.
Tremomucosa Expulsum is an organ designed to help people who suffer from cycstic fibrosis. It is surgically attached to the trachea with holes that form walls between. The top of the organ has a similar muscular structure to that of a rattlesnake, which can vibrate vigorously without using much energy for long periods of time. This vibration causes any mucus on the trachea walls to become dislodged and to move down the tubes into the new organ, which then moves down into the bottom opening that is attached to the stomach. This allows the mucus to then be dispelled through the digestive system.
To me the project makes sense: having something organic rather than medical pacemakers that transform the human into a 'cyborg' seems to be more 'natural.' Yet, the organs would contain cells from leach, rattle snake or electric eel. Can these cells be made compatible to each other and of course to the human body?
There has been lots of research into using animal parts in our bodies and also a few noted existing procedures that have been successful.
Xenotransplantation (which is the transplantation of tissues or organs from one species to another) has become relatively famous with the possibility of transplanting a pig heart into a human. Yet there are problems with rejection, which are now being solved by genetically modifying the animal. This is a way of tricking the body to recognize these parts as human. So the possibility of altering the cells before they enter our bodies could mean they can be made compatible or at least our bodies may recognize them as compatible.
Does a human with these new, hybrid organ becomes a 'new cyborg' or something entirely different? Do you think it would be easier for someone to accept that these scary-looking new organs made with bits of animals will be part of their body instead of a clean, polished piece of electronics and metallic implants?
In a way the host may become like a 'new cyborg' as they are still being enhanced by a new technology, even if it is visceral rather than metallic. Another term often used for a human enhancement like this is 'transhuman.' Transhumanism is a movement that attempts to overcome the current limitations of the human body using emerging technologies.
Whether people are more likely to accept these organs is something that I am trying to question through doing the project. I have been interested in how people respond and relate to new body parts, whether it is a transplant or a prosthetic, and how sometimes it takes a while to accept this new part as initially it feels alien to the body. Yet I think if the organs are partly made from our own cells we may be more likely to accept them into our bodies.
If you want to know more about Agatha's work, you should check out Happy Famous Artists' take on Agatha's modifies babies or head to V2_ in Rotterdam on July 9, she will presenting her project at Test_Lab: The Graduation Edition.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)
Today i'm talking with Helen Pynor. You might have seen one of Helen's most striking photos in bookshops and on the tube last year, it showed a brain in all its organic glory and was on the book cover and on the posters advertising the exhibition Brains: The mind as matter, which opened last Spring at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Helen Pynor has a background in science but later studied visual art. Three years ago she also became a doctor of philosophy. Her practice combines biological science and visual expression to explore the inside of our bodies, and to investigate the relationship between the physicality of the human body and its culturally constructed status.
During the show we will be talking about how she managed to get her hands on a fresh human brain but Helen will also discuss some of her broader projects such as The Body Is A Big Place, a large-scale installation that explores organ transplantation and the thresholds between life and death.
Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor (sound by Gail Priest), The Body is a Big Place
It's been too long since i've blogged about a project supported by Symbiotica (although they did get their fair amount of mentions and praises in #A.I.L., the show i present on ResonanceFM.)
For the In-Potentia work, the artists grew cells that were taken from human foreskin cells purchased from an online catalogue. The cells were then re-programmed by genetic manipulation and bio-engineered to become a neural network.
This functioning "brain" is presented in a sculptural incubator containing custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system as well as an electrophysiological recording setup.
The work is more clearly explained in the video below:
In-Potentia exposes, in the most limpid and absurd way, how science is blurring what we are used to regard as clear-cut categories, such as where life begins and ends or what constitutes a person. Or in Guy Ben-Ary's words:
What is the potential for artists employing bio-technologies to address, and modify, boundaries surrounding understandings of life, death and person-hood? And what exactly does it mean culturally, artistically, ontologically, philosophically, politically and ethically to make a living biological brain from human foreskin cells?
The artists have kindly accepted to answer my questions:
In Potentia is without doubt a very powerful and thought-provoking work. What is the state of the scientific but also cultural debate around liminal forms of life? where could i read more about it (in a not too daunting, hi-tech language if possible)? do you have simple examples of these 'uncertain lives' at the border between human/non-human, coherent/hybrid, etc.?
Liminal lives can be "brain dead" or coma patients who are only being kept alive due to machinic intervention, or severely pre-term newborns kept alive with external life support systems, or embryos (both within or outside of a female host body) whose status as "pre-beings" disrupts our understanding of "life" as being conscious, independent and "useful". Liminal lives could also be humans with animal (or other human) organ transplants, genetically modified/manipulated (human and non-human) lives that challenge the ontological status of where and how "life" starts, or even non-humans that exhibit "human-like" characteristics of consciousness etc etc. A liminal life can therefore be found anywhere that our traditional western understandings of what it means to be human is challenged, altered or transgressed. If you were only going to read one thing on liminal lives, I would suggest Susan M Squire's 2004 seminal text: Liminal Lives - Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine.
I like the humour behind 'project dickhead' as you nicknamed it but i've been wondering if you're not worried that certain journalists (and bloggers) will jump on the opportunity to depict the project in a simplistic light? Your choice was quite bold because you could have avoided potential simplistic headlines by choosing to use other cells than the ones of foreskin?
Could you briefly explain me the audio-soundscape that exposes the electrical activity of neural signals or synaptic output? It is just the electrical activity from the neural network being amplified? Did you modify the sound in any way to make it more 'evocative' of what the activity of a brain might sound like?
Thanks Guy and Kirsten!