Artist John O'Shea and his pig's bladder football

A piece of laboratory-grown pig's bladder
Image caption The artist said there had been "a great many experiments to develop the process for growing the ball"

"When I heard that an artificial human bladder transplant had been successful, I thought the football could be re-invented using this process."

As a starting point for an art work, John O'Shea's idea might have seemed an odd one, but he says there was a logic to it.

"Football itself has many different forms all over the world and I had heard stories from people older than myself about the way, as children, they would make footballs from pigs' bladders.

"When we consider that footballs are now completely synthetic, this organic origin fascinated me, and I wanted to recreate it."

That idea has come to fruition in his work, Pigs Bladder Football, which forms part of Manchester's Abandon Normal Devices arts festival.

'Not a scientist'

Getting from inspiration to culmination has taken him a year of working in a University of Liverpool laboratory.

Image caption The artist had to learn laboratory techniques to create the art work

He says the challenges began almost as soon as he had the idea.

"I am not a scientist, I'm an artist, with very little prior experience of working in a laboratory," he says.

"I spent the first six months simply learning procedures until I had a good sense of how to manage and maintain cell populations in the lab.

"The production side has not been easy, but once we narrowed down how exactly we wanted to work, it was a case of creating prototypes and progressing towards our goal."

'Fresh bladders'

The artist worked on the finished piece at the university's Clinical Engineering Research Unit with Professor John Hunt and Theun Van Veen.

He says the three of them completed "a great many experiments to develop the process for growing the ball, from obtaining the animal cells to creating special scaffold materials so that the tissue can take on a football form".

"We made hundreds of experiments and each one was in some way a failure, but it brought us closer to where we are now."

He says gathering the cells to build the artificial bladder was particularly challenging.

"We could easily have used cells from a commercial supplier, but it was really important to me to use the same waste materials which were historically used to make footballs.

"I wanted cells which had come from fresh bladders and this created challenges in ensuring the material was not contaminated travelling to the lab.

"It took three attempts before we succeeded."

'Ethical issues'

He says the challenges were not just logistical and that creating the bladder threw up "thousands of ethical and moral questions".

Image caption The football was created from pig stem cells

"Biotechnology is essentially about using living material as a technology.

"For me, it was important to get involved with this new material in a hands-on way and try to understand it.

"People could say they don't like that these cells were grown independent from the animal, but at the same time, we use parts of animals in many industrial procedures - from making shoes to our food - and many of these processes are hidden.

"What I did was transparent so if there were ethical issues, we could all consider them."

For O'Shea though, the thrust of the art work was as much about his abiding love of football as it was about science, so much so that he gave his work a badge and a motto in Latin - "ludus justus aemulus".

"That was something I came up with at the very beginning of the work," he says.

"It means fun, fair and competitive - I thought 'if I'm going to re-invent football, it will need some new guiding principles'."

Pigs Bladder Football is on show at the Cube Gallery in Manchester until 7 September

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