'Possible Worlds': This Toronto bioart exhibit challenges and expands our definition of life

The artists featured in the new show are exploring "both the fantastical possibilities and upsetting implications of our legacy as world-makers."

From worms to urine, this show needs to be seen to be believed

Elisabeth Picard's work at Cultivars (Possible Worlds). (Elisabeth Picard)

I'm staring at a lumpy black entity in a dish that appears to be growing like something straight out of a science fiction film. It looks like an alien life form poised to take over Toronto's InterAccess — a non-profit gallery, educational facility and production studio dedicated to emerging practices in art and technology. It's actually the work of artist Stefan Herda, a self described "rock hound" who spends much of his time collecting organic materials that inspire him on his hikes just outside of Toronto. Turns out, this creature from the abyss consists of charcoal that Herda has transformed into growing crystals with salt and a bevy of household chemicals. The sculpture is technically dead — yet it grows, creeping across the gallery.

"I am interested in having viewers do a bit of a double-take in order to reconsider the natural, manufactured and domestic materials around us," says Herda. "I have been relying on creating a sense of the uncanny with the sculptural work."

I drop in at InterAccess as gallery techs are in a flurry of activity, setting up the exhibition Cultivars (Possible Worlds), curated by and presented in association with the Subtle Technologies Festival. The featured artists — including Herda — are "expanding the definition of life as we move forward," explains curator Zach Pearl. They're "thinking about the concept of ecology including things like semi-living and also synthetic organisms."

Stefan Herda's work at Cultivars (Possible Worlds) . (Stefan Herda)

My eyes take in WhiteFeather Hunter's video of tiny cells from mice — osteoblasts — dancing around like graceful water droplets. I kneel down at her video of osteoblasts and read the artist's ethical guidelines for disposing of living cells, presented like a manifesto in the film's subtitles. She suggests researchers issue a "brief statement of verbal acknowledgment" thanking these organisms for the service. Hunter raises interesting ethical concerns: the organisms researchers do experiments on may not always be self-aware, but are still very much alive — so what do we owe to such a microscopic lifeform?

As artists like Hunter move their studios into laboratories, pushing the frontiers of bioart, they're also expanding what we consider "Art with a capital A." But it's a task which comes with its fair share of hurdles. "One of the biggest challenges (still) for exhibiting bioart works are people not understanding it as art and/or not understanding the process behind it," says Hunter. "Bioart is not primarily about aesthetics — not for me, anyway."

Elisabeth Picard's work at Cultivars (Possible Worlds). (Elisabeth Picard)

The exhibition also opens up the gallery to scientists and coders, conceding that they're often artists in their own right too. OpenWorm, an open-sourced project, invites people around the globe to help build the first-ever "digital organism" by mapping out the cellular structure of a microscopic roundworm. Their ultimate goal? To digitally map out the 302 neurons in a worm's brain. After watching a 3D rendering of the worm writhing around on a screen at InterAccess, I ask OpenWorm's project director Dr. Stephen Larson whether or not we can consider the nematode "alive" given that it doesn't have a body in the sense that we commonly understand.

"Tricky question, because embodiment can be carried out digitally. We avoid taking a stance on what is 'alive' or not — that's a philosophical question outside our pay grade," Larson quips. Clearly, it's up to us to determine whether or not we're observing a living creature.

Montreal artist Elisabeth Picard also creates works inspired by worms, namely the glow worms that illuminate New Zealand's Waitamo Cave. Picard has only seen these caves digitally on her computer screen, but they've always struck her as "mysterious and contemplative." She skillfully uses inorganic materials like Nylon zip ties to stand in for the glowworms, which she illuminates via glowing LED lights, creating a breathtaking moment of visual escapism for gallery goers as they approach her artificial environment. Picard chooses to "look at science and nature and revisit them from a poetic angle." Yet, her use of human-made materials prompts us to consider the ways in which the "artificial" world is bleeding into the "natural" — and whether or not the dichotomy between the two is a false construct after all.

For Hunter, who works in a lab at Concordia's Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology, nature clearly exists as a palette of sorts, which she creatively mines for its colours and moving forms. Hunter playfully calls herself "the witch in the lab coat" — a label that fits given that her work often features elements that would be well-suited to a witch's cauldron like pink slime and sheep blood. And then there are the murky jars she's plainly labeled "human urine" resting on a shelf at InterAccess as casually as a row of jams and preserves in my grandmother's home. Some of these jars house lichen specimens, fermenting in the artist's own pee (you heard that right) to create natural dyes — a process dating back as far as the 1800s in North America.

"I'm deliberately blending kitchen lab practice with biotech laboratory practice," Hunter explains.

"I'm deliberately blending kitchen lab practice with biotech laboratory practice," says WhiteFeather Hunter of her process. (WhiteFeather Hunter)

Her use of bodily fluids also belies an attempt to create "as personal a relationship as possible" with micro-organisms. "I've used my own body heat to help incubate mammalian cells before, for example. I've also used my own breath (CO2) to try to keep cells alive."

Though the entities these artists work with may seem alien and unintelligible, a palpable attempt to forge connections lies at the core of this exhibition — and that feels alive indeed.

Cultivars (Possible Worlds). Featuring Elisabeth Picard, OpenWorm, Stefan Herda and WhiteFeather Hunter. May 10-27. InterAccess, Toronto.