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Between Living and Nonliving

Published onOct 30, 2018
Between Living and Nonliving

Ionat Zurr is an artist, Head of the Fine Arts Discipline at University of Western Australia (UWA), and co-founder of the pioneering art/science laboratory SymbioticA at UWA and the art practice Tissue Culture and Art (TC&A), with partner Oron Catts. Their work investigates the disembodied cellular cultures used in technoscience, which they call the “semi-living”, and often references the Golem myth, the Jewish story of a being created from mud. Maholo Uchida is a curator at the Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum for Science and Innovation, in Tokyo. Uchida has curated several exhibitions which bridge art and science. An expert on robots, she is now co-curating a major new show on artificial intelligence, AI: More than Human, at London's Barbican Centre, opening in 2019.

In this conversation, Zurr and Uchida explore the boundaries of the nonliving and living from their own cultural perspectives. As Uchida explains, in Japan, Shinto animist beliefs draw different boundaries between these categories, providing other ways to think about our relationships with “nature” and design. How might non-Western (or non-monotheistic) technological and cultural approaches affect the way humans around the world think about, and potentially design, the living?

Ionat Zurr: I’d like to think about the differences in distinctions between life and nonlife from your Japanese perspective, and my own, the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is based on the Western dualistic idea of, “This is alive, this is not alive.’’ I would love to hear more from your view, because our tradition is very much about life being carbon-based. But what is life? It is a mystery. And I know that in Shinto it's a bit different.

Maholo Uchida: The basic idea of Shinto is that we have something like eight million gods.

Ionat: Eight million?

Maholo: Eight million gods, which really means countless gods. In Christianity or other Western religions, you have one very important God, who creates a human. That's the rule. I’ll focus on Shinto, because it has many similarities to other animisms, like the traditions found in Mexico or Iceland or Bali. In Japan, Shinto has been continued by the royal family and the shrine system. In Shinto, we say that we have eight million gods, and those gods each represent a certain nature element. So, we have a god of the wind, a god of the land, a god of the sun, etc.

Ionat: Okay. So eight million is not a specific number. It's just to say there are many, many gods.

Maholo: Many gods everywhere. And in that sense, we think that the human is just a part of nature, a part of matter, a part of the universe. The human is not the center, whereas the Western idea is that the human is the center, and the world revolves around it. But in Shinto, the human is just a part of the world. It's melting with everybody—but not just everybody, but everything. That's the very basic idea. I think you know some of the Japanese robot animations? We have so many varieties of humanoid robots, and animal-like robots. And funny animations that have characters that are nonliving things. For example, the bread hero “Anpanman”. I understand this as part of our culture, which strongly relates to Shinto.

Ionat: So, robots—do they also have soul?

Maholo: Yes.

Ionat: Does that mean that each entity has its own soul, i.e. a robot has a soul, the wind has its own soul and so on?

Maholo: Actually, it doesn't matter, because there is no definition. It's not religious. It's more like a philosophy, or a daily belief. And once you start to think about, “Well this thing has some soul,’’ then your morning café au lait cup has a soul. In the traditional Japanese family, we have the rice cup for me, and the rice cup for father, and it has a different color or whatever, and everybody takes care of their cup. It's the same even for the chopsticks.

Ionat: So it's more fluid or entangled? You look after them like they're alive? You have to look after them.

Maholo: Yes. And it’s the same for a robot; they will take care of that robot as a living robot.

Ionat: In “Western” culture there is the fear of robots taking over humans. But I guess in Shinto there's no fear like that since humans and robots are all part of an animated continuum.

Maholo: There's no fear like that.

Ionat: So then there’s nothing new with robots in that regard. You are curating an exhibition about AI and robots for the Barbican Centre [opening May 2019]. Does that mean that the exhibition would not raise ethical dilemmas for a Japanese audience? In other words; there's no ethical discussion, it's more about what kind of lifelike characteristic and “intelligence” the robot can show. Which is in a way paradoxical. If everything is alive--whether animal, rock, or an object--why should the robots have to imitate lifelike characteristics as they are understood in “Western” views of life?

Maholo: Of course we have ethical discussions, but I think they’re often encouraged by Western culture. For example, the idea of the Singularity is a really hot topic in Western culture. Of course it's translated in Japan, but it is not a big movement.

Ionat: I understand the view that humans are not so different from other “things” or entities around them. They are entangled with them. Furthermore, the idea or notion of “The Human” is questionable (i.e. human can be seen as an ecology). And so, the concept of the Singularity does not make sense to me either. It is completely foreign.

"Alter", an android expressing lifelikeness through complex movements. Credit: Miraikan.

What's interesting is that there is a desire to create lifelike animation of robots. Why should robots look like humans? Why do we try to make them express “living” attributes that resemble human or animal-like behaviour? Why, in Japan, is there is a desire for dry, hard, and digital technologies to become more lifelike (i.e. driverless cars, artificial intelligence systems, and animated robotics), while there is hesitation about treating moist, living organisms as a technology of manipulation?

Maholo: Genetic manipulation of biology? You mean that Japan is more sensitive about biotechnology than a Western country?

Ionat: I work a lot with tissue engineering, which is the technology of growing or constructing neo-organs. I know that this field is very developed in Japan. And probably one reason for this is that in Japanese culture, a person is considered dead only when her heart has stopped working, even if they are brain-dead. Therefore organ transplantation is virtually impossible. Tissue engineering technologies carry the promise of growing spare organs. The fields of regenerative medicine, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), are developing rapidly, but it's a bit different with genetic engineering. It is almost as if there is a hesitation to manipulate life on the genetic level.

Maholo: Yes.

Ionat: And again, maybe it’s because of the belief that we don't have complete control or dominion over the rest of the (non)living world. We are part of the world. It may be the reason for hesitation before invasively manipulating living organisms. However, in Japan there is more of a tendency, or it feels easier, in terms of ethics or belief, to manipulate machines.

“Untitled” from Biomess, 2018, the most recent project by Perth-based artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Working under the name Tissue Culture and Art Project and based at the Biology Laboratories SymbioticA, The Centre of Excellence of Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia. The exhibition is a single installation made up of three components: animal specimens from the Western Australian Museum; live animals; and the artists’ own laboratory-grown living tissue culture. The show’s elements are an exploration of the “messiness” of the biological realm: nature always escapes our efforts to control, catalogue and intellectually contain it. As the artists state: “The two spaces here mirror each other: one presents organisms that lived (or live), evolving and adapting to our shared environment, while the other presents those organisms designed by humans in the name of ‘progress’ who are dependent on human technology for their survival. Both are mysterious and not under our full control and comprehension. However, the design of the installation that is reminiscent of a luxury retail outlet brings into question humans foray into a new era of exploration and exploitation of biological life as new commodities to satisfy unfulfilled desires”. Aligning with the 200th year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Biomess pays homage to our fascination and yearning for ideas and beings that are beyond our control.

Maholo: I totally agree.

Ionat: Even the manipulation of mountains and gardens, because they have their own soul, must be done respectfully.

Maholo: I think maybe it will be easier to understand if we use a term like “take care” instead of manipulate.

Ionat: “Take care.” I love that.

Maholo: In Japan, whether it’s tissue engineering or manipulation of a robot to make it human-like, it’s totally open and free. We don't hesitate, but it's not like a “mad scientist” motivation. It's more the communication of existence. If we talk about cutting-edge biotechnology, or cutting-edge robot technology, it feels very scary. But let's talk about fermentation, for example.

Ionat: Fermentation is so strong in Japan, it's part of the history. I think it is part of all humanity's history.

Maholo: It's part of it. But it's also a manipulation of life.

Ionat: Exactly.

Maholo: To make soy sauce, or to make cheese, involves fermentation. For example, I have a good friend who is a chef and fermentation specialist. He always said that he is living with millions of bacteria. And he has to take care of bacteria. And then he goes to a sake brewery, and they say the same thing. Even in Europe, if you communicate with nature very deeply, like a winemaker or a farmer does, then maybe you also have some sense of “taking care” of food together with nature too. But in Japan, it's not farming, it's more taking care of.

Ionat: This is a beautiful re-thinking, because in the scientific lab it is more about keeping the posture of “being objective.” That means that you have to assume the behaviour associated with “objective analysis”: you need to “objectify” your subject of analysis. We're not allowed to give our subjects names, or to feel “with” them. It will be really interesting to compare how scientists work in a lab with living organisms in Japan, versus in Australia for example. I suspect, from my experience, that in every lab scientists do give names and perform rituals of caring, also with nonhuman subjects. Obviously, labs treat humans differently than the nonhuman, following the Judeo-Christian view that humans are separate and more important than others.

Maholo: Exactly.

Ionat: It would be interesting to observe what kind of rituals are done, for example to bacteria, in a biotech lab. What rituals are there that create this connection that is more about taking care, and getting to know the “Other” life, in order to be able to work with it, rather than control it.

Maholo: We can think about today compared with what we could see one hundred years ago, when we didn't have very strong microscopic technologies and couldn’t see what we were controlling. Now, what we are controlling, or manipulating in science, is on a totally unseen, invisible scale, which is more complex. So now maybe we are too big to control or to communicate with them. We have to be small to control. When we talk about astronomy, the scale is too big to place ourselves in it. And now, thanks to information technology, the world is getting bigger. So all the information in the world cannot be controlled anyway. The world becomes more complex, and we will just have to accept this complexity.

Ionat: And become more humble.

Maholo: Humans have only had 5,000 or 10,000 years to build up civilization. And life itself has a much longer history. And animals or bacteria myths, they don't talk or write, so we don’t know exactly what happened. If I see trees that are one hundred meters tall, I always feel wonder that they can grow so tall. If a human wants to make a one-hundred-meter-high building, how much work do you have to do? The tree can just live, and do it with water and carbon.

Ionat: When does the animation of machines and robotics also involve caring? When scientists build robots, do you think they have this kind of relationship with the robots, and as they look after the robots?

Maholo: I cannot say that every researcher is like that, but for example, in America you have Hatchimals, you know those robots? I work closely with the developing researcher. They take care of these robot toys like they are their son or daughter. With human-like robots it’s very easy to understand why the researcher takes care of it as if it were a human, because it looks human, and it was meant for this kind of relationship.

Ionat: And with dogs too.

Maholo: Have you played with the new aibo [robotic pet dog]? It's really amazing. It looks kind of weird, but once you start to play with it, and the aibo locks eyes with you, and it goes, "ah, ah", then everybody goes crazy for it...

Ionat: It's so cute.

Maholo: Twenty years ago Sony produced the first aibo. And then they stopped producing it. But there are many, many people who want to keep their aibos living longer. There are special maintenance people, retired from Sony, who are maintaining hundreds of aibo pets in Japan. Some people give them funerals.

Ionat: I know, and there is a cemetery as well.

Aibo funeral.

Maholo: We think of the robot as a partner, not a slave. In Western countries, the term “robot” started as a laborer, but in Japan, although the word came from the West, we had autonomous robots in the Edo period, 400 years ago: tea-serving and tea-carrying robots [Karakuri]. Karakuri is a little autonomous toy that carries tea.

Ionat: It's a friend, not a slave. But if your “toy” brings you the tea, is it a friend or a slave? Does that depend on the way it is treated?

You've probably watched the video from Boston Dynamics demonstrating their robot “dog”. There is a scene where the scientists or engineers kick the dogs to demonstrate the robot’s abilities to recover from the fall.

Gif: Boston Dynamics

Maholo: I think that one is for military use. That robot is for killing. Seeking, killing or destroying something, right?

Ionat: Exactly.

Maholo: Maybe I can tell you a secret about the humanoid robot in Japan. After World War II, the American government and its allies restricted Japan from making any weapons.

Ionat: Yes, I know.

Maholo: This is our political background. All the engineers, and the military forces who used to make weapons had to stop. They moved to car engineering, and making machines for medicine.

Ionat: Is this still true today?

Maholo: Officially, we cannot make any product that pertains to weapons.

Ionat: I would suspect the Japanese audience would find the way that the Americans treat their robots unethical, right?

Maholo: Very much.

Ionat: I have another question: what is “nature” versus “not-nature”? Is there a difference?

Maholo: The term nature is a really, really difficult one, because it's not like when we talk about nature as something green or a plant, and that’s the end of the discussion. When we talk about nature, even the things we think of as not-nature are part of nature. Nature is everything, so for example, if robots took over human culture in the future, that's also nature.

Ionat: Is there a word in Japanese for nature? Is it everything?

Maholo: It's almost like “whole existence”, in Kanji, Chinese characters. But I have to be very careful, because some terms are a translation from English. Japan was closed for a long time, and then 250 years ago suddenly we opened up and imported Western culture: literature, law, business manners and everything, in just a few decades. So, that's why many words we use are from French, German, and from English. It feels like the word “nature” is maybe a translation. For example, like the word “love”.

Ionat: Oh really, there's no word for love in Japanese?

Maholo: There are other words.

Ionat: The natural and artificial, is that imported from English?

Maholo: The original meaning of the Kanji character for “love” is feeling a need to protect something fragile, weak, cute, and tiny, with all of your heart. I think it can be understood as “take care.”

Ionat: Oron Catts and I prefer to make a distinction between the “intentional” and “unintentional,” rather than culture/nature or artificial/natural.

I asked about language, because from the moment we are born, the way we think depends on the language that we have. We almost need to find a new language in order to be able to think differently.

Maholo: I think so. For the exhibition I’m co-curating on AI, I want to mix future visions with Shinto and animism thinking, to melt everything together, because we cannot make defined categories anymore. There is no future for categorization. What we need to do is to accept that certain categorizations limit our future, and find a new approach, a new stance for communicating with others. I think that attitude can solve even ethical issues. Can a change in attitude solve disabilities, or race, or gender? That's another discussion. But maybe acceptance could be possible.

More and more scientists are showing how, because humans make AI, they have the biases of humans. We imbue them with our biases, and yet we think that they don't have biases. We made them, so of course they have ours. I think it's a very good opportunity to think about new visions, because finally, AI can be a new species.

Ionat: AI is a new species?

Maholo: We think it can be a new species, made by humans. But still AI is using old data. For example, in the AI performance discrete figures, a choreographed multimedia performance, the AI is searching. It is sensing all the natural data, including temperature. It’s using much more data than humans. Right? So, then AI has some answers to how to make the plant better.

Ionat: Because it has the capacity to integrate so much information that a human cannot integrate?

Maholo: Yes. But it's the same as a plant, or as other animals. There are many, many other living things that have more capacity than humans.

Ionat: Or ecologies. But AI is human-made.

Maholo: We need to let go of the dream that we can manipulate everything. If I just accept that AI is a new species— maybe more controlled than other species— because it’s a species still run by a human-made program. But I think we cannot expect to have full control in the future, as it evolves. We can have some other relationship.

Ionat: If we say that we are, in a way, a product of our language, what if we talk about AI as something that we are growing? It's the language that we give it that will form its understanding of the world. Furthermore, it is the biases and prejudices that we will give the AI. And that's the responsibility of society. For example, what if we input more Shinto biases rather than Western scientific enlightenment biases?

Maholo: That's where it's really difficult. Now most humans communicate with languages, but some communicate maybe only visually.

Ionat: I think we communicate by smell, touch, and many other sensual languages.

Maholo: Can AI handle as much information as we do with our bodies? We always translate language to enable communication, but for example with your partner, or family, you don't always communicate through spoken language. In other situations in human activities where you need language to share, to communicate, it’s often with somebody distant from your cultural or physical background.

Ionat: Definitely.

Maholo: Maybe it’s a dream, but I think humans are still undergoing evolution, and language is still a really important medium. But maybe in the future language is just a part of the medium.

Ionat: That's interesting. We'll use other senses. For example look at the tree: It has a language that is non-textual, nonverbal, but it's probably a richer-than-human form of communication. I think we're not very aware of how much we communicate outside of language.

Maholo: Because we have to translate it to language. We have to turn the high, high resolution of our minds into low-resolution language.

Ionat: Language is completely reductionist. I believe that in many respects, because we are ecosystems with a lot of fauna and flora as part of us, that sometimes it's the bacteria that are communicating. We think we communicate but it's our bacteria who are actually communicating through pheromones, smells, et cetera...

Do you believe that one day using AI, we will be able to create machines that can be as complex as, for example, as a living organism? I'm sorry, I'm so Western: using categories of living, nonliving again!

Maholo: I don't know if we are going to make it as complex. It's still just a tiny part of knowledge. Maybe we can make some technology which can communicate more.

Ionat: So, it's just a humble way for us to try to understand more about the world around us. It is a humble human attempt at communication in a world that we have no comprehension, let alone control over.

Maholo: Yes. It reminds me of when I was doing an exhibition about love, and I talked with an epigeneticist. I heard a very interesting story that a Western researcher and a Japanese researcher have totally different approaches about why we need XY and XX chromosomes. The Western researcher has a theory that the female needs to have a smaller baby, because of the dangers in giving birth. That’s why X and Y are different, to make the baby bigger or make it smaller. The Japanese approach is that they are different to help each other to grow a better baby cell.

Ionat: Ah, so it's contradicting, it’s a dualism.

Maholo: We call it complementary. And maybe we have something missing in both. It doesn't make it one complete baby. The approach and the way of research are very different. I found that really interesting.

Ionat: It's a beautiful metaphor.

Maholo: Sometimes we think that science is a global language, but actually it's not.

Ionat: We think that science is objective, but it's not.

And then there is another question. Why, in Japan as in the rest of the world, is there still the problem of equality for men and women? Rather than the complementary, we see inequality. Do you agree? It's unusual for a young woman like yourself to be in such a position, a senior curator.

Maholo: I think we are so slow to change politics and our system. Our history is so influential: we have at least 1,300 years of one Emperor's family, which is the longest in the world. I think we still prioritize traditional cultural codes— and some of them are hidden rules—which are quite difficult to change. To change gender balance and positions needs at least three generations. Japan is ranked 114th in gender gap in the world. That's the lowest in the developed countries.

Ionat: Wow. Okay. Well done, then you are a pioneer. You are a trendsetter. It's really, really important!

Maholo: Actually, because I'm a curator I’m similar to a researcher. So I'm sort of repositioned: I'm not in a high position but I am in a unique position. This gender disparity may be the thing I like least about Japan. I have a question for you. Why do you communicate with biology through art?

Ionat: It's a good question.

Maholo: I think you have many questions about the living that are representative of Western culture and thinking, but I actually think what you're doing is a little bit more Asian.

Ionat: I hope so.

Maholo: For you, the bacteria and cells are your material. What do you communicate as an artist? How do you treat your material, your living art? Do you treat it like your daughter?

Ionat: I grew up in Israel, and I’m not religious, but the Judeo-Christian background that I come from dictates that there is one God that put us here, that gave us control and dominion over nature, whatever nature is. The more I work in laboratories, and the more I work with life, the more I realize how much we have no control and no dominion, and how much we are living entities entangled with our environment, in both intentional and unintentional ways. The idea of science is that it's rational, and that we are rational beings, and scientists make a rational analysis of everything around them. Then I see our world with all this supposed rationality, yet we are living with irrational politics and media and we are literally destroying the world. You might say it's a kind of evolution; that humans will be here in the future... but maybe not.

For me, it's really important to go into laboratories and question this idea. As I said before, in science, you have to—supposedly—completely remove yourself and your emotion, and work objectively with the living materials that are around you, whereas as an artist, I bring the opposite.

Victimless Leather - A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific "Body", 2004, made from biodegradable polymer connective and bone cells. Credit: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr).

With the artists and students I'm working with, we are questioning, for example, issues concerning tissue engineering: we create tissue constructs that are living but need an artificial support mechanism to sustain them, to keep them alive within the environment. For me, they are like the animated robots in a way, because they are alive and we have to care for them, and control them. They are our pets, friends, and slaves. I would say they are probably much more complex than the animated robot. However, we find it easier and cuter to engage with a robot that looks like a dog or a human and is designed to meet our own anthropocentric sensitivities.

My artworks are small and ephemeral, they are just a bunch of cells that are not conforming to humans’ ideas of “beauty”. But I hope that experiencing them will make people think about some of the issues that we are discussing now. To think about a different kind of relationship with life. Where is life? What is life? How do we identify life? It's easier with an animated robot, because we make them look like us. But life is not just about us.

Maholo: Now I totally get the link between us. If people can imagine the cell as living, as you think it is, then maybe it’s the same as thinking about a robot living, or a mountain living, or the wind living.

Ionat: Exactly.

Maholo: There are many, many biases that suggest that those things are not living, that this cell or robot is not human. But if many people can see them as living, that’s meaningful.

Ionat: My work is looking at the complex and sometimes paradoxical relations between care and control. When I think about that in relation to Japan, it is the artistry of Bonsai that comes to mind. Some people may see it is as a craft of care and beauty and some may see it as a craft of arrested development and cruelty.

We explored these relations in our artwork that was also presented as part of Kenpoku Arts Festival in Japan in 2016. In the piece, “Vessels of Care and Control: Compostcubator & Hivecubator”, we explored how life forms are cared for by other life forms. We looked, as a symbolic gesture, at how non-human living systems can become surrogate bodies for human (or more than human) living fragments. Rather than optimization in the sense of engineering control—the electrical incubator in the science laboratory—we looked at living systems as ideal surrogate bodies. In the Compostcubator—we used the heat generated from a compost pile decomposing in the centre of a clay/mud structure. This heat was needed for the animal/human cells grown in tissue-culture flasks positioned in the Composcubator.

This is part of our (Oron and myself) ongoing artistic exploration loosely based on the story of the Golem (which means literally crude, unshaped or raw in Hebrew) and which explores the ‘alchemical’ transformation of different materials into substrates with the ability to support and act on life. In the sixteenth-century story, the Golem is an animated being created from non-living material to serve and defend the Jewish population. Our artistic meditations attempt to destabilize the current dominant logic of the transformation of life into raw material for engineering ends (such in the field of Synthetic Biology). Our piece poetically re-staged the creation of the Golem in order to touch upon some of the important lessons of the story: the creation of life from crude matter and human knowledge and the point that hubris and the creation of life should not be coupled.

This piece is going to be shown in the Spare Parts Exhibition at the Science Gallery in London in January 2019.

Vessels of Care and Control: Prototypes of Compostcubator & Hivecubator (2016) by The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr) in collaboration with Mike Bianco. Compost, beehive, bees, acrylic dome, clay, wood, glass, water, tissue flasks, pumps, plastic tubes, thermostat and water storage crystals. Kenpoku Arts Festival, Japan 2016. Credit: Ionat Zurr.

Maholo: You know some of the really, really tiny drones that look like insects? I think they're in between robot and bacteria: They are still controlled by humans, but exist in nature. If we can make seawater into drinking water, that's also a kind of control. If we like the idea of semi-control and the semi-living, maybe the future can be very positive?

Ionat: In today’s crazy world, I sometimes find it difficult to imagine a positive future constructed by humans. We should always remember that life is so complex, that if we can even have semi-control, life will escape and assert itself. Can we have semi-control over the semi-living? That’s something to think carefully about.

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