Scientists and artists talk about the immortal body

Zulfikar Hirji

How is it that cervical cancer cells, taken without knowledge or consent, could become “immortal” and used in scientific research, including the development of the polio vaccine? That is what York anthropology Professor Zulfikar Hirji hopes the Immortal Body program, which he will curate as part of the upcoming Subtle Technologies symposium, will explore.

The Subtle Technologies symposium and festival will run from May 25 to 27, at Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto. The one-day Immortal Zulfikar HirjiBody program will take place on Sunday, May 27, starting at 11am.

Zulfikar Hirji

The cervical cells were taken as a tissue sample in 1951 from Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year-old African-American woman who died of an aggressive type of cervical cancer, by her doctor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. They proved to be “immortal” – surviving outside her body as well as multiplying – and came to be known as HeLa cells. They were subsequently used in scientific research around the world, enabling several medical breakthroughs, including various cancer therapies.

HeLa cells have since proliferated into a multimillion-dollar industry. However, many African Americans like Lacks and her descendants have regularly been denied and deprived of medical treatment and used in scientific experiments because of their race and social status.

These stories, says Hirji, a social historian in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, force us to confront the often Eurocentric, racialized, Robert Styblogendered and classist biases embedded in scientific practices and conceptions of the human body and life itself.

Robert Styblo

The Immortal Body program explores these issues through a range of productive conversations between scientists and artists who explore and debate these issues through their lives, work and practices.

The Immortal Body program is supported by a Community Partnership Grant from the United States Mission in Canada.

Producer and director Robert Styblo will present the Canadian premiere of the film BioArt—Art from the Laboratory, from 11am to noon. The screening will be followed by a discussion looking at the relationship between art and science, from noon to 1:15pm, with Styblo, artist Jack Butler, French visual Alondra Nelsonartist Marguerite Humeau and University of Toronto research associate Dolores Steinman.

Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson, who teaches sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, will present Henrietta Lacks in Text and Context from 2 to 3pm. The success of the critically acclaimed book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot has inspired an international conversation about health inequality and bioethics. Nelson’s talk will retrace the story of Lacks’ life and death, with an eye to how the milieu of the late 20th century United States rendered this poor, black woman’s HeLa cells “available” for extraction, circulation and commodification.

From 3 to 4pm, Nelson will be joined by Heidi McKenzie, a Toronto-based ceramic artist and former creative producer, and Jeff Thomas, an urban-Iroquois, for a conversation about Nelson’s presentation. Thomas is interested in dismantling long entrenched stereotypes and inappropriate caricatures of First Nations people.

For tickets, click here. For more information, visit the Subtle Technologies symposium website or the Immortal Body program web page.