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Dish life: A Commentary

(Originally written and published on my old website in February 19th 2017)

 “Sometimes I dream about you.” “We dream about you too.”

Tissue culture is a craft which requires a significant amount of time and care. Practitioners of this craft, which takes place behind locked laboratory door, develop complex relationships to these livings they interact with.  An immersion in the biological sciences may teach us about the phenomenology of lab life, human and beyond. Dish Life, a short film by Cambridge University which emerged from a ReproSoc collaboration between stem cell scientist Loriana Vitillo, sociologist Karen Jent and filmmaker Chloe Thomas, is a useful entry point to this conversation. This cleverly-devised film addresses some basic questions of biology: what are stem cells and how do they live in the lab under human care?

Children were used to evoke the infinite potential and plastic possibilities which stem cells embody: “You can be anything you could ever imagine!” This speculative rhetoric allows the viewer to think of stem cells as super cells: they can differentiate, which means they can adapt the expression of their genetic profile and, unlike other cells who can only cellf-replicate, they can specialize into multiple kinds of cells like a bone cell, muscle cell or fat cell! Just like a child who grows up has the potential to take on many different roles in society, stem cells grow up with the potential to take on many different roles in the body!

A group of kids sit in a pool with pink blankets, emulating the growing and moving stem cells navigating the pink medium which feeds them allowed the filmmakers to focus their efforts on the caring which comes into play when caring for stem calls. Researchers and lab technicians in the video speak of the amount of time they have to devote to cells, having to schedule weekend shifts. They also speak of the hope that accompanies their first morning check of their stem cells.

This video is a perfect entry into the affects which are in play when working with, growing with and becoming with (forms of) life (forms). Laboratory settings are often perceived as deterministic spaces where activities center on the strict control of variables and collection of data within experimental settings. Through my own work, I am attempting to follow the lines set before us by livings of all kind who, even with the lab, spill over themselves and leak, beyond protocolary expectations, to bring us into the realms of intimacy, proximity and caring. Through haptic contacts, researchers become a little bit cellular themcellves, just as the stem cells become a little bit more human.

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