Crude form, crude matter. How to understand this “crudeness” contained in the title?
Two interpretations may come to mind. One is biological: life is a crude form – crude meaning multipotent and unformed. Biology is a kind of engineering, which gives it a shape through the process of evolution and natural selection. But today, it is also the man and the science developed by us, especially biotechnological sciences, which are engaged in carving out new life forms in crude matter. In laboratories around the world, biomass abstracted from living cells and tissues reaches thousands of tons.
These are specific forms of life, inhabitants of incubators and Petri dishes, which will never become an integrated part of any independent body. Because of the way they live, they no longer serve their original purpose and elude the traditional classification of organisms. Artists propose to call these living elements the “extended body”, i.e. body that exceeds the borders of individual organism and species.
When did this silent, half-living army, incapable to assert its place in the structured world of living beings, begin to be created?
In 1913, the controversial scientist Alexis Carrel laid foundations for the technique that currently allows scientists to grow tissue cultures.
In 1948, cancer cells collected from a mouse, able to divide infinitely, gave rise to the current cell line, which is now present in hundreds of laboratories around the world. In the 1950s, the first human cell line, under the name HeLa, was collected and kept alive. The collected cells were part of a tumour and belonged to American Henrietta Lacks.
HeLa spread to laboratories around the world. And it did not want to get out of them. Its total weight exceeded the mass of Henrietta Lacks by several hundred times. It was difficult to control. Occasionally, it penetrated other tissue cultures. It could even dominate them. Some began to call it a weed. And sometimes they even suspected that it turned into a new species.
This theory was officially announced in 1991 by Leigh Van Valen. According to the rules of biology, he assigned a Latin name to it: Helacyton gartleri. Thus, HeLa became the world’s only species that evolved from a human being!
Meanwhile, in other research laboratories, new forms of laboratory life were created: cells being the result of manipulation between species, bearing strange names and catalogue numbers.
That is how the neolife began to be created – half-living forms, carved out from the living and at the same time non-living materials. These are new forms located on the vague boundary between the living and not living, born and artificially created. They are crude forms also in the sense that they lack cultural context. They are difficult to classify within the known structures of cognition.
With time, artists started to use those forms as well. They discerned sculptural and performative potential in tissue cultures. This is how a new direction in art was born – bioart. Its aim is to put tough questions about the ethical development of science, especially biotechnology. It is an attempt to redefine the concept of “life” as a result of achievements of synthetic biology.