Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s project, “Hybrid,” delves into xenotransplantation and genetic engineering’s intricate world. Breaking lab barriers, it reveals the unseen and introduces the pigs, subjects of research. Addressing CRISPR’s influence, it defies closed discourse, fostering public awareness. Navigating ethics, environment, and philosophy, the project beckons viewers to explore nuanced perspectives, inviting informed dialogue on genetic technologies.

Which wall does your research break?

On the most basic level, “Hybrid” provides a window into the closed-off walls of the laboratory. Most scientific and medical research takes place behind closed doors, inaccessible to the public. With “Hybrid” I had the very rare opportunity to enter the lab doing xenotransplantation research, to meet the scientists doing this work, and even to meet the pigs who are subjects of this experimentation. A second wall the work breaks is the hardened discourse around genetic engineering. This fraught topic is almost impossible to discuss because it has turned into an ideological battle between two sides, neither of which listen to each other despite both having meaningful points. The activists who critique this work have a number of valid justifications: animal welfare, environmental concerns, economic exploitation, lack of public agency, and a feeling that it is philosophically not “natural.” The scientists say that genetic engineering is a continuum of millennia of selective breeding, and questions the assumption of what gets to be called “natural.” “Hybrid” explores the concept of naturalness and brings together information from both points of view. It is my hope that this will draw viewers into a more complex understanding of the issues at stake.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

I have been working on art projects focused on the social impact of genetic technologies for the past 10+ years. I first learned about xenotransplantation 4 years ago while I was researching the emerging gene-editing tool CRISPR. I found it stunning that pigs were one of the prime use cases for this new technology, the site of the most simultaneous gene edits, and of all things, to make them more human. I have been ideating this project ever since, and my opinion has grown in complexity over time and as I get to know my subjects (the scientists and the pigs). As a lifelong vegetarian, my initial impulse was simply that the research and technological development was wrong. Through my in-depth research and conversations with the important actors in this field, however, some of whom are actually vegan, I have found a more nuanced view. I wanted to invite the public into this space of complexity, beyond knee-jerk reactions on either side. I wanted to allow people to make informed decisions about impending choices they may even face in their lifetimes.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

Xenotransplantation is already advanced to the point of having human trials and thousands of pigs engineered as potential donors. Most of the public are unaware that the research is so far advanced, and are unprepared for the possibility that they or a loved one may have to make the decision themselves if they would consider a porcine genetically engineered organ transplant. The most important thing my work can do in this space is to make people aware that this is coming soon and to provide them with a nuanced and accurate representation of what a xenotransplant means and what the process entails. Additionally, we stand on the precipice of a major revolution in genomic science that will dramatically change how we think about nature, something we are ill-prepared for as a society. My work brings these shifting ideas around what constitutes a species to the fore and invites the public to contemplate the chimeras that are on our doorstep.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?

It is my hope that we will discover a way to supply enough organs to meet the need for transplantation, in a way that does not involve the exploitation of animals or humans.

Further Information

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