BioArt: Intersection of art and science

Two bulbous flasks are hooked up to sensors and strange wires. Inside each flask is a hunk of raw steak suspended in a murky yellow liquid.

A photo of Organ Re-Purposing Bioreactors by Andrew Pelling and Daniel Modulevsky

Organ Re-Purposing Bioreactors by Andrew Pelling and Daniel Modulevsky, presented at Ottawa Open Libre. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pelling

Although such a setup would certainly be at home in a laboratory, some would say it would do just as well on display as a piece of art. This installation is what’s referred to as BioArt – art that uses biology, organic or living material as media.

The piece, titled “organ re-purposing bioreactors,” was produced by Andrew Pelling, a professor cross-appointed to the physics and biology departments at the University of Ottawa, and one of his students. Pelling presented the piece at Ottawa Open Libre, a conference held last September intended to foster creativity and innovation.

As the term suggests, BioArt is necessarily interdisciplinary. Pelling says research in his lab, the Pelling Lab in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Nanophysics at the University of Ottawa, often crosses disciplines.

Driven by curiosity

An example of such research involves the use of specially-engineered micro and macro stretchers to physically stretch populations of cells to see how they react. Pelling says he didn’t begin this project with a hypothesis in mind – he simply thought it would be cool to have a video of cells being stretched.

It turns out the stretchers are an effective way of modelling the muscle and how precursor muscles cells regenerate, says Pelling. This kind of work, he says, necessitates dabbling in areas such as physics, math, engineering, biochemistry and molecular biology.

“I think that’s where the new knowledge – whether it’s science or whether it’s art – is all coming from,” Pelling says.”It’s these interfaces where all the interesting stuff is happening right now.”

BioArt projects might not start out with a hypothesis or an application in mind, but approaching science from a creative angle often yields new knowledge, says Pelling.

“There are plenty of massive failures, but once we’ve approached it from this creative standpoint … we actually learn a lot of interesting things about cells and cell biology,” he says. “We’re constantly discovering proteins that act in ways that are very surprising just because we’ve asked a slightly different question.”

An international scene

The number of BioArt practitioners internationally has grown considerably in recent years, says Jennifer Willet, a visual artist who offers a course in BioArt at the University of Windsor. She says she’s seen BioArt gain a considerable amount of attention since first taking part in the practice in 2004.

“People are really fascinated by biotechnology and we don’t feel they have a lot of understanding or connection to what it really is,” she says.”BioArt quite often gives people one of their first windows into the biotechnological world, which can be very exciting, fascinating and confusing.”

Artists interested in BioArt often collaborate with scientists, an arrangement that affords them access to a lab, equipment and scientific know-how they might lack. Scientists and artists working side-by-side in the lab is often a mutually-beneficial experience, although this isn’t always apparent from the start, says Willet.

Decellurized steak

A decellurized piece of steak; the result of a process that involves using an organ re-purposer bioreactor to extract cells, leaving behind what is called an extra-cellular matrix. Photo courtesy of Andrew Pelling.

“Almost all the scientists that I’ve had contact with over the years state that in the beginning they really didn’t know what they would get in return for working with the artists,” she  says. “But it usually is this sort of moment where the artist sees their research from a very different perspective or asks a question that’s completely unexpected.”

“It allows the scientist to see their work in a way different from how they have been all along,” Willet says. “For scientists, that can be really productive in terms of furthering their own work.”

BioArt also often comes with ethical considerations, says Willet. “When you’re manipulating other life forms toward human ends in a conscious way, that involves an ethical dilemma or decision-making system,” she says.

Research and art

Tagny Duff, an artist who teaches courses in intermedia at Concordia University in Montreal, Que., says although she identifies as an artist first and foremost, she often has a research question in mind when working on a project as well as creating an artistic experience. Pictures of Duff’s work have been published in science journals that contain research that relates to those projects, she says.

My aim is not to necessarily contribute to science, but I’m interested in contributing to a discussion – Tagny Duff

Although an artist, Duff says she isn’t interested in BioArt primarily as an artform. “I’m interested in working with different types of materials that can speak critically and reflexively to the different concerns I have as an artist,” she says.

“I’m not a scientist and my aim is not to necessarily contribute to science, but I’m interested in contributing to a discussion around some issues that relate very much to scientific methods and scientific practice as it moves into the cultural world,” Duff says.

Although the manipulation of cells, tissue and other material is an activity often attributed to scientists, most BioArt practitioners would neither call themselves scientists nor have a scientific background. Therein lies the appeal, says Pelling.

“I think the interest in BioArt stems from the mystique of the lab and allowing laypeople to come into an area that is very specialized,” he says. “It’s something you only see on TV or in the odd news report.”

BioArt with Katie Wilde

Katie Wilde is a University of Ottawa fine arts student. Her obsession with plant life has driven her towards a different form of BioArt. She studies plants, paints plants and even uses plant material in her artwork. She shared with Katie Anderson what BioArt means to her and how the two disciplines can come together.


Frontpage image courtesy of Andrew Pelling

Story produced by Katie Anderson

Related Links

Interview with Andrew Pelling on the Vague Terrain blog

INCUBATOR art/science laboratory at the University of Windsor

Jennifer Willet’s BioARTCAMP video (rough cut)

The Art Science Experiment

Wired article on the ethics and aesthetics of BioArt

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