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GUY BEN-ARY, turning stem cells into rock & roll stars

Interview by Meritxell Rosell

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What if one day you woke up feeling like becoming a Rock and Roll star? Guy Ben-Ary, an LA-born but Perth-based artist and researcher, decided not to take the conventional path and reimagined a whole new way to stardom. 

Ben-Ary, who is currently working at SymbioticA (Perth, Australia), lays his work across science and media arts. His artistic practices, expanding more than 15 years, are rooted in extensive interest and research in biotechnology (neurobiology, stem cells), cybernetics, kinetics, and artificial life as well as interactive and sound art.

His work also lays within a very elaborate and intricate conceptual frame envisaged to provoke profound epistemological questions, like about semi-living entities, a central subject of exploration at SymbioticA. His pieces, which are carried out in close collaboration with scientists, engineers and other artists, also reflect a very hands-on approach to engaging the audience with biological sciences.

The culmination of all the artist’s interests and research materialized with CellF, a jaw-dropping project, half installation half performance, which took four years of intensive work of several artists and researchers.

In a sublime re-embodiment experiment, a semi-living cybernetic musician/performer was created from the artists’ skin cells: the skin cells were engineered into neural nets that can be stimulated by human musicians.

Stimulated neurons fire their responses which output into an analogue synthesizer thus generating sounds, which in turn can be interpreted by the human musician creating a dialogue between both living and semi-living performers. Also seen as a biological self-portrait, CellF’s science is rigorous and elegant, and conceptually post-contemporary, provoking disconcerting but mostly awe feelings.

CellF, though, feels like the natural evolution from other of Guy Ben-Ary’s projects, which share with CellF the same complex scientific, conceptual and philosophical frame and execution. Snowflake is intended to provoke reflection on cryogenics, memory and ethics in the technological future.

In potentia is a study in neurobiology re-embodiment, stem cells’ ethical challenges and consciousness status of the semi-living entities. Silent Barrage, which was awarded an honorary mention in Prix Ars Electronica in 2009, is an investigation into the nature of thoughts, free will, and neural dysfunction with an intercontinental setup.

The living screen, a project that really fascinates yours truly, for which “screens” are obtained from living tissues and nano-movies projected onto these canvases from bio-projectors; such a poetic exploration of film theory and BioArt.

Another aspect that makes Guy’s work so appealing is the subtle and refined sense of humour that transpires from it: BioArt is seen as a freak show in The living screen, calling “dickheads” the semi-living neural networks created from foreskin stem cells in In potentia or the childish dream of becoming a music star in CellF.

BioArt is not only a means to reflect on such profound issues as the boundaries of life and death but also something that can bring an inner metaphysical giggle.

Your work blends biotechnology, visual media, sound, cybernetics…When and how did the fascination with them come about?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my fascination emerged. I think it is an organic process that started when I was much younger and it is still happening. I’m constantly fascinated and stimulated by things I see and experience.

I was always into music. I started to collect music when I was very young. But it was not until I spend some time in NYC in 1989 that I started to listen to experimental music. I remember going into a record shop in the lower east side and there I saw John Zorn playing solo in front of 10 people.

I think that this performance changed the way I listen to music. I started to look for new and experimental sounds, especially if they had a touch of jazz. When I moved to live in Australia I was very happy to find a small but excellent experimental music scene.

One of the reasons that cellF is so special to me is that through it I managed to fulfil one of my childhood dreams – to play improvised music – and what made it even better is that it is with Darren Moore, one of my good friends and a brilliant experimental drummer.

My fascination with Biotechnology emerged in the late ’90s with the Tissue Culture and Art Project. Later, when I joined Symbiotica, in 2001, my fascination grew as I interacted with a large number of artists in residence and scientists.

Since then, the biological laboratory is my studio where the creative process takes place, and tissue culture, tissue engineering, electrophysiology, microscopy and other biological techniques are my artistic mediums. My research is interdisciplinary and the production of the artwork usually involves the collaborative effort of artists, scientists and engineers.

On the other hand, my engagement with cybernetics or more accurately the robotics component of my work was a necessity. I used robotics to embody the neural networks I grow in the lab so that I could highlight the liveliness of these microscopic neural networks, and manifest their erratic existence through movement and behaviour. 

I was compelled to provide a manifestation for the neural network by giving it a robotic body. Moreover, the electrophysiological interface I developed allowed me to establish a feedback loop between the robotics and the biological brain, and thus create an autonomous cybernetic entity. It started as a necessity… but grew to be a real fascination

What are your aims as an artist working in between technology and art?

I believe art plays an important role in encouraging engagement with, and critical reflection on, a unique cultural moment where we are witnessing the unprecedented evolution of bio-technologies and various modes of liminal lives that hover in an ambiguous zone, defying our traditional understanding of life.

Art has the potential to initiate public debate on the challenges arising from the existence of liminal lives, and the shifting forces that govern and determine life and death.

My research explores a number of fundamental themes that underpin the intersection between art and science; life and death, cybernetics, and artificial life. It investigates processes of transformation of bodies or living biological material from artistic, philosophical and ethical perspectives.

In my work, I use bio-technologies in a subversive way, attempting to problematize these technologies by putting forward absurd and futuristic scenarios. This allows critical engagement with the technologies and helps lure the viewers into exploring the artworks.

It also draws viewers into a wider practical and ethical dialogue about the future of these technologies and their use and forces people to re-evaluate their own perceptions and beliefs.

The development of your last project CellF involved two main parts: the biotechnology one, for which you obtained neural cells by reprogramming fibroblasts obtained from your skin, and the generation of a robotic body to interface with the neurons. What have been the biggest conceptual and technical challenges that you have faced for both parts?

In 2012, I received a Creative Australia Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts to develop a biological self-portrait titled cellF. I intended it to be a progression of the past fifteen years of my research conducted through various projects involving the process embodiment of neural networks (or “Bioengineered brain”) with various robotic bodies whose aesthetics and function are informed by nature of the neural network as well as the work’s narrative.

With cellF, the neural network was mine. I reprogrammed my own skin cells to become neurons. Therefore, in parallel to the biological work, I also spent time considering what kind of robotic body I could give myself. What sort of body do I want to give to my “external brain”? That was quite a challenging process that took almost a year to finalize.

When I thought about what kind of body I wanted to design for myself, the idea of working within a humanist anthropocentric paradigm just seemed quite boring to me.

So the decision to create a sound-producing body was based on a long-standing passion for music and sound, combined with my (probably naïve) childhood dream of being a rock star. I decided to embody my external ‘brain’ with a sound-producing ‘body’ comprised of an array of analogue modular synthesizers and have it improvise with human musicians.

As far as the technological challenges – cellF is a very complex project, and it’s hard to pinpoint one technical challenge we had. However, if I have to… it was establishing and optimizing the biological protocols to allow the differentiation of the neural stem cells to neurons over the Multi-Electrode Array so that they could perform neural activity over the interface in the minimum time possible.

We couldn’t find scientific papers that showed us how to do it, so we had to develop our own protocols and go through a very painful optimisation process.

But cellF is a collaborative project, and I’m sure if you ask other members of the project the same question, you will get different answers – the neural interface, the biological lab that is embedded into the sculptural object, the mapping of data to sound and sound to stimulations were all very challenging to develop.

Working at the interface of biological material and cybernetics/robotics, what are the ethical issues you can predict for a future where boundaries between man and machine seem they may blur?

We live in a very anthropocentric world where humans treat other living entities with superiority and arrogance. I think that we will have to start thinking and establishing some ethical considerations regarding the treatment of those new living entities that are alive or show some emergent behaviour or signs of intelligence.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?


You couldn’t live without…

My family (Gemma, Poppy and Oscar). It sounds a bit cheesy I know, but it’s true.

(Photos and video courtesy of the artist)
Collaborators for CellIF: Dr Mike Edel, associate professor and researcher in stem cells; Dr Andrew Fitch, researcher and analogue synthesizer builder; Darren Moore, drummer and experimental electronic musician; Dr Douglass Bakkum, engineer and group leader in neuro-engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence; Nathan Thompson, artist; Stuart Hodgetts, associate professor and director of the Spinal Cord repair lab at UWA.
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