Blood Culture: reimag(in)ing life at a cellular scale

How might bringing together artists and scientists with shared interests in experimentation and making/culturing generate insights into creative practice?

“Art invites us and allows us to linger at the frontier of what there is, and it gives us an outlook on what might be.” Henk Borgdorff, The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research (2010) 

Taking Borgdorff’s maxim as a starting point, this project explores how artistic research as methodology can bring new insights to the lab-based practices of cell culture and in particular to the practices of culturing red blood cells. It will bring together four interdisciplinary researchers to explore how shared interests in blood culture technologies can contribute new conceptual vocabularies and practical insights into Art-Science collaboration. It will therefore enable new perceptual encounters to occur between the four participants: asking how researchers and artists work with ‘lively’ materials like cultured human tissue; exploring novel ways of articulating the cultural, ethical and aesthetic practices involved in culturing blood; and inherent reflections on methodological approaches to ‘making’.

What did the project involve? 

Cell culture is the practice of growing living cells outside the body and in the laboratory.   This technology is part of a suite of methods used by bioscientists to isolate and study cellular processes outside of the living organism. At the time of this project, Dr Toye’s laboratory was involved in the creation of laboratory grown red blood cells (RBCs). This research involved analysing mechanisms of the living body’s own red blood cell production as well as developing novel engineered scaffolds for replicating the sites of the body’s RBC production in bone marrow. Cell culture is also an important technique in the development of new therapies that involve transfusion or transplanting cellular material directly into the body. The production of laboratory-grown blood is at the cutting-edge of cell culture and regenerative medicine, with hopes for significant therapeutic benefit in the future, particularly for patients with rare blood types or with conditions that require frequent blood transfusions.  

The research being carried out in Dr Toye’s lab invited questions about the wider philosophical implications of our sense of being human, post-human, synthetic, or hybrid that span the humanities and social sciences. How might bringing together artists and scientists with shared interests in experimentation and making/culturing generate insights into creative practice? Because ‘blood is life’ we remain intrigued by it – both individually and as a cultural collective – and this is what an artistic research project can address.  

The cultural symbolism attached to blood also raises questions about the role of cultured blood in transforming the meanings of blood exchange through blood donation and national blood banking systems. How might social science perspectives on the value of blood lead to better understanding of how new technologies are transforming what it means to be human, and what it means to be biological? Following Hannah Landecker’s (2007) research on the socio-technical dimensions of tissue culture, the production of cultured blood asks us to consider new ways of engaging with the lab-based practices of synthetic biology and with what Landecker calls “technologies of living substance.” 

This project was undertaken in four stages:

Stage One: Research Residency (6 months Feb – July) with online blog.  

Based in Toye’s lab, this Residency afforded a unique opportunity for both Connor and Fannin to observe working practices and protocols of synthetic bio-production, alongside unprecedented possibilities for on-going dialogue with Toye and his research team. Documenting this process through a reflective blog will illuminate this aspect of the process for all collaborators.  

Group visits also took place: to the NHSBT Filton (Fannin, Connor, Kent in January 2017), exhibitions and the Wellcome and Hunterian anatomical collections. 

Stage Two: Making (5 months March – July) 

A parallel activity primarily in the studio, Connor developed her reflections and observations from the lab, recontextualising this as aesthetic and associative source material. 

Drawing on her experience in critical making, Connor developed artworks initiated by the lab residency. These works consisted of still and moving image works, using material captured from the range of scientific microscopy techniques and sculptural works drawing on lattice forms in scaffold structures used in culturing tissue. The work foregrounded explorations of scale (from the micron to the metre) and the relationship between the technologically cultured blood cell as a product in the lab and its existence within the body.  

Stage Three: Structured Sharing / Dialogue sessions (ongoing, key points in process) 

Conversations between the artist, scientist and social scientists were integral to this project; the presenting and sharing of research fed into exploring new perspectives on the lab practices and developing a shared language.  

Connor exhibited works-in-progress at the Spike Island Open, Bristol (26-29th May 2017) creating opportunities for members of the public to engage with the project through Q&A, participation and discussion. 

Connor will sought further opportunities for exhibiting the works nationally, meeting with curators and agencies including Arts Catalyst and Science Gallery, London.  

Stage Four: Exhibition of work and Publication (October) 

The exhibition in October offered an opportunity to display the artworks coming directly from the research residency, to offer new perspectives on Living Well with Technologies; inviting audiences “to linger at the frontier” of scientific and artistic research. 

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Maria Fannin (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol)  has research interests in human tissue donation and exchange. She has carried out Wellcome Trust-funded qualitative research with tissue donors and curators of a placenta biobank, and has published widely on reproductive health care, biobanking and feminist theory.  This project builds on efforts to develop new geographical approaches to research on ‘bodily interiors’
  • Ash Toye (Biochemistry, University of Bristol) is a specialist in Erythrocyte Biology in the School of Biochemistry and PI in the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT). His lab is developing culture techniques to grow red blood cells in vitro for analysis of the processes of blood cell generation and development. Toye is Deputy Director of the NIHR Blood and Transplant research unit in red blood cell products which will conduct a clinical trial of cultured red cells ( and is part of the Bristol Synthetic Biology Research Centre (BrisSynBio) where he is using red cells as a drug delivery system.  
  • Julie Kent (University of West England) is a Sociologist and Social Science lead for Responsible Research and Innovation at BrisSynBio. Her research interests include the regulation and governance of health technologies, sociological perspectives on regenerative medicine, feminist bioethics and science policy. She is co-author of a recent paper on red blood cell culture: “Culturing Red Blood Cells: alienation, biosecuritisation and immuno-politics in blood economies” (Body and Society 2017).  
  • Katy Connor (Spike Island) is a visual artist, drawn towards the ambiguous relationship between body and machine. Her work explores how our lives are mediated by technologies in a dynamic both alienating and empowering. Her PhD Translating the Intimate explored the material translations of blood through processes of Atomic Force Microscopy, computational modelling and 3D print.

What were the results?

Below is a photograph of synthetic red blood cells taken by Katy Connor during this project:

The team collected feedback at the October exhibition to identify visitors interested in further discussion at a focus group on cultured RBCs. This informed development of 1) a funding bid to the Wellcome Trust to support a larger programme of research and engagement activities, and 2) an academic publication on collaboration and interdisciplinary research practice for submission to the journal GeoHumanities “Practices and Curations” section

Documentation and reflection on the project’s progress can be found on Katy Connor’s blog.

The team co-wrote a research article which gives a detailed overview of the process and outcome of the project: Blood Culture reimag(in)ing life at a cellular scale.