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

Lynn Hershman lynn2 at well.com
Wed Sep 11 08:10:50 EST 2013

I think language is critical and the term Semi-Living curious.

When is something fully living?

How does this differ from Undead?

What are the degrees to which Semi-Living cells exist?  And how did you come to that term?

----- Original Message -----
From: Oron Catts <oron.catts at uwa.edu.au>
To: empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Sent: Mon, 09 Sep 2013 09:46:08 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: [-empyre-] the ethics of the semi-living

----------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 Catts
SymbioticA| The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts | School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology | The University of Western Australia
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