[ISEA2011] Paper: Stuart Bunt – Fish and Chips: MEART and Silent Barrage, pioneering cybernetic organisms from the SymbioticA research Group


SymbioticA was originally founded to provide a research space where artists and scientists could engage in debate, where artists could learn and apply techniques of the biological sciences to their work.  In particular, to allow artists and others from the humanities to deal with living material and to interact with biological scientists from a position of strength, equality and mutual understanding.  It was hoped this would lead to creative friction at the interface between the life sciences and the humanities.

Fish and Chips was a pioneering project of SymbioticA using “wet ware” (functioning neural tissue from fish or rats) to power “hard ware” (a robotic arm designed by Phil Gamblen) involving founder members of SymbioticA.  Programmers, scientists, artists, engineers and philosophers were involved or asked to comment on the work. This and the later developments pioneered by Guy Ben-Ary, Phil Gamblen, and the Steve Potter lab in Atlanta have been widely exhibited Internationally.  As a neuroscientist, and past Scientific Director of SymbioticA I am particularly interested in the role of nervous tissue in these works. The ethics of its use, how it is comprehended by the audience, the difficulties of presenting and curating living tissue, its possible functionality and the implications for the future of the techno-scientific body.

For example, in “Fish and Chips” first exhibited at Ars Electronica, the “brain” was the eye of a goldfish attached to the visual centre of its brain.  The very title was meant to present viewers with an ethical paradox, to eat fish while at the same time worrying about the ethics of its use in a “machine”, however this clash was prevented by the organisers.  Fish were culled in secret.  We debated how much information to provide and kept it to a minimum, however many viewers imbued the system with more creativity than it had.  We debated whether it needed to be “real” – would the audience know given the complexity of the system?  These issues are common to many artworks involving living material.  I will discuss the wider implications of artists working with living material using these art works as exemplars.

  • Stuart Bunt. Professorial Fellow, Teaching and Learning, the University of Western Australia in Perth.  Neuroscientist by training, D.Phil St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. Co-founder SymbioticA art and science lab.  2000.  SymbioticA was the inaugural recipient of the Golden Nica for hybrid art at Ars Electronica in 2007.  Scientific Director SymbioticA 2000-2008.  Founder member of SymbioticA research group (SARG) bio-art piece “Fish and Chips” first exhibited in Ars Electronica based on my research.  Present research in medical imaging and writing on the intersection of art and science and the basic incommensurability of those fields. Politically active as vice president of the staff union, staff association and elected senator at UWA.   iaaf.uwa.edu.au/smbunt

Full text (PDF) p. 288-292 [different title!]