Cellular Propeller – Howard Boland (Project)

Cellular Propeller – Howard Boland (Project)

During his residency in the Not invented by Nature program, curated by Ursula Damm, Howard Boland worked at the German Cancer Center on Cellular Propeller. The artwork involved working with test animals and human materials, which led to changes in the artistic research and final outcome of the project.

Howard will present his work to the ethics panel and the public during Transmediale, where possible using existing ethics and consent forms used in medical and biotechnological research. The ethics panel will ask the artist questions after the presentation of his work, followed by a discussion in the absence of the artist. Finally, the panel will come to a decision that is will tell the artist and to which the artist can react. The session will end with a conversation with the public, the panel and the artist, moderated by Lucas Evers.

About the work
The proposed work Cellular Propeller makes use of synthetic biology that combines modern biology and engineering practices in a computational manner through modelling, prediction and implementation. Conceptualised as part of an awarded Art & Synthetic Biology residency at the German Cancer Research Center, it involves the fourth-domain of synthetic biology that hybridises synthetic and biological matter to form novel biological or biologically inspired systems stretching into the realm of pseudo-organisms.

To realise this idea, it involves experiments with heart cells from newborn rats to make motile scaffolds. Due to limited availability of such material and ethical issues, it also takes the significant leap of using sperm cells to spin a coin-size wheel made from synthetic material. Availability of sperm cells and its potential for circumventing ethical ownership makes it appropriate for the project.

Cellular Propeller brings together art, science, technology, ethics and humour.

Still today, with all advances of molecular biology, motion remains a key attribute used to characterise something as living. Cellular Propeller partakes in rethinking what is living by producing a new hybrid living system or a bio-hybrid actuator. The project employs traditional quantitative engineering approaches to build a coin-size construct from living sperm cells and synthetic material that emulates a propeller motion. Morphologically, I am building a wheel or a functional propeller – genetically the propeller is human. Scientifically, the creation of Cellular Propeller is about understanding how sperm cells function in an artificial environment and the fundamental laws of forces and motion that govern this scale.

Obtaining biological material can problematic due to legal restrictions and ethical frameworks especially critical in artistic scenarios. Using sperm cells opens debates about ownership of our body, its components and what we may harvest for art making. Beyond this, the cultural and biological condition of sperm cells involves a myriad of ideas including sex, pleasure, reproduction, IVF and health.

Ethics panel:
Bobbie Farsides (Brighton Sussex Medical School, Brighton)
Sabine Roeser (Delft University of Technology, Delft)
Ursula Damm (Weimar University)
Stephen G. Gray (MIT, Boston, Imperial College, London)
Philipp Bayer (Heidelberg University, Heidelberg)