Stranger than science

BFA prof Kathleen Sellars melds art and artifice with cyborgs

Cyber-organic quasi-animate objects might move but they’re definitely fabricated by Kathleen Sellars.
Cyber-organic quasi-animate objects might move but they’re definitely fabricated by Kathleen Sellars.
Supplied photo by Kathleen Sellars
Artist Kathleen Sellars worked with the engineering department to create her show New Robiotic Research at the Agnes.
Artist Kathleen Sellars worked with the engineering department to create her show New Robiotic Research at the Agnes.
Supplied photo by Pat Sullivan

I’m going to ruin the surprise for you. Kathleen Sellars’ latest exhibit at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery isn’t real. But you could still play along and pretend that it is—it’s more fun that way.

New Robiotic Research is based on the pretense that the research presented in the piece is fact, making it difficult for the observer to discern between fact and fiction.

Sellars’ installation is based on her own invented scientific jargon, concepts and objects. The objects are called cyber-organic quasi-animate objects (COQAO) and classified as smart organs (SMOs). Sellars’ work claims that very first COQAO was “genetically engineered from the stem cells of a new silicone life form discovered in the underground vault of an abandoned cyclotron laboratory (near Ontario Hall, Kingston, Canada) using DNA extracted from the pleuroneurogical membrane of an orthotribetic cycloblast.” The result is five rubber flesh-coloured 3-D objects which vaguely recall the breathing and gurgling pods featured in David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ.

With the help of Richard Holt of the engineering department and engineering student Pedro A. Molina Cabrera, Sellars made the orbs move and respond to people, making them seem like functioning objects.

The premise is that the objects are based on DNA, called cyber-organice quasi-animate DNA (COQADs). The point is that these pseudo-sculptures are composed from this breakthrough in DNA research as the DNA “harmonize with other environmental parameters,” effectively controlling the functions of human desires. The four main environments COQADs focus on are: the domestic, health care, school, and the workplace. By donating some of your DNA you could have your own form, responding to your every need.

By using the rhetoric and devices of the scientific research world, her case is very convincing. Everything from her promotional video and the research cases, modeled after the ones used at Queen’s, appear completely authentic.

“It’s set up like a science fair,” Sellars said. “I also drew a lot from the advertising world.” “I think that what I’m doing is questioning the ethics of research. Perhaps we just trust what scientists and doctors are doing. It’s challenging to ask these questions and to challenge the viewer’s assumptions.”

The COQADs actually move and breathe and look completely real. But as good as all of this sounds, Sellars’ invention is a sham, perhaps for the better.

“It’s just a ridiculous idea. To think we need something to turn the lights down for us when we get home,” Sellars said.

The actual COQADs themselves are the focal point of the exhibition. Each is modeled after a different part of Sellars’ body, the COQADs are comprised of elbows, tongues, toes, fingers and ears.

“It’s not actually my DNA but these are my body parts.” Sellars said. “These objects do respond to you. It’s always variable. Every time you come in it’s different.”

Aside from the idea being “ridiculous,” Sellars presents her piece in a very convincing way. This might confuse some people, even the most media literate.

“Some of this is fabricated and some of it’s real. I actually had a PhD student contact me who thought that this was real research. She asked me how, if I wasn’t a scientist, just how I did all of this,” Sellars said.

Sellars was inspired by reports of the fraudulent research, especially that of Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra. Chandra was a world-renowned expert in the field of nutrition and immunology and has been accused of committing scientific fraud by the British Medical Journal. He was also a professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University.

“It’s important that this work is in the context of a research university,” Sellars said. “In Chandra’s case, the research was manipulated to actually harm people.”

Although the piece is meant to engage the viewer in a discussion about the world of research and science, Sellars’ New Robiotic Research elicits an array of responses. “Personally, I think it’s really beautiful and draws people in. There’s also a lot of humour in this piece. I like humour; I think humour is good way to get people talking about an issue. It’s a good starting point.”

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