by the TISSUE CULTURE & ART PROJECT
(Oron CATTS & Ionat ZURR) (Australia), 2003
DISEMBODIED CUISINE - DEMYSTIFIED TECHNOTOPIA
With the accelerating rate of technological innovation and the growing impact of techno-scientific discourses on economy, worldviews and belief systems, the art sector is increasingly delving directly into the conceptual business of agenda setting.
The "Case of Bio Art"1 demonstrates particularly well how contemporary art gets hooked on the popular topics that end up making careers. But Bio Art is also a proliferating mutant term which has somewhat resembled the recent hyperbolic career path of the gene-hype launched by techno-industrial special interest groups in the 1990s, a hype that has been slowly subsiding in the last few years. For a long time, the dominant element of Bio Art seemed to be "Genetic Art"; however, with the demystifying abnegation of the primacy of the genetic paradigm as ultimate Jacob's Ladder, artistic protagonists expanded their horizons to take in other fields and methods: neuro-physiology, transgenesis, Mendelian cross-breeding of animals and plants, xeno-transplants and homo-grafts, biotechnological and medical self-experimentation… and cell and tissue cultures.
In Disembodied Cuisine2, a performative installation whose theme was "meat production without victimization", Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary from the Australian Tissue Culture & Art Project cultivated tissue to create a pseudo-positivist junk-food alternative to massive factory farming.
Edible, "semi-living sculptures" were cultivated out of isolated muscle cells from frogs on biodegradable polymer scaffolds in bio-reactors. Bio-artists 'fed' them daily with a nutrient solution during their cell-cultured lives in a gallery-laboratory featuring a sterile hood and CO2 incubators. Eight weeks later, at a nouvelle cuisine cookout whose invited guests included the happy creatures spared from slaughter as a direct result of the project, they were flambéed in Calvados and devoured. Menu-handbills advertising the barbecue were distributed at the local farmers' market so that the typical contemporary art audience could be enriched by the presence of butchers interested in the prospect of alternative meat production.
The igloo-shaped laboratory facility was hidden under black plastic sheeting, an allusion to the first Tissue Culture Laboratory headed by Alexis Carrel, a Nobel laureate whose career later also included a stint as eugenics theoretician during the time of the Vichy Regime in France.3 Framed, circular portholes were the only windows that offered a view to the tableaux vivants of the lab's operations. A passageway connected the lab with a rectangular room sealed off with transparent plastic: a dining hall full of set tables. Two aquariums were built into the transparent walls; inside, frogs could frolic amongst miniature Venus sculptures and ultimately observe the ceremonial supper before finally being released unharmed in the nearby botanical garden.
On the other hand, participation by the diners who volunteered to eat the "victimless steak sculptures" actually was connected with a real, physical risk. The tough tidbits were difficult to cut even with a scalpel and their taste was questionable to say the least; furthermore, one of the guests paid a high price for this dubious pleasure in the form of an allergy suffered for weeks afterwards-ironically, not a reaction to the ersatz meat but rather to its polymer structural skeleton, and thus to the technological avatar that was meant, in this artistic context, as a symbolic means of saving animal life.
Following the performance, a video-triptych remains as a documentation of all stages of the project, which, in this elaborate form, would be quite difficult to replicate in other exhibition settings. Entitled The Remains of Disembodied Cuisine, the installation then opposes the video and the tables set with plates upon which rest the boluses of half-chewed food that dinner guests spat out.
Here, the aesthetic objects can hardly be made out clearly and overlap one another. Tissue culture is deployed in this instance in a non-utilitarian way for the realization of a technological utopia, and simultaneously carried out ad absurdum to thereby undermine the conciliatory-compensatory function of techno-ideology:
The artists intentionally distance themselves from the phantasm of controllable genetics - the very title "Disembodied Cuisine" evokes the idea of the laboratory as kitchen in which nothing is programmed, recipes are indeed tried out, but now and then, dishes just happen to come a cropper. To be precise, what is being produced here are sculptures in the form of 'steaks', consumable and ephemeral objects and therefore not finalized works of art. Rather, these are components of a performative and narrative process that integrates real protagonists beyond the confines of the museum and realm of the art world, and even demands readiness on the part of participants to engage in self-experimentation with uncertain outcome.
Moreover, the project has concrete feedback effects on the scientific context itself. Now that TC&A has brought the concept of tissue-engineered ersatz meat into the public domain at this early stage, it may become difficult for commercial firms to make a profit out of "tissue engineered meat" patented at a later date. The artists are thus making a contribution to the open use of the existing knowledge. In theory, these steaks hark back to 1960's scientific research to derive cheap protein substitutes from oil; work on the "petrol steak" was abandoned following the 1973 petroleum shock.4
Substantively speaking, Disembodied Cuisine is an incarnation of the speciesism concept of Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who condemns discrimination on the basis of species and thereby calls into question differentiation among species as well as humanism as a philosophical model. This was inspired by the bio-phenomenological practice of the co-culturing of cellular entities in which species boundaries on the molecular biological level play no role.
Core concepts of Jacques Derrida's deconstructivist critique of conventional humanism are also reflected here.5
The Venus figures in the aquarium raise the question of the possibility of non-anthropocentric art, an issue thematicized by many Bio Art projects. The round picture segments of the laboratory's sporadic operations in the igloo mock the framed image as a proxy for representative art that merely thematically depicts biotechnology. In addition, the biotechnological sculptures disappear with the conclusion of the barbecue; what remains - as in Body Art - are documentary traces (the video) and material leftovers (the spit-out pieces of 'steak'), which now, a posteriori, play utopian and dystopian potential against each other.
1 : Named after the exhibition at la scène nationale du Lieu Unique, à Nantes, en 2003.
See: Hauser, Jens (éd) : L'Art Biotech'. Nantes/Trézélan, 2003.
See also: Hauser, Jens. "Bio Art - Taxonomy of an Etymological Monster", in Ars Electronica 2005. Hybrids - Living in Paradox, Wien/NY, 2005, pp. 182-192.
2 : Disembodied Cuisine was produced in conjunction with the L'Art Biotech' exhibition in Nantes that presented the work of 11 bio-artists.
See Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary : « Que/qui sont les êtres semi-vivants créés par TC&A? », in Hauser, op.cit.. pp. 20-32.
In German and English in Larger Than Life: EMAF (Electronic Media Art Festival) Catalog, 2003, pp.242-248.
3 : Bonnafé, Lucien et Patrick Tort. L'Homme cet inconnu? Alexis Carrel, Jean-Marie Le Pen et les chambres à gaz. Paris, 1992.
4 : Bud, Robert. La cellule et les biotechnologies. Biofutur 184, 1998, pp.38-40.
5 : See Hauser : « Derrière l'animal, l'Homme? Altérité et parenté dans l'art biotech », in Bernard Lafargue.
Figures de l'Art, numéro 8 - Animaux d'Artistes. Pau, 2005, pp. 397-428.