killing denouement

bio art: how could you kill a jacket?
By cutting off its nutrient supply, apparently. A recent MOMA exhibit, Victimless Leather, “died” just five weeks into the show. Unfortunately I never saw the real thing, and only heard about this after the fact from and the NY Times). Created by Australian artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, the piece was essentially grown from living tissue – not human, but embryonic stem cells from mice.

The thing? creature? (I don’t even know what to call it – I guess this really puts a new spin on ‘breathable cloth’) was fed nutrients by a tube,as pictured. It looks weirdly like a heart on dialysis? And then, in something that sounds like it belongs in a tripped out scifi movie, the tiny jacket grew too quickly and managed to clog its own incubation system. Its parent artists, meanwhile were already back in Australia, leaving it’s fate to the show’s curator, Paola Antonelli.

She decided to turn off its life support system, essentially “killing” the little jacket. In a televised interview with the Art Newspaper, she said the jacket

“started growing, growing, growing until it became too big. And [the artists] were back in Australia, so I had to make the decision to kill it. And you know what? I felt I could not make that decision. I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat…That thing was never alive before it was grown.”

Catts says his intention is “to raise questions about our exploitation of other living beings”.

I don’t know about that. (At that, I feel like I’m writing about animal rights issues rather a lot for someone who’s explicitly vegetarian-but-not-because-of-the-animals, if that makes sense. Perhaps it goes with the territory?). The questions raised for me hover more around the ethics of stem cell use. And, worryingly, the way that this could be pounced upon by pro=lifers.

Yes, the mini-story above is written in a fairly sensationalist manner (and deliberately so), but I can’t help but extrapolate this to a foetus. Somewhat militantly pro-choice, I’ve never really considered a foetus to be alive until it’s a baby – that is, born. This is to say, I don’t even have a problem with third trimester abortions, though I suspect this will change. Yet this piece makes me start to wonder just when something becomes ‘alive’, or rather, ‘sentient’. This attainment of a thinking consciousness (secular, please) has always marked the ethical boundary for me with regards to abortion. Yet if I stop to think this through, why does a foetus necessarily become sentient as soon as it is exposed to air, almost like the darkening of fresh blood?

In looking up the artists, I found they interestingly term their tissue culture art projects as ‘semi-living’. They say,

Tissue engineering holds much promise for improving the quality of human life. However, tissue engineering for artistic purposes has largely been overlooked… our goal is to create a contestable vision of futuristic objects that are partly artificially constructed and partly grown/born. We have grown tissue sculptures,”semi-living” objects, by culturing cells on artificial scaffolds in bioreactors. These entities (sculptures) blur the boundaries between what is born/manufactured, animate/inanimate and further challenge our perceptions and our relations toward our bodies and constructed environment.

This is what art should really be about, no? In other growth-related happenings, pig bladder powder apparently has regenerative properties, causing amputated limbs to regrow. (This is actually legit – follow the link to see a BBC vid of it in action). Now, the US government’s apparently getting in on the act to ostensibly try help the 1000 or so amputeed vets from the Iraq occupation.

The severed fingers stuffed with bone crunchy red writing implements in the middle, meanwhile, are from California artist Tim Hawkinson. Also via grinding.

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[…] stuff though, and while it’s fascinating, it starts getting into that uncomfortable realm of bio-art ethics again. Like this 2003 piece, Specific Natures. They call it A time-based installation which […]

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