Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr: Victimless Utopia

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, both artists and former research fellows at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, are integral participants in SymbioticA, an art and science collaborative research laboratory at the University of Western Australia. They founded the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996 and have exhibited numerous projects that create opportunities for public reflection on concepts brought to light by interaction with tissue culture.

Their projects have included Victimless Leather, where a cultured living tissue layer was grown on a biodegradable polymer scaffolding in the shape of a tiny seamless coat, Disembodied Cuisine, where tissue taken from a living frog was grown into a steak-like creature and consumed during their exhibition at L’art Biotech in Nantes, France, and DIY De-victimizer Kit Mark One, which gave the layperson the tools to experiment with the culturing of dead animals for the relief of their own guilt brought about by killing.

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Being able to grow food and other products that never felt pain for retail distribution reveals the potential of a “victimless utopia” for our current consumptive habits. Catts and Zurr aim at an unbiased examination of tissue culture, although they are opposed to its commercial application and “the creation of a new class for exploitation.” They mainly use non-human animals as their subjects because they realize that people are especially anxious about the potential of creating a semi-person, the same kind of fear brought about by Frankenstein or human clones. However, cannibalism and self-cannibalism are still concepts apparent in their work. When PETA director Ingrid Newkirk saw their work, she responded by offering her cells as a culture and suggested eating its developed product, her own flesh.

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Their work adds confusion to the language we use to talk about living things. Being able to bring back to life dead meat gives ‘dead’ new meaning, it is potentially alive through artificial intervention. The meaning of ‘alive’ has also changed when it’s not clear if a living thing is man-made. A piece of meat that grows and changes is not the animal it was, nor some new creature, but a class of being that Catts and Zurr call “semi-living.”

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In aiming to provoke a response to the semi-living, they harness or domesticate natural growth. For their creatures to sustain life, they must be supported by artificial processes and contained in a protective sterile shell. At the end of their demonstrations, they remove the creature from its plastic body parts and let the audience touch it, resulting in its certain death, what they call “the killing ritual.” Catts and Zurr have said that viewers of their art “did not believe our sculptures were alive until they were killed.”

Catts and Zurr have exhibited their work internationally and have written articles featured in publications such as the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and Leonardo Magazine (MIT Press). Their most recent project, Design and the Elastic Mind, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is viewable online. It displays a survey of recent design changes that “demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior and convert them into objects and systems that people understand and use.”