Paired Immunity

The immune system can be considered a sixth sense that identifies and differentiates between our composition and the outside world — it is a process of identifying who we are and who the other person is.
 
Marta de Menezes

©Georg Oberwegger, 2019.

The online project Paired Immunity, presented by O corpo por vir, questions the limits of human individuality exploring the idea of immunity from a biology perspective, incorporating biotechnology techniques. Comprising two finished pieces, Immortality for two and Anti-Marta, and a third one still in development, Tolerance, Paired Immunity results from the collaboration between the artist and the immunologist Luís Graça, her partner.

Luís Graça and Marta de Menezes.

This set of pieces, which at first seems to lead us to the scientific realm, characterized by objectivity and universality, is permeated by the artist’s personal history and a strong affective dimension. Marta and Luís, artist and immunologist, are bonded by love. They share a life pact: mated, married, united. The search for an artistic expression of such a pact led, so far, to the immortalization of each other’s white blood cells using viruses, or the transplantation of skin grafts.

This project is closely related to the artist’s exhibition at Art Laboratory Berlin, (October-December 2021), curated by Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, who invented the title, Paired Immunity. Art Laboratory Berlin research platform, under the curators’ artistic direction, is distinguished by an inductive approach, which «instead of subordinating the artworks on exhibition to theory, (…) places the individual artistic work at the centre of inquiry».

Prior to the opening of this exhibition project, Marta de Menezes was in residence in Berlin, developing research for her new piece. Tolerance is an attempt to achieve the in vitro coexistence of her and Luís’ immortal cell lines. We will share conversation snippets, discussions and reflections associated with Tolerance‘s investigation.

Immortality for two

In Immortality for two Marta immortalised Luís’ white blood cells, and vice-versa. This was achieved using a viral vector to genetically modify the cells through the introduction of oncogenes (cancer inducing genes) — something that is today a standard experimental procedure. This way two immortal cell lines, containing the complete genomic information of the two people together with the introduced genes, were generated. These cells will outlive the bodies from where they were originally derived and, in principle, it would be possible to clone a new body from the immortal cells.

Immortality has been a long held objective of artists and scientists alike. Bronze statues, anti-aging creams, and cryopreservation are among the different avenues that have been pursued with the aim of achieving immortality. Recent advances of biomedical research allowed a more literal achievement of immortality – through the understanding of cancer biology.

Indeed, cancer cells, in order to acquire their persistent ability to keep proliferating without evidence for senescence are often referred to as immortal cells. Some of those cancer cells achieved widespread dissemination and de facto immortality – it is the case, for instance, of HeLa cells derived from Henrietta Lacks.

In fact, long are the days when immortal cell lines, such as HeLa, had to be obtained from cancer samples isolated from patients. Today, the genes that lead to cell immortalization have been identified. These are cancer-inducing genes (oncogenes) that lead to unrestrained cell division and abrogation of normal cell death mechanisms that our senescent cells have. As a consequence, it became routine to use viruses in order to introduce those oncogenes into healthy cells, transforming them into malignant immortal cancer cells. It became, therefore, relatively common to immortalize a given cell line to allow its characterization in biomedical research.

It is, however, conceptually challenging that immortalization is achieved by inducing a disease. Certainly for an organism cell immortality has dire consequences leading to malignancy and death. For this reason, one person should not manipulate her/his own cells. If such immortal cells accidentally gain access to the body from where they were originally obtained they will lead to cancer, because the immune system will not reject them. However, immortal cells from a different person will be rapidly rejected, in the same way an organ is rejected following transplantation into a different individual. Therefore, it is safe to manipulate someone else’s immortal cells, but not one’s own cells.

As the two immortal cell lines, from Marta e Luís, are derived from immune cells, they would reject each other if they were placed together. Therefore, the final irony of the artwork is the realization that although the cell lines are derived from two individuals that like to be together and love each other, immortality comes at a price — and that price is isolation. Thus, the two immortal cell lines can only be together artificially, in the space where their digital video projections intersect.

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The project development, through the action of the reciprocal immortalisation of cells from two people in love created a poetic tension in the laboratory. This tension derives from the fact that the laboratory is a place of exactness where love and emotions (although present) are often neglected.

Anti-Marta

©Georg Oberweger, 2019.

The work Anti-Marta extends on Immortality for two, and Marta and Luís’ reflection on  the limits and understanding of their identity as well as their relationship. In the piece Anti-Marta, the artist and the scientist underwent a surgery where a fragment of skin was taken from their arms and transplanted to the other’s arm, complemented, as a control procedure, by a skin autograft. But, given the differences in their immune systems, the skin transplants were rapidly rejected.

This procedure revisits a series of experiments that were decisive in the development of laboratorial research on transplantation and its practical implementation in medical practice. Jon Van Rood, a Dutch immunologist, discovered, through procedures similar to this one, the rules of histocompatibility, i.e., how to match a tissue or organ donor to a compatible recipient.

Marta

Luís

Van Rood realized that in the human genome there is a complex of genes that codifies proteins, which play a crucial role in the presentation of fragments of virus and bacteria that are infecting the body to the immune system. For example, if a cell is infected by a virus, this system called HLA (human leucocyte antigen), which is able to recognize the virus,

carries fragments of that same virus to the cell’s surface, so that the immune system can recognize the infectious agent and destroy the infected cell. Marta and Luís have many differences in the proteins of their HLA systems. So the cells of their immune systems are necessarily activated by these proteins and a process of rejection occurs as a consequence.

This experiment induces Luis and Marta’s bodies to produce antibodies against each other. Yet, their pact can live on. After the process of rejection, the surgical wound scars, leaving a mark that will always remind artist and scientist not only of this project but also of the achievements in their relationship. Metaphorically, this scar can be grasped as a physical and visual mark pointing out that in a relationship it is not about becoming one, it is about becoming yourself with the other person. Both are transformed, maintaining their own evolving uniqueness.

@Georg Oberweger, 2019.

The rejection of the skin led to the production of antibodies that will be able to identify the other. The immune system can be envisaged as a sixth sense that identifies and differentiates between our composition and that of the exterior world –  it is a process of identifying who we are and who the other person is. Anti-Marta reflects on how we can bond with another and still maintain a strong sense of singularity.

@Georg Oberweger, 2019.

Immortality for Two and Anti-Marta

In both cases, Immortality for two and Anti-Marta, the outcome is a tension between the individuality of each one, and the bonding. As the immortal cell lines are involved in immune defense, although derived from people in love, they need to be kept in perpetual isolation. The skin transplants were also rapidly rejected, given the immune differences. Yet, in both cases the pact can live on. The immortal cell lines can co-exist in the virtual space where the video projection of the live cell cultures intersect in the installation. On the same note, the rejection of the skin led to the production of molecules (antibodies) that forever will be able to identify the other, like the acquisition of a sixth sense that can be visualized through the isolation of appropriate antibodies.

These two works challenge us to think how we can bond with another, and yet still maintain a strong sense of identity. They show that not only a woman and man assert their relationship and identity, but also an artist and a scientist demonstrate the connection of the two disciplines while maintaining their uniqueness. They suggest the need for a balance between agreement and disagreement, and making a parallel to the immune system, a balance between aggression and tolerance, in order to maintain a relationship alive, exciting and interesting for all involved.

The video Anti-Marta was directed by Jamie Hurcomb.

@Georg Oberweger, 2019.

 

Marta de Menezes (born 1975) is a Portuguese artist, with a Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Lisbon and a MSt from the University of Oxford. De Menezes is director of Cultivamos Cultura, the leading institution devoted to experimental art in Portugal, and Ectopia, dedicated to facilitate the collaborative work between artists and scientists. Marta de Menezes has worked in the intersection of art and biology since the late 90s, in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands, and Portugal, exploring the conceptual and aesthetic opportunities offered by biological sciences for visual representation in the arts.

Her work has been widely exhibited in major venues in all continents, presented in most anthologies devoted to bioart, discussed in doctoral dissertations, and considered an example of research in the visual arts. Among the most recent international exhibitions, de Menezes was invited for the 2019 Ars Electronica Festival: Out of the Box, and organized two 2020 Ars Electronica Gardens (Lisbon and São Luis). She was invited to be the official representation of Portugal at the London Design Biennale 2016 and exhibited at the Beijing Biennale of New Media Art 2016. DeMenezes was nominated in 2015 by Time and Fortune magazines for the Art and Technology Awards 2015.

Besides her work as artist, de Menezes curated major international exhibitions including for European Capital of Culture (Portugal), Kontejner Festival (Zagreb), Verbeke Foundation (Belgium) and this last three years the editions of FACTT –Transnational and Transdisciplinary Festival of Art and Science that took place in Lisbon, New York, Mexico City, Berlin and Toronto.

 

Tolerance

At the end of October, Marta de Menezes did a residence in Berlin, where she developed research for her new piece, Tolerance. In it she will try to achieve the in vitro coexistence of her and her partner’s immortal cell lines. Over the next few days, we will share a series of clips of conversations between Marta de Menezes and artists and curators from the Berlin scene that took place during this residency. The conversations revolve around the concept of tolerance and through them the artist’s project progressively takes shape.

Nov. 25

Clip #1
Marta de Menezes talks to Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel as they set up Paired Immunity exhibition at Art Laboratory Berlin.

Karolina Zyniewicz, artist and researcher. PhD student (Nature-Culture Transdisciplinary PhD Program at Artes Liberales Faculty, University of Warsaw). Working in a laboratory, locates her works in the field of what can be called ‘bio art’. She sees her liminal activity as situated knowledge production. She is mostly focused on life in its broad understanding, its biological and cultural meaning. Her projects have mostly conceptual, critical character. The main point of her PhD research interest are multilevel relations emerging during realization of liminal projects. She tries to put her observations, as an artist/researcher, in the context of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Actor-Network Theory by Bruno Latour and feminist humanities. At Art Laboratory Berlin she is currently assisting on upcoming projects and exhibitions.

Tuçe Erel is a Berlin-based curator and art writer. She studied Sociology at METU (2005, Ankara), received her MA from Anatolian University in 2009, and her second MA in Arts Policy and Management (with curating pathway) from Birkbeck College, UK, in 2015. Erel worked for art magazines, as content editor, archivist and gallery assistant, since 2015 as curator internationally. In 2017 she co-curated Now You are Here with Seval Sener at Arte Sanat (Ankara) and curated Fabric/ate at Schneidertempel (Istanbul). In 2019, she curated Hactivate Yourself in 1a Space in Hong Kong. Since January 2017, she is a member of >top Transdisciplinary Project Space. Her curatorial interests are archiving practices, posthumanism, anthropocene, ecocriticism, and post-digital theories. Since December 2019, she is a team member of Art Laboratory Berlin, collaborating on current and future curatorial projects and concepts.

Nov. 26

Clip #2
Marta de Menezes describes to Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel the series of pieces that reflect on her relationship with her partner, the immunologist Luís Graça (Immortality for two and Anti-Marta), and how these led to the exploration of the concept of tolerance.

Nov. 27

Clip #3

Marta de Menezes talks to Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, artistic directors of Art Laboratory Berlin’s and curators of the artist’s exhibition in Berlin, about the concept of tolerance. Can we think of tolerance as a situated and continuous negotiation that enables the coexistence of differences?

Regine Rapp is an art historian, curator and co-director of Art Laboratory Berlin. Her research focuses on art in the 20th and 21st century: Installation Art, the Artist Book, and Art & Science Collaborations. As co-founder of Art Laboratory Berlin (2006) she researches and publishes on 21st century art at the interface of science and technology and has curated and researched on more than 40 exhibition projects (Time and Technology, Synaesthesia, [macro]biologies & [micro]biologies). In 2011, parallel to the exhibition Sol LeWitt. Artist’s Books, she conceived the international Sol LeWitt Symposium at Art Laboratory Berlin. Along with Christian de Lutz she developed the international conference Synaesthesia Discussing a Phenomenon in the Arts, Humanities and (Neuro) Science (2013); the Nonhuman Subjectivities (2016/17) and Nonhuman Agents (2017/18) series of exhibitions, performances, workshops; and an international conference that reflected on Art and Science in the post-anthropocentric era.

Christian de Lutz is a curator and visual artist, originally from New York. As co-founder and co-director of Art Laboratory Berlin he has curated over 40 exhibitions and many talks, workshops and seminars, including the series Time and Technology, Synaesthesia, [macro]biologies & [micro]biologies, and Nonhuman Subjectivities. His curatorial work focuses on the interface of art, science and technology in the 21st century, with special attention given to BioArt, DIY Science initiatives and facilitating collaborations between artists and scientists. He has published numerous articles and essays in journals and books, including [macro]biologies & [micro]biologies: Art and the Biological Sublime in the 21st Century (co-edited, 2015), which reflects theoretically on Art Laboratory Berlin’s 2013-15 program, and an introductory essay in Half Life. Machines/ Organisms, Artistic Positions in the context of Climate Change and Extinction (2018).

Nov. 29

Clip #4
Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

Marta and Karolina propose that, within a relationship, the concept of tolerance can be understood as a kind of navigation between different conditions, between individuality and the encounter with the other, implying compromise and negotiation.

Nov. 30

Clip #5

Conversation with Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz, curators of Paired Immunity exhibition at Art Laboratory Berlin

 

Tolerance is about being open to other views, perspectives, beliefs and ways of being. What explains the passage from tolerance to intolerance? At what point does it become impossible to tolerate certain views and actions within a common space? At any given moment, where is the border line between tolerance and intolerance in the social realm?

Dec. 02

Clip #6

Marta de Menezes talks with Fara Peluso, a Berlin based artist and designer, whose work looks into the agency and poetics of microorganisms  in order to design speculative objects.

Fara Peluso is a Berlin based artist and designer. She graduated in industrial design (University Architecture ‘La Sapienza’, Rome) and in graphic design. With a strong interest on Biology, Fara Peluso researches algae’s life, experimenting how to work with them inside the Art and Design field. Her work is focused on material and procedural aspects, investigating through a speculative methodology possible closer relationships between human beings and algae. Fara Peluso was resident artist for the project Mind the Fungi, a collaborative project between the Technische Universität Berlin, the Institute of Biotechnology TU, Berlin and Art Laboratory Berlin.

Dec. 03

Clip #7
Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

Marta de Menezes talks about her collaboration with the immunologist Luís Graça, who his also her life partner, during the conception and artistic implementation of the pieces that make up Paired Immunity. This reflection extends to the wider bond that unites them and to other relationships, such as friendship and family. Are relationships necessarily marked by the existence of mutual tolerance?

Dec. 04

Clip #8

Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

We can only speak of tolerance when every creature involved in a relationship has the necessary conditions to live, that is, when none of them occupies a disadvantageous position in this coexistence. Tolerance implies a dynamic equilibrium of mutual exchange.

Dec. 06

Clip #9

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

«What connects our practices is the idea that the things and the words we are using to describe what we are learning about this other organisms, with whom we coexist in the world, and about ourselves, is incredibly inspirational to understand better and to inspire us into doing better», Marta says to Fara. Has the human relationship to non-humans become richer and more tolerant because of the pandemic?

Dec. 07

Clip #10

Conversation with Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz

 

Regine and Chris talk about the social conflicts that arose around the Covid-19 vaccines. The current conditions, marked by a public health emergency, make it impossible for these curators to tolerate anti-vaccine views and actions. The pandemic altered the boundary line between tolerance and intolerance in the social realm.

Dec. 09

Clip #11

Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

Marta, Karolina and Tuçe talk about the series of works that compose Paired Immunity. With Tolerance, the possibility of reaching a state of tolerance will not represent an ending, since tolerance is state of dynamic equilibrium.

Dec. 10

Clip #12

Conversation with Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz

 

Chris muses on forms of individualism and collectivism, broadly associating them with historical periods and political geographies. In what way are individualism and collectivism related to ideas of tolerance and intolerance? Afterwards, Regine argues that tolerance is founded on an openness to the world and an interest in others.

Clip #13

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

As humans, are we more tolerant than other species? Symbiosis is a mutual exchange where two beings feed on and support each other. From a human perspective, can we accept a mutual non-egalitarian coexistence, where we give without hoping to receive the same? Can relationships be more open, flexible and tolerant?

Dec. 11

Clip #14

Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

Marta describes the experimental protocol for the piece entitled Tolerance. Under what conditions do the immune cell lines of two different people have to be kept so they can tolerate each other? What factors allow the cells to tolerate each other?

Dec. 13

Clip #15

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

Marta reflects on her project Tolerance. Within the series of pieces where she collaborates with her partner Luís Graça this is the first one where she explicitly summons other people’s ideas, trying to understand how they view this concept at the centre of her work. In a strictly biological sense, within immunology, tolerance is mediated and has a finite duration. When the mediation is more intense, the duration is longer.

Dec. 14

Clip #16

Conversation with Regine Rapp and  Christian de Lutz

 

What makes it so hard to understand the immune system is the fact that it is a distributed mechanism, not a closed and easily identifiable system. We cannot mistake socialism, as a social and political philosophy, for the construction of the Soviet Union.

Clip #17

Conversation with Karolina Zyniewicz and Tuçe Erel

 

Marta and Karolina talk about apoptosis, a mechanism of programmed cell death. A particular cell sacrifices itself when it becomes a risk for the community of cells of which it is part.

Dec. 15

Clip #18

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

The focus of Tolerance is the way in which a concept derived from immunology can also be used to describe a relationship between humans.

Dec. 16

Clip #19

Conversation with Regine Rapp and Christian de Lutz

 

Regine defends that tolerance is related to openness, and intolerance to a closing oneself off.  Chris proposes a different understanding of tolerance, associating it with a mutually beneficial exchange between all the beings involved, which can become intolerance when this exchange is no longer beneficial.

Dec. 17

Clip #20

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

Is the fact that many of us do not intentionally engage with other organisms related to our lack of attention to the non-human world? To what do we give our time and attention? Has the need to be physically separated from other human beings because of the risk of infection intensified our desire to connect to non-human parts of the world?

Dec. 18

Clip #21

Conversation with Fara Peluso

 

The immune system is a distributed and fluid system that is hard to identify. In its multifaceted ways of behaving and relating to what is outside the body, it can constantly become something else. We, humans, are also changed by our encounters with others. But in relationships (including romantic relationships) we are not just one.

It is the immune system that defines and regulates the border between beings and the world that surrounds them. In the words of Marta de Menezes, it defines «who we are and who the other person is». Paired Immunity is thus an expression that contains a dialectical tension, a kind of paradox. The concept of immunity points to a barrier that separates beings from the world around them, keeping them from being contaminated by others. The idea of an autonomous, self-sufficient individuals, impervious to the conditions and contingencies that surround them, immune to the others with whom they share this planet is something intrinsic to modernity, as is the separation between disciplinary fields.

Marta de Menezes' work plays with and challenges all of these boundaries. It occupies an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of the visual arts, biological research and technological possibilities. It problematizes the tension between human individuality and the inevitable contamination and transformation of identity through the relationship with others and with the world, crucial to sustaining life.

In her artistic projects, Marta de Menezes explores the imagery and expressive potential of biological materials, the materiality of life. Her work represents a unique approach to the body, making visible the molecular processes that compose it. Marta uses biology as a form of knowledge to experiment with changes in these processes and incorporates biological techniques as a means of artistic expression and image creation. Operating on biological matter at a micro-scale , she introduces the web of personal and affective relationships that surround her into her speculative processes, allowing us to experience her artistic work through various scales, distances and perspectives. More than a work about the body, it is a work on and with the body.

Andreia Páscoa and Joana Braga

O corpo por vir