Commissioned for “21st Century: Art in the First Decade”
Let’s discuss the oddity of neolife—particularly, laboratory-grown life:
One of the most important images of the late 20th century is that of a mouse with a human ear growing out of its back. Using tissue engineering—now the basis of regenerative medicine—scientists in Boston moulded a polymer scaffold into a desired shape, cultured it with cells in a lab environment and then introduced it to the body of the mouse.The image inspired us as artists because we realised the potential to engage with life in a sculptural way. Furthermore, it led to the realisation that new life forms that we can’t even comprehend as a society, are starting to sprout out of laboratories. In 1996 we began to develop what we called ‘semi-living’ entities: life forms that exist only as partial life; obtained from complex organisms but never introduced back into a body. The first time we were able to exhibit living tissue engineered sculptures was in the year 2000, where we presented our version of Guatemalan worry dolls. The cells we used to grow the semi-living worry dolls, McCoy cell-line, were originally human but have undergone such change since they were isolated in the mid 1950s that they are now considered to be mouse cells.
Historical knowledge leads to shift in perception of life, and biology, as engineering:
In the 18th century, cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer) presented oddities found in nature that were perceived as examples of ‘where God got things wrong’. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus undertook the task of looking systematically at ideas about life and how life could be categorised/classified, with the underlying aim to understand God’s handiwork better. Linnaeus used the metaphor of the Biblical ark, and ordered lifeforms according to their specific sexual compatibility.
This systematic view of life led Darwin to publish The Origin of Species in 1859, showing a diagrammatic tree of life and how species originated. Darwin’s idea, of evolution by natural selection, altered understandings of life to such an extent that soon after, H.G. Wells wrote: ‘We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, as something that may be shaped and altered.’
Knowledge is not in a vacuum. Knowledge is being applied, and in this case, our acquired knowledge about life started to make us recognise a perceptual shift was taking place in the field of biology; biology as a form of engineering—life as raw material, as something for us to shape and alter—which is arguably the greatest conceptual shift in contemporary science.
Humans as Great Manipulators, and the Birth of Lab Life:
Whenever life and technology mix, odd things happen. In 1913, controversial surgeon Alexis Carrel developed a technique called ‘tissue culture’. He understood that cells could live outside the body. In 1961, it was discovered that normal cell division is limited to between 56 and 65 times (Hayflick’s limit), but it was later found that cancer cells can continue division forever. In 1948, a cancerous cell from a mouse created the base for a continuous line of cells that are still being used today. The first human cell line, HeLa cells, were established in 1951 with cells from Henrietta Lacks, an African- American woman.
But where do these cells fit in taxonomy? In 1991, two evolutionary scientists, Van Velen and Maiorana, suggested that HeLa cells might constitute a new life form: ‘HeLa cells are the best-known cultured cells of human origin…they have become a separate species restricted to a particular environment.’ In other words, an ‘odd’ life form in a laboratory environment. In tissue banks that provide scientists with cell lines, one starts to find all sorts of oddities: cells that have three different organisms as its origins, or fused cells of human and mouse origin, called hybridomas. These cells are only classified by catalogue numbers or by very odd names. This is neolife.
Cultural Identification in Neolife:
How do human cultures come to terms with neolife? Museums explain the taxonomy of life by showing us the living kingdom as a continuous developmental lineage, culminating with primates, the apes and the humans, often shown as strange artefacts. In 2007 we developed a work that we titled NoArk. Through these new, totally abstracted life forms—cells—the metaphor of the ark no longer applies. We see a return of those cabinets of curiosities, but this time, collections come from catalogues that supply scientists and laboratories.
Since we developed NoArk, more and more museums have started to collect fragments of life, frozen cells that represent the whole. These are a new addition to the stuffed animals and specimens in jars. Here, the technology of collection is converging with the technology of making strange. New life forms are entering collections, but the collection is not complete... the ‘odd neolife’ is not there in our natural history collections; the lab-grown, lab modified life forms are still absent.
Odd Neolifism is an updated cabinet of curiosities. The two-headed bird, as much as it might represent the TC&A collaboration, also recalls the fascination with oddities and their significance in the 17th century. Museums have conventions in displaying preserved life forms, and in this display, ideas about a progressive complexity of species are questioned. At the far end of this display we include the only living element—cell tissue within a bioreactor (a surrogate, technological body). These life forms are so abstracted from their source, and yet they are growing and perhaps it is time to realise we need to find a place in our ecology for Neolife.