Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr The Semi-Living Worry Dolls 2012. The Tissue Culture & Art Project. Medium: HaCat Cell line, Biodegradable/bioabsorbable Polymers and Surgical Sutures. From the Tissue Culture & Art Retrospective - Crude Life exhibition, Gdansk, Poland 2012. © Ionat Zurr/ Licensed by Viscopy, 2014.

Vital maintenance: Tissue Culture & Art

Biodegradable polymer scaffolds are sterilised in ethylene oxide at 55°C for two hours. These constructs are then seeded with cells from the McCoy cell line, originally derived from fluid in the knee joint of a patient suffering from degenerative arthritis, but now classified primarily as mouse endothelial cells. Remaining for three weeks in a carbon dioxide incubator kept at the human body temperature of 37°C, the proliferated cells begin to largely cover the polymer surfaces, growing through the porosity of the synthetic scaffold, and held together by surgical sutures. The tissues expand to approximately 10 mm tall by 7 mm wide, within a rotating bioreactor that provides the conditions of micro-gravity so as to encourage three-dimensional growth.

These are tissues cultured and structured outside of a body, fed with a protein-rich serum derived from the blood of foetal calves. They are also the first living tissue-engineered sculptures, the Semi-Living Worry Dolls, created by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr for the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A). Initially presented at Ars Electronica in 2000, they have since then been re-grown and re-exhibited multiple times: recently at the 2011 exhibitions Synth-ethics at the Natural History Museum in Vienna and Visceral: The Living Art Experiment at the Science Gallery in Dublin; as well as the 2012 exhibition Crude Life at both the Laznia Centre of Contemporary Arts in Gdansk and the Copernicus Science Centre, Warsaw, Poland.

As their structural polymers degrade and their tissues continue to develop, these figures are partially alive versions of the Guatemalan worry dolls given to children. Like those figurines, Catts and Zurr have also invited viewers to contribute their own worries, first by writing them into a computer guestbook database, and later during the Visceral exhibition, by actually whispering them into a microphone, to be amplified and played within the incubator to the dolls-in-growth.[1]

Activating symbiotic relationships between living, semi-living and dying matter and bodies across micro and macro scales, TC&A foregrounds the material and laboured work, as well as the social and affective networks, necessary to sustain vital forms, living and dying over time. In doing so, the work posits temporal and plastic encounters, and multiple and revisable dependencies, as infrastructurally integral to both the generation and maintenance of life.

Semi-Living Worry Dolls H 2010
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Semi-Living Worry Doll H, 2010, McCoy Cell line, biodegradable/bioabsorbable polymers and surgical Sutures. From the Tissue Culture & Art(ificial) Wombs Installation, Ars Electronica 2000. © Ionat Zurr / Licensed by Viscopy, 2014.

Co-founded by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, TC&A has been exploring the use of tissues and tissue technologies as artistic media since 1996, and from 2000 has become a primary component of SymbioticA, the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia. Because tissue constructions like the worry dolls required sterile conditions and a steady temperature as well as a constant supply of nutrient media in order to keep them (semi)alive, Catts and Zurr initiated a series of installation and performance rituals that, to this day, continue to frame their exhibition practice. The gallery or museum becomes a scientific laboratory, complete with an enclosed area with sterile hood, bioreactor, microscopes, nutrients, agents, solutions, petri dishes, pipettes and all other manner of lab equipment and safety precautions that will allow the artists to generate their artwork, while viewers are able to witness the dolls-in-growth. This art-viewing experience is punctuated by the procedures and protocols necessary for the dolls’ sustenance and maintenance, as technicians (usually Catts and Zurr) clothed in coats, gloves, and goggles feed the cells and tissues with fetal bovine serum, the nutrient media necessary to keep them alive.

To complement these feeding rituals, Catts and Zurr began in 2002 to institute a killing ritual at the end of each exhibition. The tissue sculptures are taken out of their incubators, bioreactors, and petri dishes for the audience to touch, exposing the semi-living entities to unsterile conditions. Touching contaminates the cells with the bacteria and fungi on our skin, which causes the cells and tissues to die either instantly or over time. The worry dolls were first killed in public, and by touch, at the BioFeel exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in August of 2002.[2] Subsequently, at the end of the Visceral exhibition at the Science Gallery, audience members were invited for a formal funeral service, in which they signed a condolence book and gathered to discuss the ethics of this kind of killing.

While Catts noted that he had already killed far more living matter when he brushed his teeth that morning, there was still unease surrounding the killing of these dolls, which required the event to be marked, framed, and performed, and which called those who had previously grown, fed, or even just viewed these figures-in-growth to be present.[3] In the 2003 L’art Biotech exhibition in Nantes, Catts and Zurr used the same type of cells derived from frogs to grow their worry dolls and their first in-vitro, tissue-grown “victimless meat”. At the end of that exhibition, they killed the meat by cooking and inviting the audience to eat it, while killing the dolls by inviting the audience to touch them. Consumption, whether by ingestion or by touch, ends the life of both forms of the same growing tissue, and both acts of death are unsettling.

Neolifism 2010
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Neolifism, 2010, bioreactor, glass, CO2, nutrient solution, living cells, and texidermy and preserved specimens on loan from the Queensland Museum, Brisbane; the University of Queensland's Zoology Museum, courtesy of the school of Biological Sciences. Image courtesy: QAGOMA. Photo: Natasha Harth. © Ionat Zurr / Licensed by Viscopy, 2014. 

The question of care across expanded determinations of life has been central to the TC&A as well as the ongoing research agenda of SymbioticA. Indeed, their very first international symposium took up the subject of Aesthetics of Care across human and non-human materials and subjects.[4] Maintenance, in turn, is the materially directed and temporal practice of care that develops infrastructures of dependency amongst increasingly blurred distinctions of living and dying beings.

TC&A re-exhibit their work around the world as any artists would; but for them, this means generating the tissue sculptures again and again, at each new site. In practical terms, the transfer of living matter across borders in most cases is legally problematic and very expensive, and in any event, cultured tissues are too delicate to travel. Conceptually, the necessity of re-growth provides unforeseen plastic variations in both form and temporality; polymer scaffolds are newly seeded with cells, and yet neither the structural outcome nor the unfolding time of the living tissues can be predicted. In addition to using different cells and scaffolds each time, Catts and Zurr have also experimented with “dynamic seeding”, in contrast with the conventions of statically seeding the cells by dripping cell media solution in stationary conditions.[5] Working with the artist Adam Zaretsky on the Pig Wings Project, they created the Dynamic Seeding Musical Bioreactor in order to explore the capacity of vibrations produced by music and audible sound waves, to coax the tissues to grow and develop in variable and unpredictable ways.[6] Just before Napster was declared illegal and shut down, the artists downloaded all the mp3s with the keyword “pig” – from War Pig by Black Sabbath to Blue Christmas by Porky Pig. For the next three weeks, they played these pig-related songs via special vibrating speakers to the bone marrow stem cells that were seeded onto porous polymer scaffolds. The idea was that the vibrations would more widely diffuse and vary the physical embedding of the cells into the construct, and indeed those wings that were subjected to music differed considerably in tissue morphology and distribution than those that were deprived of music.

Victimless Leather
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Victimless Leather – A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific Body, 2004, biodegradable polymer connective and bone cells, custom-made bioreactor, incubator. © Ionat Zurr / Licensed by Viscopy, 2014.  

We cannot precisely determine in what form and in what time living forms come into being, and we also cannot always control when they die. In 2008, in perhaps their most infamous living art predicament to date, TC&A’s Victimless Leather – a tiny jacket-shaped scaffold seeded with mouse embryonic stem cells – grew too fast and out of control, so that an arm fell off and cells sheared off the jacket, which started to clog up the nutrient flow of the entire maintenance system of its techno-scientific body. The MoMA curator, Paola Antonelli, had to stop the jacket from growing and thus end its life short of the exhibition’s closing date, which garnered the New York Times headline, “Museum Kills Live Exhibit.”[7] But there are more instantiations of life going and growing out of control, and not as planned. As a part of the exhibition Medicine and Art: Imagining a Future for Life and Love at the Mori Art Museum in Toyko, the tissue jacket became infected by fungi. Although Catts applied an antifungal treatment, the infection nonetheless produced a flower-shaped growth positioned near one of the tiny sleeves. In addition, because the jacket had to be alive throughout the three months of the show (28 November 2009 – 28 February 2010), the scientist Hideo Iwasaki stepped in to feed the cells, and had to replace and re-grow the jacket twice.[8] 

Indeterminacy guides and misguides every one of these instances of life, and taken together, they all speak to the unforeseen plasticity and unpredictable temporality of living matter. In order to care for not only these multiple processes of living but also for the very plastic and temporal indeterminacies that variably propel these lives and deaths, we must extend and expand our own capacity for the unexpected, to care by releasing control and letting go of intended outcome, and to open up our static mode of maintenance and preservation by allowing for encounters and exchanges that encourage and metabolise the unexpected.

Crude Matter 2012
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Crude Matter, 2012, mud, eyes, Perspex, pottery, artificial grass, cells. Exhibited in Soft Control, Slovenia, 2012. © Ionat Zurr / Licensed by Viscopy, 2014. 

In their most recent series of work, Crude Matter (2012), TC&A are exploring the substrate that surrounds, transfigures, and ultimately supports the variability and viability of living forms. As Catts and Zurr explain: “Loosely based on the story of the Golem (which literally means crude, unshaped or raw), we will explore the ‘alchemy-like’ transformation of different materials into substrates which have the ability to support and act on life. Crude Matter attempts to destabilise the prevailing logic of the transformation of life into raw material for engineering ends; to bring to question the logic that seems to privilege the information embedded into DNA over the context in which life operates.”[9] In forthcoming exhibitions, Catts and Zurr plan on growing living forms over a variety of materials, using the fibroblasts that synthesise the extra-cellular matrix that serves as the cell’s structural support system to provide substrate feeder cells on which other cells can grow. In effect, living cells are catalysing and maintaining the transformation of other living cells. This new series of work challenges us to visualise and make legible the living matter, environments and infrastructures that ensure the maintenance and perform the care within which life variously and contingently re-emerges over time.


  1. ^ For a list of audience worries, see: http://tcaproject.org/worry_machine/   list?page=3.
  2. ^ Email interview with Oron Catts, 3 July 2013.
  3. ^ See the video of the funeral service at the Science Gallery, Dublin: http://www.   youtube.com/watch?v=1VLhnVwNpfo
  4. ^ SymbioticA Symposia, http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/activities/   symposiums.
  5. ^ Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, “Growing Semi Living Sculptures: The Tissue   Culture and Art Project,” Leonardo, Vol.35, No.4, 2002, p. 367.
  6. ^ ibid., p. 367.
  7. ^ John Schwartz, ‘Museum Kills Live Exhibit’, The New York Times, 13 May 2008.   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/science/13coat.html
  8. ^ Email interview with Oron Catts, 3 July 2013.
  9. ^ Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Crude Life: The Tissue Culture and Art Project,    exhibition catalogue, Centrum Sztuki Wspótczesnej Laznia, Laznia Centre for   Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland, 20 March – 22 April 2012, p. 145.

Jennifer Johung is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.