Professor wins Fulbright for artist residency at Australian art-science lab

December 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cristin Millett, Penn State professor of art, has been awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award for spring 2020, during which time she will serve as a resident artist at SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia, studying ectogenesis and ultimately creating a sculptural artificial uterus that will allow viewers to see inside a womb.

Tentatively titled “Ex-Utero,” the sculpture is intended to prompt questions and conversations about the socio-cultural impact of ectogenesis, which is the augmentation or replacement of the fecund uterus by a machine.

“We are on the cusp of scientific breakthroughs that make possible the complete gestation of a human fetus from zygote to term,” wrote Millett in her Fulbright proposal. “This same advance enables unanticipated possibilities, uncertainties and concerns. Artists are key to tackling the tough issues that extend beyond the science: we approach questions and solve problems from a very different perspective.”

Millett has been working with researchers at SymbioticA — the first art-research laboratory of its kind — since 2000. Housed within the School of Human Sciences at UWA, SymbioticA is a premier destination for artists pursuing hands-on research as part of their creative practice and successfully fosters collaborations between artists and scientific experts. Previous residents include BioArt practitioners such as French contemporary artist Orlan and Paul Vanouse, who works in emerging media forms.

Millett’s artificial uterus, made using a polyethylene biobag, will contain a representation of a placenta seeded with living, growing cells. Her goal, in collaboration with SymbioticA researchers, is to foster a better understanding of the future of human reproduction.

“'Ex-Utero' will engender a thoughtful and in-depth conversation about imminent discoveries in reproductive technology, rather than a reactionary response based on sensationalist soundbites,” she said. “It will help the lay person think about what a medical innovation really means to them.”

Millett grew up surrounded by discussions about the human body — its diseases, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments — and those discussions have had a profound effect on her art. Her research has long focused on medical history, specifically the human reproductive system, as revealed through large-scale marble sculptures such as “Visible Phantom,” part of her series of “obstetrical phantoms” or birthing models, and “Transection of the Anatomical Planes,” a marble dissection table incised along the coronal, sagittal and transverse planes of the body. 

To prepare for her residency, Millett has completed introductory work in cell culture techniques, including cell counting and cryopreservation of mammalian cell lines. She will begin her residency at SymbioticA with further training and hands-on research to build a strong scientific foundation.

“My laboratory ‘boot camp’ serves a purpose: to obtain the technical understanding of the subject material, an understanding I need to then convey to my audience,” she said.

Millett hopes to exhibit “Ex-Utero” in Perth, Australia, in June 2020.

For more information on SymbioticA, visit http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au.     

Last Updated December 09, 2019