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Old 06-10-2002, 05:11 AM   #1
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Below is an image of and statement for Patricia Picinnini's digital art, "Protein Lattice", based on a real lab rat that had a human ear grafted onto its back. What do you think?

It is no longer relevant to oppose the artificial to the natural. This dualism, which was rendered self-evident by the juxtaposition of the 'mechanical' against the 'organic', can no longer be sustained. It is not even a question of championing the artificial against the natural, as Huysmans did. The organic is now the stratum through which the cutting edge of technology most regularly passes. It is commonplace for human children to be conceived and born via artificial means. To call the progeny of an IVF conception an 'artificial' or 'unnatural' person is as ludicrous as to deny the fundamental involvement of technology in its birth. It's not so much a question of claiming, as Donna Haraway does, that we are all cyborgs. It is more to the point to acknowledge that technology is getting increasingly natural.

For a moment in late 1995 an image appeared in the world media that has stayed in my mind and in the minds of a huge number of other people who saw it. Perhaps it does not float on the surface, but if questioned most of the people I know would be able to recall the mouse with the human ear on its back. For a media second we saw the future and it was a sorry little rodent weighed down by an ear vastly out of scale with its emaciated body. This sad descendant of the plague-carriers of old was redeeming its species by giving its hairless body for the sake of a child with no ear of its own. From its petri dish, this martyr was the first practical demonstration of the new technology of 'tissue engineering'; where tissue is cloned over a three dimensional lattice of biodegradable synthetic protein allowing the growth of complex organic structures previously thought impossible. The reason that the rat was there was because the intricate process of growing three-dimensional, human ear cartilage requires a capillary system and a blood supply. The immune-suppressed body of a rat was deemed the most efficient means of delivering both.

The ear was constructed as follows: The cartilage cells were taken from the boy, the skin and blood supplied by the rat. At this point I might ask a simple question in regards to the organic matter that was transplanted from rat to boy: To what species did it belong? And further, was the rat still a rat, or the boy still a human? Where does the contribution of one species end and the other's begin. Perhaps this rhetoric is getting a little grandiose... In reality, the rat was merely a container, an empty organic vessel, a fleshly constituted mechanical process in a technological activity.

Engineering describes those activities relating to the contrivance or manufacturing of 'engines' machines, implements or tools. Thus understood, 'tissue engineering' would seem something of a strange mixture, like 'artificial nature'. Yet if we can take dirt and processes it into aeroplanes it is not so odd to imagine that we can take genetic granules and process them into functional organic elements. The only thing that makes 'tissue engineering' seem any stranger than 'civil engineering' is a residual humanism of the sort that maintains materiality as a moment of absolute difference between things. With this romanticism set aside, there really is no difference between a person and a rat.

I have to admit to feeling a certain sympathy for laboratory rats and for models. Both are pieces of meat. They are organic vessels destined to contain the desires of those who utilise them. My sympathy does not run too deep; models get more benefits than laboratory rats and lab rats are often more difficult to like. However, both are subject to the same constant and radical transformations and both are used interchangeably, without any regard to their specific personality. There will always be another one. Both lab rats and models are taken as tokens, representatives of a set of characteristics.It is ironic then that certain pieces of meat take on such specific importance. A human ear for instance.

It is also ironic that, when I went to research Protein Lattice, despite a long and careful search of the resources available via the Internet, I was not able to find a single image of the rat with a human ear on its back. I found plenty of information on the scientific and economic potential of tissue engineering but no pictures of the tragic little rat and its disproportionate burden. My only physical record of the rat with a human ear on its back is a tiny clipping from Time magazine and a tomato sauce stained article in an old copy of Arena that I found at my local cafe. The fact is that if you want to sell a technology like tissue engineering you need to focus on the something a little more 'up' than mutant rodents.

Patricia Piccinini 1997

Related websites: The body is obsolete
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