The Well-Tempered Neuron

Even an analog synthesizer has to be tuned. As the cables travel from one jack to the next, the artist’s neurons produce a different note each time. On the boundaries of stem cell technology and creating art in a lab. 

The artist doesn’t let complex lab protocol get in his way. With one quick swivel of the Petri dish, Guy Ben-Ary creates a swirl that concentrates the cells in the middle of the dish, just like sugar at the bottom of a teacup. The cells underneath the electrode matrix are perfectly arranged at the very first attempt. “Oh, it’s nothing,” the Australian shrugs, visibly satisfied.

His fingers, gloved in vibrant blue, fly back and forth between pipettes and test tubes. Each move looks very adept. “Cell culture is a technique you can learn,” Ben-Ary says over the hum of the large laminar flow cabinet at the MDC lab. “I’ve been doing this for over 15 years.” The artist disinfects his gloves with an alcohol wipe once more to keep germs from contaminating his experiment.

The cellF sculpture. Image: Guy Ben-Ary (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The cellF at the Cell Block Theatre in Sydney. Image: Guy Ben-Ary (CC-BY-NC-ND)

A post-human self portrait

Ben-Ary’s experiment is a sort of self-portrait called “cellF” (pronounced self). Its “brain” is a Petri dish containing a network of 100,000 nerve cells and equipped with 60 electrodes. These cells are, in fact, a part of Ben-Ary. He reprogrammed some of his own skin cells to be “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPS-cells) and then transformed them into nerve cells. Via a matrix of electrodes, these cells now control an enormous funnel-shaped musical instrument. It is the world’s first neural synthesizer, an auto-creative instrument that even responds to stimuli.

The artist spent more than two years working on it. For Ben-Ary, who never played an instrument himself, it is a teenage dream come true: becoming a rock legend like David Bowie. “I always wanted to be like Ziggy Stardust,” he laughs.

Dish with integrated electrodes. Image: Guy Ben-Ary

Dishes with integrated electrodes. Image: Guy Ben-Ary (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Open for new things

In fact, cellF really will perform alongside human artists at a festival for experimental music at Berlin’s ‘Haus der Kulturen der Welt’. It will be its first performance outside of Australia. Sebastian Diecke, head of the joint MDC and BIH stem cell technology platform, is helping Ben-Ary grow a new neural network, because the cells can neither be transported nor frozen and must be grown specifically for each performance.

The scientist and the artist both have an open mind when it comes to the new and the unknown. Diecke has spent the past two weekends assisting Ben-Ary in the lab and discussing future projects. “Of course, it is time-consuming. But it is very interesting,” he says about their cooperation. “I never would have thought I’d be involved in something that crazy.”

Ben-Ary is a lab artist, yet he has never worked as a natural scientist, nor even attended an art academy. For a long time, US-born Ben-Ary lived in Israel, where he studied law but he eventually lost interest in the legal profession. Two of his friends invited him to join them at the University of Western Australia where they were working on art projects involving living cells. Soon afterwards, they founded “SymbioticA”, an interdisciplinary university research center where artists, clinicians, scientists, and engineers work together to create state-sponsored “cultural science”. Ben-Ary was one of the very first members.

The electode matrix with 60 electrodes. The neural network i visible in the background. Image: Guy Ben-Ary (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Ethical questions

“I want to problematize technologies by staging absurd scenarios,” the artist summarizes his mission in a single sentence. In the case of cellF, it is stem cell technologies, complemented with robotics, thus creating a cybernetic, android-like hybrid creature. The notion of a musician created in a Petri dish who is half human, half alive, makes some audience members shudder – and that is intentional.

It bothers Ben-Ary that popular science media hype certain new technologies without any regard for their ethical implications. “When iPS-technology was new, people hailed it as the solution that would save us from ourselves,” he says about stem cell therapies, which have so far achieved mixed success. A discussion of potential problems is overdue, he says, because future legislation requires a social consensus – before technological progress gets too far ahead of society.

Even scientists do not devote enough attention to the conflict between human and human machine. “How will we deal with such liminal life forms in the future?” he asks. “Working with neurons raises ethical questions about their consciousness, their intelligence, their sentience. I think that art involving neurons has the potential to question our very notion of life itself.”

Ben-Ary gets all kinds of reactions to his living sculptures, from exuberant enthusiasm to indifference or even hatred. Ethics commissions were skeptical at first. Is it acceptable to use living cells just for fun? Is this taxpayers’ money well spent? “Cultural research is no less valuable than scientific research,” Ben-Ary insists grimly. He demands that an ethical discourse be part of the scientific process. And his work helps further this discourse.

Guy Ben-Ary is about to feed his cells. Image: MDC

Guy Ben-Ary is about to feed his cells. Image: MDC

Fragile life forms

Then Ben-Ary’s chattiness ceases abruptly. “I have to focus now, perhaps we should talk later,” he says, referring to an important step in the experiment protocol. Cell cultures are easily contaminated by bacteria and fungi; the success of cellF’s performance stands or falls by the health of the cells.

In the laminar flow cabinet, Ben-Ary rinses one dish after the other, using different liquids to ensure the cells can thrive in them later. After that, he fills them with a pink nutrient solution –  which he calls “chicken soup” – and puts in the cells. A breathable Teflon foil seals every dish. To be safe, he preps 22 dishes with neural networks, even though he only needs one for his performance. “It’s impossible to grow just one culture, just impossible. Too many things can go wrong!” he says. There wouldn’t be enough time for a second attempt.

Ben-Ary carefully balances the dishes to a metal incubator in which he lines up the cell cultures. They are kept at precisely 37 degrees Celsius, because the sensitive cells do not cope well with fluctuations in temperature. In a few days, Ben-Ary will stack the dishes into a white styrofoam box and drive them over to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, his temporary lab.

Darren Moore tuning the cellF. Image: MDC

Darren Moore tuning the cellF. Image: MDC

The Human Machine

The oyster-shaped HKW building on the left bank of the River Spree in Berlin symbolizes the futurist visions of the fifties, few of which have actually come true. Now the HKW is hosting cellF, which warns humanity about the vagaries of technological progress in its very own way.

Ben-Ary’s colleagues have set up cellF in the foyer, where they run a dress rehearsal on the eve of the performance. The incubator with the microscopic “brain” is at the very center of the colossal apparatus. From its funnel emerges an oversized switchboard with countless dials, outlets, and rainbow-colored twinkling lights. Some of the jacks are already connected with cables, others are sitting on the floor in small stacks.

Sixteen speakers, representing the nerve cells’ activity in the physical space, are squealing, droning, and whistling. The sounds generated by a Petri dish full of cells have little to do with rock music. They are more reminiscent of German e-band Kraftwerk’s man-machine, albeit with a lot less man and a lot more machine. Ben-Ary’s project partner, Tokyo-based musician Darren Moore, connects the synthesizer modules with cables to distort the crackling of the cells into outlandish, uncanny noises. Moore keeps plugging the cables into different jacks, turning one of the countless controls. He tunes the neural synthesizer just like a piano.

“Of course, we are making decisions now that will later have an impact on the sound,” Ben Ary says. “This is not an scientific study.” The neural network is not fully autonomous. “How much longer?” he asks, turning to Moore. “Until I’m happy with it”, Moore replies. The procedure drags on until late in the evening.

An absurd scenario

The next evening, cellF has its first performance with Berlin-based guitarist Schneider TM. More than a hundred people are crowded into the dimmed foyer. Ben-Ary explains the idea behind his project. The organizers hand out ear plugs to the audience.

When the human musician makes sounds on his guitar, the cells in cellF respond almost immediately, creating squealing, knocking, and snarling noises all around the audience. After a while, the two performers find their groove, until it is impossible to tell who is making which sound.

Two audience members start discussing the set-up and the meaning of the experiment and are instantly shushed by the others. Some lay down on the floor and close their eyes to take in the surreal sound world during the 45-minute performance. The next day, Schneider TM says: “To play with cellF was an extraordinary experience. And musically much more profound than I expected, almost scary in some moments.”

***

After cellF’s second performance at the HKW, this time with a vocal artist, Ben-Ary and his team dismantle his self-portrait, pack it into nine large boxes and load it into a shipping container, ready for its next journey. Its 22 genetically modified “mini brains,” however, must go the way of all flesh: Guy Ben-Ary disposes of them in the prescribed manner.

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