The installation of steak grown from human cells at the Design Museum in London was intended to criticize the meat industry’s rising use of living cells from animals. It ended up triggering a roiling debate about bioethics and the pitfalls of artistic critique.
Orkan Telhan, an artist and associate professor of fine arts at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, spent the last year imagining how climate change might impact the future of food consumption. He collaborated with scientists to create a project that included 3-D printed pancakes, bioengineered bread and genetically-modified salmon. But it was their provocative, and less appetizing, development of what they call “Ouroboros Steak,” meat cultivated from human cells and expired blood, that challenged the sustainability practices of the nascent cellular agriculture industry, which develops lab-grown products from existing cell cultures.
After the Ouroboros Steak traveled to the Design Museum in October, an intense online debate grew over the project’s motivations, and the artist received dozens of threatening emails and social media posts calling him “wicked” and “pure evil.” Some messages have demanded the destruction of the artwork. According to Mr. Telhan, who provided the emails and tweets to a reporter, “the focus quickly became centered on accusations that we were promoting cannibalism.”
Mr. Telhan added, “It was a misinterpretation that became politicized in all the wrong ways because humans eating each other is a taboo topic.”
Named after the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, “Ouroboros Steak” examines, but does not promote, auto-cannibalism as a satirical take on the increasing demand for meat products around the world, which scientists have warned will likely contribute to carbon emissions and reduced biodiversity. The designers hoped that shocking audiences with the suggestion would trigger an examination of environmental responsibility and the clean-meat industry, which has promoted itself as producing “kill-free” food, although most companies heavily rely on fetal bovine serum harvested during the slaughter of pregnant cows for cell cultivation.
“Our project provides an absurd solution to a serious problem,” said Andrew Pelling, a biophysicist who partnered with Mr. Telhan and the industrial designer Grace Knight to create the steaks. “But in our scenario, you are at least giving consent by taking your own cells. In the world of lab-grown meats, you are taking cells from animals without their consent.”
As controversial as the project has become, the bite-size chunks of meat toured museums around the United States last year without a problem — even when cheekily displayed on a dish with silverware.
“I called it a sleeper hit,” said Michelle Millar Fisher, the curator who commissioned the steaks for the exhibition, “Designs for Different Futures,” which began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and traveled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “The provocation at the heart of this project is really fair. It’s important to ask ourselves where we get our proteins.”
There are no plans to remove the installation from the Design Museum before the exhibition ends in March 2021, although Ms. Fisher and Mr. Telhan will address the criticism of “Ouroboros Steak” in an upcoming online conversation. Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum, has also defended the project, calling it “the equivalent of a design dystopia.”
“It is asking a controversial question that in an epoch of severely depleted resources badly needs to be articulated,” she added.
Investment in cellular agriculture has increased at a remarkable pace over the last few years, even as serious discussions around the bioethics of lab-grown meat have taken a back seat. Market researchers estimate that the cultured meat business could reach $214 million by 2025, and more than double to $593 million by 2032. Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence program awarded the University of California, Davis, a $3.5 million grant for cell-based, lab-grown meat research. And on Dec. 2, Singapore became the first government to approve the consumption of chicken cells grown in bioreactors, telling the San Francisco-based company Eat Just that it could sell its bioengineered chicken nuggets.
“We need productive critique if we are ushering in a new technology,” said Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute focused on accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture. “This technology holds the promise to create a more sustainable means of meat production, but how do we hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that happens?”
In recent decades, several artists have questioned the ethics of biotechnology by adopting the field’s methods and machinery. The Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac worked with a team of geneticists in 2002 to splice an albino rabbit’s DNA with that of a luminescent jellyfish to call attention to what the transgenic crossing of species’ characteristics might imply for the human genome. In 2019, the artist Jordan Eagles projected magnified images of blood onto the gallery walls of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh as commentary on the stigma associated with L.G.B.T.Q. blood donations and those living with H.I.V./AIDS.
Despite the ongoing streams of hate mail flowing into Mr. Telhan’s inbox, the artist and his collaborators say they have received a significant number of inquiries from ordinary people interested in purchasing a kit to grow meat from their own cells (it is not for sale). Dr. Pelling said that he has also received inquiries from several venture capitalists looking to invest early in “Ouroboros Steak” or join an accelerator program. For the time being, however, there are no plans to bring meat made from human cells to market.
“This project has been provocative, maybe too provocative,” he joked. “That’s just a symptom of the excitement around cultured meat.”
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