Vital Forms: Biological Art, Architecture, & the Dependencies of Life

Vital Forms: Biological Art, Architecture, & the Dependencies of Life
by Jennifer Johung

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2019
200 pp., illus. 53 b/w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978-5179-0304-6; ISBN: 978-5179-0305-3.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
April 2020

Johung’s main concern in researching and writing this book was to explore “the capacity for the arts to directly engage in the oftentimes ambiguous formations of what it is to be biological and living” (p.4). I believe she has done an excellent job in such a contentious, rapidly changing and “cutting edge” field. As Oron Catts says, “Vital Forms succeeds in an almost impossible task: it weaves together arts, architecture, life sciences, philosophy, performance, ethics, and biopolitics.” The book is as much about synthetic biology and scientific experimentation as it is about art. It exemplifies the Leonardo (ISAST) paradigm of the combination of art, science, and technology perfectly.

The title, Vital Forms alludes to the now outdated philosophy of Vitalism. Vitalism believed in a fundamental difference between living and non-living objects, as Johung reports in many instances throughout the book, the supposed difference between living/non-living or organic /non-organic is being shown to be false. One instance is the work of Rachel Armstrong using Protocells in biological architecture applications (p. 100); these cells have no DNA but can do most things biological ‘living’ cells do. It seems to me that these cells will play a major role in the stabilization and rehabilitation of our planet.

The book has an Introduction, five chapters, followed by an Epilogue, Index and Notes. It is illustrated with numerous photos of the art and architecture projects discussed in the various chapters.

Chapter – 1 Vital Synthesis: Art, Design, and Synthetic Biology, looks at the intersections between synthetic biology, art, and design. Blueprints for Life was exhibited at Ars Electronica (2013) it explores the futures and impacts of synthetic biology. “By speculating on the larger contexts and consequences of synthetic micromanipulations, these blueprints negotiate between the directed development of bioengineered living forms and the indeterminate situations and relations through which such life subsists in time” (p. 21).

Chapter – 2 Vital Maintenance: The Tissue Culture and Art Project and Infrastructures of Care, this chapter discusses the pioneering work of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Their Tissue Culture Art project involves seeding culture cell lines onto polymer scaffolds. “Across their arts practice, Catts and Zurr frame the contingencies of forming life through the persistence of care” (p. 21). This involves the practice at times of killing the living forms they have created!

Chapter – 3 Vital Contexts: Morphology, Mutability, and the Sabin+Jones LabStudio, “calls attention to the dynamic attachments and reciprocities that constantly develop between living forms and their adaptable, flexible, and forceful surrounding environments across time” (p. 22). The work created through the liaison of Jenny Sabin (architect) and Peter Lloyd Jones (molecular biologist) at the University of Pennsylvania is discussed in detail.

Chapter – 4 Vital Ecologies: Protocells and Holyozoic Ground, looks at the “inextricably linked boundaries and variable symbioses between organic to synthetic, living to nonliving matter, within and then beyond the context of systems biology” (p. 22).

Chapter -5 Vital Regeneration: The Promise and Potentiality of Stem Cells. In this, possibly the most controversial chapter, Johung discusses the “developments in regenerative medicine and stem cell research,” noting major shifts from 2007 through to 2014. Pluripotent cells, embryonic stem cells, and their ethical and biocapitalist outcomes are investigated.

The Epilogue, Vital Times in a sense summarises the previous discussions and looks at ways forward but does not make any “definitive claims on how we should respond ethically or politically with full acknowledgment of the contingent ways in which life is expanding beyond itself in both form and time” (p.146).

One thing that really impressed me about Johung’s research is that she does not make claims as to the correctness or otherwise of the art-science creations she discusses, nor the questions they raise. In fact, she is at pains to avoid these sort of ultimate pronouncements and is content to let the reader “go with the flow”, so to speak, and come to their own conclusions about the works, and the manipulation and future of the creation of life they are involved with.

This book is an important scholarly investigation into most aspects of living and non-living matter, discussing both the manipulation of existing forms and the creation of new ones. It is contentious, thought provoking, and a little frightening. Essential reading for both the general public and those working in the art/bio-science connected fields.