Patricia Piccinini's language of flesh
As genetic engineering continues apace, Patricia Piccinini explains how her work challenges us to face ethical dilemmas and disturbing new realities.
Empathy is at the heart of my practice. I don’t think you really can – or indeed should – try to understand the ethics of something without emotions. It can easily be argued that such a focus on empathy might distract from a true rational understanding of the issues, but in fact that is exactly what I am aiming to do. Emotions are messy and they do get in the way of rational discourse – as they should. The empathetic nature of my work deliberately complicates the ideas. It is one thing to argue for/against cloning when it is just an intellectual issue. However, things change if you have a mother or son who might need it. I like to think that my work understands that the point at which ‘good’ becomes ‘bad’ does not stand still, which is why it is so difficult to find. Ethics are not set like morals, they have to be constantly negotiated. Bioethics are especially flexible, which makes them especially difficult. Yet sometimes our feelings find a way through these difficulties, and we are able to create connections and bonds that defy the expectations of others.
Last year I saw one of those extraordinary things, which reminds me that what I make is not so strange or far-fetched. As usual it was in a petri dish. This petri dish contained a small layer of cells, a thin skin of biological matter that was pulsating to a rapid but steady rhythm. This was the first time I had really seen stem cells. These ones had been differentiated into heart cells and they were doing what heart cells do: beating – flatly, geometrically, pointlessly.
Stem cells are base cellular matter before it is differentiated into specific kinds of cells like skin, liver, bone or brain. Pure unexpressed potential, they contain the possibility for transformation into anything. They are the basic data format of the organic world. Like digital data, their specificity lies in that, while they are intrinsically nothing, they can become anything. They are biomatter for the digital age.
This essential mutability of life is something I find very interesting, and I see it as very much a hallmark of how we see the world. Human beings change things. It is what we are most proud of. Sometimes we do it for the good, but not always. The medium of this change, more often than not these days, is technology. That technology is becoming increasingly amorphous itself – straddling the biological, the physical and the mechanical.
The idea that humans are uniquely and fundamentally different from other animals is a cornerstone of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. It is this specialness that allows us to exploit the environment and other beings around us so completely. However, both genetic analysis and observation is now showing how small the difference is. We see common DNA everywhere, and common behaviours in many other animals, especially primates. Like us, orangutan mothers keep their children close and educate them for many years. In this work we see three unique individuals each set at a different point on a continuum of greater or lesser ‘animalness’. The point, however, is not their differences but their connection.