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Oron Catts: The Aesthetics of Failure

June 21, 2012

Despite various failures, architecture remains optimistically devoted to technological progress, most recently with the realm of biology. However, as artist and researcher Oron Catts asserts, technology rarely acquiesces to nurture and control.

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This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body. All photographs courtesy Oron Catts.

Oron Catts is founder of SymbioticA, the University of Western Australia’s ‘artistic laboratory’, and visiting professor of Design Interaction at London’s Royal College of Art. Through the Tissue Culture and Art Project with Ionat Zurr, Catts creates absurd artworks – laboratory-grown frog steaks, pig wings and auxiliary ears – that explore the boundaries of technological progress, morality and natural order. Invited to lecture at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, Catts turned his critical attention to the recent spate of biotechnological architecture propositions.

DAVID NEUSTEIN: For the Sk-interfaces exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT art centre in 2008, you unveiled your concept for a tissue that can be applied over materials, acting like the defensive or transmissive qualities of skin. Is that the most scalable relationship of your work to architecture?

ORON CATTS: To some extent. Jens Hauser curated the show – he’s the one who made the links to architecture after he saw our Victimless Leather work in 2004. Ever since, he had this idea of presenting a show about skin as a technological interface and started to gather other people, including architect Philippe Rahm. I never really thought about Victimless Leather as applicable to architecture.

When I go back to my original thesis from the mid-1990s, I was looking at applying, or trying to develop at least theoretically, the idea of custom-grown living surfaces at almost architectural scales, maybe because I was really naive – I didn’t have any idea about the limitations yet. One of the things that was constantly coming to the foreground – one of the most important things about life – is the idea of this membrane, the separation between the inside and outside, which is obviously applicable to architecture.

How could the membrane be a useful construction material?

I don’t know if it is a material, and I’m very sceptical of this idea of using it at architectural scales, but if we understand certain aspects of how a semi-permeable membrane operates in biological systems, it might give us some insight into architectural systems. Interesting things are happening now with superimposing biological surfaces – all those green walls and green roofs. Actually, the idea of ivy growing over walls is a primitive example of the notion I was trying to deliver. Even in a very simple system where you have ivy growing over a wall, the leaves can act as filters – it’s a really good insulator, and so on.

You’ve given me a vision of green walls linking and infiltrating – a jungle within a building.

The problem with everything biological is that you’re not doing it in fully sterile conditions. Once you develop conditions good enough for one thing to grow, other things will grow there as well – that’s the nature of life, and one of the major problems in trying to have control over it. Let’s say you manage to have your system under full control, which is almost impossible: no mutations, all working according to plan. But you provide the conditions for contaminants to come in and mess things up. When you talk to people about even growing a green wall or growing ivy over a wall, they say, ‘Yeah, but insects will come and it will be a hiding place for rodents’. So suddenly you create an ecosystem. It’s not just the one thing; it’s part of a very complex system of life, which is way beyond our capabilities. Any attempt to control it would just be futile.

What does the term ‘semi-living’ encompass?

Quite a lot of what I do stems from my perception that we’re lacking a cultural language to engage with issues of life as they are manifesting now. So, when we started to work with tissue culture, we were confronted with the fact that the things we are working with are alive in one sense – living cells – but they are not alive in the sense of the full organism from which they were derived. The idea of the semi-living came about from two almost contradictory directions: one was the fact that the very first experiments involved taking skin cells from the eyes of rabbits. We never saw the full rabbit, but we would get these half rabbit heads, from which we would obtain cells.

Did you just use the cells for their symbolic grotesqueness?

No, it was fairly opportunistic. The lab we worked with was trying to develop artificial corneas. The very first time we arrived, there was just a cardboard box full of half rabbit heads, and then they were showing us how to pop the eyes out. The nice thing about the skin that covers the eye is that it’s the only place in the body where you only have epidermal cells – it’s the outer layer of the skin without all the other layers. You can actually peel it neatly from the eyeball and have very distinct types of cells without involving the very complex process of separating them.

Basically, the process was to pop out the eyes, put them in antibiotic solution overnight and, the day after, harvest the epidermal cells. There was a very direct contradiction between the dead rabbit and the live cells, which we needed to come to terms with, and that was the main reason for referring to them as ‘semi-living’. But then we realised there was another aspect to the semi-living and that’s the technological intervention. So, from our perspective, the semi-living is a part of complex organisms maintained alive using technological apparatuses.

Has anyone tried to maintain cell life in humans after death? Not cryogenics, but a sort of symbolic harvesting?

Alexis Carrel was the scientist who kind of developed the whole field, but I don’t know if he verbally expressed that, although he was interested in immortality. Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, was a scientist who got quite interested in the field. He wrote a fictional novella in 1929, The Tissue-Culture King, where a scientist in Africa is kidnapped by a tribe that has very sophisticated, or very elaborate, ancestry and king worship rituals. Bit by bit, the scientist transforms these into tissue-culture rituals. They basically take biopsies from their ancestors before they die and, instead of having a shrine to worship their ancestors, actually have tissue culture labs, where the worship or the ritual is about maintaining those cells alive.

'The Semi-Living Worry Doll' (2000) by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.

 

This issue of AR is devoted to ‘architecture and the body’. The boundaries that architects will talk with this are pretty safely established: proportions or senses rather than biological interaction. In the spirit of H.G. Wells, can we paint some kind of intense scenario about the possibilities of architecture and the body, elevating that discussion to something more visceral?

I started writing a short story about that, in an architecture realm, a sort of critique of Mitchell Joachim’s In Vitro Meat Habitat project, where the idea was to look at what happens when the house is alive, and the resources needed to maintain it. The nice thing about omnivores is that they can provide food and eat waste. I was thinking about a story I heard about a toilet in the Philippines with a hole and a pig that lives under the toilet. So, you take that and say, ‘OK, how would we talk about it in a more technological way?’ but maintain that sense of revulsion around shitting to feed your food.

The whole rhetoric around biological architecture seems to be about tackling ecological, biological issues without fully understanding the whole biological context. I want to add the visceral – the ‘yuck’ factor – and look at when things go wrong. A problem with biological systems is that they’re always jumping to other biological systems, for example, from viruses via parasites. And because we are biological systems ourselves, the interface is more so. If your buildings have concrete cancer, you’re not going to catch it, but if it’s being attacked by a virus, the compatibility between it and yourself is closer. The virus can jump.

In your lecture, when you showed images of In Vitro Meat Habitat, I thought about how it’s very easy to present these images in this sort of clean environment. Joachim even showed the house on a kind of desert floor, implying a tabula rasa. There was no urban context, no waste or leakage or secretions or overflow. In a way, the idea of the laboratory has been very persuasive in the language and direction of architecture.

That’s a funny thing because the biological laboratory is designed first and foremost to separate the life that you work with from any other life. That’s the idea of the sterile environment, and effectively the case with modernist architectural design: we’re separating the human from any other life form in our environment, and sometimes for good reasons, like the hygienic revolution that preceded the modernist movement.

Your stance seems different to when you first began: from an optimistic, charged idea about what your role could be as a designer to that of critical outsider.

Yeah. That’s why I choose to define myself as an artist rather than designer, because I can take this role of the provocateur and deal with exposing problems rather than solving them. Quite early, when I’d done my theoretical thesis as a designer, I was really optimistic about the way forward. Instead of just copying biological processes, I believed we should apply them directly because they are more compatible with the environment. It came from a very strong ecological perspective, and a very naive one. There was some realisation that the flip side is this instrumentalisation of life, but I didn’t realise the actual dynamic of this problem.

I still believe there are some aspects of the research that can be developed further and that there is some positive stuff. But I’d rather continue my role as someone exposing problems, because I think there are too many. It goes back to my critique of the single engineering paradigm, that growing our knowledge to try and control the world around us is inherently good. Someone needs to poke this idea and remind us there are many problems associated with that. By framing what I’m doing as art, I can actually be more successful.

Your Victimless Leather series employed a sophisticated scientific scaffold to form living tissue into a tiny leather jacket. Museum of Modern Art senior curator, Paola Antonelli, was famously forced to ‘kill’ it at the Design and the Elastic Mind show in 2008, when a version of the work grew uncontrollably. I’ve always seen architecture’s purpose as taking on new functions or problems in society and developing a language to make them relatable at human scale. But your whole presence at MOMA exposed huge gaps in that notion.

One of the interesting things about that whole show was that the same treatment was offered to very superficial fictional design projects as to extremely well-researched projects. You had an experienced designer who had been working for 10 years on something getting the same treatment as a first or second-year design student who had produced a small project. And I think that was relative to the fact that what the show was trying to communicate wasn’t so much about rigorous research, but more a fantasy being offered in a positive way.

I’m really pleased with the way Paola ended up reacting to the ‘semi-living’ work by ‘killing’ it, but I’m still in two minds about whether she was playing the game alongside us as a willing participant from the very beginning when she initially invited us, or whether she decided to tag along and use it as a vehicle for controversy. I must admit I was extremely concerned about how this whole thing was going to unfold, but it ended up working out quite well for everyone involved, in terms of allowing her to expose something else while allowing us to somehow distance ourselves from the rhetoric.

'Victimless Leather Jacket' (2008) by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.

 

I think what interests me more is the idea of failure. You encounter it because dealing with life puts you at the bleeding edge of failure on an everyday level, but it is something that architects and designers are somewhat insulated from – or, we insulate ourselves from it. Failure is a really dirty word in the design community.

That goes back to my framing of my work as art, because art actually gives a licence to fail and make a career out of it. In a sense, the type of art we’re doing should be observed almost like a leper colony or a nature reserve: you don’t really need to go and visit it but it’s good to know that it’s there. There are very few places where you are still allowed to use the language of failure as a positive thing, and art is one of the last bastions of failure. The problem is that the engineering mind-set is taking over. You speak to engineers about failure and they can’t deal with it. It’s not in their vocabulary. It’s not something they feel can have any positive outcomes, but if we are not exposed to the possibility of failure, we have no opportunity to mitigate it. It’s as if we have learnt nothing in the last 150 years. We still feel that if we are going to throw more technology at the problem created by technology then it is going to be solved. There is no self-reflection there. It’s a really strange, totally different kind of realm because it’s contradictive.

A few years ago I was in a meeting for Australia’s National Science Week. They wanted to celebrate all of the amazing possibilities and advances of science. They were particularly interested in carbon dioxide and how we are going to solve the problem of producing too much CO2 by pumping it back into the earth. At the same time – a very strange thing to come up with at a science festival – they decided to do this thing called a ‘48 hours plastic bag famine’. The idea was just to not use plastic bags, as if that was a great scientific idea.

So I stood up and said, ‘Do you actually get what you are just proposing? If you were to run the National Science Week 40 years ago, you would be praising this amazing invention of plastic bags, this thing that is going to solve all of our problems. Forty years later, you tell us about new technologies as if they’re going to solve all our problems while simultaneously talking about the problem of plastic without any awareness.’ None of them had made the connections or seemed to be aware of the total conflict in the critical position they were taking. They were really offended by me, as if what I was doing was insulting them by comparing new technologies to past failures.

What seems to happen in the field of design and architecture is that there is very little of this type of self-awareness. In architecture in particular, there is such a long tradition of research. Obviously there are things that seem to be exposed, within the safe limits of the architectural discourse allowed to proliferate, but they are without any real subtext.

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