»Cellular Performance« is a project at the intersection of Art, Science and (Bio-)Technology that has been developed during residencies at »SymbioticA – Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts« in Perth, Australia and the »Laboratory of Stem Cell Bioengineering« at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Using bioengineering techniques, human skin cells have been manipulated to grow into predefined patterns – visualizing terms culled from the advertising language of care products and cosmetics industry.
Advertising language functions as a powerful vehicle in creating a seductive relationship between the cosmetics industry´s products and their customers. While the actual products are supposed to dialogue with the human body in a material way, the content of the messaging is often working on a more abstract, psychologically evocative level. These »incantations« have a subconscious influence on our body image. The terminology communicates that the human body – by means of biotechnology – can be formed, manipulated and controlled. Seemingly aggressive and packed with numerous technological terms, the vocabulary used vividly conveys the physical changes, rejuvenation and improvement that occur at both a cellular and molecular level.
»Cellular Performance« draws on this terminology and applies it directly to the fleshy, living material that it makes reference to. Human skin cells, extracted and isolated from their bodily environment, are manipulated in the laboratory by means of bio-technological methods. This results in two-dimensional structures of cellular matter that visually »reincarnate« the incantations of cosmetics industry.
Microscopic time-lapse recordings are used to make visible and document the attempt to control the biological matter. Occasionally, the cells form legible structures, which quickly dissipate again. These short moments of successful stabilization are quickly followed by disintegration and entropy.
In regard to »MutaMorphosis 2012« I would like to focus on certain issues of uncertainty and instability that occur when working with biological, semi-living »material« and within experimental situations in general.
Cells as unstable »material«:
I would like to discuss the technology of cell culture and the processes of stabilization that attempt to turn such unstable life forms like cells ex vivo into stable and reliable workhorses. As semi-living entities that have been extracted from a human (or animal) body, cells do need continuous care when being kept alive in the laboratory before they can be used as a tool for science. Besides a certain number of instruments it also needs a lot of (hands-on) experience to keep cells alive over a longer period of time.
The experimental situation and the reproducibility of experiments:
Every experiment is a combination of a large number of different steps and conditions.
Even if one strives to repeat exactly the same steps from experiment to experiment, there are always slight variations we might not even be aware of. If an experiment doesn´t work out as expected it is sometimes very hard to figure out why things are not the same as before.
It might for example be that a certain detail that hasn´t been described in the protocol turns out to be very important in the end, or that a slight difference in timing or handling makes a huge difference regarding the result.
Especially in the context of Art-Science projects, where reproducibility is not a must, this uncertainty regarding the experimental outcome can be used as a tool to generate novel results and new ideas.
As an artist who worked in a scientific laboratory I would like to talk about my practical experience working with cells in vitro and combine it with philosophical and historical perspectives, focusing on uncertainty and instability vs. the engineering approach to control life and on the issues that arise when working with semi-living material in the context of an Art project.