Jennifer: After reading about the NanoVic prizes for Art and Nanotechnologies, and seeing some of the award-winning work of 2007, I was motivated to look into the art and science collaborative research occurring in Western Australia. It just so happens that a research laboratory dedicated to enabling this cooperation is also a Premier’s Science Award winner for 2008.
SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory enabling artists to engage in wet biology practices and collaborate with scientists in a biological science department. It is the first research laboratory of its kind in the world, and is run by a team located at the University of Western Australia in Perth. On Friday afternoon I went along to one of their open meetings to have a chat to some of the team members, and was also able to congratulate them on their award win of the previous evening.
Here I learnt exactly why SymbioticA was the winner of the award for Excellence in Science Communication Outside the Classroom. The team has produced 6 symposiums and 4 major art exhibitions dedicated to showing biological art, and has also conducted 11 workshops both locally and internationally. Participants in SymbioticA workshops are introduced to the techniques of biological technologies, including DNA extraction, tissue engineering and animal tissue culture. In addition, SymbioticA conducts two undergraduate elective units at the University of Western Australia, as well as a Master of Science in Biological Arts. Students can be of any discipline or institution.
In March this year, one of SymbioticA’s core residents, the Tissue Culture and Art Project, was on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The semi-living exhibit, entitled “Victimless Leather”, was constructed using connective tissue from mice as well as human bone cells, and biocompatible polymer moulded into the shape of a torso. The living cells then had to be fed to be kept alive. They did indeed stay alive, and in fact grew to such an extent that blockages occurred in the specially designed perfusion system, and the exhibit had to be dismantled. An article by a rather witty reporter was subsequently published in the media declaring, “MoMA Kills Modern Art”.
SymbioticA provides the opportunity for artists to explore the possibilities of the technologies of science, and for scientists to fulfil their curiosities, free of the constraints associated with scientific research. The units run at the University of Western Australia encourage critical thought in the students. I find SymbioticA’s inspiration of budding scientists and artists particularly commendable.