[ISEA2023] Keynote: Ionat Zurr — Symbiosis and the fallacy of a naturefree existence


In times of ecological emergency, solutionist fantasies of nature-free human existence promise salvation and repair. The innovative paradigm offers “products” such as lab-grown (animal free) meat and artificial automated surrogates to replace reproductive biological bodies.

These so-called innovations require special artificial environments to host, nurture and culturally articulate this “new” nature-free, decontextualized and colonised life. The entanglement of life with its surrogate environment/apparatus, echoing human relationships with living and semi-living agents; when control and care is employed to counter resistance.

Artists, scientists, designers and engineers all play their part in this transformation and its effects on human relations with life and the environment. This creates a range of ontological conundrums and fantastical expectations as to what technology can provide and to whom. Using examples of artistic research that deal with emerging technologies and new knowledge, I will narrate artists’ symbiotic and parasitic relationships with such post nature.

The talk is framed by the imminent closure of SymbioticA, the first artistic research laboratory based in a life sciences department. SymbioticA began as a symbiotic act, embodied in an academic institution, to enable critical, yet mutualistic, relations among artists and scientists. Many of SymbioticA’s alumni have continued to establish their own laboratories and artistic practice in other academic institutions around the world, leading to the growth of the field of Biological Arts.

SymbioticA is now being treated as a parasite by a changed host body. Is this a ‘natural’ survivalist rejection against a foreign body or can we detect symptoms of an autoimmune disorder?

  • Dr Ionat Zurr (AU) is an artist-researcher. She is the Chair of the Fine Arts Discipline at the School of Design & SymbioticA academic coordinator at the University of Western Australia. Together with Oron Catts she established the Tissue, Culture & Art Project in 1996 and their co-authored book Tissues, Cultures, Art, published by Palgrave McMillan this year. Her collaborative work was exhibited by Pompidou Centre, MoMA NY, Mori Art Museum, Ars Electronica, National Art Museum of China and more. These ideas and projects reach beyond the confines of art and the work is often cited as inspiration to diverse areas such as new materials, textiles, design, architecture, ethics, fiction, and food.