Four tiny books made of undead human and animal flesh are sitting inside a refrigerated wooden box in Concordia’s FOFA Gallery for your viewing pleasure. They are part of the Cellular Memorabilia exhibition merging science with art by interdisciplinary artist Tagny Duff.
“Biological art is a fairly new genre,” said Duff. “And it’s more aligned to electronic art and new media art, even though you’re looking at human tissue.”
Surgical wire holds the books together and the refrigerator keeps the cells in a fixed state, neither living nor dead. Looking into the frozen wooden box, it is impossible to see the human, animal, and plant tissue as distinct from one another.
Knowing that these books contain various types of tissue, a visitor is subconsciously drawn into trying to figure out which is human.
One of the concepts of Cellular Memorabilia is it questions our desire to seek out and value the human point of view above all others.
“Often we will privilege the human tissue over the animal tissue or plant tissue [â€¦] and the ethics of that are implicit. Why do we place value on only the human perspective?” said Duff.
Duff is an interdisciplinary artist who says she “never privileged a genre” and describes herself as falling into biological art almost randomly. She was working primarily in digital media when she was invited to go to the University of Western Australia’s SymbioticA to work with bioartists.
The director of SymbioticA, Oron Catts, stressed that she would need to be self-sufficient in their lab. So she was taught how to do tissue culture engineering with cells and how to work with biological viruses.
Art and science do not normally mix, but Duff said “there’s a cross-pollination that can happen. But it’s not an easy cross-pollination.”
In Canada, there are few places that support BioArt work and research. To compensate for this, a lot of artists who seek the training required for this work are sent abroad.
“There aren’t a lot of these labs in the world, but that’s changing,” said Duff. “[â€¦] Why are we not building this kind of community of work and development here [in Canada]? That’s what I’ve been involved in – bringing people here, trying to build a community and resources here so this kind of artistic practice can evolve.”
Duff is working to create this community as the director of Fluxmedia, a research-creation network located at Concordia that spans art and the life sciences.
But artists aren’t the only non-scientists experimenting in the field. “There are bio-hacking initiatives that are coming up. So it’s not that people are just working in the lab, but they’re working in a garage with biotechnologies,” said Duff, encouraging people to reclaim science at a grassroots level. “It’s really exciting, this idea of ‘citizen science’ reclaiming official science knowledge and tampering with it, and hacking it.”
Cellular Memorabilia runs until Nov. 11 at the FOFA Gallery, open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Duff’s Fluxmedia is also presenting Bio-hacking and Manipulating the Living World with Dr. Andrew Pelling on Nov. 1 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30pm in EV 11.705.