You and I are utterly reliant on muscle cells. Every movement, every breath, every heartbeat can only happen because of the exquisite coordination of millions of microscopic, twitching machines. Did you know that heart muscle cells, given the right conditions, will continue to beat even outside of your body? If you get a chance to look at them under a microscope, to see them up close, separated from the human body but still twitching away, it’s a jarring experience. They feel alien and other and creepy. Why is this? What does this imply for a near-future where whole organs are grown in labs? What does this mean for our understanding of ourselves?
These are some of the issues addressed by Nathan Thompson and Guy Ben-Ary‘s 2020 work, Bricolage. Artists and biology enthusiasts, Thompson and Ben-Ary created Bricolage in collaboration with Dr. Sebastian Diecke, Stem Cell Core Director at the Max Delbrück Center in Germany. The piece was first exhibited at the Fremantle Arts Centre in Western Australia and presented in association with Perth Festival and SymbioticA.
What is Bricolage? Picture a torus-shaped incubator, made of clay, metal, and glass, hanging above your head. You can peer up inside of the incubator through circular portholes to see the kinetic sculptures inside: living, beating assemblages of blood, heart muscle, and silk. These “automatons” are cultured human heart muscle cells derived from stem cells, themselves derived from a drop of blood.
In this interview with Art the Science, Ben-Ary and Thompson discuss the theory behind their work, the years-long process that was required to make it a reality, and new directions in working with human-derived entities.
What inspired you to create Bricolage?
Bricolage was formed from many broadly disparate elements. Initially we both were driven to make a visibly kinetic work to push back against the seemingly static biological based artworks that preceded it. We wanted gallery attendees to experience the visceral nature of the material first hand, free from screens or translations. It was, and still is, extremely important to us that the cellular performance is unmediated and approachable, that the viewing public can connect directly to it and to remove any doubt that there is any trickery or obscurity occurring. This then paves the way for people to feel relaxed enough to take the first steps towards the experience, unencumbered by techno-scientific aesthetics. It’s just you and the twitching entities on an equal playing field.
Bricolage, as the name suggests, is inspired by, taken from, and a deconstruction of the techniques, materials, and protocols present in this world we all inhabit. It then jumbles them up and puts them back together again in a new form that seems otherworldly. Every decision along the way was motivated by our intent to bring the human as close as possible to the alien-like animacy of these automatons.
Can you explain the process of making Bricolage?
Aside from a decades long career of working with and manipulating life, Bricolage was an intense challenge. Neither of us are trained biologists or tissue engineers. We generally read lots of papers and just try things out to learn and observe its potential. It’s an extremely costly and frustrating methodology but it definitely pushes us towards exciting things, even if it takes forever to see results we can understand. We prefer to do it our way.
Initially we bought pre-differentiated cardiomyocyte progenitor cells online, along with premixed nutrient media, but the company we bought them from would not disclose the information we needed. Obviously they are driven by profits from sales so the questions we were asking about recipes, the longevity of the cells, freezing and thawing protocols, and more importantly, the source and ownership of the human material didn’t sit well…they stopped responding to our emails.
After that we decided to go it alone and start from scratch (stem cells) to really get to know the material. It was about three years of full time lab work, between us, before we felt like we were on to something. Cultures of human heart cells need feeding every day, so we would alternate on weekends. Seven days a week for years is really taxing, especially when something goes wrong or gets contaminated…there is no backup file or terminal window to tell us what happened. Sometimes months’ worth of work would be destroyed, and we would start over trying to understand where the issues lie. It was tough.
And that’s just the biology side of things.
The vessel is a whole other story.
There again is years’ worth of trial and error to get a functioning incubator working in this orientation to robustly perform for weeks on end inside a gallery space – miles away from a lab. Mammalian cells need a highly toleranced environment to survive in vitro, so aside from the aesthetic aspect of the housing, the incubator requires heating, filtering, gas, and humidity levels to be tightly controlled.
Bricolage is presented in an unfamiliar, almost eery format but is made of everyday materials (glass, clay, silk). What effect do you think this has on the viewer?
Bricolage is a culmination of processes and techniques from the past and present to deliver alternative scenarios about where we are collectively headed.
The choices of materials and processes in the production of the vessel were considered deeply; every element has a function and the intent is to allow ponderance for the human viewer in interaction with it.
As a society on an everyday level we are so entranced by the products we welcome into our lives that we are somewhat blind to the embedded histories of them. It can be said that it’s almost a collective internalized conflict we hold surrounding the political weight of interaction with these devices. There are countless ways that this artwork, in a gallery space, affects the individuals who experience it, and of course they are all valid. What is also valuable are the innumerable threads tied to the materials that flow backwards in time to create pleasant junctions our modern bodies have long forgotten but still can sense in some way.
Emotional reactions of wonder, surprise, and shock are common and were expected, but one of the things we had in mind while making Bricolage was a sense of the omni-present commodification of every aspect of our lives. For example, the scraping of data we produce online is fed back to us to assist with making our lives more “efficient.”
It’s a huge leap when considering for millennia we have built tools to navigate and interact with our physical world, and in turn our instincts have been shaped by the way we interface with them. Through all this though, up until very recently, there was still a clear line dividing us from our objects. What is now becoming clearer is there is a continued forking in the development of our tools. On the one hand they have become almost indistinguishable from us in that they are highly personalized assistants, but on the other hand, they are rushing ahead to represent an essentially unchanged world, in more and more planar and symbolic ways.
Even if our brain doesn’t register this conflict, our body consistently responds to and is waiting for movement and physical engagement. We think that Bricolage as our “Surrogate Performer” can tap into this void in rather complex ways.
The automata of this artwork, twitching human heart muscle cells continuously beating overhead, both connect to us because they are us, but also repulse us with their indescribable otherness. We have observed that Bricolage can push people to consider the implications of a world where these kinds of products silently enter into our daily routine, as it shines a light on a very real possibility.
Bricolage is an artefact sent back to us from our potential future.
How did the biologist you collaborated with respond to the piece?
We met Sebastian Diecke, the biologist that we worked with on the development of Bricolage, in Berlin in 2017. We had a cellF performance in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt as part of the CTM festival. We needed to grow the neural networks that controlled cellF in a lab prior to the performance. A mutual friend introduced us, and Sebastian invited us to work in his lab. He is the head of the Stem Cells facility of the Berlin Institute of Health and the The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine. Throughout those two weeks we spent in his lab, we became really good friends. He also realized that although we are artists with no formal scientific background, we both are quite proficient and knowledgeable with the biological work. I think that it was a relief for him that he does not need to do the work for us, rather just provide access to the facility. It was then that we started to talk to him about Bricolage, and he was quite excited to take part in the project. For us it was quite incredible, as he is an expert in his field.
I think that Sebastian saw Bricolage as “yet another” research project he is involved with, but he really enjoyed the artistic side of things and was quite impressed when we presented the design of the project to him.
In one of the interviews we did after the launch of Bricolage, Sebastian said:
“…I found it fascinating – I never would have thought I’d be involved in something that crazy. cellF was simply intriguing, this extraordinary music emanating from the rhythmic impulses of the neurons. So when the next project came about, I got involved again immediately…”
And then he added:
“…I see art as a means of making the general public aware of our research work. To show what stem cells are and what they can be used for. For another thing, art is a good way of starting a conversation with people and stimulating a discussion. By showing what is technologically possible, you can also pose the question of how far science should be allowed to go. Whether it’s OK to do everything that’s possible, or whether there is a line somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed…”
What impact do you hope to achieve with this piece?
That is an interesting question. What impact do artists want to achieve when they make a work of art? The truth is that we would have pursued this project even if it had no public outcome whatsoever as we both are genuinely interested in the idea of problematizing technology to gain a better understanding of it and being able to think about it critically.
Furthermore, when viewers see Bricolage’s automatons, they can seem alien and uncanny. Through this alien-ness, we hope to create a “shock,” in the audience, to disrupt their existing cognitive models of aliveness, to question our collective deep-seated preconceptions of what is “living” and to ponder what framework can be applied to this new fragmented life. We hope that Bricolage’s alien animacy encourages the viewers to re-evaluate categories of life and aliveness and the ethics that surrounds their creation.
There is a strong parallel between Bricolage and one of your previous pieces, cellF. Do you think you’ll continue to explore humanity’s relationship with human-derived entities in future works?
Yes, we certainly will. We published a paper a few weeks ago (along With Dr. Darren Moore and Dr. Vahri McKenzie) in which we propose two new terms that assist to conceptualise/think about our work: In vitro Intelligence and a Surrogate Performer.
cellF represents an interesting and provocative move away from Artificial Intelligence (AI) enquiries that dominate our current technology-focused scientific discourse. It is not an AI musical robot driven by computer algorithms; at the same time, it lacks the complexity of natural intelligence and requires a hardware body to provide stimulation for its in vitro brain. cellF’s brain is made of bioengineered living human neurons that are grown into neural networks, interfaced such that inputs to and outputs from the networks control an array of analogue modular synthesizers, making it a wetware-hardware hybrid. Neither an artificial intelligence nor a natural intelligence, cellF falls within a taxonomic void. In the absence of terminology that adequately accounts for cellF’s autonomy and plasticity, demonstrated through its capacity to make music and duet with a human musician, cellF is best understood as an entity possessing ‘in vitro intelligence’: an intelligent system produced by bioengineered living neural networks that function as brains outside of the body.
We envision a future “post-corporeal” connection between body, instrument, space, and time where creative production tools cease to be divorced from the biological body, and instead artist and artwork are one and the same. The complexities and nuances that these “prepared” living entities can embody will give rise to a new kind of performative entity, an entity physically removed from the human but linked through lab-based processes in which biopsied material grown outside of the donor’s body (in vitro) control a creative, hybridized entity or specifically, a Surrogate Performer.
We consider both cellF and Bricolage to be surrogate performers. In cellF, the donor is Guy Ben-Ary and cellF performs with human musicians in special one-off shows. The human-made music is fed to the neurons as stimulation, and the neurons respond by controlling the analogue synthesizers, and together they perform live, reflexive, post-human sound pieces. In Bricolage, the donors are anonymous, and the cellular performance of the cardiomyocytes continues spontaneously throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Establishing this theoretical framework paved the way for us to initiate a new project entitled Revivification – the creation of another living entity that is driven by in vitro intelligence and is also another example of a Surrogate Performer.
In this new artwork, we propose to immortalize a living artist, giving him new life by creating his “surrogate self” or “surrogate performer,” a living entity that would keep on creating art, as an artwork, long after he is gone.
Alvin Lucier (90 years old), is one of the most influential composers alive. He stands tall as one of the premier names of the 20th century avant-garde. His pieces are integral to the development of everything that came after. Lucier agreed to collaborate with us and together with him we propose to embody Lucier’s “external brain” (brain organoids derived from his own stem cells) with a resonating body in such a way that they work in synergy. This new living entity, or Lucier’s “surrogate performer,” would be capable of creating art and will do it continuously into the future.
Starting from the assumption that life is a matter of chance, this project offers the opportunity for Lucier to be immortalized and become a living artwork that not only challenges the notion of human evolution but also gives the aging Lucier a permanent embodied material presence that creates new art, new stories, and new memories, even after he is gone, in an art gallery that hosts the work.
For more by Nathan Thompson, visit his Instagram.
For more by Guy Ben-Ary, visit his website and Instagram.
Feature image: Bricolage (2020) by Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary, and Sebastian Diecke, installation view
All images courtesy of Guy Ben-Ary.
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