"MEART- The Semi Living Artist" was created by a group of scientists and artists through SymbioticA. This research lab based in the University of Western Australia strives to identify and bring to life new scientific platforms and subjects for artists to experiment with. SymbioticA provides a way for artists to collaborate with scientists in research projects to develop new biological, ecological, bioethical, neuroscientific, and engineering technologies. MEART is one of these research projects that explores the relationship between living nerve cells and robotics. The cultured nerve cells grow in the neuro-engineering lab at the Georgia institute of Technology. These cells, which act as a brain, send information to the robotic arm that produces two-dimensional drawings. The data captured by a camera observing the surrounding environment of the installation is sent to the lab housing these living nerve cells. Depending on what is happening in the environment, the nerve cells will send information to the robotic arm to influence composition of the drawings. Although these two elements of the project are not geographical in the same location, they are still able to communicate in real time through the internet. However, once the nerve cells die, the robotic arm "dies" as well.
The concept behind MEART introduces a platform in which both living and artificial beings can become one. The possibilities of what the mechanical arm can draw are completely open ended. When combining life and technology in such a manner one is confronted with the question of what happens when independent human abilities are given to the machine. The fact that a piece of robotics is drawing these images also poses the question of what can be defined as art and from where is creativity derived. This machine that has the ability to process its surroundings in a creative output could be considered as an artist itself.
Hernando Jimenez writes about an interview with the contributing artist Bakkum in an article published in Technique Magazine:
"The idea is that neurons make associations about what goes on in their environment. We want to give them a body and see what associations are made, what they learn and how they do it... We constantly record the voltage output from the neuron cultures an see how they change with different inputs" Jimenez, Hernando (3 March, 2006) "Cybernetic artist gives culture new meaning". Technique Magazine.
This piece definitely presents some very pressing, common explorations constantly being made in the artistic and scientific worlds. The conversation about artificial intelligence has been both a subject of interest and fear. MEART is an extremely elegant way to examine how living cells can direct and give life to an inanimate object. The drawings produced by the robotic arm are not completely mechanical, but hold some sort of life behind them. If robots could harness the human capabilities that are given to them, there are endless possibilities to what these machines could achieve. For now, they are providing useful information on how cells interact with their environment and how they use that stimuli to respond in a visual output.
Another project similar to MEART is Flora -Robotica.
This research project funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program examines the symbiotic relationships that form between robots and plants. The system of robots and plants is supposed to automatically water, feed, and perform other necessary tasks to keep their garden alive. At the same time, the robotic system will be able to mimic the actual stages of growth of the living plants as well as interact with any human presence in the system. This is how the mechanics thrive off of the living organism. Similarly to MEART, Flora- Robotica attempts to combine the realms of technology and living organisms. Just like how the living nerve cells control the robotic arm, this project utilizes the data received from the condition of the plants in order to tell the robotic system to properly care for the garden. Furthermore, both pieces have an aspect that is dependent on the audience interaction within the environment of the artwork.
MEART can also be compared to Move 36 Eduardo Kac. In this piece Kac explores the intelligence of a computer system, Deep Blue, to the brilliant mind of chess champion Gary Kasparov. His installation includes a chessboard made from dark and light soil in the shape of a chessboard absent of pieces. In the spot where Deep Blue made its fatal move stands a biologically engineered plant that carries a gene sequence representative of universal computer code. This project, much like pairing human to computer intelligence, gives a parallel to the capacity of human capabilities versus mechanical capabilities. However, instead of solely giving the machine an ability to draw artwork, this piece gives a machine the ability to play an intellectual game against a human mind.
The question on how human or mechanical systems can be combined to better society is an increasingly pressing subject of scientific exploration. MEART provides an insight on how humanity and the machine can coexist in functionality and presents the endless possibilities that could come from such technologies.