[-empyre-] the ethics of the semi-living

Richard Doyle mobius at psu.edu
Tue Sep 10 23:11:19 EST 2013


Oron,

Good luck with the Finnish diggings.  With any luck at all, you'll find
that the traces of ammo bearing amino acids and Junker DNA ( sorry) are
insignificant within the full monty of the biophilic splendor of the soil
galaxy you explore.

I dig how your rabbit head narrative places your art practice within the
history of  primate head scratching. The mismatch between a continuity of
tissue culture and the culture of organismic beginnings, middles and ends
can be modeled from a narrative point of view as the problem of being "out
of time." On the one hand, the "semi-living" cells are untimely - they
depart from the year(s) of the rabbit, and are therefore now outside that
story line and into another. They resist the story line of the rabbit, b/c,
to quote a good song from a terrible band, the "rabbit done died."  The
rabbit is "out of time" - no mas. But because our narrative framework for
the cells is the timeline of the rabbit, they appear practically immortal:
"out(side) of time." Of course that feeling of immortality is itself a
product of the former story line: the apparent individuality of the rabbit
and its "journey through time" was always a manifestation of larger scale
systems. Tissue culture, which some primates deploy to, er, ape those
systems, brings this larger scale attribute of living systems into relief
but makes the local scale story line of a journey through time implausible
if not impossible.

I wonder, though, if primates lack the cultural knowledge to properly
revere and explore the untimely rabbit cells even as we might not
narratively understand them. A reference to Tibetan Buddhist textual
practice may help us experiment with this movement from the storyline of
the rabbit to the story line of a distributed ecology of knowledge
production ( tissue culture). "Terma" or treasure texts are esoteric
writings buried by adepts for future discovery. They are, while buried, in
limbo, and in some sense out(side) of time, preserved at least in the short
term both from the effects of thermodynamics and ( what may be the same
thing) the prying eyes of readers who are not, from the perspective of the
adepts, ready for the teachings they contain. If the terma were released in
the present, they would not, could be, be understood. "Tertons" are future
adepts who discover said terma when they are ready to be shared and
grokked, and their teachings often focus on the illusion of time as an
artifact of narrative logic required by the "I".  Maybe it is time to bury
some rabbit cells in tissue culture for future tertons?

Well, out of time. Enjoy your diggings!

best wishes from the pumpkin patch,

rich


On Mon, Sep 9, 2013 at 12:46 PM, Oron Catts <oron.catts at uwa.edu.au> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hi all
> Thanks Adam for inviting me to take part in this discussion and greetings
> from the very far north of Finland, where I'm doing research and preparing
> for the Finnish Society of Bioart's Field_Notes/Deep_Time week long lab.
> Continuing with the line of being slippery and hard to define, my research
> here involves taking soil samples from two very unlikely sites- a crashed
> 1942 German Junker 88 bomber and a 1916 exploded Russian ammunition depot.
> We will see how this week's develop and I might be able to string these
> stories into the narrative of the discussion as they deal with some
> unintended consequences of instrumentalizing living processes.
> But as Adam asked me to deal with the Ethics of the Semi-Living, I thought
> I should tell you the story of how Ionat Zurr and I came across for the
> first time with what we started to call the Semi-living.
> Back in 1996, Ionat and I started to question the possibility of using
> tissue engineering or tissue technologies as a medium for artistic
> expression. The first lab that we worked in was an eye research lab. The
> scientist that we worked with was trying to develop an artificial cornea.
> The first thing we saw when we entered the lab were half rabbit heads. The
> heads were delivered to the lab around lunchtime in a cardboard box, about
> twice a week. The rabbits were killed for food, and their heads would be
> sent to a brain research institute, the brain would be taken out, and we at
> the eye-research institute would get those half rabbit heads, from which we
> would then take the eyes out. The eyes were put inside vials, in an
> antibiotic solution, and into the fridge overnight. After 24 hours we would
> take a layer of skin form the eyes and culture the cells. Obviously,
> something was quite strange; for all intents and purposes we started with
> something which was dead meat (the half rabbit's heads) but the cells were
> alive, growing, proliferating and doing what cells do (in culture- outside
> the context of the original body of the rabbit).  Are these cells living in
> the same way that the dead rabbit was 24 hours earlier? We realized the
> even though tissue culture was going on for more than a hundred years, we
> had no cultural language to deal with this experience. And if we do not
> have that, can we have any ethical reference point to deal with these
> fragments of life?  If we name them semi-living would that change anything?
>
> We spend the last seventeen years trying to figure that out.
>
> Oron
>
>
> Oron Catts
> Director
> SymbioticA| The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts | School of
> Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology | The University of Western Australia
> www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au | www.tcaproject.org
>
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-- 
Liberal Arts Research Professor
Penn State University
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