Still Life With Stem Cells

Originally published: Biennale of Sydney
by Patricia Piccinini ( 2002 )

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 rapid but steady rhythm. This was the first time that 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.

Stems 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.

I am interested in how this changes our idea of the body. Already our understanding of the human genome leads us to imagine that we understand the construction of the body at its most intimate level; the stem cell provides us with a generic, plastic material from which we can construct it. In the last ten years, the body has gone from something that is uniquely produced to something that can be reproduced.

This transformation has already occurred, with very little fuss given its magnitude. The question of whether this is a good or a bad thing is both too simplistic and a little academic. As with so much of this biotechnology, the extraordinary has already become the ordinary. The real question is 'what are we going to do with it'. Still life with Stem Cells is one possible answer.