UNBORN0X9: an interview with Shu Lea Cheang

UNBORN0X9: an interview with Shu Lea Cheang

UNBORN0X9: an interview with Shu Lea Cheang

An essay by Shu Lea Chang

Read the booklet, consisting of this interview and the essay by Ewen Chardronnet, here in PDF. 

An interview with Shu Lea Cheang by Makery.info
Paris, April 2022

Makery: Can you describe how the project UNBORN0X9 was… born?

Shu Lea Cheang: In 2016 the echOpen fablab of Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris, an open and collaborative project and community fablab with the aim of designing a functional low-cost and open source echo-stethoscope (portable ultrasound device), invited us artist/author, Shu Lea Cheang and Ewen Chardronnet, to collaborate and contribute to the community project through artistic practice and skills. This opportunity led to the UNBORN0X9 project and the formation of collective Future Baby Production composed of artists, scientists, programmers, engineers and cultural facilitators who expanded on the various dimensions of the project. The Future Baby Production collective represents the common group effort to raise issues such as the possible impact of low-cost echo-stethoscope on global health, questions of access to healthcare and motherhood, ectogenesis and the technicization of reproduction, the discourse between science-fiction imaginary and science in the making at large.

What artistic forms does the project take?

As an art installation UNBORN0X9 questions the development of foetuses in artificial wombs outside of the body (ectogenesis) and the cyborg future of parenting. It explores the role of obstetric science in the increasingly technological experience of human reproduction, speculating on new types of bonding that may emerge with artificial wombs. Here, pregnancy is “integrated into a high-tech vision of the body as a biological component of a cybernetic communication system” [1]. Treating a fetus as if it were outside a woman's body, making it visible, is a political act.

As a performance, UNBORN0X9 forks the echOpen prototype with network protocols and hacks the inaudible ultrasonic waves in a sonic conversion that is further interpreted in collective audio-visual manifestation. The ultrasound frequencies made audible and visible prompts an augmented interaction with the unborn. In reverse engineering the ultrasonic device, we reclaim the act of intervention as we jointly compose asynchronised ultra-infused love songs for the unborn.

Image: Future Baby Production

How did you approach the “cyborg future of parenting” that led you to the actual ART4MED residency?

Considering the cyborg future of parenting, we made up these 12 pregnancy typologies,

(1) pro-life motherhood (religious, anti-abortion, anti-contraception, etc)
(2) pro-choice motherhood (abortion, pill, artificial insemination…)
(3) law-enforced motherhood (when abortion is made illegal)
(4) subversive motherhood (pro-sex feminism, gestational communes and gender queer parenting)
(5) transsex parenthood (trans men, women and non-binary individuals, with or without technological intervention)
(6) denied pregnancy (refuse to believe)
(7) reject pregnancy (political reasoning not to increase population)
(8) unaware pregnancy (imposed by social conditions - sex workers, drug users)
(9) false pregnancy, pseudocyesis
(10) surrogate motherhood (hired motherhood, social work force)
(11) pregnancy after uterine transplantation (cis/trans)
(12) ectogenesis, the artificial wombs (complete or partial).

What drove you to focus more and more on Ectogenesis, the gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs? 

During its development over the last 6 years, the Future Baby Production initiative gathered around the artistic project Unborn0x9 wanted to reflect on the techno-scientific developments of obstetrical medicine, its social, cultural, philosophical and prospective implications, proposing an artistic look at the science in the making. As we progressed in the conceptualization of the project, various scientific announcements around the development of fetuses outside the body indeed appeared in the scientific press and in the mass media, raising questions.

In April 2017, at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, an extremely premature lamb was kept alive for four weeks in a "biobag" incorporating artificial amniotic fluid and acting as an artificial womb [2]. In 2018, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands also began developing artificial womb "biobags" for human premature babies with support from the European Union's Horizon 2020 program. Researchers in the program, now called Perinatal Life Support (PLS), are working to design a new environment for premature babies, similar to that of the womb. "In the PLS solution, a baby is transferred to a new environment, called a perinatal life support system, to ease the transition to newborn life. In this "artificial womb", the infant would be provided with a supply of oxygen and nutrients through the umbilical cord and an artificial placenta. This environment allows organs to mature and develop more naturally." [3]

Even more recently, in January 2022, the South China Morning Post reported [4] that Chinese researchers at the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology have been working on growing embryos in full ectogenesis artificial wombs. In order to optimize the system and make it autonomous, they have developed a system based on artificial intelligence that monitors their development, saying they have tested it on mouse foetuses. "The online monitoring system of in-vitro embryo culture can track and record the morphological features of embryos without affecting the embryo development, providing a basis for the assessment of embryo development and the optimization of in-vitro culture system.” [5]

These developments raise numerous questions.

UNBORN0X9 at MU Hybrid Art House, 2022. Image: Boudewijn Bollmann

Would you see these developments redefining the status of the “unborn” baby?
As pointed by Elizabeth Chloe Romanis in 2020 [6], a distinction must be made today between complete and partial ectogenesis. Full ectogenesis can be defined as the creation of an embryo using in vitro fertilization techniques, which is then gestated entirely artificially in an artificial uterus. There is no "pregnancy" carried by a "pregnant person". Partial ectogenesis for very premature infants, on the other hand, is the development of a foetus in an artificial uterus for part of the gestation period after it has been transferred from the uterus in which it was originally conceived or implanted.

These profound changes implied by the possibility of partial ectogenesis imposed by medical urgency, risk reduction, or guided by a choice of comfort, also lead to the definition of the particular status of the unborn child going through these gestational situations. As Romanis writes, “The ’human being in an Artifical Womb’ is neither a foetus nor a baby, and the ethical tethers associated with these terms could perpetuate misunderstanding and confusion” [7]. She therefore suggests adopting the term "gestateling" to refer to this developing human entity in ex utero gestation. For our part, we chose in 2016 to use the term "Unborn0x9".

Can you elaborate on the Online reading groups of the UNBORN0X9’s Web Platform?
The online reading groups research on 3 focused topics:

Ultrasound, a technology that originated in sonar detectors for submarine warfare, was introduced in obstetric practice in the early 1960s. It shows to the outside something that was previously in the realm of the intimacy of women’s bodies. Ultrasound has nevertheless embedded a biopolitical dimension, densely connected with intricate social conditions and bioethical issues. Feminist philosophers such as Rosalind Petchesky writes, ultra-sound imagery “bridges two arenas of cultural construction, video fantasyland and clinical biotechnics, enlisting medical imagery in the service of mythic-patriarchal messages” [8]. The low cost, open source echo-stethoscopy considered as technological breakthrough has brought ultrasound imaging on smartphones. While the new medical visualization tools are intended to accompany health professionals in clinical diagnostic practices that favour more equity in access to healthcare, what does it really mean from feminist perspective today? And more generally, what does the increasing technologisation of pregnancy mean in the current development in the field of artificial or transplanted pregnancies?

In Brave New World published in 1932, Aldous Huxley announces a world where babies are made in test tubes, where the word "parent" has become obscene and banned since the appearance of ectogenesis has put an end to "viviparous reproduction.” For a century, Ectogenesis, the gestation of a test tube baby out of the body in an artificial womb, has been posing different ethical challenges: end of pregnancy but also the possible end of the privileged relationship between mother and child; complete equality of life between women and men; the nature of the emotional bonds changed by the process of gestation in a mechanic device; evolution of social roles in a society where sexuality and reproduction are separated; transformation of the notions of maternity and paternity, of the couple and the family; development of same-sex parenting and risking new forms of commodification of the human body. Today, with the current developments, there is a need to identify the fundamental changes in our views of pregnancy that would result from partial ectogenesis or AI based complete ectogenesis.

The current highly controversial debates on surrogacy focus on the commercial surrogacy, an industry which generates an estimated two billion dollars a year and is connected to the larger world of fertility tourism. Concerns over social justice, women's rights, child welfare, and bioethics bring up topics on race/class/gender, religion, legal regimes, biopolitics and global capitalism play in the gestational surrogacy market. Departing from commodification debate, can we consider surrogacy as “dyadic body project” that can be “collaborative, dual forms of identity-work” [9]? And further “bring about the conditions of possibility for open-source, fully collaborative gestation”, affirming surrogacy as “the political struggle for access and control—the commoning or communization of reprotech - that matters most.” [10] 

With UNBORN0X9’s web platform we intend to explore these issues through deep readings and to engage the public in cross-referencing debates online and in public performance and presentation. The selected topics, ranging from intervention to commodify women's bodies, from motherhood to un-motherhood, lead us to envision the arrival of ultra-queer polymaternalism worlds. 

An initiative by Shu Lea Cheang and Ewen Chardronnet

A project of Future Baby Production: Shu Lea Cheang, Ewen Chardronnet, Benjamin Cadon (Labomedia.org), Jérôme Dubois (echOpen.org), Thomas Demmer & Thomas Perchais (Qastor.fr), Vivien Roussel (thr34d5.org), Svar Simpson.

The online web platform concept & Interface design: Shu Lea Cheang with programmation by Nicolas Derambure and Benjamin Cadon of Labomedia.

Producing partners - ART2M/Makery, Antre-Peaux/UrsuLaB, Labomedia, echOpen

UNBORN0X9 was on show at MU Hybrid Art House during the exhibition Reproduction Otherwise, from 7 October - 27 November 2022.

UNBORN0X9 at MU Hybrid Art House, 2022. Image: Max Kneefel

[1] Donna Haraway, Cyborg manifesto, 1985.
[2] Partridge, E., Davey, M., Hornick, M. et al. "An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb". Nat Commun 8, 15112 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15112  
[3] See https://perinatallifesupport.eu/project/background/
[4] Stephen Chen, "Chinese scientists create AI nanny to look after embryos in artifical womb, South China Morning Post, 31 januari 2022. 
[5] Zeng Weijun, Zhao Zhenying, Yang Yuchen, Zhou Minchao, Wang Bidou, Sun Haixuan. "Design and experiment of online monitoring system for long-term culture of embryo", 2021, 38(6): 1134-1143.
[6] Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, «Regulating the ‘Brave New World’ : Ethico-Legal Implications of the Quest for Partial Ectogenesis », PhD in Bioethics/Medical Jurisprudence, the University of Manchester, 2020. Online at: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:326419
[7] Romanis, Elizabeth Chloe. “Artificial womb technology and the frontiers of human reproduction: conceptual differences and potential implications.” Journal of medical ethics vol. 44,11 (2018): 751-755. Online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6252373/.
[8] Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, « Fetal Images : The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction », Feminist Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp. 263-292.
[9] Elly Teman, Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self, University of California Press, 2010.
[10] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, Verso, 2020.