Personalized Implantables, Where Art & Science Meet: an Exhibition

Oct 14, 2016

An art exhibit in Blacksburg features the work of Lynn Hershman-Leeson, a feminist artist who explores the places where art and technology meet.  One piece in the show is actually something you see every day - it's a bio-engineered human ear sitting inside a glass box.  

Lynn Hershman-Neeson once said that she commissioned ‘the ear’ for her art exhibition because, as a female artist, she hadn’t been heard. She had it made by an actual scientist in a lab at Wake Forest University. It’s an ear that says a lot about what the future may look like. 

Virginia Tech Art History Professor Kevin Concannon says, "it represents her exploration of not only genetically modified organisms, but also about what happens when you augment human bodies with things we make in the lab. At what point does the human self end and something else begin - or does it?” 

It’s new questions like these that are really forcing the arts and sciences to arrive at answers together. Blake Johnson is assistant professor of industrial & systems engineering at Virginia Tech. His work focuses on what are called personalized implantables.

“I think artists have a unique capability to think geometrically, and sometimes that geometric information is the feed stocks for what we do in the engineering.”

The quite real looking ear in the glass box is a work of art that could also function as a medical device. Johnson says in the 20 years or so since 3D printing became viable, a whole new relationship has also been formed.

At what point does the human self end and something else begin - or does it?

“There is this kind of unique interface between art and engineering and science here that’s taking place in this filed of 3-D bio printing.”  

Johnson is working ways of printing artificial body parts that would be like a scaffold for a person’s own body to ultimately take over and actually transform into a piece of living tissue.  There are clinical trials underway and it will be a while before this becomes common place, but there are people walking around today with artificial body organs the first cyborgs, just like artists and writers have long seen in their minds eye.

“One of the reasons I find this area inspiring and interesting work is because - coming up with that answer to the question - how can we make it better? How can we make it different? How can we improve upon it? That’s really an artist's approach I think, to engineering.”

The ear and other works of art by Lynn Hershman-Leeson will be on display at the Armory Gallery in Blacksburg on the Virginia Tech Campus through mid November.

You can find more information on the exhibit here.