Historically, the HeLa cell line has always been surrounded by a great deal of controversy. The cells were acquired from Henrietta Lacks. An African American woman in the 1950's who was diagnosed with cervical cancer, housed in a segregated ward where her cells were taken without her permission and cultured to produce a cell line. Henrietta's cells were the very first human cancer cell line to be established in a laboratory, and is still to this day, the most widely used human cell line in biological research in the lab. The total mass of Henrietta's cells that have been sold for use in the lab far out way Henrietta's body mass by several times.
The HeLa cells were disconnected from race and gender once placed in the petri dish. Still, the context of the HeLa cells and their representation in scientific and popular literature show socially derived connections among science, humanity, race, class and gender stereotypes.
Although HeLa cells are somewhat disembodied, they still literally live on as an extension of her and yet, Henrietta s Family have no legal or personal right to her cells. The Lacks to this day are still fighting for recognition of Henrietta s contribution to science. Henrietta's body now takes a new position in this discourse- now as cellular mass and memory(ours) it still lives; is it immortality? Is she still alive? Is it an extension of her or is it now public domain?
I have produced a new artistic cell line called the Anarchy cell line, which has been derived from the existing HeLa cell line and my own cells. The Anarchy cell line was produced as dialogue artifice regarding issues of tissue ownership, lab techniques, tissue patent/copyrighting, the aesthetics of the inner body and the science and social/human connection (or lack of?) in the petri dish, the biological representation of women and finally, the story of Henrietta Lacks.
The technique used to produce the Anarchy cell line was embellished with personal rituals calling attention to the politics and protocol involved in current lab practices and patenting of lab techniques. Anarchy cell line hopefully fondled with the slight of hand that is performed in the regime of copyright law.
I attempted to combine and cohabitate or share the dish with my own cells and Henrietta's cells in an effort to bring a personal perspective - a type of new era portraiture to the arts and a connection of humanity to the scientific petri dish. Perhaps a social connection, a connection that possibly transcends the lack of person or spirit in biological tissues can be acquired through this artistic/biological fusion? The cell line is anarchistic in that it proposes and somewhat adopts the idea of 'not-science' - what cells survive, if they combine or if they coexist is not in focus in the same way that the act of making the cell line is.
The project is fraught with challenges, these challenges I have accepted for debate with open arms while still remaining in a state of discomfort. This discomfort is what artists who work with biological materials should continue to experience, as once this type or work becomes comfortable, one no longer has much to offer the discourse. Opening up questions rather than providing answers is the vehicle by which the Anarchy Cell line hopes to inspire critical debate about bio-ethics. Questions of colonisation, use of criticised method for artwork and 'tissue' perspectives aids these questions and debates.
The Anarchy cell line can possibly be seen as playing with the ideas of the aesthetics and the dehumanisation of the inner body. HeLa cells are copyrighted, sold for profit, patented and dehumanised and scientifically objectified but are pretty pink HeLa cells? Or HeLa cells that have been lovingly lullabied to during their growth? Or heart shaped cells? Or even HeLa cells that have been combined with another entity?
The work is ongoing and was begun in 2003 at SymbioticA