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Interview with Oron Catts


Interview with Oron Catts






[Una versione più breve, con traduzione italiana, di questa intervista è reperibile in Cluster. On Innovation, n. 4 (Biotech), pp. 158 – 163.]


Uno dei tanti effetti collaterali della pubblicazione, alla svolta del Millennio, della Bibbia di Lev Manovich è la trasformazione dell'espressione New Media, da relativa che era, in assoluta. Nuovi media = Media digitali. Personalmente, mi sento più vicino a coloro che sostengono l'opportunità di restituire all'espressione il suo carattere aperto e generico, perché credo che l'introduzione di un nuovo medium fra i linguaggi dell'arte sia all'origine di un duplice registro di conseguenze. Il primo registro si lega semplicemente al suo essere "nuovo", ed è comune a tutti i nuovi media, dalla fotografia in poi: crisi e riconfigurazione dei media precedenti, crisi e ridefinizione dello statuto dell'opera d'arte, etc. Il secondo si lega alle caratteristiche specifiche del mezzo, ed è quello che differenzia una "rivoluzione mediale" dall'altra (e che fa dei media digitali il più rivoluzionario fra i nuovi media). Poi passano gli anni, la rivoluzione viene assorbita e l'arte ad essa contemporanea ne esce trasformata: ma non c'è dubbio che i primi anni siano i più divertenti: anni di sperimentazione, e per tutti gli attori in gioco; anni di scontri, di discussioni, di tentativi e fallimenti; anni di fondazione di nuove etiche e nuove estetiche.

Tutto ciò per dire che è interessante ritrovare, nell'arte biotech e nel dibattito critico che la accompagna, gli stessi luoghi comuni, gli stessi dubbi e gli stessi entusiasmi che hanno accompagnato la rivoluzione precedente. È arte? Dove va a finire l'opera? Deve prevalere il medium o il contenuto, lo sviluppo delle sue potenzialità o la critica delle sue ideologie?

Ne abbiamo parlato con Oron Catts, artista australiano, membro fondatore, con Ionat Zurr, del Tissue Culture & Art Project e direttore artistico di Symbiotica, un laboratorio di ricerca ospitato dalla University of Western Australia (UWA) e guidato da artisti all’interno di un dipartimento di scienze biologiche. Esempio unico nel suo genere, Symbiotica organizza residenze per artisti a cui offre l'opportunità di lavorare a fianco di ricercatori e scienziati nello sviluppo di un progetto.


Domenico Quaranta. Let’s start from the usual question: what do you think you’re doing, playing God?

Oron Catts. There are two ways to answer this question – one is that the concept of God is a human construct so actually the question can be read as “what do you think you're doing, playing human?”

The second way of responding to such a question is that following its internal logic any form of manipulation of living systems is a form of playing God therefore this question can be directed to farmers, gardeners, chefs, people who are doing flower arrangement etc. In both cases you can see that this is not going to take us anywhere.

I believe that this type of response to our work stems from exactly the point that we are trying to raise through the work – that there is a immense discrepancy between our cultural perceptions of life and what can be done with life with the knowledge of modern biology and it’s application through biotechnology and biomedical research. This question can be relevant only as a starting point in the discussion in regard to the limits of manipulation of living systems by humans. However, using God as “a side” in this discussion is quite futile as no one seems to agree about who/what is his/her/its real representative down here.

DQ. Biotechnologies seem to answer the eternal dream of Pigmalion, to create works of art and give them life. Is every tissue engineer therefore an artist in this way?

OC. To be specific, tissue engineering is not about creating new life. It is, however, does transform life. Tissue engineering in the context of our work is about maintaining and prolonging the life of parts (i.e. fragments of the body), while removing them form their original context and transplanting them into a context of the semi-living. So unlike Pigmalion life is the starting point of our work.

It was the Tissue Culture & Art Project intention to grow semi-living sculptures, that do not necessarily conform to the original “natural” design of the body, and to sustain them alive for as long as possible outside and independent to the body (with the assistance of the techno-scientific body).

DQ. Do you engage biotechnologies as a tool or as a medium? How do they influence the content of your work?

OC. We are using tissue technologies both as a medium and as a subject matter. In general, the TC&A was set to explore the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. We are investigating our relationships with the different gradients of life through the construction/growth of a new class of object/being – that of the Semi-Living. These evocative objects are a tangible example that brings into question deep rooted perceptions of life and identity, concept of self, and the position of the human in regard to other living beings and the environment. We are interested in the new discourses and new ethics/epistemologies that surround issues of partial life and the contestable future scenarios they are offering us.

We will be concerned about what might happen when the use of the medium of living tissue becomes less critical and self referential and will become a force of domesticating of the technology rather then a resisting force.

DQ. What exhibition criteria do you adopt when showing your projects to the public? To what extent are they conditioned by the context that they're proposed in?

OC. As the presentation of living tissue sculptures is somewhat of a precedent we are experimenting with the aesthetic strategies we employ. We usually produce site specific installations based around the research projects we are working on and the context of the show. Whenever possible we try to maintain the semi-living sculptures alive for as long as we can. For that we construct a laboratory in the space. The laboratory fulfils two main conceptual purposes in addition to be the practical way to keep the semi-living. The conceptual purposes are to emphasis that our work is process based and to demonstrate the care that is needed to keep the semi-living. We make a point to tend to the needs of our semi-livings during gallery opening hours so the audience could witness the responsibilities we have once we transform life in such a way.

We try to strike a balance between presenting the technology needed to care for the semi-livings and the story we try to tell. The elements of the different installations contain many references to the history of partial life, as well as references to popular culture and art. We like our installations to be ambiguus, but in all projects we try to confront the viewer with an evocative experience that challenges his/hers perception life.

We are exhibiting in a wide variety of contexts; from exhibitions that their thematic is the biotech era to textile+ exhibition (our latest project titled: “Victimless Leather: A stitch-less jacket grown in a techno-scientific “Body”). We also presented our work in artistic, scientific, and other conferences. It is important for us to speak to a large and varied audience (rather than strictly artists or scientists).

We are asking what the context of the show is also to avoid falling into a trap of exhibitions that celebrates biotechnology, though we believe that the content of our work and the ambiguity and subtlety of our message can be interpreted in many ways. People who would like to understand more about our ideological/political views should read our academic papers.

DQ. All your projects can be read in various ways: as scientific experiments and complex narratives, as a process to be followed from beginning to end and as a path that leads to sculptures, even if semi-living. Which of these layers do you feel as yours?

OC. All of the above and more, we also deal with narratives surrounding species em, eugenics and the treatment of the other, but more then anything else our work is about life and it’s complexity. When we presenting our work in a context of an installation, the work should be experienced (rather than just read). We use different methods and techniques as times goes by and we are gaining more experience, though the bottom line is to have the multiplicity of narratives and discourses that are subtle and ambiguous. We would like the audience to form their own opinions (and love when they share it with us). We believe in complexity and look at “life” and/or “biotech” in a wider social/economical/political context that have many grades of shade rather than a black and white explanation. Our written publications are more “revealing” in an ideological and political sense.

DQ. What about the "killing ritual" that ends all your projects? What kind of rule does it have in the defining the whole sense of the work?

OC. During the exhibition of the living Semi-Living sculptures we are performing routinely the “Feeding Ritual” in which the audience can view when we feed and care for our sculptures. The most pronounced act of violence in the work of TC&A is that of the public release of the semi-living from the techno-scientific body by the end of the exhibition, this act results in the death of the tissue and is known as the killing ritual. TC&A durational installations usually culminate with that public action in which the organizers of the event as well as the wider community are invited to touch the exposed semi-living and by that hasten their death. The killing only takes place when we reach a point when no one can take care of the semi-living any longer, either because we could not stay around for the rest of the exhibition or when the exhibition ends and we can not take the semi-living with us. The killing ritual can be seen as either the ultimate pitiless act, as an essential show of compassion; euthanasia of a living being that has no one to care for it, or just returning it to the cultural accepted state of “a sticky mess of lifeless bits of meat”. It is important for us to be transparent in regard to the fate of the living art work in the end of the exhibition. It also interesting to note that in some occasions members of the public came to us after participating in the killing ritual and told us that only by killing the semi-living they believed that the work was actually alive.

DQ. SymbioticA is a unique example of the willingness that the scientific and academic world has towards artistic research. What caused it? Why in Australia? What does science ask in exchange from the artist?

OC. Here I should emphasis the distinction between The Tissue Culture & Art Project and SymbioticA. All of the answers above are to do with The Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A). TC&A was initiated by me in 1996, and Ionat Zurr joined me shortly after. It is an ongoing research and development project into issues of partial life and semi-livings. The Tissue Culture & Art Project members are Ionat Zurr and I (Guy Ben Ary was also a member from 1999 to 2003) who sometimes work collaboratively with other artists such as Stelarc.

SymbioticA, on the other hand, is a research laboratory dedicated to the exploration of scientific knowledge in general and biological technologies in particular, from an artistic perspective. It is located in The School of Anatomy & Human Biology at The University of Western Australia. SymbioticA is the first research laboratory of its kind, in that it enables artists to engage in wet biology practices in a biological science department.

The decision to set up SymbioticA was made after four years of residency of The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts) at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology in UWA for four years. When we realise that our project is ongoing and that it seems that other artists are starting to get interested in similar practices we decided to formalise the relationship with the university and be able to provide other artists access to the facilities in the school without going through the hassles that we had as artists in residence. The Tissue Culture and Art Project is now hosted by SymbioticA along side the other core research group – The SymbioticA Research Group and individual artists in residence.

A very important point in establishing SymbioticA was that it is an actual physical space that the visiting artists can call “home” and not be in a position of a guest.

When we were looking for support for the establishment of SymbioticA we received much more positive reaction from the science community then from the art community here in Perth. Now things are a bit different and it seems that a major part of the art community here is becoming very supportive while some of scientists that originally supported us seem to realize that their expectations of what SymbioticA will do were based on archaic and sometimes exploitative views of the role of contemporary arts.

SymbioticA was founded by Prof. Miranda D. Grounds, Dr. Stuart Bunt and myself – Oron Catts - in 2000.

The physical space called SymbioticA was completed in April 2000. It resulted from at least two years of trying to generate funds and to establish a frame work in regard to SymbioticA’s role and mode of operation. The beginning was quite humble with SymbioticA acting for its first year as a “studio” for two artists in residence and almost nothing else. During this year Ionat and I were in Boston so we could not play an active role in SymbioticA. It gave us the opportunity to reflect on the needs of future residents in SymbioticA and to develop more ambitious plans for the kind of activities SymbioticA should pursue.

When Ionat and I came back in April 2001 we started to implement our plans.

We formed the SymbioticA Research Group as a fluid and dynamic transdisciplinary made out of core researchers in SymbioticA and other interested people. We also started to develop the academic part of SymbioticA and together with Adam Zaretsky (who was our first international resident) offered a unit in Art and Biology for undergraduate students. Since we developed two more undergraduate elective courses and had a number of postgraduate students conducting their research in SymbioticA.

A growing number of artists (locally, nationally and internationally) have taken residencies here, from short and occasional visits to long term projects.

Just recently the Australia Council for the Arts announced their plan to establish an on going support for our residency program by offering (on a yearly basis) funds for Australian artist for six months residency in SymbioticA. In addition the amount of requests for residencies from international artists has being steadily growing.

All of these developments show that there is a growing and genuine interest in this kind of art and science collaborations and in particular in the area of life sciences. SymbioticA has proven that critical artistic engagement with scientific knowledge and technological applications is possible in an environment of collaborative research and within scientific institutions.

DQ. What does it mean, for an artist, to work in a team consisting of highly qualified scientists? How do imagination and research resign themselves in your laboratory? What's in it for the author in the end?

OC. SymbioticA’s model for art and science collaboration is based on mutual respect of the differences between these two modes of practice while acknowledging areas of common interest. The residence are encourage to critically engage with the new sets of knowledge and their application, while getting involved hands on with the processes and techniques of science. The relationship between the new residents and the scientists they work with is initially that of mentorship. The residents develop the framework for their projects with consultation with SymbioticA staff and collaborating scientists and then go to learn the techniques needed for the fulfillment of their project. In no case the scientists are producing the work for the artists, and similarly, the artists do not work for the scientists. The long term residents (six months and longer) are being appointed as honorary research fellows in the school of Anatomy & Human Biology, which makes them equal in their position to the post Doc research fellows in the other research laboratories within the school.

Many of the artists are interested in problemetasing the knowledge and technologies they are engaged with, questioning the motivations, agendas and possible impact of these new developments. In most cases the research develops into the production of evocative cultural objects that brings into a wider context the ethical, philosophical and cultural ramification of scientific discovery and technological application.

Due to the fact that SymbioticA was a bottom up initiative that evolved organically, artists seems to have much more freedom and independence in the ways they choose to critique and present their findings. SymbioticA seems to operate very differently from most art and science initiatives in that it is not about creating public acceptance of new technologies and sets of knowledge but rather bring them into question.

Who is the author is not a simple answer when people are working together in a creative team. SymbioticA is encouraging collaborative work (with all its associated difficulties) with the belief that different people from different disciplines and indoctrinations who are open to each other differences and ethical sensitivities can create a meaningful project. However, we are aware of the limitations of such cross fertilization that might cause some cross contamination and in many cases we welcome that. We are not hiding the differences among the fields of Art and Science. We are also aware that in some instances these differences are important and should be emphasized. What I find interesting in many of the projects coming out of SymbioticA is multiplicities of narratives and concerns express through the one artistic object. This is true not only to the different scientific and artistic practitioners but even within artists working on the same project.

DQ. SymbioticA attracts artists from all over the world. How many projects has it produced so far? What are you working on at present?

OC. In SymbioticA, we are more interested in the critical research aspects, rather than the production of artworks. At the moment we have 11 artists in residence working on different projects (from bacteria, fungi and slime molds to mammalian tissue culture and eco-feminist science fiction writing and umbilical cord); we are running a course in Art & Life Manipulation and developing a Master by Coursework in Biological Arts. SymbioticA is also running workshops, and Ionat and I curate the SymbioticA BioDifferences Exhibition and conference as part of the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth in September this year (



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