Oron Catts on "Future of Arts"
Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator whose pioneering work with The Tissue Culture and Art Project which he established in 1996 is considered a leading biological art project. Catt’s interest is Life; more specifically the shifting relations and perceptions of life in the light of new knowledge and its applications.
We have social contracts as different professionals. As an artist I never signed a dotted line that I am going to tell you the truth. So by definition when you talk to artists, you don’t want to trust them, you want to hear their stories, but it doesn’t necessarily add to the idea of truth telling. As we now see with Donald Trump it is becoming obvious that there are so many other professions that also do not really strictly tell you factual information. I am now also a professor of Contestable Design at the Royal College for the Arts (UK) that claims to be the best art and design college in the world. And there is no social contract for it, so you have to figure out what kind of contract I have with you.
SymbioticA was set up as a research lab that deals with the question of life and how our relationship with life is changing. It made sense to park ourselves in the biological science department. The model we developed was based on hands-on engagement. We are interested in artists coming in and engaging in the most experiential ways to manipulate with life. We are best known for tissue engineering, but the scope of research in SymbioticA is much wider. We are into identifying those shifting perceptions of life, the trends in life sciences. We want to explore their possibilities in order to propose alternative directions and to initiate a cultural debate. This is where the contestable comes into SymbioticA as well. By creating those contestable objects, as opposed to the growing trend of speculative design and speculative biology, what we do is to engage with the actuality of manipulation of life. We are not imagining these speculative futures, we are engaging in the hands-on development. And that leads to some unexpected outcomes. We are very interested in those places that make people uncomfortable because those are exactly areas that need cultural scrutiny and exploration. The fact that life is becoming raw material and biology is becoming engineering, gives us as artists a new palette of possibilities. We have new material that we can engage with. But this material is extremely problematic, as it is both the subject and object of our explorations which makes it both exciting and challenging. We are also engaged with the strategies and implications of what it means to put life in cultural contexts. When you work with museums as we know them, they are made to keep dead things as dead as possible for as long as possible. What does it mean to put living things in this context? And how problematic it is to put a piece of life as an art object in this context? At SymbioticA we have academic courses, we run Masters in Biological Arts, a PHD program, we curate and present exhibitions, we run symposiums, seminars and workshops. But we are best known for the residency program. Since 2000 we have had more than 120 residents coming in and developing different projects.
I SEE A SYMPTOM
Going back to me saying “When someone sees a solution, I see a symptom”, in-vitro meat is the best example of that. Many think of in-vitro meat as something trying to solve the problem of over-consumption of meat. This problem can easily be solved by reducing consumption. What in-vitro meat is doing very well, it is reminding us about problems we associate with contemporary modes of meat production. By offering this as a solution we are simply extending the symptom of our consumption rather than solving the problem. Anyone promising to provide lab-grown meat to McDonald’s as a solution is a problem to me. After the in-vitro meat project we decided to do another first: to be the first to grow insect soup in the lab. We did this piece called Stir Fly where we made this domestic bio-reactor in collaboration with designer Robert Foster, and we created a system where you can culture the fly cells in nutrient solution, and when it is ready you can just have a Fly Soup. In this case the nutrient solution operates both as food for the cells, but also as part of the food you would consume. What was really important is that we had this dark cloud of nutrients hovering above. Which means that in order to create this small amount of soup we needed to get blood plasma from two baby cows. Funny enough we had a contamination in the soup. So from insect soup we ended up having a mushroom soup, and then it exploded in face of the technician who was trying to play around with it. That was a glorious failure.
MEDIA’S ROLE IN HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY
Alessandro Ludovico (AL): You never name the human responsibility in all these acts. You don’t want to directly involve humans. The human responsibility is always a question of direct gestures, but playing with some non-direct consequences. I am curious about the fact that you also cleverly deal with media, creating these resonating chambers, for example, when dealing with synthetic meat. Do you have some reflections about the relationship of the underlying human responsibility and the role of media. How do you connect these two fields?
Oron Catts (OC): 20 years ago when I started I was interested in media being trained as product designer, but I also had a strong interest in biology. I was trying to combine those two things together. When I started, I didn’t even have an idea if it is possible to do it as an artist. I didn’t start with a research question “I want to be a bio-artist” or “I want to grow sculptures from tissue”. I said: “Can we use living tissue as a medium for artistic expression?” And also “if it is a responsible act to engage with life as an artist?” I saw Stelarc, who was using his own body, but those issues of concern are somehow solved when the artist is using his own body. But what does it mean, this act of violence, when you impose your will as an artist on other living bodies in order to engage with those issues?
I never expected to be at the point where I am now. For example, in June I am giving a plenary in the biggest synthetic biology meeting in Singapore, I never thought I would reach this position, or that media would become a medium for me to do this. This is an interesting case, as I am credited as the first to grow and eat cultured meat. This gives me the kind of credentials, that allow me to engage, subvert and contest things that are beyond the art world. It gives me licence. And I am so annoyed with moral internalization of artistic approaches dealing with technologies. That takes away the licence of the art to engage with an agenda free from those questions. Now it is much harder to trust artists in this context as well, because they are instruments of the neoliberal project of innovation. Artists were never supposed to be in this role. It seems to be the only structure where artists feel they can pursue their interests. So my question is how much are you willing to sell your soul for? And is there any way for you to buy it back? And in this current situation, art is selling its soul very, very cheap without the possibility to buy it back later. If you know what you are doing, if you are not seduced too far or pushed too hard, there are ways to do it. But especially here in Europe, what I see really happening is that artists are willing to roll over, and maybe even more this concerns curators and organizations. Art and technology used to be a place for critical engagement, but it is going in another direction.
WHERE IS THE FIELD HEADING
Stahl Stenslie (EE): You have hosted more than 100 residencies in SymbioticA. This is a very costly and advanced field, it takes time, money and effort to build these artistic environments. Having those residencies, where do you see the field heading right now?
OC: The residents we had were not only artists, but also people coming from other fields: philosophers, architects, designers, geographers and many other professions. Even in SymbioticA we are not trying to make a unified agenda that drives this research. When I look at applications, the thing that determines if an application is successful or not, is how well I feel those people are going to utilize the very scarce resources we are able to make available for them. I am not trying to give preference to either way of thinking. I think we see a growing number of different approaches, but they all utilize life as a raw material for artistic expressions. The reason why we hear more and more about bio-design is that it is becoming a very fertile field for start-up companies. So those who have a much more instrumentalized view are coming in, such as designers. That is going to be quite interesting. And we are going to see more and more artists and designers as instruments in the hype of those biological possibilities. In the light of the political situation we find our world now, what does it mean for artists, designers and hackers to engage Research & Development (R&D) in totalitarian regimes? What does it mean that people who have very strong ideologies are acting actually as R&D people, to control other systems?
HOW TO TEACH THE NEXT GENERATION
EE: Your most important contribution for the field right now is to challenge thinking. You have the power of experience necessary to force thinking forward. And art is about thinking. Art is a weapon for thinking. How do you teach the next generation?
OC: Universities are trying to shut down this thinking. That’s why I am so concerned about the fact that artists seem to be co-opted, and critical approaches are becoming instrumentalized, therefore losing the power of critical thinking.
EE: How do you avoid that? For example, in Denmark, the thing that is most important for the universities are employment opportunities.
OC: Who goes to art school to be employable? This is an issue. One of the greatest mistakes is that art has become part of universities, they should have stayed as independent organizations. In academic institutions you don’t even need to be mentored any longer. I heard that here at the Art Academy of Oslo students are not allowed to use their studies after 11pm in the evening. How can science departments have the doors always open with dangerous equipment and expensive materials? Why are arts schools the most militarized spaces in the university? Art schools becoming part of universities are selling more than just their souls.
EE: That’s why art as well as art education should have no limits. How do you teach your students as a professor of contestable design?
OC: I was always very interested in critical design. But I identify myself as an artist. So I was always accused by my design teachers that I do more art than design. I saw this contestable design as an artistic intervention, external intervention in design. All these areas of design need to be prefaced by another word to be contextualized. Contestable design is also a comment about that. Design trade is either to satisfy the needs of the clients or somehow to make things which are desirable. And the idea of the contestable is opposite to that, it is making things which are not only undesirable, but are designed to be contested. Contestable design is a contradiction. Design by definition cannot be contested. And it depends on what you are trying to achieve, and it depends on your social contract.
As a professor of contestable design I can help people to spot bullshit. You don’t need more of design people, you need people who understand this better. I am giving the students the critique they have never had. I would look for things in their projects they have never thought about. If they come to me with their projects it will be contested.
/ Photo: Zane Cerpina @EE, 2017