What does it mean to be human? Art-science and ethics

human cell

Art and ethics. Science and ethics. And more and more, it’s about art-science and ethics because we live in interesting times where technology is opening up possibilities most of us never imagined might be possible. Where do you draw the line?

Here is one example currently on my radar.


How would you feel about the idea of growing your child’s skin portrait from their own cells, and then producing these on casts made of glass or other materials? Imagine you could watch that 3D portrait grow over time as the cells were fed and nurtured. So not a photograph or painting of your child, but something three dimensional that resembles their face in shape and structure, and has been grown with their own biological matter.

Artist Gina Czarnecki and professor of clinical sciences John Hunt, along with Saskia and Lola Czarnecki-Stubbs (Gina’s daughters) are doing just that with their project, Heirloom. The ethics of the project have been centrally felt and debated particularly in relation to the involvement of children, the growth of human cells in publics spaces (when the work is exhibited), and the ‘moral landscape’ that encompasses the idea of being able to see one’s reconstituted youthful self (in cell form) again later in life. Click here to see an image of what the work looks like as part of the recent Ars Electronica Festival in Austria.

Questions about identity also loom large in this discussion. For example, where is one’s identity located when human cells are grown outside the body?

The collection and storage of this kind of biological matter while in development or post process is also an ethical issue that might attract differing opinions depending on where you sit. For museums exhibiting this work it certainly gets complex!

Intriguingly the work is part of a broader project called ‘Trust me, I’m an artist’ that ‘investigates the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions involved.’ The very name of the project, riffing off the phrase used by doctors (or at least that’s the clichéd cultural portrayal), seeks to draw the public into highly contentious projects with gusto. Rather than a ‘heads in the sand’ approach, these art-science projects compel the public to look, think, and think again. Nothing is straight forward. And neither is life.

At its core, art work like Heirloom asks, ‘what does it mean to be human?’ What are our boundaries around this question? How far are we willing to go to see? Is the notion of being human defined by what can be contained by the body? Are the cells in Heirloom not human because they were grown outside the bodies of the artist’s daughters?

And what about the acts of inserting the non-human into bodies? A process that’s been going on for a while now – think pig or cow skin covering a hole in a person’s heart (in their body); implants of all kinds (dental, face, breast…); surgical hardware such as steel and titanium rods placed within the body for various reasons; and the whole terrain of robotics in connection with limbs and neuro-prosthetic devices implanted in the brain. How do these technological changes and our willingness to consider them (and place them in the body) change or reframe what we understand as human? Are these examples less morally fraught than the work of Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt in Heirloom? And if so, why? Why is it that one might feel more acceptable and the other pushes our comfort levels? Could some of this be about the newness of what is going on in the work, and that over time, we might grow to change our views, and in doing so normalise it?

If ethics is fundamentally about what we consider to be ideal activities and behaviour in relation to human (and other) life, the right and wrong, the acceptable and not so, will work like Heirloom that aims to question the very heart and meaning of ‘human’, over time, come to reshape current ethical thinking and practices? My guess is it could. And talking about these ideas is crucial.

Bravo to art that digs right into the hard stuff. More please.