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Art and science collaborations

Another prime example of mutual inspiration and collaboration is the SymbioticA group: the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. SymbioticA is a unique artist-run research lab dedicated to the exploration, from an artistic perspective, of scientific knowledge and biological technologies and was founded by Oron Catts and Ionatt Zurr, Professor Stuart Bunt (neuroscientist), and Professor Miranda Groundsn (muscle research).

A recent project, MEART, used embryonic cortical mice neurons to drive an aluminum and acrylic rubber-muscled robot.


MEART by SymbioticA research group. 2004. New York. MEART is a combination "brain" and "body" that work together to create a "Semi Living Artist".



This biomechanical hybrid created robotic drawings in response to the observer’s image. The image was captured by a web cam and sent via the web to a custom microchip at the University of Georgia designed to stimulate the neurons.

In this project, Guy Ben-Ary created the interface programming for the robot, while the kinetic sculptor, Phillip Gamblen, created the rubber-muscled robot. All of the SymbioticA collaborated with Dr. M. Potter, Douglas Bakkum, Tom DeMarse, and Alexander Shkolnik at Georgia Tech, who designed the Multi Electrode Array that sensed the impulses of the mice neurons and stimulated them.

Dr. Steve Potter is a leading neuroscientist in the field of "learning in vitro", and his lab is developing new paradigms in research surrounding neurobiology.


The mice neurons from the cortex associate and connect with tiny electrodes. Image by Professor Steve M. Potter.


The disassociated mice neurons respond to the image and send back neural signals that are amplified by computers and translated into computer commands that inflate the rubber muscles of the robotic arm to create abstract drawings. [7]

In his recent book Information Art, author and artist Steve Wilson makes the important point that although artists and scientists have been collaborating for years, artists are also asking original questions and doing original research, both with and without the assistance of scientists. This research has real implications for science and engineering, from the kinds of questions artists are asking to the ethical and social issues that are often raised when artists and inventors utilize and research technology for artistic and expressive ends. [8] When reflecting on the notion of what an artist is or what a scientist is, we should remember that these are social constructions which do not necessarily identify abilities of observation, analysis and or means to express them.

The artist Amy Youngs, robotic sculpture, Rearming the Spineless Opuntia [9], was designed to protect a genetically engineered spineless Opuntia cactus. Amy Youngs employed electronic ultrasonic sensors, a microcontroller, a motor, copper, steel, aluminum, and rubber to complete this work.


Microcontrollers are small programmable computers with memory processors and are usually detachable from the keyboards and monitors we use to program them.

The cactus inside is both interactive with people and protected from them. When this work is approached, the sensors trigger motors to control and close metal armor with sharp spikes, which serves to rearm a cactus that has been genetically engineered through cloning and micro propagation technologies to no longer have its original spine defense-mechanism, against those who eat them. Spineless Opuntia is commonly found in southwestern burritos and in cow feed.

This sculpture embodies Amy Youngs’ impulse to protect a vulnerable and human-engineered creation, but it also reveals the folly of protection in its heavy reliance on technology. It also raises issues of how we can sometimes introduce unexpected consequences into genetic engineering, where changing one creature or plant can potentially have a host of effects on other living things.


Rearming the Spineless Opuntia by Amy Youngs. 1999. 60" x 30" x 30".