On Humans and Other Animals 'Becoming' Each Other

The metaphor of becoming animal till there is no longer man or animal is becoming real with the advances in genetic tissue technology and stem cell research. Artists dealing with hands-on wet biology art practice are exploring the tangibility of such an idea. Zurr looks at issues surrounding such new technology, at the experiment which saw an ear grafted onto a mouses back, constructed in vitro (outside of the body) and the possible future for the human and animal kingdoms.

&It was her 16th birthday and she knew that from today she would finally be able to get a legal implant (most of her friends had one already). She had been planning that for a while. A Few months ago she went to the Implants Farm and checked the catalogue and the displays. She knew immediately what she wanted: a pair of decorative wings. Just like those of hamster-bat she got for Christmas when she was ten. The farm's practitioner took a biopsy from her inner-thigh and then showed the scaffold design.
"Would I fly?" she asked.
He laughed, " Ho no, that will require a complete redesign of your body and even then you will only be able to glide. These wings are designed to go with the current fashion of backless dresses."
"What about these feathered wings?" she inquired.
"I don't think your parents have the budget" he replied " and, beside, they will not grow with you, they are for adults only."
It was a regular procedure and the risk of contamination was reduced to less than 3%. The farmer took her behind the office, to the implants growth factory. She looked through the glass window to the sterile farm, where pigs with different body parts seamlessly attached to them lay in pools of clear liquids. He showed her to "her pig". She immediately liked "her pig". It was smooth and its skin colour was just like hers. The farmer explained that the pig carried human genes to increase human-pig compatibility. She trusted the pig to carry and grow her wings till they would be grafted back to her (A story of an upper class girl, 2028).

The Deleuze and Guattari metaphor of 'becoming animal' till there is no longer man or animal' is becoming real with the advances in genetic, tissue technology and stem cell research. Artists dealing with hands-on wet biology art practice are exploring the tangibility of such an idea. As artists working for the last six years with living tissues we have grown and sustained alive for long periods (up to six months) communities of cells independen from their original host. We have grown them externally to a body as part of our ongoing research into growing semi-living sculptures
Organ transplantation is now a common procedure in the biomedical field. Organs are being harvested from either living or dead donors in order to extend lives. The shortage in human organs has encouraged research into xenotransplantation, the transplantation of cells, tissues or organs from non-humans. This practice crosses a species barrier that has evolved over millions of years. Furthermore, it involves genetic manipulation and insertion of human genes into the animal (mainly pig) genome for better compatibility. The human-animal cross, from a biomedical perspective, presents new risks that can only be assessed from the perspective of more than one generation. 'Tricking' the evolutionary mechanism by surgical and chemical means to suppress the immune system in the recipient and introducing pathogens and viruses from another species may result in new and unrecognized virus infections and other clinical syndromes. Also, the potential for cross infection among humans (and their offspring) is unknown. Bach (1998) in his call for a moratorium on all human xenotransplantations, titles his commentary as "individual benefit versus collective risk". Nevertheless, insertion of pig cells into humans is being done, such as insertion of porcine cells into brains of patients with neurological diseases.

Tissue engineering technologies have been offered as another solution to deal with the shortage in body parts. Tissue engineering is a technique that enables the construction and growth of an organ in vitro (outside of the body) using the patient's own cells, and the re-implanting of the organ back to the patient. It is intriguing that the image of the subject/object which brought tissue engineering into the public psyche was the mouse with the ear on its back. A nude mouse (a mouse with suppressed immune system) was used as a bioreactor, hence as a 'vessel' for the growth of an organ. The scaffold of the ear was constructed out of special biodegradable polymers and seeded, in vitro, with cartilage and skin cells from the earless patient. As the cells grew over and into the scaffold it degraded. In an early stage of this process the construct was attached to the mouse, which acted as a nutrient supplier and temperature regulator. This mouse has become one of the most important icons of the late 20th century, a living icon of our unlimited abilities to create the creatures/monsters of our imaginations and the possibility to sculpt and design ourselves in these shapes.

Stem cells are the current 'holy grail' in the biomedical field. Embryonic stem cells are cells before differentiation. Hence, these cells have the ability to become any type of tissue, when they are given the right conditions and appropriate growth factors. The general idea behind this premise is the ability to clone an identical twin with identical DNA. This twin would not necessarily develop into a whole human being but rather could become a 'bag of organs' without a central nervous system to be kept in reserve in case you should need or desire an organ.

The combination of stem cell and tissue engineering technologies opens up a gateway to the treatment of a living body as a malleable entity. One will be able to attach a tail, a horn, or any fashion-driven shape of tissue to one's own limited and less than perfect body. In the current socio-economic climate we can speculate on the large divide between the well-off and the less advantaged as well as between the human species and the rest of the animal kingdom.

As all of these technologies will become more available in different forms and different prices, the idea of Organ Farms might become a reality. Body parts made out of different animals tissues might become objects of desire. The traditional view of a body as one autonomous unchangeable self will go through a radical change. Body parts are designed, exchanged, replaced and sustained in a semi-livng state as part of the environment.

Animals are being used as bioreactors for the growth of other parts. Suffering as we do from 'speciesism', non-human animals such as pigs will become the vessels for the growth of ears, noses or various body decorations. Stem cell technologies for the rich, pig farms for the poor or the adventurous.

Physically realising Deleuze and Guattari's 'becoming an animal' will severely challenge current belief systems. Are you willing to take a day trip to the farm?

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.