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Working with Life: Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr

RCA Blog talks to Oron Catts, Visiting Professor in Contestable Design at the Royal College of Art and Dr Ionat Zurr, Visiting Tutor in Design Interactions. Acknowledged as pioneers in the field of biological arts, they trace the generative growth of their area of enquiry – contestable design – and discuss the development of a new BioLab at the RCA.

Catts and Zurr publish widely, exhibit internationally and have work in collections including MoMA New York, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo and National Art Museum of China. Catts and Zurr's ideas and projects reach beyond the confines of art and design; their work is referenced in relation to new materials, textiles, architecture, ethics, fiction and food.

Catts is a founding director of SymbioticA, (co-founded in 2000) an artistic research centre housed within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. Zurr is a researcher and SymbioticA’s academic co-ordinator. Both are Visiting Professors at Biofilia – Based for Biological Arts, Aalto University Finland (2015–20). 

RCA Blog: Generative design, speculative design and now ‘contestable design’. Can you explain how your thinking around synthetic biology has developed?

Oron Catts; Our interest is in exploring futures in which art, design and biotechnology interact, recognising that – as biology becomes more and more of an engineering pursuit ­– life is starting to become a raw material.

We’ve been working in this area for a long time. I wrote my thesis 20 years ago on growing, living surfaces, exploring how we might treat objects that are partly live and partly constructed ­– or objects that have an appearance of being alive because their surface is living. Looking at different types of biological technologies that might yield those types of living surfaces, one technology in particular got me really interested: tissue engineering – growing three-dimensional living tissue outside the body or organism from which the tissue was taken. It generates very interesting questions around issues like what it means to have a body, what it means when the body’s taken apart, what it means to have fragments of complex bodies grown in different ways and under human control.

Ionat was involved in photography and media studies, and we realised together that it would be much more interesting to question the philosophical and ethical issues around what it means to do those kind of things to life, rather than jump into trying to design products. And at the time, we wanted to look at ways we’d be able to get the work that we’d done in the lab out into the world, and we needed to figure out ways of representing it. So the first four years of our practice, we spent lots and lots of time in the lab learning those techniques of tissue culture, tissue engineering, figuring out ways in which you can represent it within a cultural context.

Ionat Zurr: We’ve worked with the top laboratories, so we’ve developed enough scientific expertise not only to have the conversations but also to actually do the science. Our approach differs from scientists’, in that we’re not doing experiments that are repeatable, and our aims are very different. So we try things that scientists would not try and get into new terrains ­– we were the first people to grow and eat a piece of in-vitro meat, and to grow leather – and we ask cultural questions that scientists don’t ask as part of their profession. This is our job; that’s what we’re interested in.

Oron Catts: In the 1980s and ‘90s, tissue engineering was conceived as an interdisciplinary field, where material scientists and engineers and biologists of different levels would work together. So coming in as a product designer made sense. I had skills in CAD drawing. I did design on computers. I did manufacturing. So I started to think about using those types of technologies for tissue engineering. It was a complementary type of skill that made sense. We became more and more interested in the biology rather than the manufacturing side. And, you know, there is a perception that you need to study a lot to employ those techniques of biology, but in most cases it’s actually an easy skill to learn and very hard one to master. So it’s a craft like any other craft.

Ionat Zurr: There are people who are craftier than others… It’s a lot about communication, and understanding a material that is constantly changing. The more you understand the materials and the type of organism you work with, the better your techniques become.

Oron Catts: Because you’re working within systems, you also have to start to understand your limitations in trying to control their growth. This is a major feature of our work – almost countering the engineering mindset that seems to try to impose full control over biological systems – we’re interested in the idea that when you actually work with living systems, living systems by definition defy control.

You can try to make them do things, but they’re such complex systems, they constantly try to do their own thing. So you have to recognise, as a maker, that there’s a different type of relationship. Our discourse is different; we reject the rhetoric around controlling biological systems that has some synthetic biologists talking about trying to make life into a ‘well-oiled machine’.

Ionat Zurr: Life is constantly affected by and affecting its contexts, so you can’t just isolate it and keep it as it is, it will react to whatever’s happening. As you pay attention to the actual life form or partly living form, you need to pay attention to the context in which it’s growing and living or dying. More and more, we’re realising that to work with the material itself, we have to work with the context of the machinery around it, in order to actually try and coerce it or seduce it to do the things that we would like it to do.

RCA: As well as the physical environment in which these organisms exist, there’s a cultural environment with an art context and a design context. The design context seems more allied to the scientific in terms of process, although you’re approach is speculative, or rather ‘contestable’. And the art context is more about ethics and what you might call our essential humanity?

Oron Catts: Although my background was design, once I began to work in this area, I started to define myself as an artist. I felt that was more in line with the type of practice and approach that we were developing, that from a very early stage of our practice we were engaging in the notion of the ‘contestable’. So what we put forward were actual objects and prototypes. It was really important for us not to be speculative, so we spent time in the lab. Whatever we put forward was something that we’d actually done in the lab: it wasn’t some kind of speculation about the possible future, it was a contestable object.

Those conversations have continued, with me claiming that I’m not a ‘designer’, and questioning the role. Among our concerns was a sense that, even when it’s critical design, when it’s speculative, it’s actually part of the ‘hype machine’. We have issues with the way those technologies have been hyped, and we’re challenging the notion that calling yourself a designer in that context seems to bring more credibility than calling yourself an artist. Although we were actually spending time in the lab and doing the work ourselves and putting forward actual prototypes, because we self-identified ourselves as artists our practice was seen to have less credibility.

Our argument is that we had more credibility than the speculative designers who were imagining those fantastical scenarios. So when we had this opportunity to come to the College, we thought that we should kind of try to reconcile all of those things. That’s why we now identify ourselves as ‘contestable designers’, which is a totally new approach that reflects that what we do is actual, but contestable.

In SymbioticA – where our condition for people to come to do research is that they’re going to spend time in the lab, and actually get their hands dirty and engage in the most experiential way with these technologies ­– we’ve had these conversations constantly, because we had this variety and diversity of approaches coming through the lab without necessarily agreeing, but all having the shared experience of being in the lab, engaging with life and manipulated life for whatever purpose. We’ve had techno-utopians, we had very critical artists, theoreticians, geographers and philosophers and designers and architects and artists… performance artists, media artists, formalist artists who wanted to use it as a formalist material.

RCA: What do you intend to do at the RCA, that you couldn’t do in another university?

Oron Catts: At the RCA what we hope to do is very different: we have an art and design school proposing a biological laboratory to service the School of Design and eventually the whole College – everything from Design Interactions and Innovation Design Engineering to critical theory, through urbanism and big data, to Fine Art. There may be designers who try to develop products, and those who want to engage with the more contestable side of things, and those who want to engage with the new materiality that is offered to us through biology. The notion here, based on kind of the long tradition in the RCA around design interactions, speculative design and the design engineering approach, is to allow those tangible objects to be made for whatever purpose and then set them free and see where it goes.

Ionat Zurr: And also allow all of those different people working together in a shared space, and see how they’re talking to each other and how they’re affecting each other, and what those kinds of collaborations produce.

Oron Catts: I think if we can do it here in London, having Imperial College and the Science Museum nearby, that really would open up the possibility of taking the whole life cycle of those works from initial kind of ideas, through research, development, production and display. And that would be a really good place to investigate the strategies of showing living biological materials within different contexts, using the expertise here also to develop sets of tools that would enable artists and designers to continue their research into the display of those biological systems.

What’s happened in the last couple of years at the RCA is that this type of interest in biological research has extended beyond design interactions, and now textiles and fashion, innovation design engineering and architecture have a great interest in these possibilities. So we really see a great potential here. I hope it will become a resource, like the computer lab, to provide students and researchers here at the College to work with new materials, new technologies.

We see around the world that you don’t have to have a PhD in cell biology to do tissue engineering. The protocols, the systems, the technology’s already there. Biology is becoming more and more like engineering, and that will result in ease and simplicity of manipulating life forms, for better or for worse. So you will see more designers and artists working in this area, whereas when we started there were maybe two other people in the world that were making art using living biological systems.

And if we’re not going to engage in the cultural issues around using biology as a raw material to make products as an engineer, what’s the point of doing it in an art school or an art and design school? By definition, by putting it here, you open it up to those kinds of discourses. We will try to push the cultural aspects of it and questioning, but at the same time allowing the investigation of this resource ‘value-free’. I would imagine that most of the artists and designers, by definition, during their engagement with it, would have some kind of value judgement around what they’re doing, questioning what they’re doing. We hope so, that’s critical thinking.

I think what’s interesting with the RCA is that they recognised its importance before many of the other art schools, or art and design schools, especially through the work that was done in Design Interactions. The opportunity is there for RCA to maintain that interrogation by developing the best lab possible and offering it to this wide variety of cultures.

Ionat Zurr: And because designers are all about taking the work out of the lab  and into the real world, it makes sense for designers to enter that conversation, and start to design the products that the biological engineers are working on. All sorts of new ideas will have to emerge around the relation between consumer products and the actual customers, which is very interesting from an end-to-end design perspective. We’ll have to change the way we treat objects: a semi-living lamp would have to come with instructions for how to maintain it, and what happens if it gets sick or contaminated. What is the ‘contract’ between the customer and the object, in the event that it dies?

Oron Catts: On a macro scale, when we marry the type of business model that creates contemporary economies with the power of those new technologies of biology – and especially the mindsets that assume power over biological systems – we’ll need to figure out ways in which our understanding of biological systems can also help us understand that we need to change the way we think about our place in the world, and how we think about controlling it and who’s got the power to control it.

Ionat Zurr: The engineering mindset needs things to be efficient, to be strong, to get rid of all the ‘noise’. And for me life is mainly noise, you know. If you get rid of that, you get rid of life. So you really need to try and approach it with a different mindset. That might evolve here at the RCA, having all those artists and designers and thinkers working with life and finding other ways to work with life which is again, not about efficiency of getting rid of the noise, but rather, listening and doing something with the noise.

Oron Catts: The thing is that the engineering approach is single-minded: it’s about reducing complexity. So you usually focus on one problem and try to disregard any other problem. You usually also disregard the noise and say, that’s not important because I’m trying to fix this specific problem. And what you see time and time again working with scientists, working with engineers and molecular biologists, the life they are dealing with becomes so decontextualised that they can’t put it back together. Science – biology – can be very reductionist, because you do need to isolate the life form that you’re working with from the external. You have to kill all other life forms in order to focus on one particular life form. And that already makes it completely not reflective of life within a context. You should allow a much more nuanced, a much more complex, a much more holistic and contextualised view of those issues.

RCA: You’ve talked a lot about the design context. The RCA community is two-thirds designers and one-third artists, historians and curators.

Oron Catts: It’s interesting, within the context of an art college, that the arts also seem to be decontextualised. So the dominant approach is still that you put art into these silos, without any reference to the actual context that the artist operated in. You know, this is the work of curators. We talk about the similarities between the sterile laboratory rooms where we’re working, which is an environment that basically keeps all life out beside the life you’re trying to work with, and galleries.

What’s interesting with our practice as artists is that we find ourselves more often than not engaging outside of the art world and for the type of conferences, for example, we’re being invited to talk to, can be as diverse as cultural studies, material science, urban planning. Our work has been used as a submission to the bio-ethics committee of the American Congress. You know, so suddenly this type of art breaks out of the confines of the decontextualised traditional art world, and that’s why we come from this really bizarre in-between world, which works for us, but obviously it’s kind of a really strange place to be. I don’t like to talk about it as a ‘third place’, but it is yet another place that needs to be occupied…

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr: Making Neolife – A Case for Contestable Design, 26 January 2016, 5pm Book here