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Bioartists' Flesh Sculptures Draw Fans and Critics
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Bioartists' Flesh Sculptures Draw Fans and Critics

Arts & Life

Bioartists' Flesh Sculptures Draw Fans and Critics
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JAMES HATTORI, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm James Hattori, in for Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

A report now that you might find just a little repugnant, morally or otherwise. You've heard about artists using life models for painting and sculptor. Well, what about life itself? Some artists are delving into what they call bioart. They are creating tissue, and in some cases living beings.

Here is Rob Schmitz of member station KQED.

ROB SCHMITZ: Artist Ionat Zurr's paint brush is the femur of a freshly-slaughtered cow. Her palette is a Petri dish. What's missing, though, is inside the bones she's holding in her latex-gloved hand. Zurr uses stem cells like Picasso use paint.

Ms. IONAT ZURR (Artist): What we're going to do now is to open the bone. Basically saw to open and expose the cells that we want.

SCHMITZ: Zurr is at a gallery in Los Angeles teaching a small group of aspiring bioartists how to grow living flesh. She watches one of her students use an automatic pumpkin carving knife to saw through the bone.

Unidentified Man: So I didn't actually cut a wedge out of it.

Ms. ZURR: Yes, so if you can cut like, you know...

Unidentified Man: More of the wedge.

Ms. ZURR: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of electric saw)

SCHMITZ: Zurr and her husband Oron Catts help runs SymbioticA, a bioart laboratory funded by the University of Western Australia. They've grown a replica of an ear with living human skin cells. They've grown miniature wings with the flesh of a pig. They've grown human and mouse cells in the shape of tiny leather jacket. And now they're teaching others to do the same.

(Soundbite of sawing)

SCHMITZ: After realizing the cheap automatic pumpkin carving knife wasn't going to cut it, so to speak, students use a surgical saw to penetrate the bone. After collecting stem cells, they'll attach them to a three-dimensional scaffolding made of degradable polymer, a type of plastic.

Over many weeks the cells will grow over whatever shape the scaffolding takes, turning into a living sculpture of skin. One of SymbioticA's recent projects was growing frog tissue in a form of a steak. At the end of the exhibit, artist Oron Catts fried it up and ate it.

Mr. ORON CATTS (SymbioticA): The polymer didn't degrades completely and the muscle cells were - we didn't exercise them, so they were like jelly. So it was eating jelly and plastic.

SCHMITZ: He spit the concoction out and ended up using the discarded chunks of frog steak in a later exhibit. So why on Earth would you do this? Many bioartists say it's to put a spotlight on how the biotech industry is pushing, and sometimes breaking, ethical boundaries. But animal rights advocates, ethicists, even other artists, are criticizing bioartists for doing the exact same thing.

Professor CAROL GIGLIOTTI (Emily Carr Institute): I feel that artists at this point are mirroring what's happening. I don't feel they are encouraging shifts to new levels of consciousness.

SCHMITZ: That's Carol Gigliotti. She's an art professor at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver. Gigliotti sees hypocrisy in some of SymbioticA's work and would rather see bioartists use non-animal products.

Prof. GIGLIOTTI: But when an artist is using animals or tissues from animals, then I have a problem with that. I do think that's an ethical choice, and I don't think that artists can say, oh well, I'm not really doing that. You know, I'm against that, but I'm using these things anyway.

SCHMITZ: And if the ethical questions weren't complicated enough, then there's the legal issues. Growing harmless tissue from bones picked up at your local butcher may be legal, depending on whether your local land-use laws allow such activity wherever you're doing it. But, says Stanford law professor Hank Greely, if you're working with live animals and say you're at a university lab, you may be beholden to animal welfare laws that govern research.

Professor HANK GREELY (Stanford University): Whether this art counts as research, who knows? The legal situation is murky in several directions. And I think it's highly likely that not all artists are carefully advised about it.

SCHMITZ: More legal questions may be asked, says Greely, as more extreme examples of bioart are unveiled. Like in 2000, when artist Eduardo Kac commissioned a French laboratory to insert the gene that makes certain jellyfish glow neon colors into the zygote of a bunny rabbit.

After several trials, a bioluminescent rabbit was born. The rabbit, named Alba, glowed green under a blue light. This managed to offend almost everybody - even other bioartists like Adam Zaretsky, who works in New York.

Mr. ADAM ZARETSKY (Bioartist): Nobody's seen the brothers and sisters of Alba who didn't make it. For instance, the ones that didn't come out green were killed right away.

SCHMITZ: Zaretsky says the best bioart involves a willing subject - something he's looking for right now. Zaretsky recently worked with SymbioticA to create a pineal gland grown from the brains of lab rats.

The pineal gland, which produces melatonin, serves as the biological clock in humans. Philosophers have called the gland the third eye because it's believed by some to be the dormant gland that could be use in telepathy. For an upcoming project, Zaretsky wants to fuse an extension of the pineal gland onto a willing human subject.

Mr. ZARETSKY: If there's any volunteers out there that want a hole drilled in their head and a pineal extender grafted to their pineal gland, let me know whether they want it coming out at the top of their head, the middle of their forehead, or hanging like a drippy thing from their nostril.

SCHMITZ: Any takers? For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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