What is the meaning of the living body in a time when biology becomes a technology and living flesh a raw material for re-assembling organisms, tools and consumer products? What are the critical artistic expressions that can engage with such realities?
In 2000, as part of an art experiment, we grew meat in a laboratory and referred to it as Semi-Living Steak. The first such steak was grown from pre-natal sheep cells (skeletal muscle) which were harvested as part of research into tissue engineering techniques. The steak was grown from an animal that had not yet been born.[i] However, as we were working in an active biomedical research laboratory, we could not eat what we had raised or, rather, what we had fabricated.
In 2003, as part of an installation/performance titled Disembodied Cuisine, we grew and consumed a piece of meat which had been grown in-vitro (i.e. in an environment external to an original biological context).[ii] As far as we know, we, together with five volunteers from the audience, became the first humans to ever eat “cultured” meat. The project was not about finding new ways to feed the world nor was it aimed at developing a new consumer product. Rather, it was part of our ongoing research into the shifting meanings and implications of the concept of life, in light of recent technological developments in the life sciences. Focusing on the new possible relations that such shifts necessarily create, we argued that one cannot get more intimate with other living beings than by digesting them and incorporating their bodies into one’s own. In a sense, and as Haraway reminds us in Staying with the Trouble (2016 p.102) this incorporation is compost in its original Latin meaning of compositum – something put together; quite literally “you are what you eat”. So what are we if we eat meat that had no body? What is this new kind of compost? [iii]
Landecker (2013) suggests to examine food and metabolism through the concept of mutual dynamic exchange rather than pure assimilation/ingestion:
While it comes as no surprise that the environment of an organism shapes its life in complicated ways, it is actually quite a surprise to find components of plants participating in the general activity of regulation, the determination of whether processes happen or not. This is because food is generally understood to provide the stuff out of which bodies are made, to provide important cofactors and essential nutrients and the energy that bodies need—and is generally not understood to run the operation of being a body.[iv]
In other words, living systems eat other living systems that not just become part of, but also regulate them in different ways. With a growing body of research into the effects of the diet on epigenetics and the complex effects the gut microbiome has on the sense of self, we are compost-ist. Fabricating meat in the lab might disrupt this compost-ist relations. It can be argued that it’s outsourcing the body and its functions to a technological surrogate of sorts, to seething which is less than a body. The cells are taken from the source animal, or from a fetus still in its mother’s body) and transferred to a technological environment where their basic needs are being provided. These needs include nutrients, warmth, ph levels, protection form pathogens and competition, and the right [v]signals for the cells to grow and proliferate. The liquid nutrients-rich environment is supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum that provides compounds that cannot as yet be synthesised, the warmth has to be consistent and regulated, the sterility needs to be immaculate (often with the aid of antibiotics), and growth factors and hormones are added.
In many respects the artworks mentioned above critically pre-empted the utopian bio-technological approach for food production via the engineering of animals’ cells growth outside of their bodies. The seductive story of fabricating meat in the laboratory is now entering the popular imaginary and is covered by mainstream media; commercial companies are being set up with the claim that it would become a viable mode of producing and consuming meat. We have dealt with these claims in a number of other publications[vi].
There are still many obstacles that need to be addressed before in-vitro meat could (if ever) become a viable replacement to traditional meat:
- There is still no effective replacement for the use of fetal calf serum in the context of high yield, fast metabolising satellite cells (muscle progenitor cells). Therefore, any attempt to upscale production might still be partly dependent on animal derived nutrients.
- The development of a cost effective nutrients for large scale production.
- In all likelihood extensive use of antibiotics will still be required for large scale commercial production of in-vitro meat.
- There are still environmental costs and overheads for replacing the biological body with a laboratory/factory.
- Size/thickness – the technology is still limited in the fabrication of thick constructs due to lack of internal plumbing to be able to feed cells deep inside a thick chunk of tissue
- Texture- in order to achieve meat-like texture the muscle cells have to mature and (among other things) to align, there is a need to provide a form of exercise/stimulation regime. This is yet another possible up-scaling challenge.
- Public acceptance is still quite slim and there is a need for a major shift in public attitudes toward the consumption of lab fabricated meat.
The suggestion to use tissue engineering technologies for the production of in-vitro or, as we referred to it, Semi Living meat, was developed by both scientists and artists. While we staged and performed the first public eating in 2003 as part of an artistic installation, the media blitz happened only ten years later when in 2013 scientist Mark Post, supported by Google’s funding and marketing services, grew an in vitro “burger”. [vii]However, there are still major problems with the up-scaling of in vitro meat, and at this stage, it seems that there is more publicity than substance.
The in-vitro meat endeavour seduces us by narratives of calculated and optimised sustainability through technology and the possibility of life without consumptions of other living beings. Our works aim to humbly change the narrative; they literally and metaphorically consume, metabolise and compost biological matter in order to argue that art can act as a vector to explore the growing number of ontological breaches brought about by the transformation of biology into engineering and of life into raw material.
[i] For more: Catts Oron & Zurr Ionat, Disembodied Livestock: The Promise of a Semi-Living Utopia, Parallax 2013 vol. 19, no. 1, 101–113, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2013.752062
[ii] L’Art Biotech: Patricia Solini, Jens Hauser, Vilém Flusser (ISBN: 9782914381529)
[iii] “We need to make kin symchthonically, sympoetically. Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with — become-with, compose-with — the earth-bound.” (p.102)
Haraway, J Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press 2016 p.102.
[vi] For example; Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Keep it warm! Incubators as simulators, LA+ Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design (2016); Countering the Engineering Mindset – The Conflict of Art and Synthetic Biology in Synthetic Aesthetics Calvert J., Ginsberg D., Eds. MIT Press 2014; Growing for Different Ends, The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology 2014 Nov;56:20-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biocel.2014.09.025. Epub 2014 Oct 5; The vitality of matter and the instrumentalisation of life, Architectural Design (AD) 221 Innovation Imperative: Architectures of Vitality, January/February 2013; and Disembodied livestock: The promise of a Semi-Living Utopia, in Parallex issue 66.