The Concept of "Live" via the Viral

'Intervention' by Tagny Duffy for the Vibrancy Effect expert meeting, as published in the ebook The Vibrancy Effect.

For the last five years I have worked with biological viral vectors—a tool to deliver genetic materials into cells—to consider the status of “liveness“ through scientific and artistic practices. What interests me about viral vectors is how they can be seen to exceed classifications of what constitutes living organisms and what is perceived to be “alive.”

Through the lens of mainstream biological science, viruses are not considered alive until merged with a cellular metabolism. Ribonucleoic acid (RNA), the replicating mechanism of viruses, is considered dormant and inactive matter. However, more recent scientific evidence suggests that these strands of self-replicating RNA may be “living fossils” that are vital to catalyzing protein synthesis and chemical processes required for cellular metabolisms.1 This suggests that human bodies require viruses in order to evolve as a species, just as viruses require human incubators to thrive. Along with other microbial forms, these non-human entities are consequently intrinsic to the health and liveliness of plant and animal tissues - just as they are detrimental at times. In other words, viruses provoke a rethinking of the status of “liveness“ at scales that are perceptible and imperceptible to humans.

To better understand how viruses move through cells and generate an interrelationship with humans, I learned how to grow and transfect cells in vitro in a science laboratory. Working hands on with biological media and wet lab practices allowed me to think through and experience the complexity of generating and sustaining human and non-human relations with viral cells. Like Latour and Woolgar, I have studied scientific papers and laboratory protocols.2 Only thirty years later, my methodological approach is not a reflexive ethnographic study like that pursued by Latour and Woolgar, but hands on research-creation. I apply the techniques of molecular biology as a way to question the status of viruses as living agents. These techniques produce performance and sculptural works in the science laboratory and art exhibition works for a public audience.

A co-relationship is established between the imperceptible entities that I engage with in the lab and myself. Working with viral cells makes the connection between the unseen microscopic entities and my own body much more acute. A spill, for example, may allow for the viral cells to enter my skin and proliferate, and not sterilizing my tools or wearing gloves may result in the contamination of cell cultures. For that reason, growing tissue culture is a skill requiring careful washing, feeding, and environmental monitoring.

Freezing, fixing and preserving tissue is necessary to both reduce contamination and prolong my engagement with the living and undead tissues. Most of my projects require that I fix the cells and tissue with various chemical processes to inactivate the viral vectors and maintain the tissue substrate in a fleshy form. Cryogenically preserving the fixed tissues in a freezer at -80 degrees C allows me to maintain, distribute and exhibit the sculptural forms for a longer duration of time and in (public) spaces outside of the laboratory environment.

Dynamics of practice
Working in the lab Working with viruses, cells and tissues introduces a range of sensory and visceral perceptions: heat, humidity, pressure, touch and sounds become instrumental for the growth of cells and the conditions for the viruses to transduce cell walls. The way I hold the pipette and distribute media to feed the cells, impacts their cellular structure. Too much or too little media could result in cell death. Furthermore, the cells will not absorb the viral vectors as quickly if the incubator is not set at body temperature. Even certain frequencies and vibrations from human voices and movement in the lab can inhibit or generate growth. As an artist working under these conditions, I am constantly concerned about maintaining the necessary environmental and safety conditions to care for the specimens.

The gallery exhibition Like working in the lab, exhibiting tissue also requires careful attention to temperature and
environmental conditions. Gallery lighting, for example, can harm the structural integrity of tissue. In addition, the exhibited work must be double contained to prevent the gallery viewer or local microbial agents from contaminating tissue. Electricity must be maintained so that the biotechnological apparatus used to host the tissue is operating at all times. The temporal and durational qualities of tissue and cells introduce new modes of exhibition practice: the life span of such materials may be extremely short and not last for the time of the exhibition. In some cases, however, tissue can be preserved and exhibited for periods exceeding the conventions of art exhibition practices.

Attributing agency to biological material
Viruses exemplify how imperceptible and impersonal forces are expressed in biological materials such as cell culture and tissue. They express this agency when fusing with a cell, moving through junk DNA and RNA fossils, or in corrupting binary digits. It is rather tempting to gravitate toward anthropomorphism when attributing agency to imperceptible viruses and visible viral cells, but it is a sentiment I try to avoid. Anthropomorphism often surfaces in the practice and observation of tissue culture, where recursive scaling is applied to equate the biological cellular world to the human world. When growing cells in the laboratory, for example, it is common to refer to them as if they have human traits. If a cell is confluent, for example, that is if the cell is large, it is said to be “happy”; if, in contrast, a cell is small and not robust, it is said to be “sad.” Dr. Honor Fell, a scientist working with tissue culture when it first emerged at the turn of the 20th century, warned against the spectacle of the tissue culture point of view - a perspective

where public perception of tissue culture tends to anthropomorphize biological tissue as monstrous life forms. Therefore, such anthropocentric perception of non-human agency should be used with caution.
My recent work, Cryobook Archives, explores these concerns.

1. The idea that RNA is “living” is noted in Carl Woese‘s book The Genetic Code and has since gained more acceptance (1968).
2. See Latour and Woolgar 1986.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. 1986. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Read the other texts and watch the video's in the Vibrancy Effect ebook.

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