The Anarchy Cell Line
Artifice through artistic cell line. 2004
(Excerpts from Unruly Bodies: Monstrous Readings of Biotechnology, Thesis, 2016 by Cynthia Verspaget)
The Anarchy Cell Line (TAnCL) is an artistic cell line that includes the cells of Henrietta Lacks (‘HeLa’ cells which were taken without consent from African American Henrietta Lacks in the 1950s) and my own whole blood. The performative act of adding my own cells to the HeLa cell line and the resulting combination was the focus for this project.
When I embarked upon TAnCL project, I had hoped that it would address some of the issues, concerns and questions I had concerning tissue ownership, lab techniques and the production of systems which set about disconnecting the social from the petri dish. It had revealed much more about the issues of the construction of scientific knowledge.
Ambiguous boundaries were revealed through the very act of demarcation via the deliberate manipulation of cells, separated from the body. These categories found firstly instinctively and eventually through contemplation, are also shared by other symbolic monsters like the zombie (living – dead, human – non human). HeLa had already been called monstrous, 'combinations' (and the less ambiguous term 'hybrids') are monstrous (HeLa and Cynthia is a combination creation), women's bodies are leaky - monstrous, 'othered' bodies are monstrous... Rather than these terms being a rationale for expulsion, I found they offered potential for those that dwell in more than one category to break down boundaries not reinforce them. Monsters are filled with the potential for change, undoing, and opening up distinctions. Not only was there an ethical issue with the history of the procurement of HeLa cell line but there was an opportunity to seek out connections, to identify intersections for potential revelation and to perhaps seek out new metaphors to facilitate interrogation of these processes. This is now where my current focus is in relation to this project.
Ultimately, the project has enabled an exploration of the vague boundaries signified by the cell line and the stories that surround and inhabit it. These were often revealed in my experiences of the lab and its practitioners, through the language used. Language became an interesting signifier of the lifting of the veil over biological matter — this project in particular became populated by wilful and provocative words such as ‘combining’ ‘cohabitating’, ‘collaborating’ or ‘sharing’ in the dish. The HeLa story was populated with words like ‘monstrous’, ‘infamous’, ‘immortal’ and ‘aggressive’.
As the binary distinctions central to the HeLa cell were made ambiguous rather than clearer through scientific processes that both obscured and highlighted them, HeLa and I had by chance started a journey into the borderland.
The categories that TAnCL appears to occupy are contradictory to one another and simultaneous to each other, and this is where its power resides. TAnCL I hope offers a way in to the discourse surrounding the ordering of Biology and serves as an enacted example of a theory that opens up, much like my veins for the materials of the project (like Marcon’s medical sublime) a conversation about the delightful and more inclusive messiness of undoing boundaries and binary distinctions.
Verspaget, C. J. (2016). Unruly Bodies: Monstrous Reading of Biotechnology (PhD thesis, Western Australia, Curtin University, 2016). Western Australia: Curtin University. Retrieved from
The Anarchy Cell Line project is supported by ArtsWA in association with the Lotteries commission
Supported by Crown Scientific
The Anarchy Cell Line was produced during a residency at SymbioticA
You may also enjoy this paper on this work by Adele Senoir Haunted by Henrietta: The Archive, Immortality and the Biological Arts