An art project that offers an absurd insight into the lab-grown meat industry triggers strong debates and reactions in London.
The installation of steaks of meat grown from human cells at the Design Museum in London was intended to criticize the growing use by the meat industry of living animal cells. It ended up triggering a wide debate on bioethics and the pitfalls of art criticism.
The "cannibal" dystopia
Orkan Telhan, artist and associate professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania's Stuart Weitzman School of Design, has spent the last year imagining how climate change could impact the future of food consumption.
Telhan collaborated with scientists to create a project that included 3-D printed pancakes, bioengineered bread and genetically modified salmon.
But there was also a provocative and less appetizing development. They called it "Ouroboros steak“, Meat grown from human cells and blood. A project born to question the sustainability practices of the nascent cellular agriculture industry, which develops laboratory-grown meat from existing cells in crops.
Since the Ouroboros Steak ended up at London's Design Museum in October, reactions have increased exponentially. The artist received dozens of threatening emails and social media posts calling him "evil" and "devil". Some have specifically requested the destruction of the artwork.
According to Telhan, “attention quickly focused on allegations of promoting cannibalism. It was a misinterpretation and politicized in all the wrong ways, because the idea that humans somehow eat human flesh is a taboo subject ”.
How is an Ouroboros Steak born?
The installation takes its name from the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, for obvious reasons.
“Ouroboros Steak” examines, but does not promote, self-cannibalism as a satirical interpretation of the growing demand for meat products around the world, which could contribute to the reduction of biodiversity.
An absurd solution to raise a serious problem
The designers hoped that shocking the public would trigger a reflection on environmental responsibility.
"Our project provides an absurd solution to raise a serious problem," he said Andrew Pelling, a biophysicist who collaborated with Telhan and industrial designer Grace Knight to create the steaks. “But in our scenario, at least give consent by taking your cells. In the world of lab-grown meat, you take cells from animals without their consent ”.
As controversial as the project is, last year the morsels of "human" meat visited museums in the United States with no problems, albeit brazenly displayed on a plate complete with cutlery.
Cultivated meat, torment and ecstasy
"I called it a sleeper hit," he says Michelle Millar Fisher, the curator who commissioned the steaks for the “Designs for Different Futures” exhibition. The tour began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and continued in other US cities before landing in Europe. “The provocation at the heart of this project is really right. It is important to ask ourselves where we get our proteins ”.
However, the work will not leave the Design Museum until the end of the exhibition, in March 2021.
“A controversial question is being asked which in an age of severely impoverished resources urgently needs to be articulated,” added the artist. Is he right?
Meat grown from human cells: is there a risk that sooner or later it will happen?
Investment in cellular agriculture has increased at a remarkable pace in recent years, but serious discussions on the bioethics of lab-grown meat have faded into the background.
Searches market estimates that the cultured meat business could reach $ 214 million by 2025, and more than double to $ 593 million by 2032. On December 2, Singapore became the first government to approve the consumption of chicken cells grown in bioreactors, allowing Eat Just to sell its bioengineered chicken nuggets.
"We need constructive criticism if we are introducing new technology," he said Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit research institute focused on accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture.
"This technology promises to create a more sustainable means of producing meat, but how do we hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that happens?"
When criticism ends up on the plate
In recent decades, several artists have questioned the ethics of biotechnology by adopting methods and machinery from the field for their installations.
in 2002 Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac worked with a team of geneticists to merge the DNA of an albino rabbit with that of a luminescent jellyfish to call attention to what transgenic crossing of species characteristics might imply for the human genome.
in 2019, artist Jordan Eagles projected magnified images of the blood onto the gallery walls of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh as a comment on the stigma associated with LGBTQ blood donations and those living with HIV / AIDS.
There are also those who are interested
Despite the constant streams of hate messages flowing into Telhan's email, the artist and his collaborators say they have received a significant number of requests. Ordinary people seem interested in buying a kit to grow meat from their own cells (not for sale however).
Dr. Pelling said he has also received requests from several venture capitalists who would like to invest in the "Ouroboros Steak". For the time being, however, there are no plans to bring meat produced from human cells to the market.
“This project was provocative, perhaps too provocative,” he joked. "It's just one of the symptoms of enthusiasm for cultured meat."