UWA to axe art hub

SymboticA co-founder Oron Catts. Photo by David Bell.

ARTISTS have flocked to support the pioneering biological art research lab SymbioticA after UWA moved to shut it down.

The centre’s social media account announced on October 13: “The University of Western Australia has started a process to shut SymbioticA down and we have eight working days to make a case as to why it should continue.”

It follows deep staff cuts in 2021 which gutted social science departments.

SymbioticA studios were founded in UWA’s Department of Anatomy and Human Biology in 2000 to carry out transdisciplinary research melding science and art, working in disciplines like bio-art where living tissue is incorporated into artworks. 

The university funds 2.2 full-time-equivalent positions, but the money for projects typically comes from external grants and partnerships.

“We were the first initiative of its kind anywhere in the world,” Symbiotica director and artist Oron Catts told the Voice. 

“It’s basically an artistic research lab that deals with biology in the most hands-on way.”

An early project used neuronal activity from artificially reared fish cells to guide a computer to draw.

Catts, who’s one of three founders, says UWA has proposed “a total closure of SymbioticA” by withdrawing funding for the staff.

“We have students, and I’m really worried about those,” he said.

“Along with research and arts projects the centre runs a two-year Masters of Biological Arts program, and some students who recently started still have several semesters left.

“It will cause huge damage to UWA’s reputation,” Catts says.

Artist Kira O’Reilly did a residency with SymbioticA in 2003-2004 and is now at the Bioart Society in Helsinki. She started an online petition to save the centre and in five days gathered 5800 petitions and rising as the Voice went to print. 

Artists from across the world who’ve been influenced by SymbioticA have lent their support with signatures and letters.

Seeing the words of support flood in, Catts says “it’s like being at my own funeral”.

SymbioticA’s response to UWA is due October 25 but they are requesting an extension given the tight deadline.


We put questions about Symbiotica’s future to UWA, and their media team’s response states the uni’s looking for “genuine consultation” with colleagues and no decision’s been made yet:
“The University is proud of its strong links to arts and culture in the Western Australian community and continues to be committed to offering a vibrant collection of programs, displays and performances spanning music, theatre, museums, galleries and publishing.
“Last week, the University commenced consultation with the School of Human Sciences regarding the proposed cessation of SymbioticA, which is an artistic laboratory that provides artists and designers with access to science and engineering laboratories. “The University acknowledges the commitment respective employees have brought to SymbioticA in establishing an international reputation over the years. Like many universities, UWA is faced with the need to manage its finances in order to secure long term sustainability and strategic alignment.
“At this stage it is important to note that this is a proposal for change and no decision has been made on the future of SymbioticA, as we undergo genuine consultation with colleagues at this time.”


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