Workshop with Svenja Kratz

IMBA, Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Dr. Bohr-Gasse 3, 1030 Vienna, Austria


The Bioart Workshop 2011 was held from the 9th to the 13th of May 2011 at the Institute of Molecular Bioltechnology in Vienna. The workshop has been organised in conjunction with the Institute of Art and Science at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and it was facilitated by Australian contemporary artist Svenja Kratz who has been working in the area of cell and tissue culture art for the past four years as part of a PhD in bioart at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.


The structure of workshop paralleled the artist’s engagement with biomedical technologies and has been designed to provide an accumulative learning situation in which the complexity of the scientific processes increased over the week. The workshop provided participants with hands on experience in tissue culture and basic genetic engineering techniques, and encouraged creative engagement with these technologies in the development of innovative contemporary arts projects.


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by Anna Fatér


Getting Started at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology Vienna?

The first impression of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology was overwhelming, with its strict entry system but nice and helpful doormen, its massive concrete-metal-glass walls but cosily furnished common rooms. It took a while to get more conversant with the building and being hosted - and tolerated - by the institute. For a start, our workshop leader Svenja Kratz introduced us to the basic concepts of bioart and to important artworks in the field (on the blue floor). Then we occupied our laboratory (on the yellow floor), where the work with cell tissue would take place in the next days. ?We had to quickly learn how to work in the laboratory. This included always wearing lab coats and that our hands should be gloved at all times. Dressing up like this was nice at first, but we soon realized that working in lab coats and gloves, while being surrounded by machines heated up to body temperature, would not be all that comfortable. We had to sterilize everything with ethanol (70%) - and there were those who were childish enough to misuse the ethanol spray and make a lucky hit down a lab partner’s neck.?This introduction to standard laboratory practice was accompanied by an overview of health and safety guidelines. We learned how to use different pipettes and tools, working with them in a laminar flow hood. Great care was taken to avoid all forms of possible contamination. In our first attempts, the ends of everyone’s pipettes were dithering, but on the second day it wasn’t a stress factor anymore. With this rapidly acquired knowledge we could start to practice.


“Semi-Living Worry Dolls” - First Steps in Cell and Tissue Culture

Our first task followed the idea of the Semi-Living Worry Dolls by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. After the cells had thawed, they were detached and separated into little flasks. In order to obtain a result we had to prepare a nice and comfortable area where the cells could grow happily. As most cells have preferred media types, in this case we used a medium called “Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium” (DMEM). DMEM can satisfy the basic nutrient requirements of most cell lines and primary cells.While a part of our group tried to separate cells and stuff them into flasks, others began preparing scaffolds out of non-clinical materials. Silkworm husks, pearls, and different textiles were on hand to be cut and sewn in the creation of exotic forms for scaffolds. Each scaffold was placed in a petri dish, washed with ethanol, and bathed in DMEM overnight. Through this procedure the scaffolds turned into a preferable texture for cells to inhabit. The design of scaffolds was also the first step in the creation of the Semi-Living Worry Dolls. The form of the scaffold gives the initial shape to the cell culture. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to wait for the cells to start to grow on their scaffolds, but we were able to see how the process would have started.


Vegetarian Meat -- Semi-Living Food?

Another project of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Disembodied Cuisine, deals with the ethics of food consumption and how the distinction is made between food and non-food. On the next day of the workshop, we engaged in this basic experiment. We were asked to bring fresh meat to the laboratory, meat as fresh as possible. ?First of all, the meat was needed for isolating primary animal cells. Once the animal tissue had been swabbed with ethanol, a tiny section was removed and immersed again in ethanol. Then it was transported to the hood where it was covered with phosphate buffered saline (PBS) a few times. It was possible to continue in two ways: either to add 1mL of Trypsin or to add 1mL of collagens’ solution. The tissue samples were then minced and more (9mL) of the respective liquid was added. Subsequently, the minced samples were dispersed with a sterile pipette to further break them up and aid tissue digestion. Discarded leftover tissue fragments and new, warm medium topped off the mixture with the cells. After the flasks were labelled with the name, date, and type of cells, they was placed in an incubator.?From the meat that was brought to the lab (whole lamb livers, huge pieces of salmon, arms of octopi) only really tiny parts were used for the cell work. To make use of the left over parts, Svenja initially planned to prepare a lunch. She asked us to bring spices and other ingredients to cook it together. Ultimately, the cooking never happened as we ran out of time on that particular day. But the imagination of eating the meat - meat that was once in a lab - still had an impact. It felt as if the meat had somehow become unclean, which is an interesting thought as everything in the lab is sterile. ?In this regard, we started to deal with similar questions that Disembodied Cuisine brought up - but with a little difference: we were trying to keep alive the cells of a dead animal, not grow cells of still living animals. We planned to eat the parts of an animal already “intended for eating”, to use it as a material that can also be used for scientific purposes. Nevertheless, fundamental questions emerged: Can we work on and eat the same material? And can we rightfully decide that animals have to die for the purpose of science or for the purpose of nourishing human beings?


Discussing Ethics

Initiated by this experience in the lab, a heated discussion about ethics, science, art, life, and death commenced and remained with us well after the workshop had ended. We had addressed these issues before in different classes, in connection with various papers, artworks, and science projects. But in the context of the lab we were personally confronted with acting out decisions based on societal consent and grasped for arguments. And at the heart of the ethical debate, one that never arrives at a definite answer, we found it important as a group to let everyone speak and think, to not offend anyone, and to not be offended by the opinions of others.



Workshop participants include Art and Science Visualisation and TransArts students from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Svenja Johni Kratz is a contemporary Australian based artist interested in interdisciplinary practice with a focus on the intersections and creative possibilities of art/science. For the past three years she has been working in the

area of cell and tissue culture at the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI). During this time she has produced an evolving series of exhibitions collectively titled The Absence of Alice.

The title refers to her early experiences culturing a cell line derived in 1973 from the bone cancer lesion of an 11-year old girl, called Alice. All subsequent exhibitions map the creative evolution and movement of this initial engagement into other areas of applied biology, including genetic engineering and primary culture of human and fetal calf cells. She is currently completing a PhD in bio-media art in a creative partnership between the Creative Industries Faculty and IHBI at QUT.

May 09, 2011, 09:30h