Futile Labor explores how muscle cells become a technological apparatus—both technically and conceptually—and calls attention to the growing phenomena of manipulating and engineering life. This work features a tissue-engineered muscle, grown from mouse cells, that was sustained in a custom-designed bioreactor. The contractile motion of the muscle inspired a sound installation, which used infrasound to create a connection between the lab-grown muscle and the visitors.

Avoiding the fallacy of seeing is believing, Futile Labor challenges the idea that scientific truth is based on what can solely be visualised and instead plays upon what is carnally felt in the bodies of the audience. We utilise a muscle cell-type known as C2C12, which were transformed by scientists into immortal cells—cells that can endlessly divide and multiply. While the life expectancy of lab mice is 2-3 years, we are attempting to stimulate cells derived from a mouse that died more than 35 years ago.

This transition from the miraculous to the utilitarian, the so-called mechanisation of movement, has a long historical arc. For example, Luigi Galvani’s experiments in the eighteenth century spectacularly demonstrated how a muscle can contract in an inert, dead body. These experiments led to an increasingly materialist and mechanistic understanding of life. Today, we are witnessing a renewed interest in the engineering of new kinds of bodies and automated new forms of labour. This new revolution is where living materials/systems are seen as automata that can be engineered, mechanised, and standardised.

In the exhibition, the tension between human and machinic bodies, the living, semi-living or non-living is correlated with the very thresholds of human perception: the humble, almost invisible and barely perceptible random twitches of microscopic muscle cells in a dish rather than the efficient and apparent movement of a well-oiled machine. This human dream of engineering life may thus turn out to be, in the end, just a vapour in the wind.

This project was a collaboration between artists, designers, scientists, and theorists. Please see the collaborators page to find out more about each collaborator. This project was developed as a part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant that was awarded to Dr. Ionat Zurr, the lead researcher for Futile Labor.