Blood Wars and Celebrating the Unsung Rats of Science with #BioArt

kathy high bioart biomedical research blood rats

Kathy High is an American artist exploring the areas of technology, science, speculative fiction and art. She does this with installations and workshops – including one where the audience’s blood fights each other.

Kathy High studied fine arts, English literature, video and photography at New York. On top of having a lot of well-known work in video and performative arts, she is also famous for her BioArt.

Part of her interest in biology started with documentaries about animals. Videos like Cow Film (1979) and Animal Films (2002-04) explored how we see and relate to animals.

In Burial Globes (2009), she celebrates an animal that is particularly important to science and biology – the transgenic rat.

kathy high bioart burial globes
Exhibition of Burial Globes. (Credit: Kathy High)

So many of the exciting medical breakthroughs that we talk about (from cancer and autoimmune diseases to dementia) have relied on ‘disease models‘ in early stage research. These are animals (often rats) that are genetically modified and bred to develop certain diseases – helping scientists understand it and test therapies.

The exhibition is a memorial to these animals. Five glass globes (shaped like white blood cells) house the cremated ashes of transgenic rats. They are exhibited along their names, codes, disease types and the scientific team that created them.

Transgenic Animals are also the subject of Trans-Tomagotchi (2008-12). The artist created a game in the style of the famous Tamagotchi, where people need to care for a virtual animal.

kathy high bioart trans-tomagotchi
Interface of the game Trans-Tomagotchi. (Credit: Kathy High)

In this case, the virtual pet is a disease model. This requires people to care not only for the animal, but also for their disease.

Kathy’s most recent BioArt work goes into cellular biology. Blood Wars (2010-ongoing) hosts a competition between the blood of different people. In a tournament of sorts, samples of white blood cells fight for dominance in a Petri dish. The donors of the winning cells even receive a ‘blood trophy’.

kathy high bioart blood wars
Participants in Blood Wars showing their needle marks (left) and the blood trophies awarded to winners (right). (Credit: Kathy High)

The people participating gain a better understanding of cell division, immune cells and the lab methods used to study them. But the project also plays with the heavy symbolism of blood and inheritance.

Kathy High’s work is a fresh perspective on biomedical research, offering as an opportunity to get in touch with the ‘tricks’ developed by humans to understand and win over our diseases.


The tournament of Blood Wars…

Feature Image Credit: Mix of graphics of the work of Kathy High. Left: Trans-Tomagotchi. Upper right: Blood Wars. Bottom right: Burial Globes.


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