WA university considering closing renowned art-biology lab SymbioticA

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

The University of WA says it has yet to make a decision about the future of its award-winning art-biology lab, SymbioticA.

Protests and petitions have erupted after it was revealed the UWA is currently consulting on the future of the lab – a long running, world renowned art-biology lab.

“The University’s School of Human Sciences is currently consulting on a proposal to prioritise its resources to core teaching and research areas, including facilities and graduate employment prospects for its students,” UWA said in a statement to Cosmos.

“It is important to note that this is a proposal for change and no decision has been made on the future of SymbioticA, as consultation continues.

“The University is proud of its strong links to arts and culture in the Western Australian community and continues to offer a vibrant collection of programs, displays and performances spanning music, theatre, museums, galleries and publishing.”

The SymbioticA team says that they were given less than two weeks to make a case for why the lab should continue, with that response being due today.

The response might decide if the award-winning lab is able to continue after 22 years of operation.

An online petition started by performance artist Kira O’Reilly, has gained over 12,000 signatures, a protest occurred on the UWA campus, and leading figures from a variety of disciplines have provided testimonies on the importance of SymbioticA. 

SymbioticA was established in 2000 as the first research lab of its kind. It’s designed as a ‘wet biology’ laboratory in a biological sciences department, but it’s made for artists. The lab is currently run by respected bioartists Dr Oron Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr.

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It won the inaugural Golden Nica award for Hybrid Arts in the Prix Ars Electronica – an award Catts calls “the Oscar of art and technology”. As the first lab of its kind, SymbioticA has since been a blueprint for other universities to also create biological art spaces.

“We helped develop so many other initiatives all over the world. SymbioticA, The University of Western Australia, Perth, and Australia in general was hailed as the epicentre of this type of activity,” says Catts.

Among its achievements were the first lab grown meat and the first lab made leather. Cosmos has covered some of their previous work, including a conference in 2018 called ‘Quite Frankly: the Monster Conference’, which was based on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

“SymbioticA is recognised internationally as the pioneering lab that developed many of the most significant works of biological Arts. It was the first (and longest lasting) research facility to provide institutional access to biological labs for artists who were interested in experiencing and working with the tools and techniques of the life sciences and biomedical research,” Catt told Cosmos.

“We’ve hosted more than 120 residents from all over the world – some really influential artists – to come and do research, we developed the first masters of biological arts anywhere in the world. We’ve really done a lot.”

SymbioticA is currently 30% funded by the University of Western Australia – this pays for 2.2 full time positions. The rest of the funds come from other sources like grants, commissions, and prizes.

The University says no matter what it decides,  any postgraduate students doing biological arts won’t be affected. This proposal to close SymbioticA stands in contrast to an event held at the University early last month. The University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute hosted a panel asking “Are we ready to reimagine the value of the arts?” and included Catts as a speaker.

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