All posts by benarythompson2020

Scavenged, bought and borrowed… the cells we use for our art.

The question we are often asked is where we get the cells for our art works. An interesting question that does not have a simple answer. This blog entry attempts to give an overview of our various practices within past projects focusing on the source of the biological material.

Most of the projects we developed in the early 2000s used cell lines that we purchased though on-line catalogues. Many companies sell cells lines for research such as the ATCC ( or cellular dynamics ( and more. Its quite common, in scientific research, to source cells from these companies. However, usually, it is quite expensive to buy the cells therefore, we often tried to find friendly scientists at the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology @ the University of Western Australia (SymbioticA is located within this school) that would share some of their cell stocks with us… and they often do. It’s quite a common practice for scientists to share cells between themselves.

Another avenue for sourcing cells was what we refer to as ‘scavenging’, mainly from primary tissue, cells that you cannot really source from commercial companies or those that cant be frozen and therefore need to be sourced fresh and alive. We would go into labs, look in the bins, and take the left over tissue that the scientists did not use for their own experiments.

We would like to emphasize that no matter how we source the cells there is a hard requirement in SymbioticA and UWA that application is sent to the ethics committees of the University to obtain permission to use of the cells.

In 2001 we developed a project titled MEART – our first project that used neural networks (more about the project – Neurons are cells that cant be frozen and they do not proliferate. Therefore, for MEART we needed to use Primary neural tissue (we couldn’t purchase neurons as cell lines), Furthermore, we did not have access to an electrophysiology system so we formed a collaboration with Dr Steve Potter, a neuro-scientist from Georgia Tech in Atlanta USA, and worked together in the development of MEART. The cells (neurons) we used for MEART were the same cells (neurons) he used for his own research originated from a rat (primary cells) and their use was cleared by Potter’s ethic approvals. Potter’s lab had dishes of neural networks that they used for their experiments and MEART used the same neural networks for its performances. We used the internet to connect between the neural networks in Atlanta to MEART that performed in various locations around the world. An interesting fact was that when MEART performed we always had 2 experiments on the go: 1. a cultural one happening within the gallery space and 2. A scientific one – where researchers from Potter’s lab we looking at how the neural networks respond to the stimulations that they received via MEART’s robotic body.

Mouse neurons (primary tissue) growing over a Multi Electrode Array (Silent Barrage)

In 2007 we developed another project with Dr Steve Potter – Silent Barrage. We used the same idea of using the labs in-vitro neural networks of mouse primary neurons.

In 2008 the media became saturated with news of the development of a new stem cell technology known as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSc). The iPSc technology was pioneered by Professor Shinya Yamanaka who showed that the introduction of four specific genes could convert adult cells into pluripotent stem cells. Yamanaka was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize, along with Sir John Gurdon, for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become stem cells. In layman’s terms, the iPSc method transforms adult specialised cells into a form that is equivalent to stem cells, which are capable of becoming any other type of cell in the body (skin, liver, muscle, neuron, etc.). The process involves re-programming their ‘software’ (genome), and coaxing them back into their embryonic state. The discovery of this biological alchemy intrigued us. Questions regarding how we are able to deconstruct, manipulate and re-assemble the microscopic building blocks of life in completely new ways, as well as the increasing ethical dilemmas and discourses associated with iPSc, gave us a new insight into how malleable and fragile our bodies really are.

Around this time, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine, a Bulgarian artist Boryana Rossa who criticised artists using the biological material of other species. She questioned the ethical aspect of this practice and asked why human material was not being used. I had to concede that MEART and Silent Barrage both relied on mouse and rat neurons grown over the MEA interface, a standard scientific practice, as human brain cells were (up until this point) out of the question, as there was no way to harvest brain cells without causing fatal harm. However, the discovery of iPSc technology appeared to offer a way to safely use human cellular material.

In potentia (2013) was the first project we used iPSc technology. We were looking at ways to assess its possibilities and try to problematize it so we could explore the ethical, philosophical and social implications of this revolutionary technology. We deliberately selected human foreskin cells as a starting point with the aim of reprogramming them into stem cells, and then into brain cells. We purchased the human foreskin cells from a commercial company (Thermo fisher, Catalog number: C0045C). We aimed to highlight the absurdity of the scenario; to reverse-engineer foreskin cells, and from this material, create a living ‘brain’, and so the project was affectionately given the working title of ‘Project Dickhead’. By positing an absurd scenario (transforming foreskin cells into neurons), in potēntia not only challenges the belief that iPS helps resolve the ethical dilemmas surrounding human embryonic stem cell research, but also raises ethical concerns regarding the relative ease with which human cell samples can be obtained (such as the purchasing of foreskin cells from an online catalogue).

Foreskin fibroblasts (In-Potentia)

In 2015 we developed the project titled cellF. You can read more about it in one of our previous blog posts. cellF was funded by a Creative Australia Fellowship from Australia Council for the Arts to create a cybernetic self-portrait of mine (Guy Aen-Ary). I had a biopsy taken from my arm, and cultivated my skin cells in the labs of SymbioticA at UWA, then froze them cryogenically and shipped them to Barcelona, where I collaborated with Dr Michael Edel to reprogrammed the cells to stem cells. Then I shipped them back to Perth where we differentiated them to neural networks and grew them over MEA dishes to create my “external brain” or my surrogate performer known as cellF.

Guy Ben-Ary’s Biopsy
Guy Ben-Ary’s Stem Cells post reprogramming
Guy Ben-Ary’s neurons post differentiation

We continued to explore the artistic potential of the iPS technology in our recent project Bricolage.  In Bricolage we created autonomous, animated, living, biological entities that have the ability to self-assemble. The automatons are made from bio-engineered human heart muscle cells that grow on bodies (scaffolds) made of silk. The muscle cells beat in real time, manipulating the automatons’ movement, and at times self-assemble to create a larger structure visible to the naked eye of gallery attendees.

Similar to neurons, heart muscle cells (cardio-myocytes) cannot be harvested without compromising the donors health. The stem cells that we are using to transform into beating heart muscle cells have originated from a drop of blood from consented anonymous donors. We reprogrammed blood cells from human donors to become stem cells using iPS technology and then used differentiation protocols to transform these cells to cardio myocytes or heart muscle cells. Exploring this alchemical process of the conversion of a drop of blood into a living animated entity – Technology that needs to be explored from a cultural perspective. A challenging and disturbing prospect.

We are currently in the initial stages of developing a new project titled ‘Revivification’. The intention is to create an in-vitro driven surrogate performer for one of the world’s most prolific experimental composers – Alvin Lucier. We have successfully gotten the cell donation from him (with his full consent of course) and now plan to grow organoids that will interface with the outside world via a robotic body. We are in discussions with him at the moment to determine the sort of embodiment we will create for his “external brain”.

The composer’s stem cells growing post reprogramming

By re-programming human cells, either purchased from on line catalogues or from human donors, iPSc technology helps us to create custom palettes of various materials. By hacking into the source cell’s software and manipulating the genetic make-up of the cells, we can craft the building blocks necessary for the creative process of producing our future work.

Dimensional connectedness between a surrogate and its human donor

When we talk about a surrogate performer comprised of cellular material that was donated by a being previously possessing experience conducive to the Surrogates output it’s interesting to think about the question – how can we begin to collate the immeasurable details that influence the activity of an entity engineered to perform a specific task?

Consider this scenario – the blood of an aging composer, eager to continue work can be extracted, isolated, proliferated, transformed, differentiated and then embedded into a hybridised Surrogate Composer to continue their work. Production and creative output could possibly still be achieved even if the human is unable or if some environmental elements make it unsafe for the elderly to do so. We posit that the work of this bioengineered entity may be intrinsically linked to its donor.

IPS derived neural network grown in-vitro from a donated skin biopsy. 

Can the reverberation of experience be propagated and survive through the transformation process?  Perhaps some kind of cellular memory still remains intact even when lab protocols and the metric of science insist that all has been erased and limpid just as there is no way to measure what influences us unconsciously. An exploration, is indeed now possible, into the invisible, organised principles or ‘anima mundi’ that infiltrate all fields internal and external. Do the new neurons of this Surrogate Performer have some kind of biological inheritance and remember coursing through the veins of the human donor? There lies an undeniable interconnectedness between the two actors, a collective memory that withholds the human experience and binds it to the material that keeps us alive. This type of reciprocation where the essence of life is both living it and in control of it, suggests that information can transmute and transfer across technological boundaries. Potentially even having a quantum-like state where it inhabits both realms at the same time. As with vision, a two-way process is involved, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images to shape, process and produce action – one influencing the other.

Does the 17th century mechanistic Cartesian view of our mind being inside our brain hold true when a prepared neural network growing outside of the body has been derived from a donated drop of blood? Is it not possible that the morphic filaments connecting our minds to the time and space of particular experiences also extend further out and inhabit bio-engineered disembodied surrogates? Century’s old Descartes-like, contracted materialistic views of reality and what our creative minds actually are, should be examined using current 21st century technology to pull it apart and propose non-mathematical models of rationality.

Surrogate Performer and the Cellular Performativity of Bricolage

Following our previous blog post that defined the term “in-vitro intelligence” In this blog post, we would like to discuss another related term – “surrogate performer” using our recent project Bricolage as an example. While cellF is an In-vitro-intelligent processor (or a ‘bioengineered brain’), Bricolage manifests the physical movement of disembodied bio-engineered entities.

Bricolage is a work that manipulates the ‘building blocks of life’ to create artistic, autonomous, biological automatons that have the ability to move and self-assemble in the gallery space. These biological automata, or living kinetic sculptures, are derived from three main materials: blood, heart and silk. Donated blood cells are transformed into human cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) using cutting edge stem cell technology to produce motile structures that move, live and inhabit the public space where they are installed. The nature and relationship of the materials used, blood, heart and silk are the driving force behind the project. The biological sorcery, or alchemy that enables the conversion of a drop of blood into a living animated entity is something, we think, needs to be explored from a cultural perspective.

Bricolage’s automatons are grown to a scale that does not require technological mediation such as cameras, screens or microscopes to experience their vitality. Gallery attendees observe the animated biological entities’ performance in the exhibition space free from obfuscatory elements so as to elicit closer connection with the biological automata.

Bricolages automatons have a strong physical presence in the gallery as visitors can easily see them with their naked eye through three overhead viewing ports. The intent with Bricolage is to minimize technological mediation so that attendees can experience the vitality of the material first hand and hopefully provoke discussion around what they are experiencing. Its outer body, made of clay, is a high spec’ incubator that controls the  CO2 and humidity levels as well as keeping the internal temperature at exactly 36.5*C in order to keep the human heart cells beating throughout the duration of the exhibit. Interaction with the artwork has been carefully designed to offer an intuitive transaction where strangers are able to gather, observe and ponder what this work means to them and indeed the future possibilities of this bio-technology. Material choice situates the work within ancient traditions while novel uses of cutting edge bio-engineering processes posit scenarios of what is now possible and what indeed could come in the years ahead.

Bricolage is an artefact sent back to us from our potential future.

Bricolage is a disembodied biological performer. It is both the creator and the creation of an ongoing realtime cellular performance.

Surrogate Performer

We envision a future ‘post-corporeal’ connection between body, instrument, space and time where creative production tools cease to be divorced from the biological body, instead artist and artwork are one in the same. The complexities and nuances that these ‘prepared’ living entities can embody will give rise to a new kind of performative entity, an entity physically removed from the human but linked through lab-based processes in which biopsied material grown outside of the donor’s body (in vitro) control a creative, hybridised entity or specifically, a Surrogate Performer.

We consider both cellF and Bricolage to be surrogate performers. In cellF the donor is Guy Ben-Ary and cellF performs with human musicians in special one-off shows. The human-made music is fed to the neurons as stimulation and the neurons respond by controlling the analogue synthesizers, and together they perform live, reflexive post human sound pieces. In Bricolage, the donors are anonymous and the cellular performance of the cardio myocytes continues spontaneously throughout the duration of the exhibition.

Surrogate Performers give rise to the possibility where in vitro entities may manifest some inherited artistic traits from the donor’s biological material while also being able to produce, analyse and generate artwork in response to sensory stimuli in real time.

This ANAT IDEATE grant will assist us in furthering our explorations beyond bio-processing (cellF) and bio-actuation (Bricolage) into this area encompassing input mechanisms detecting, measuring and tempering the changes in our world. These devices, rather bio-sensors, will potentially ‘close the loop’ and usher in extended artistic agents of all kinds.

We envision Surrogate Performers displaying artistic expressivity of their own and to be able to interact with other artists via a cultured interface including neurons, retinal organoids and cochlenoids (inner-ear haircell organoids). The possibilities are potentially as diverse as the donors themselves, with the human artist being able to create an external surrogate to engage in creative activities with their own or biological material from any other living being.

It is our understanding that the biophysical and electrochemical pathways in self-organizing, carbon-based, biological organisms such as our Surrogate Performers will allow fast information flows that synchronise much faster at a macro-level than could occur in similar-scale structures made from silicon or metal. The complexity and speed of information transfer at both the micro- and macro-levels will facilitate the surrogate performers’ capacity to perform hyper-nuanced operations in real time in response to audible and visual stimuli.

The future may see artists offering their cell-lines or their completed surrogate performers to enter into creative contexts without the need for the donor to be present. We predict this new integration of creative output into our daily lives. Entities that extend the possibilities beyond the limitations of the human body reinforce the biological importance of creative endeavours and force us to question what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.


cellF and the incoming reality of In-vitro Intelligence

Before we dive into the development of our IDEATE project we should first define and explain the terms – ‘In-Vitro intelligence’ and ‘Surrogate Performer’.

This post will focus on ‘In-Vitro intelligence’ using our past work cellF as an example.

cellF is a collaborative project in the field of experimental art, sound and performance art that we produced in 2016. It brought together artists, musicians, and scientists to create the world’s first biological neuron-driven analogue modular synthesizer. cellF combines biological material with electronic circuitry, presenting a new direction in sound performance and production.

cellF w. Alexei Borisov
galerija kapelica

cellF’s “brain” is made of biological neural networks that grow in a Petri dish and control in real time an array of analogue modular synthesizers that were custom made to work in synergy with the neural network. It is a completely autonomous, wet and analogue instrument.

The biological neural networks grow over a Multi-Electrode Array (MEA) dish to become an “external brain”. These MEA dishes consist of a grid of 8×8 electrodes. These electrodes can record the electric signals (action potentials) that the neurons produce and at the same time send stimulations to the neurons – essentially a read-and-write interface to the “brain”. Human musicians are invited to play with cellF in special one-off shows. The human-made music is fed to the neurons as stimulation and the neurons respond by controlling the analogue synthesizers, and together they perform live, reflexive and improvised sound pieces or “jam sessions” that are not entirely human.

cellF represents an interesting and provocative move away from Artificial Intelligence (AI) enquiries that dominate our current technology-focused scientific discourse. It is not an AI musical robot driven by computer algorithms; at the same time, it lacks the complexity of natural intelligence and requires a hardware body to provide stimulation for its in-vitro ‘brain’. As described above, cellF’s brain is made of bioengineered living human neurons that are grown into neural networks, interfaced such that inputs to and outputs from the networks control an array of analogue modular synthesizers, making it a wetware-hardware hybrid. ‘Wetware’ refers to the networks of neurons and other cell types that form the control systems of biological life. It is the basis of natural intelligence, which is contrasted with AI.

Neither an artificial intelligence nor a natural intelligence, cellF falls within a taxonomic void. In the absence of terminology that adequately accounts for cellF’s autonomy and plasticity, demonstrated through its capacity to make music and duet with a human musician, cellF is best understood as an entity possessing ‘in-vitro intelligence’: an intelligent system produced by bioengineered living neural networks that function as brains outside of the body. We grant that cellF represents a very early form of in-vitro intelligence, symbolic in a way, yet the characteristics of its neural network suggest that it, or others like it, may demonstrate changes in functional plasticity, just as naturally intelligent entities do.

Neuroscientist Steve Potter claims it is inevitable that neural-synthetic hybrid entities will grow more sophisticated and find widespread applications: ‘hybrid wetware-hardware intelligent things will someday be as common and as useful as digital computers are today’ (Potter, 2017; Bakkum et al. 2004). As a wetware-hardware hybrid, cellF suggests just such an outcome, and we theorize its existence by developing a description for this phenomenon as the emergence of in-vitro intelligence.




We (Nathan Thompson and Guy Ben-Ary) are artists and researchers at SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence for Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia (UWA) where the biological laboratory is where the creative process takes place.  Our research explores a number of fundamental themes that underpin the intersection of art and science; namely life and death, cybernetics, and artificial life. We consciously approach processes capable of transforming bodies or living biological material from an artistic, philosophical and ethical perspectives, and we make use of new scientific and cybernetic technologies to create artworks that re-evaluate understandings of life and the human body.  We use bio-technologies in a subversive way, attempting to problematize them by putting forward absurd or futuristic scenarios. Visual strategies are employed to help lure viewers into exploring the artworks in a manner that draws viewers into a dialogue about the future of these technologies, and encourages them to re-evaluate their own perceptions and beliefs.

For this IDEATE residency we propose to further develop and embrace possibilities of ‘In-Vitro driven surrogate performers’ and explore the possibilities of bio-engineering the ‘input’ mechanisms to our Surrogate Performers – the auditory (Retinal Organoid) and visual senses (Cochleanoid).

We are excited at the opportunity to further our explorations through this ANAT research program.