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Subverting science

By Matin Durrani in Perth, Australia

Donna Franklin's Fibre reactive hybrid dress

Donna Franklin’s Fibre reactive
hybrid dress
, 2004–2008

If you think Australia is remote from the rest of the world, well the city of Perth is even more cut-off, being a five-hour flight from Sydney and 1000 km from the next main centre of population.

That remoteness has engendered a kind of “wild west” spirit, where people have the time and space to think up radical ideas that might be more quickly dismissed in less isolated places.

That, at least, was the view of the Nobel-prize-winning microbiologist Barry Marshall from the University of Western Australia (UWA) – best known for proving that most ulcers are caused by certain bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Marshall was talking to me over lunch at the university on the latest leg of my week-long fact-finding tour of Australian science that I’m on with three fellow European science journalists.

The subversive spirit was echoed after lunch by Ionat Zurr, an Israeli-born artist working at UWA within SymbioticA – a self-styled “artistic laboratory” within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology that describes itself as being “dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences”.

Unlike most art–science projects, which involve artists reinterpreting scientific ideas in an artistic form, the people at SymbioticA are getting their hands dirty by learning various experimental scientific techniques to create works of art.

Projects include making loudspeakers from bones, growing edible steak from artificial tissue, and (well before Lady Gaga had a similar idea) creating wearable dresses from fungus leaves (pictured above).

SymbioticA, which was founded in 2000 after fighting off a rival bid to buy a boring old confocal microscope, seeks to question the very nature of science, art and even life itself. It also wants to demystify and “democratize” the scientific laboratory.

The delightfully garrulous Zurr admitted that not everyone understands, or even approves of, what she and her colleagues are trying to do. What, you may ask, is the point of designing jewellery made from pig wings grown from bone-marrow stem cells?

But the strong reaction of some scientists to SymbioticA surely shows that she and her fellow artists must be doing something right: after all, isn’t science itself about challenging orthodox thinking? Perhaps scientists are happy to be subversive but don’t like being subverted themselves.

As one of my fellow science journalists complained, shaking his head in derision as we left: “They should have bought that microscope.”

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