Gross “art”

What I really want to know is what Shelley was looking for when she stumbled across this: an art project to collect 1000 liters of human sperm and display it in a transparent cube. The Sperm Cube does not look like it was well thought out, I’m afraid.

One problem is the collection method. They just want donors to ejaculate into a vial, and mail it, unrefrigerated, to them. Would you like the job of opening tubes of rancid semen and dumping it into the cube?

Another is the health risk. Human fluids need to be treated as a biohazard—they can be ripe with nasty pathogens (HIV? syphilis?), and they do seem to be rather indiscriminate in who they’re accepting donations from.

Now look at the design. They’ve got a 1 meter cube full of a viscous fluid on top of their cooling element. Does that look efficient to you? There’s going to be a damp, runny slurry on the top and sides of that, and nothing will increase the visual appeal of a giant lump of frozen sperm than thriving multi-colored colonies of bacteria and fungi growing on it…unless, maybe, it’s nice squirming masses of maggots tunneling through the semi-congealed mass.

Do they have a disposal plan? This is not practical as a permanent display, and at some point they’re going to have to turn off the freezer and do something with the gunk.

I suspect this is a case where an artist really should consult with a biologist and an engineer before charging off into an insane project.


  1. Mark UK says

    The winner of the best science blog gets to fill this cube… That would be a success on youtube..

  2. says

    This is even more poorly thought-out than this one artist who wanted to use radioactive waste (solid uranium, I think) as sculpting material.

  3. says

    Another problem would be the sheer ammount of sperm needed to fill the cube. How many “shots” would be needed? Ten thousand? a hundred? Multiply that with envelopes, vials and mailing costs, and you’ve got a financial nightmare in your hands.

  4. melior says

    I believe General J.C. Christian has several Mason jars in the basement that could assist this project.

    The French will need to request the bivouacking of his army of Spermatazoan-Americans, however, and I should warn you they may be armed.

  5. Nomen Nescio says

    solid metallic (depleted?) uranium wouldn’t be too bad of an artwork medium, provided the artist wasn’t planning on casting it, welding it, or heating it too far, and also that they had adequate tooling to work it with so as to not lose control of the metal waste produced. you’d want to wear a bunny suit while working on it, and wear dosimeters to ensure control, but so long as they had an adequate engineering mindset it should be doable.

    hey, it might be radioactive and toxic, but at least you know it’s not going to (shudder) spawn something for lack of refrigeration. how the biologists handle working with their biohazards is more than i’ll ever know…

  6. bPer says

    Another problem would be the sheer ammount of sperm needed to fill the cube. How many “shots” would be needed? Ten thousand? a hundred? Multiply that with envelopes, vials and mailing costs, and you’ve got a financial nightmare in your hands.

    After a quick Google search, where interestingly there seems to be a wide variety of opinions on what constitutes an average ejaculation, I figure it would take at least 200,000 ‘contributions’. Unless my mental math is deficient, of course.

    And shouldn’t this really be called Semen Cube? After all, the sperm make up only a tiny fraction of the total volume.

    What a gross and disgusting project.

  7. Icequeen says

    Perhaps this is one of those meta-enlightenment realisation things where they turn around and say “you gave your DNA willingly without thinking you deserve everything The Man has planned for you”.

    Or it’s a FBI sting and they crosscheck it with forensics.

  8. anomalous4 says

    GAAAAAAAAAAAAK. PZ, you sadist! First you make me jump out of my skin with that drumroll, then you make me throw up my coffee all over my keyboard!

    artist who wanted to use radioactive waste (solid uranium, I think) as sculpting material.

    Now that’s one show I’m definitely not going to see! Luckily for him/her, and for all the rest of us, the federal government isn’t about to let anyone else get their hands on any DU any time soon.

    That is, except for the soldiers who have to handle the artillery shells made out of it – or worse, ride around in tanks armored with the stuff.

    Your tax dollars at work…..

  9. Caledonian says

    Yeah, this is why more artists deserve to starve.

    I wonder if Federal funding was involved with this “art” at all. I rather suspect it might have been.

  10. dgbellak says

    …tubes of rancid semen…ripe with nasty pathogens…viscous fluid…a damp, runny slurry…gunk.

    (a) Blech. I may never ejaculate again.

    (b) Aye, but ’tis the stuff dream(er)s are made of.

  11. bPer says

    Don said:

    Isn’t the average ejaculate 10cc, hence the band? so, 10,000?

    My quick Google search yielded average values of between 2ml and 6ml, with the most common value (in the first 20 or so relevent hits) being 5ml. That’s the value I went with. The first hit referred to anything above 5.5ml (‘hyperspermia’) as abnormal. Maybe the band was just bragging.

    I think you slipped a digit in you calculations. One cubic metre (a stere) is 1000 litres, and of course, 10ml is 1/100th of a litre, so your answer should be 100,000.

  12. Jon H says

    It’s a little reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s sculpture consisting of a cast of his own head made with his own frozen blood.

  13. says

    I don’t know about the practicalities, but you can tell when a work like this has been successful when it manages to generate some heated debate – even before it’s been constructed.

    The guesses at how many ejaculations are needed makes me think of the “guess how many sweets are in the jar” competitions.

    @ Jon H – that would be Marc Quinn, not Hirst – it’s interesting how all the work of that time seems to blur into a single lump.

  14. says

    9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
    10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

    –Genesis 38

    How many people will God slay over this piece of art?

  15. says

    Well. There goes lunch…..and probably dinner.

    I wonder if Federal funding was involved with this “art” at all. I rather suspect it might have been.

    It was and is involved with all manners of art. It appears that the artist is asking form people to be “shareholders” so I doubt there is much if any funding from government sources and if there were It looks like it would be French gov’t funds.

    Federal funding is given to everything from Shakespere to Poets to Classical Music to Photographers and to many other mediums. Yes there have been classic examples of projects funded by the NEA that have caused controversy ( Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serano being the most famous) but the vast majority goes to main stream artists and performers. Pushing the limits of art should be encouraged and if they make it through the funding process, good for them. If you look at the two artists I mentioned above, both have a large collection of projects and pieces and many if not most are of pieces that wouldn’t be considered controversial by the average Joe. The government and your taxes fund many different things, some you may agree with and some you may not. Legislating taste sets a dangerous precedent. The funding process should and does weed out projects with little merit. Should we apply the same personal taste to other funding issues? I know I don’t like broccoli.

  16. Caledonian says

    By deciding what constitutes “little merit”, government funding DOES legislate taste.

    The obvious solution is not to give government funding for art projects at all.

  17. Lee says

    RE the depleted uranium project.

    Back in the day (late 70s, early 80s?), some ocean racing sailboats were experimenting with making their ballast keels out of depleted uranium. The standard material was lead, and the higher density of DU allowed keels to be designed with thinner sections (lower drag) and the same righting moment.

    Luckily, the rule makers put a stop to that piece of (extremely expensive) craziness after only a couple boats were designed and built using DU.

  18. says

    Also, this is nowhere near as appealing as the idea another artist had of using using the bacterium Serratia marcescens as “living paint.”
    The Board of Health put a stop to his plan, what with S. marcescens being somewhat pathogenic.
    On the other hand, their colonies are a lovely shade of crimson… But, the idea of sperm fermenting in the mail, then in a box is just ugly.

  19. says

    Hey, people, look on the bright side! looking at all the fungi, bacteria, maggots etc will be great for the planned parenthood movement – after seeing the Cube no-one will ever want to breed again. Or, quite possibly, eat.

  20. says

    The obvious solution is not to give government funding for art projects at all.

    Obvious solution for whom?

    I guess the obvious solution is to stop all government subsidies for farmers as well because I personally think broccoli taste like satan weed.

  21. Rey Fox says

    I prefer “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Although I really can’t see how those “just because” sentences could ever be grammatical.

  22. says

    As for disposal, I propose that the Sperm Cube be placed in the Yucca mountain containment facility in Nevada, to counterbalance the amount of radioactive waste that will be diverted from there to make sculptures.

  23. Levent says

    The idea of thousands vials of semen, some of them carrying HIV etc, flying around in mail is not a nice one. Someone should make this so-called artist wake-up.

  24. says

    It’s not a very original idea, as anyone who has read the Throbbing Gristle/Coum Transmissions section of Re/Search’s Industrial Culture Handbook knows.

  25. Nicole says

    Yes, this is a BAD idea for a project, but don’t knock all of contemporary art just because there are a few bullshit artists. I doubt a lot of people have much exposure to art, so when they read about some crazy artist doing something like this, they immediately think that all contemporary art is worthless and that artists are depraved and stupid.

    A GOOD example of science-based contemporary art was the “Unnnatural Science” exhibit at MassMoCA five years back: No icky, unsanitary body fluids to speak of.

  26. Tukla in Iowa says

    and they do seem to be rather indiscriminate in who they’re accepting donations from.

    They should just fill it with Stephen Colbert’s Formula 401.

  27. Curtis Cameron says

    I recall a couple of years ago a guy was trying to get people from all over the world (well, maybe just our hemisphere) to shine their laser pointers at the Moon at a certain date and time, hoping that it would show up to observers on Earth.

    Anyone with a little physics knowledge, a pen, and a bar napkin can pretty quickly figure out how that could never work.

  28. says

    According to the NEA’s annual report for 2005, they contributed “over” $100 million in grants. However, it is interesting to note that these are 1:1 matching grants, which the NEA claims are have been “exceeded many times over.” In fact, the report states that “non-profit arts contribute an estimated $37 billion to the economy every year.”

    In figures published by the Canada Council for the Arts (similar to the US National Endowment for the Arts), the per capital dollar amount of total art grants was just 44 cents for the United States, topped by Canada at $4.15, New Zealand at $5.64, Australia with $6.19, and England at nearly $23! Mind you, these countries were selected because they have a mandate “similar” to that of Canada’s arts endowment program– many other countries, like France and Germany spend far more.

  29. Brian X says

    Rey Fox:

    I think it might be a little easier to puzzle out if you put “just because you can” in quotes, using it as a noun phrase that does not have the definition that “you should do something”.

    But then again, we’re talking about a gigantic cube of rotting semen, so does it really matter?

  30. says

    Don’t know, tom: I’ve never fallen afoul of such a statute.

    Curtis: I think the pen, napkin, and physics knowledge are overkill – common sense is enough :)

    And this whole thread seems wholly appropriate since it’s framed by advertisements for Seed Magazine…

  31. anomalous4 says

    More on uranium in art:

    Uranium glass (also sometimes called Vaseline glass, but that term is pretty vague) was made for over a century, from the mid-1830s until the US government banned it after WWII due to concerns about the wrong people getting their hands on the uranium, and was quite popular at times.

    It contains 1-2% uranium oxide and is anywhere from pale yellow to pale green in normal light depending on how much uranium oxide is used, and it fluoresces bright tellowish-green to apple green under UV. Occasionally other colorants were added to the glass to mask the uranium color in normal light (for instance, gold turns the glass pink), but the fluorescence is always green.

    U-glass is slightly radioactive, but collectors claim that it’s safe. I can’t comment on that except to say that the idea of living with a piece of radioactive glass really weirds me out. (Radium-dial watches used to weird me out too.)

    Back when I worked for a stained-glass artist, I saw a piece at a show. It’s eerie stuff, and to be honest, I didn’t think it was all that pretty. Check out the photo gallery for examples of uranium glass in normal and UV light. More examples are at the bottom of the main U-glass page (those necklaces! I can feel my thyroid shriveling up at the very thought!).

  32. says

    Wasn’t there a line of red dinnerware, “Cherokee Red,” I think, that had glaze made with uranium, also?
    I remember reading that they stopped making them because the US government seized all supplies of uranium to make the atomic bombs in WWII.

  33. Nerull says

    Uranium-238 (Depleted Uranium, and 99% of natural uranium.) is actually used as radiation shielding. The alpha radiation emitted can be stopped by a piece of paper, and it stops gamma rays much better than lead.

  34. m says

    Ignorant of Nature’s Harmonic 4 Day Sperm Cube Creation, the Americans are Dumb, Educated Singularity Stupid and Evil.

  35. John Gamble says

    Wasn’t there a line of red dinnerware, “Cherokee Red,” I think, that had glaze made with uranium, also?

    You want to Google “fiestaware + radioactive” to find the nifty posts. As pointed out in The Straight Dope column: “The real problem, if in fact it’s a problem, is that uranium is a heavy metal, as is lead, another red Fiestaware ingredient.”

    Is red Fiestaware radioactive?

  36. Alecto says

    Stanton, you’re thinking of Fiestaware. The red color had uranium oxide in it, so they discontinued it. My physics professor had a piece of it, so when we were learning how Geiger counters worked, he brought it in. Geiger counter went nuts.

  37. anomalous4 says

    The reddish-orange glaze used on FiestaWare contains uranium. (The link gives a fair bit of detail on the composition and radioactivity of U glazes.) Like U-glass, it’s generally considered safe, but use with acidic foods is not recommended.

    Some U glazes also contain lead which, according to some authorities, may be a greater hazard than uranium (which is itself a heavy-metal poisoning hazard).

    I know alpha rays are easy to stop, but it still weirds me out.

    I looked at several sites for info on U glazes, and this one cracked me up:

    I was once at a truck weigh station when a vehicle carrying toilets set off a radiation monitor. As another example, health physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported excessively high readings while surveying newly purchased urinals for the men’s restrooms. Perhaps they should have been spelt “uranyls?”

    Ceramics can be particularly radioactive if some compound of uranium (e.g., uranium oxide, sodium urinate) has been used to impart color (e.g., orange-red, green, yellow, black) to the glaze.

    [My emphasis. Oooohhhhhhh, what he said!]

  38. Neal Deesit says

    “The idea of thousands vials of semen, some of them carrying HIV etc, flying around in mail is not a nice one.”

    “and I thought it was usually illegal to send bodily fluids in the mail?”

    No problems. The samples are all sent to Paris in french letters.