Historically, the HeLa cell line has always been surrounded by a great deal of controversy. The cells were acquired from Henrietta Lacks- an African American woman in the 1950's who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and housed in a segregated ward where her cells were taken without her permission and cultured to produce a cell line.(1) 

Henrietta's cells were the very first human cancer cell line to be established in a laboratory, and is still to this day, one of the most widely used human cell line in biological research in the lab. The total mass of Henrietta's cells that have been sold for use in the lab far out way Henrietta's body mass by several times.(2)

The HeLa cells were disconnected from race and gender once placed in the petri dish.  Still, the context of the HeLa cells and their representation in scientific and popular literature show socially derived connections among science, humanity, race, class and gender stereotypes.(3)

Although HeLa cells are somewhat disembodied, they still literally live on as an extension of her and yet, Henrietta’s Family have no legal or personal right to her cells. The Lacks’ to this day are still fighting for recognition of Henrietta’s contribution to science. Henrietta's body now takes a new position in this discourse- now as cellular mass and memory (ours) it still lives; is it immortality? Is she still alive? Is it an extension of her or is it now public domain?   



I have produced a new artistic cell line called the Anarchy cell line, which has been derived from the existing HeLa cell line and my own cells. The Anarchy cell line was  produced as dialogue artifice regarding issues of tissue ownership, lab techniques, tissue patent/copyrighting, the aesthetics of the inner body and the science and social/human connection (or lack of?) in the petri dish, the biological representation of women and finally, the story of Henrietta Lacks.

The technique used to produce the Anarchy cell line was embellished with personal rituals calling attention to the politics and protocol involved in current lab practices and patenting of lab techniques. Anarchy cell line hopefully fondles with the “slight of hand” that is performed in the regime of copyright law.

I attempted to combine and cohabitate, collaborate or share? the dish with my own cells and Henrietta's cells in an effort to bring a personal perspective - a type of new era portraiture to the arts and a connection of humanity to the scientific petri dish. Perhaps a social connection, a connection that possibly transcends the lack of person or ‘spirit’ in biological tissues can be acquired through this artistic/biological fusion? The cell line is anarchistic in that it proposes and somewhat adopts the idea of 'not-science' - what cells survive, if they combine or if they coexist is not in focus in the same way that the process and interactions of making the cell line are.

The project is fraught with challenges, these challenges I have accepted for debate with open arms while still remaining in a state of discomfort.  This discomfort is what artists who work with biological materials should continue to experience, as once this work becomes comfortable, one no longer has much to offer the discourse.  Opening up questions rather than providing answers is the vehicle by which the Anarchy Cell line hopes to inspire critical debate about bio-ethics.  Questions of colonisation, use of the very same criticised methods for biological artwork and 'tissue' perspectives all aim to aid these questions and debates.

The Anarchy cell line can possibly be seen as playing with the ideas of the aesthetics and the dehumanisation of the inner body. HeLa cells are copyrighted, sold for profit, patented and dehumanised and scientifically objectified– but are “pretty” pink HeLa cells? Or HeLa cells that have been lovingly lullabied to during their growth?  Or heart shaped cells? Or even HeLa cells that have been combined with another entity?


Skoot Rebecca, Henrietta's Dance, April 2000, John Hopkins Magazine Pioneer of Discovery

Hammack William.S, The useful cells of Henrietta Lacks, The paper the website

(2) Skoot Rebecca, Henrietta's Dance, April 2000, John Hopkins Magazine Pioneer of Discovery

(3) Weasel Lisa.H, Portland State University, Race and Gender through the Microscope: A femminist Perspective on Henrietta Lacks and the Hela Cell Line




To see more images of this project click here (NEW WINDOW) 

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Last Updated:   26th of November 2004

The Anarchy Cell Line was exhibited at The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in 2004 in BioDifference- The political Ecology as part of  BEAP'04

To view the work as seen in the exhibition click the images to the right 




anarchy cell line project is supported by ArtsWA in association with the Lotteries commission

Supported by Crown Scientific

The Anarchy Cell Line was undertaken during a residency hosted by SymbioticA art and science research laboratory in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia in 2003-2004

To visit the sponsors/collaborators page click here




VIRTUAL SNOOP: The Anarchy Cell Line at The BioDifference Exhibition 2004 

view inside the cryo unit



view the video's shown on the trolley

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The Anarchy Cell Line intsllation ~ in situ Lawrence Wilson Gallery UWA


Adding my blood to the HeLa cells Video still (2004)


Heart shaped Anarchy Cells  (photo: Guy Ben Ary)(2004)


Anarchy Cell Line - Flesh Dish (2004)

Regrowing Henrietta: Pound of Flesh (2004)