Reviewing Amy Karle’s Biohacked Bones
Sharing what it means to be human is a deeply personal and deeply emotional expression
For many artists, the expression of the human condition comes through pain. Emotional, psychological toiling expelled into the world.
Perhaps no one’s artistic trauma manifests more materially than the work of Amy Karle. Born to a biochemist and pharmacist, Amy grew up with a rare and dangerous genetic disorder known as aplasia cutis, the missing of skin on the scalp. Through numerous experimental surgeries, Karle and her parents attempted to mitigate the high risk of infection and to allow natural hair growth. Thankfully, a procedure in her teens solved the issue, but struggling with this condition as a child permanently impacted her appraisal of the world.
I couldn’t do a lot of things that other kids did so it also made me very cognizant of the constraints and the limitations of the body. This was more of a metaphysical kind of understanding and a mind-body understanding – how to find freedom within the limitations of the body – that many aren’t forced to face until they are older
What Is Bioart?
From such beginnings, Karle pioneered a new form of artistic expression: Bioart.
Harnessing the technological capabilities of 3D printing, genetic engineering, stem-cell research, and cloning, bioartists utilize living tissue as their canvas of expression.
Such works often pose ethical dilemmas. Bioart raises controversies over humans modifying, stretching, and manipulating their very biological essence. It’s a style of art just past the threshold of science–experimentation for the sake of creativity in lieu of medicinal remedy.
For her project Regenerative Reliquary, Karle chose bone as her canvas.
Working with a team of nanotech engineers at the Autodesk Pier 9 residency, Karle developed a self-growing system of bone stem-cells inside of a collagen mesh. She scanned a female skeletal hand in structure and utilized a 3D modeling software to break down the model into trabecular cells, the spongey, porous base of bone structure. The lattice was printed into a voluminous sculpture with a specific gel that encourages the expansion of biomaterial and degrades once growth occurs.
After an injection of human stem cells, it’s a matter of experimentation. Karle provides an influence on her structure, not a directed growth direction. The material reproduces on its own, following the self-replicating guidance of organic laws.
Karle proposes such generative artwork invokes a new variety of intelligent development. Her sculpture is not an effigy of a hand. It’s a living autonomous one.
Just as saint’s bones are conserved in reliquaries for their perennial spirituality, Karle’s sculpture establishes a compartment for cellular life. The hand propagates itself.
Breaking It Down to the Bones
Regenerative Reliquary questions human-cultural evaluation of bone. We see the material as steadfast, solid, and foundationally inflexible–an artifact retained past our death, perhaps the only aspect of our bodies resistant to decomposition. Bones, being the most rigid of our organs, carry an associated variety of religious and ancient symbolism. Bones are an artifact for art, ceremony, remembrance, and fear.
Such symbolism can be extended into the 21st century using bone as a vehicle outside of the body.
What if we used our human material for constructive purposes? What if we modified our bodily structures outside our current parameters of the physical form? Bones persistently bear the physical and metaphorical weight of the human bodily essence. They very well could be the perfect first construction material for a transhumanist identity.
Karle envisions a myriad of technological applications from such cellular growth, including those applications outside the body.
Stem cells could be utilized to make eco-conscious, low-waste structures. Instead of the rigidity and resourcefully exhaustive nature of metals, plastics, and fibers, constructive materials could be produced through intrinsically organic processes. A shift to fully biologically grown, energy-efficient structures would significantly alter waste reduction.
Bioartists refer to the time based-nature of replicating cells as 4D printing. The potential of evolving materials opens an incredibly innovative approach to construction. The essence of a structure could possess a form of intelligence, allowing for adaptation to external stresses and pliable aims of use. Just as a human hand grows with the development of a child, a bone-constructed vessel could expand as part of an alternate network. Materials could utilize fluctuating energy from the environment as well as respond to shifts in the configuration of their placement.
If placed in an efficient method of proliferation, bio-aware materials could even recycle themselves, an interesting method of energy generation.
Utilizing cells as the building block of industrial projects also opens the opportunity for “smart networks.” Materials, by their own genetic code, could adapt to scenarios without human involvement. Applying the process to the human body strides dramatically closer to cyborg realities.
What Does Bioart Mean for Modern Medicine?
In the short term, self-growing cell structures could offer alternatives to organ donations and the associated risk of rejection. One could take a few cells from their area of deficiency and mold them into a new, separately grown but genetically identical body part. It would be a dream for regeneration. No need for bionic prosthetics when one could grow their own hand back.
If used for human improvement instead of remedy, the process becomes the ultimate form of biohacking. Karle’s work stares dead-on at notions of the post-human, and in a way more profoundly encompassing than other cybernetic approaches.
Humanity is progressing towards taking their own material. Cells, organic mush, blood, bone, and hair constructing on their own accord–the body becomes unlimited. It’s not what can be attached to expand capabilities, but instead what can be redesigned from the bottom up.
There’s a subversive fear attached to such power and one that questions what it means to be human. So much of our growth occurs unrestrained, the reproduction of cells inside of us fueled by their own workings. If we were to harness that potential, to allot that power into larger systems, the results could be incomprehensible in not just strength or size, but also mental capability.
These systems recycle on their own and grow in an uncontrollable manner. While constructing a whole sentient being may seem currently unattainable, Karle’s work provokes a momentum in such a direction. If just like the hand, we set cells to grow into a mold of a human and those voids are functionally filled, would it still be a human? And taking the initial premise of Karle’s work in the most physical sense, we ask, what does it mean to share being human?