Journal Entry: A living propeller

Celular Propeller Howard Boland

Annick Bureaud continues to publish her take on Trust Me, I’m an Artist events-this time, about Howard Boland’s Cellular Propeller project. Annick’s original journal entry is available here in French. The English translation is below.

It’s been some time since I’ve updated this journal. Several months have passed since the ethics committee met to discuss Howard Boland‘s Cellular Propeller project in Berlin, the 5th of February, at the Transmediale Festival.

This was the first time in this edition of Trust Me, I’m an Artist that the art project submitted to the wisdom of the ethics committee was not yet a completed work and still in draft form.

The ethics committee reunited at Transmediale, photo by Lucas Evers
The ethics committee reunited at Transmediale, photo by Lucas Evers

This fact made the process interesting because, in the scientific world, the agreements made by ethics committees are made a priori, not a posteriori. Moreover, for me here, it is not about reviewing an artwork, or the confrontation between an artwork and the discourse elaborated about it, including a possible ethical one. I find myself, in some sense, in a “third” discourse: a discourse (3) about a discourse developed (2) on top of a discourse (1) about the intention of work (0) in which (1) we find a discourse from the artist talking about his project; (2) the ethical debate of the project; and (3) my account on and my own evaluation of (1) and (0).

Let us first try to summarize Howard Boland’s project. Cellular Propeller intends to unite synthetic biology with organic material to create a hybrid system—a chimera of a new kind. Initially, he envisioned using cardiac cells from newborn rats as “motors” for the tiny mobile structures. Given the difficulty in procuring these types of cells (and the ethical questions brought up by obtaining them), Howard Boland decided to use sperm cells to rotate a coin-sized wheel produced through synthetic biology. These cells would be his own. One would have, therefore, an artificial object propelled by an organic, “natural” cell, which would transform the a living thing (the cell) into a machine.

Speculative bioart or a purely conceptual project isn’t Howard Boland’s approach because he must carry out his work. In my opinion, rambling about something that does not yet exist doesn’t interest me much when you know the difference between what is intended and what has been done. Faced with such an emblematic project open to interpretation as Cellular Propeller, let’s stick to the ethical questions it brings up. We can distinguish three:

  • The use of human material
  • Experimenting on himself (because the artist uses his own sperm)
  • The nature of the object created, between what is artificial and what is human

One could argue that the first two questions fall under ethical consideration only because the work must be carried out within a research institution. Generally, this type of institution is under obligation to justify and report the use of human materials and does not authorize self-experimentation. In other words, one cannot play the part of one’s own guinea pig in scientific research. These two points don’t, however, don’t make a lot of sense in artistic practice. Art is discipline in which human materials were the one of first artistic materials and in which self-experimentation is the very foundation of things like performance and body art. However, the question “can you be a third party for yourself?” is one upon which the artist insisted. Another is the potential to publicly share intimate, private information (genetic information). In fact, it’s the symbolic association of sperm cells—the cells of fertility and fecundity, the cells of life and virility—that seem to be at stake here.

A symbol? Could a symbolic element be accepted as a crucial and critical ethical question? Unless ethics rests, precisely, on the symbolic…

The question of the nature of the object, on the other hand, seems to me at the heart of the subject in that it illustrates a possible evolution of life—potentially human life. Although the artistic project in its current form doesn’t appear to me to raise real problems, it does involve one of the key questions in biomedical research.

The ethics committee was composed of:
Bobbie Farsides (Sussex School of Medicine, Brighton)
Sabine Roeser (Delft University of Technology)
Ursula Damm (Weimar University)
Philipp Bayer (Heidelberg University)