Located at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology, University of Western Australia, SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning and critique of life sciences. It is the first research laboratory of its kind, in that it enables artists to engage in wet biology practices in a biological science department. It provides an opportunity for researchers to pursue curiosity-based explorations free of the demands and constraints associated with the current culture of scientific research while still complying with regulations. SymbioticA also offers a new means of artistic inquiry, one in which artistsactively use the tools and technologies of science, not just to comment about them, but also to explore their possibilities.

One of the main aims of SymbioticA is to democratize this knowledge through the workshops, courses and residencies it offers. By disseminating the know-how of the life sciences and biotechnology to artists, philosophers, ethicists and other interested people SymbioticA assists in creating a platform that actively engages in proposing different directions in which this technology can be employed.

SymbioticA was established in 2000 by cell biologist Professor Miranda Grounds, neuroscientist Professor Stuart Bunt and artist Oron Catts. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A) had been working as artists/researchers in residence in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology since 1996. The shared vision of Grounds, Bunt and Catts for a permanent space for artists to engage with science in various capacities led to the building of the artists’ studio/lab at the attic of the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia.

SymbioticA had more than forty resident researchers and students undertaking projects that explore and develop the links between the arts and a range of research areas such as neuroscience, plant biology, anatomy and human biology, tissue engineering, physics, bio-engineering, mycology, anthropology,
molecular biology, microscopy, animal welfare and ethics. Projects developed in SymbioticA have been presented in prestigious exhibitions, events, festivals and biennales around the world, including the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth, of which SymbioticA is a founding member. The unique Art and Biotech workshops SymbioticA runs have been widely acknowledged as the best hands-on introduction to art and biology, and SymbioticA’s academic courses are considered to be the benchmark for art and science education. As a mark of international recognition of its activities SymbioticA was awarded the 2007 Prix Ars Electronica inaugural Golden Nica for Hybrid Arts.

In broad the terms research ranges from identifying and developing new materials and subjects for artistic manipulation, researching strategies and implications of presenting living art in different contexts, and developing technologies and protocols as artistic tool kits. Some of the projects in SymbioticA are also very relevant to scientific research and the complexity of art and science collaborations is intensively explored. While not claiming exclusivity or superiority of any one approach to artistic engagement with the life sciences, SymbioticA favours researchers that can utilise the unique resources it has access to. Having access to scientific laboratories and tools, SymbioticA is in a unique position to offer these resources for artistic research. The uniqueness of the hands-on approach to biologically based art is that it produces actual manifestations of contestable ideas. In a sense this art is “philosophy in action”. In a society so saturated with, and desensitized to visual representations shown in all kinds of media, this type of art actually deals with the direct, and sometimes visceral, presentation of processes and outcomes of life manipulation. This direct experience, of both the artists who develop the work, and the audiences which are exposed to it, generates a reaction and a discourse that could not have been achieved by traditional representative media.