“The extreme difficulty in dealing with very complex biological interactions leads to the simplified treatment of life processes as quantified data that exhibit statistical patterns. In turn, this can lead to an objectification of life and a disregard for the subjects and their rights.”
|From Zachary Weinersmith's |
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Fortunately, my favorite new-media artwork works as a stellar example of this issue. In the Silent Barrage, a culture of rat neurons is used as part of an interactive robotic art installation. Audience members walk among the robotic components (which are constantly drawing on sheets of paper), and are observed by overhead cameras. The video feed from the cameras is translated into a pattern of electrical pulses which stimulate the culture, and the neurons within the culture respond by creating their own electrical activity. This usually consists of bursts of activity that recruit the entire neural network (similar to epileptic seizures) which can be quieted through certain types of electrical stimulation. Through the construction of this hybrid mixture of robotics and living neural tissue, the artists and scientists behind Silent Barrage give the audience the impression of walking through the mind of an artist suffering from epileptic seizures, in such a way that the interaction between the audience and the piece itself has the potential to silence these barrages of electrical activity.
The interaction between the artists and the biological tissue in Silent Barrage could potentially be evaluated as a sort of co-authorship: the human artists design the bulk of the piece, and the culture 'designs' (or perhaps 'performs' would be more appropriate) some of the details . However, there are several differences between Silent Barrage and a traditional artistic collaboration. First, the neural culture is without any sort of (forgive me) “cultural” understanding of the goals of the piece, lacking both the experience and capacity to understand the effect of it's actions in the hearts and minds of the audience. Secondly, the neural component of Silent Barrage has no existence outside of the piece to pursue it's own interests - it is trapped inside the artwork, more similar to a raw material than a collaborator.
Left: Culture of rat neurons growing on top of a microelectrode array. Photo by Guy Ben-Ary. Middle: Robotic drawing carriage used by Silent Barrage. Photo by Soyo Lee. Right: Drawing created by Silent Barrage- should the culture itself receive credit for this work? Photo by Phil Gamblen.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, any interests that the neurons of Silent Barrage have are being engineered to fill a particular need of the piece. The electrical stimulation protocols used in the first showings of Silent Barrage were designed based on a simple relationship that had been previously observed - the faster stimulation is applied, the less network wide bursting occurs. While living tissue (and the interests that such tissue might be said to have ) has been manipulated in several biological artworks  that preceded and followed Silent Barrage, unlike bacteria or osteoblasts, neurons are believed to make up the machinery that underlie the interests of morally (or at least legally) important beings- the rats who we aren't allowed to torture, the dogs we aren't allowed to neglect, and the humans that we aren't allowed to deny equality to.
The real issue here is that a system that looks suspiciously like your brain is being engineered to act as part of an artwork. If we can engineer the interests of a neural system to match our own, does that mean that those interests can be considered our own tools? And if a neural systems' interests are not just coincidentally equivalent to our own, but designed to be equivalent to our own, are they anything more than tools? Does it still make sense to call them separate interests, or just extensions of our own? And lastly, if we can somehow convince ourselves that the 'interests' of a biological system are simply extensions of our own interests, what possible moral repercussions could come of our using biological systems in any way we please?
Want to cite this post?
Zeller-Townson, RT. (2013). Live Neurons in Art: Components or Collaborators? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
-->, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2013/02/live-neurons-in-art-components-or.html
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