The Tissue Culture & Art Project

The Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A), (an on-going research and development project initiated in 1996) was set to explore the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. We are investigating our relationships with the different gradients of life through the construction/growth of a new class of object/being – that of the Semi-Living. These are parts of complex organisms which are sustained alive outside of the body and coerced to grow in predetermined shapes. These evocative objects are a tangible example that brings into question deep rooted perceptions of life and identity, concept of self, and the position of the human in regard to other living beings and the environment. We are interested in the new discourses and new ethics/epistemologies that surround issues of partial life and the contestable future scenarios they are offering us.

A Semi-Living Worry Doll H

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr)
Medium: McCoy Cell line, Biodegradable/bioabsorbable Polymers and Surgical Sutures.
Dimension of original: 2cm x 1.5cm x 1cm
Date: from The Tissue Culture & Art(ificial) Wombs Installation, Ars Electronica 2000.

Artists’ statement:

“The Guatemalan Indians teach their children an old story. When you have worries you tell them to your dolls. At bedtime children are told to take one doll from the box for each worry & share their worry with that doll. Overnight, the doll will solve their worries. Remember, since there are only six dolls per box, you are only allowed six worries per day.”

We decided to give birth to seven dolls, as we are not kids anymore. We may not be allowed to have more than six worries but we surely have. The genderless childlike dolls represent the current stage of cultural limbo: a stage that is characterized by childlike innocence, and a mixture of wonder and fear when we create the new sex – hence, a new era. We gave them alphabetical names as we think that we can find a worry for each letter of the language that made us what we are now. While working on the Tissue Culture & Art Project, people expressed to us their anxieties. These dolls represent some of them. You are welcome to find new worries and new names… You will be able to whisper your worries (not just in terms of biotechnology) to these dolls and hope that they will take these worries away.

Doll A = stands for the worry from Absolute truths, and of the people who think they hold them.
Doll B = represents the worry of Biotechnology, and the forces that drive it. (see doll C)
Doll C = stands for Capitalism, Corporations
Doll D = stands for Demagogy, and possible Destruction.
Doll E = stands for Eugenics and the people who think that they are superior enough to practice it.
Doll F = is the fear of Fear itself.
G = is not a doll as the Genes are present in all semi-living dolls.
Doll H = symbolizes our fear of Hope…

Our worry dolls were hand crafted out of degradable polymers (PGA and P4HB) and surgical sutures. The dolls were sterilized and seeded with endothelial, muscle, and osteoblasts cells (skin, muscle and bone tissue) that are grown over/into the polymers. The polymers degrade as the tissue grows. As a result the dolls become partially alive! Will they take our worries away?

The process, in which the natural (tissue) takes over the constructed (polymers), is not a “precise” one. New shapes and forms are created in each instance, depending on many variants such as the type of cells, the rhythm of the polymer degradation and the environment inside the artificial womb (bioreactor). It means that each doll transformation cannot be fully predicted and it is unique to itself. Our ‘next sex’ is still in the realm of a dialogue with nature rather than a complete control over it. Our dolls are not clones but rather unique.


Victimless Leather- A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific “Body”

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr)

Medium: Biodegradable polymer connective and bone cells

Dimension of original: variable
Date: 2004

Artists’ statement:

The Victimless Leather project is concerned with growing living tissue into a leather like material. This piece represents the culmination of ten years artistic research by The Tissue Culture & Art Project into the possibility of Technologically Mediated Victimless Utopia.

This artistic grown garment confronts people with the moral implications of wearing parts of dead animals for protective and aesthetic reasons and further confront notions of relationships with living systems manipulated or otherwise. An actualized possibility of wearing ‘leather’ without killing an animal is offered as a starting point for cultural discussion.

Our intention is not to provide yet another consumer product but rather to raise questions about our exploitation of other living beings. We see our role as artists as one in which we are providing tangible example of possible futures, and research the potential effects of these new forms on our cultural perceptions of life. It is not our role to provide people with goods for their daily use. We would like our work to be seen in this cultural context, and not in a commercial context.

As part of the TC&A project we are artistically exploring and provoking notions relating to human conduct with other living systems, or to the Other. This particular project deconstructs our cultural meaning of clothes as a second skin by materialising it and displaying it as an art object.

This piece also presents an ambiguous and somewhat ironic take into the technological price our society will need to pay for achieving ‘a victimless utopia’.


Odd Neolifism

21st Century: Art in the First Decade
installation view



Odd Neolifism 2010

Bioreactor, glass, CO2, nutrient solution, living cells, and taxidermy and preserved specimens on loan from the collections of QM Loans, Queensland Museum, Brisbane; the University of Queensland’s Zoology Museum, courtesy of the School of Biological Sciences; and Mr David Burnett, Curator International Art, QAG/GoMA.

The Tissue Culture & Art Project is hosted at SymbioticA — The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia

Commisioned for ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade’

Images courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art

Photography: Natasha Harth

Artists’ statement:

Odd Neolifism is an updated cabinet of curiosities that comment on the current taxonomical crisis in which old and new life forms are emerging and abstracted.

The piece combined of a more traditional display of life forms – taxidermy and preserved organisms, as well as a contemporary approach – fragments of organisms which either stand as the essence of the whole organism, or in some cases hybridised together to form a new life form.

These living cells or hybridomas (a technology of forming hybrid cell lines by fusing a specific antibody-producing B cell with a myeloma cell) will be grown in a techno-scientific surrogate body – a Wave Bioreactor with the appropriate nutrient media. The Bioreactor is a cell culture device suitable for applications of cell culture in suspension, or on microcarriers, as well as cellular therapeutics.

The dead media (taxidermy and preserved specimens) are juxtaposed together with the living Semi-Living media (cells and hybridomas) to raise questions about our changing perceptions as well as changing relations to life on all levels.


The Mechanism of Life – after Stephane Leduc , 2013

Artists: Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Corrie van Sice

Medium: Custom design rapid prototype printer, computer, chemicals and dyes.

Artists’ statement:

In his 1911 book Stephane Leduc tried to prove that life is merely a chemical process. In a series of experiments he was showing the emergence of life like phenomena of different degrees of complexity. This piece recreates Leduc’s experiments using custom made rapid prototyping printer to create “protocells”. The work deals with cultural amnesia and reimagining. With current attempts in creating synthetic life, it is important to culturally probe into the ideas of the Mechanism of Life.

In our piece, we re-enact one of the simplest protocell protocols offered by Leduc, working with the diffusion of two concentrations of solutions that create transitory, cell-like droplets The droplets resemble cells with membrane and nuclei, they last for a few moments before succumbing to entropy and dissolving into a murky liquid, “much like life”.

This protocol is automated using another hyped technology: three-dimensional (3D) printing. There is much discussion about 3D printing technology as the next industrial revolution – something that parallels the assembly line of Fordism at the time Leduc was working on The Mechanism of Life. The promise of 3D printing technology is, in its core, based on information transfer as the business model; the focus is on the instructions/data as the currency, while the materiality is merely an optional manifestation. This is problematic as, at the very same time, the 3D printing industry suggests the ability to print actual life, or at least parts of the living. This very seductive scenario of printing life from scratch is played off in this work against the unstable, uncontrollable and transient nature of the protocell droplets as a material. To a large extent, this piece deals with issues of cultural amnesia and reimagining, pointing attention to the use of certain visuals and expressions to persuade, hype, and then disappoint. In a time when the idea of creating synthetic life is in the forefront, it is important to culturally probe current and past approaches to the idea of The Mechanism of Life. The printed “protocells” are unstable and temporary; they take on forms that appear organic and then disappear. More than a proof on the mechanism of life, they are a suggestion for a humble approach to the question of what life is and how far we are willing to make life into a raw material for our own ends.


Semi Living Steak 2000

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr)

Medium: Biodegradable polymer connective and bone cells

Artists’ statement:

In this project Semi-Living food was grown. The first steak was made out of pre-natal sheep cells (skeletal muscle). Cells were harvested as part of research into tissue engineering techniques in utero. The steak was grown from an animal that was not yet born.

Based on research in the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory in Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, in 2000–2001

Technology seems to promise us (among many other things) an illusion of a victimless utopia. TC&A argue that this technologically meditated victimless utopia is but a transformation of explicit violence into a hidden implicit one on a much greater scale. As urban culture seems to find it hard to stomach images of real violence (as oppose to cinematic and constructed simulated violence) its obsession with ever growing consumption inevitably created increasing amounts of victims from the ecology to other animals and humans. There is a shift from “the red in the teeth and claws” of nature to a mediated nature. The victims are pushed farther away; they still exist, but are much more implicit.

For example, parts of the living are fragmented and taken away from the context of the host body (and the mere act of fragmentation is violent) and are introduced to a technological mediation that further “abstracts” their livingness. By creating a new class of Semi-Being, which is dependent on us and our technology for survival, we are also creating a new class for exploitation.

This Semi-Living Steak project investigated the eating of “victimless meat” by growing semi-living steaks from a biopsy taken from an animal, which is left in the paddock alive and healthy. As the cells from the biopsy proliferate, the ‘steak’ continues to grow and expand in vitro, while the source, the animal from which the cells were taken, is healing.

On an ethical level the project addressed the most common zone of interaction between humans and the living world, and also probes the apparent uneasiness people feel when someone ‘messes’ with their food. The project offered the illusion of ‘victimless’ meat consumption. Potentially this work presented a utopian future in which the killing and suffering of animals destined for food consumption will be reduced. Maybe even the ecological and economic problems associated with the food industry can be reduced dramatically. However, by making our food a new class of object/being – a Semi-Living – there is the risk of making the Semi-Living a new class for exploitation.

The TC&A Semi-Living Steak project was the outcome of a residency at the Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School in 2000. The first steak was grown from pre-natal sheep cells (skeletal muscle), harvested as part of research into tissue engineering techniques in utero. The steak was grown from an animal that was not yet born.


Disembodied Cuisine 2003

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project

Date: 2003

Photography: Axel Heise

Artists’ statement:

For Disembodied Cuisine, we grew Xenopus laevis cell line (XTC) over biopolymer for food consumption. The semi-living frog steak was grown for more than two months and was consumed as food by the artists and eight other volunteers by the end of the exhibition.

Titled ‘Disembodied Cuisine’, the installation played on the notion of different cultural perceptions of what is edible and what is foul. Semi-living frog steaks were grown, thus problematizing the French taste and their resentment towards engineered food, and the objection by some other cultures to the consumption of frogs. Frog skeletal muscle was grown over biopolymer for potential food consumption, while the healthy frogs lived alongside as part of the installation. In the last day of the show, the steak was cooked and eaten in a Nouvelle Cuisine style dinner, and the four frogs that were rescued from the farm were released to a beautiful pond in the local botanical gardens.

‘There are eight people on earth who have already eaten lab-grown flesh, and artist and tissue scientist Oron Catts at the University of Western Australia is one of those few. As part of the Tissue Culture and Art Project’s Disembodied Cuisine, he was part of the team that grew some frog meat on a slide, fried it up and ate it as a part of a “feast” to end their project into the uneasy relationship of meat and science. Following earlier successes in 2001 at growing lamb in a lab, Catts and his team grew coin-sized frog steak in 2003 at a cost of roughly $650 a gram, just millimetres thick. ..They fried the thumbnails of frogmeat in garlic and honey with a dash of Calvados….

The Lilliputian amphibian steaks were served with a selection of herbs, also lab-grown from plant tissue culture. Eight people sat down to this micro-degustation. The results were a success, at least in terms of replicating an uneasy relationship.

“Four people spat it out. I was very pleased” [i]


Stir Fly

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in Collaboration with Robert Foster

Medium: Custom-made Bioreactor, Insect Cells, Nutrient Media and Blood Serum

Date: From Grow your Own, Science Gallery, Dublin 2013

Artists’ statement:

Stir Fly is a contestable domestic appliance that could be used in the kitchen of every home: a prototype of a domestic bioreactor designed to culture and farm in-vitro insect meat. A bioreactor is a device that supports a biologically active environment—in this case, a vessel to grow cells taken from a fly. Unlike warm blooded animals’ cells and tissues that need to be kept at 37 degrees Celsius, insect cells grow at room temperature which makes the process effective and readily available to the domestic environment. However, note the bag above, it holds nutrient fluid, consisting of all the food the cells need in order to grow, it includes animal derived substances such as fetal calf serum. The nutrient fluid is fed into the sterilized device that contains the fly cells; a magnetic stirrer agitates the fluid so that the cells can maximize their nutrient uptake. This work takes the idea of in vitro meat and animal protein production, and translates it into an absurd conclusion—and in the process unveils the nutritional requirements of the cells.


Vessels of Care & Control

Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Mike Bianco.

Medium: compost, beehive, bees, acrylic dome, clay, wood, glass, water, tissue flasks, pumps, plastic tubes, thermostat and Water Storage Crystals

Date: Kenpoku Arts Festival, Japan 2016

Artists’ statement:

In Vessels of Care and Control: Compostcubator & Hivecubator we explored how life forms are cared for by other life forms. Potentially we were looking, as a symbolic gesture, how non-human living systems, can become surrogate bodies to human (or more than human) living fragments. Rather than optimisation in the sense of engineering control – the electrical incubator – we look at living systems as ideal surrogates bodies. We critiqued contemporary biology for increasingly becoming a discipline of isolation and control, particularly in the area now known as synthetic biology. Much of the rhetoric and practice in this field seems to focus on controlling living systems at the molecular level. However, we argue that one of the fundamental vehicles of controlling life—something that engineering biology can’t do without in its many manifestations—is the ability to simulate and control the environmental conditions of the biological body. Our artistic incubators – life support vessels – highlighted the impossibility of total control through technology and the importance and beauty of leakage, contamination, diversity, and fertilization as keys to survival.

In many respects the living systems acted as the incubator’s thermostat. It is not surprising that this facility for living systems was translated into the machine. The invention of the thermostat represents one of the first examples of first order cybernetics systems and one of the first when humans developed (semi) autonomous technology to care for other living systems.

The two incubators are:

Compaostcubator – The heat for the incubator was generated from a compost pile decomposing in the centre of a clay/mud structure providing the heat needed for the (sometime human) cells grown in tissue culture flasks which were positioned in specially crafted compartments. This was part of a series of an artistic meditation loosely based on the story of the Golem (which literally means crude, unshaped or raw) and which explored the “alchemy like” transformation of different materials into substrates with the ability to support and act on life. In the 16th century story of the Golem, an animated being was created from non-living material to serve and defend part of a population, an attempt to destabilise the prevailing logic of the transformation of life into raw material for engineering ends. Our piece poetically restaged the creation of the Golem in order to touch upon some of the important lessons of the story: the creation of life from crude matter and human knowledge and the point that human hubris and life should not be mixed/ should not lead to an interference in life?

The hivecubator followed studies showing that bees are fastidious at maintaining the beehive at temperatures between 32-36ºC and also seem to regulate CO2 between 0.10 and 4.25% so the beehive can operate as an incubator in which cells can be grown. The bees function as a living incubator to maintain and grow cells, semi living fragments of bees’ bodies.

These two living systems staged in the gallery had to take care of  disassociated living fragments (tissue cell, and cell lines) growing in a plastic tissue culture flask, thereby moving away from notions of control, optimisation, computation and information, to those of kinship, interdependence, multispecies ecologies and genome instability. When during the exhibition, the beehive incubator was attacked by wasps, the dead bees became food for the compost incubator; which in turn, at least in theory, provided heat for the cells in the tissue culture. Our hands bled from making the clay structure in which to host the compost; and our blood was consumed by flies hovering around the compost. It smelled, it was somewhat chaotic, it was unstable, it was alive!


[i] From an interview with Oron Catts: June 2008.



The Tissue Culture and Art Project




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