FEATURE STORY JANUARY/FEBRUARY EDITION 2024

Creative living dead

A groundbreaking project questions the future of creativity after death by using the cells of a deceased composer to create new sounds. 
 LYN DI CIERO

Guy Ben-Ary at the University of WA with samples of Alvin Lucier’s living cells. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Can people continue to create long after their death? While holographic and artificial intelligence (AI) assisted concerts can seemingly bring live or deceased musicians to something resembling reality, no new music is created by the actual artists in question. Enter Revivification, a project by Guy Ben-Ary and Nathan Thompson delving into the concept of creation after death, awarded a $100,000 ARTS Impact grant last year, and scheduled to show at the Art Gallery of WA in early 2025. In it, the two use the living cells of deceased American composer Alvin Lucier (1931-2021), creating an external brain or ‘surrogate performer’ to create new sounds.

Lucier was a long-term music professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and one of the most influential of 20th century avant-garde sound artists who explored the physicality of sound itself. His 1965 composition Music for a Solo Performer is considered a watershed moment in his career, and integral to the sound developments in electronic music which followed. While Lucier had composed orchestral works from 1952, in Music for a Solo Performer he amplified his own brain waves through an array of percussion instruments. At times sounding like a random search through radio stations, and others like a nonsensical session on a drum kit or indeed like exploding fireworks, the often frenetic sound of Lucier’s brainwaves is a fascinating journey into what was once thought to be unknown territory. 

Ben-Ary says the work is considered revolutionary because he was the first person in history to challenge the glorification of performance through the body, shifting the focus from movement and behavior to cognitive labour. “He was the first to use the words ‘cognitive labour,’ almost inviting people to go into his brain,” says Ben-Ary. “It was elevating, or focusing on the intellectual activity of the composer rather than the theatrics associated with performance.”

Ben-Ary is both an artist and researcher working at SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning and hands-on engagement with life sciences at the University of WA. His practice centres on cybernetics, soft-robotics and the cultural articulation of biotechnologies, which aim to enrich our understanding of what it means to be alive. Ben-Ary’s work has been shown across the globe at prestigious venues and festivals from the Beijing National Art Museum and San Paulo Biennale to the Moscow Biennale. His work can also be seen in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Inspired by Lucier, Ben-Ary has used his own skin tissue to create stem cells which were then transformed into neurons. Created in collaboration with Nathan Thompson, Andrew Fitch, Darren Moore, Stuart Hodgetts, Mike Edel and Douglas Bakkum, cellF, which premiered in 2015, saw his surrogate brain attached to a synthesiser which could engage with other performers. “I could never play music,” says Ben-Ary, “so I thought maybe I could get my outer ego, or disembodied brain in a petri dish, to play for me.”

When Lucier heard about cellF, he was highly interested. In 2018, he invited then to perform with him in St Petersburg, but five weeks prior Lucier fell and fractured five vertebrae. A new date in New York in April 2020 was set, but the pandemic intervened and the trip was cancelled. Lucier died in December 2021. Despite fortnightly Zoom chats, they were never to meet him in person, but before he died Lucier had donated his blood for use in future projects. A one-off performance at the Venice Biennale of Music in October last year used Lucier’s cells for Music for a Surrogate Performer. “It was the same set up as he used in 1965,” says Ben-Ary. “Instead of him sitting there and getting alpha waves to generate sounds, his neurons were there – not his brain, but rather his in vitro brain. So, it’s pushing it one step further – eliminating the human and just using parts of it.” 

Ben-Ary emphasises he and Thompson are not scientists carrying out scientific experiments. “The question is whether the neurons will change their functional plasticity as a result of stimulation. We’re not going to provide those answers, but it is a question we ask.” 

The two speculate future intelligence is going to emerge, but not from a computer program. “There’s no argument AI is very advanced,” he says, “but it is written by humans for humans, and it is still based on algorithms. In vitro intelligence is our speculation as an alternative approach to AI. Neurons evolved over billions of years to do what they do, and the emergence of intelligence and consciousness is still unknown because of its complexity, but there is a big difference between that and AI. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but that they’re totally different. One is programmed, the other is via evolution.” 

As a living artwork, Lucier’s cells need to be maintained and hosted permanently for the project to continue. “We’re looking at various options to immortalise Alvin so he can play and keep composing forever,” says Ben-Ary. Funding from ARTS Impact is assisting in optimising protocols and creating mini brains or neural networks which function better and developing bespoke environments to sustain the living organoids. 

As the only artists working in this field, the exhibition at AGWA in 2025 is likely to attract global interest. Eventually the aim is to create an open-source neuroscience platform for artists to use world-wide. For Ben-Ary, the highlight of the journey has been the opportunity to work with Lucier. “It was such a privilege and a humbling experience to work with him. It was like going back to school. He was a minimalist and stripped everything to the bare minimum. We had very multi-layered and complex ideas of how to do things, and he just stripped our ideas to the minimum and made them so much better.” 

Revivification is on show at the Art Gallery of WA in February 2025.     

♦ Left, Alvin Lucier’s living cells, and right, Lucier performing Music for a Solo Performer.

♦ Revivification prototype – Alvin Lucier’s neural networks growing in the lab. Photo Guy Ben-Ary. 

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