The Fish Bone Chapel

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Bring me home, please

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Elements of the Fish Bone chapel being 3D printed

If you're an artist or designer interested in applying your creative skills to life sciences, chances are that you've heard about Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Awards, an international competition that invites artists and designers to submit proposals to a jury of experts and develop them in close collaboration with The Netherlands most prestigious Life Sciences research institutes. The outcome of the competition range from the outrageously bold (the now famous bulletproof skin) to the ambitiously eco-friendly.

The winners of this year's edition of the competition are Charlotte Jarvis who recently talked to me about her Ergo Sum project, Howard Boland and Laura Cinti with The Living Mirror (more about this one soon, i hope) and Haseeb Ahmed who is planning to digitally fabricate a Fish Bone Chapel.

The artist is teaming up with the Netherlands Toxico-Genomics Center and Prof. Jos Kleinjans to build an architectural structure which, as its name suggests, will be made of fish bones. The vertebrae vaults, scaled walls and beating circulation systems of this architecture are derived from enlarged 3D prints and the skeletal structure of fish exposed to mutagenic toxins. Haseeb is working with the zebra fish, an animal often used for genetic testing as it is technically not considered to be animals for the first 5 days of their life

Ultimately however, the work also asks whether we can see past the dangerous connotations of mutation and regard it as a medium to generate new forms.

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Zebra Fish altered exposed to toxins

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Elements of the Fish Bone chapel being 3D printed

The more i read about the project, the more curious i grew so i contacted Hasseb Ahmed who patiently answered my many questions:

The Fish Bone Chapel draws a historical connection with the Capuchin Crypt located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome. The crypt is decorated with the skeletal remains of 4,000 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order, as a silent reminder of our own mortality.

Hi Haseeb! Your project, The Fish Bone Chapel, 'is a hybrid building, existing of fish bones.' I'm sorry but i'll have to start with the most mundane question because i imagine a chapel to be rather big and i suspect your final prototype might not rise to ambitious heights. So how tall, how big can the chapel be? And will it adopt a shape that people associate with the one of a chapel?

The Fish Bone Chapel is indeed the scale of a building. The goal has always been to create a spatial experience in which one can literally inhabit genomics research and in particular the mutations in Zebra Fish skeletons induced by exposure to toxins from embryo to adult.

My work will be sited in the atrium of the the current depot of the Naturalis Museum and former Royal Museum for Natural History built in the early 1900's. This atrium already has a kind of pseudo-Dutch Protestant religious architecture complete with niches, vaulted ceilings, and chandeliers. However, instead of religious iconography it features iguanas, snails, and fish. My aim is to create works that build onto this architecture with arches of my own, ornaments, and chandeliers so that the space appears as though it was made to host the Fish Bone Chapel all along. My reference is the Capucine Bone Chapels of Southern Italy which use the bones of former Monks to construct architectural features. In my case it's Fish not Brothers. That was one concept of Life and Death given by Catholocism and I want to address the new intermediate stages of life and death brought about by Genomics research and its legal apparatus.

Interesting enough the central 'altar piece' is at the base of a stairwell often drawn by M.C. Escher in his labyrinthine works and I will play up on this as well.

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The description of the project also mentions beating circulation systems which makes me think that the work will have some kind of life in it. Is that so?

I am exploring this idea right now. Reading some scientific reports on testing on Zebra Fish hearts I have found that scientists can create alternative beats with them. It was the names that they give the beat that inspired me like 'Chiller' or 'Be-Boy' and I've started to track them down. There is the possibility that things will move but this is still something I am experimenting with. There are many ways of creating movement, a building itself is a kind of organism. This is the linkage I am trying to draw out. The work will include some Zebra Fish i myself have been raising- I call these the Chapel Fish- many of the forms are based from these particular fish. I think the fish is important for scale as well. In the end however, my project is also interested in the dead or 'not yet alive' rather then the living.

So now that we've roughly established what visitors of the exhibition will be able to see in June, how are you going to make this chapel exactly?

It is commonly thought by geneticists and society in general that mutation is dangerous or deadly- however, I would like to look at mutation as a way of generating new forms- and quite literally so.

I am working with Embryos that have been exposed to toxins which create particular malformations often visible in the skeletal structure. It is possible that the toxins themselves may alter the genetics of the animals as well.

The embryos I am working with are only millimeters big. Using CT scans I am creating a 3D virtual models of the embryos. In the virtual world scale is relative. It is a cartesian space of x, y, and z, however, a space on the ground or 'C-Plane' can be one millimeter or one kilometer. It is relative. From here I isolate, scale up, and modify elements of the fish skeletons so they can be used as building blocks for the architectural artwork. I am printing out these pieces using a 3D printer custom made by MaukCC for this project.

Because the printer builds up a piece one .125 mm at a time it will take an eternity to 3D print the entire work- so I am making molds of these elements or printing out the molds themselves and casting multiples in ceramic-like plasters. I've come up with a kind of 'poem' to describe the process:

"Bones as Bits
Bits as Bones
Bones as Modules"

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If i understood correctly from what you said to an interview you did a few weeks ago with Georgius Papadakis your project will use the zebra-fish because you are legally able to make tests on the animal for 5 days. Can you explain us in details the law it is submitted to? And how you want to explore this loop-hole?

I am interested in Zebra Fish because the bio-tech industry and geneticists in academia have become increasingly interested on them. I am also interested in how the bio-tech industry and academia are becoming more and more indistinguishable and how law and capital is shaping research itself.

Zebra Fish are an ideal test case for genetics research for a few reasons. Firstly they are relatively see-through, they breed in multitudes, and last but most importantly for the first 5 days of their life they are not considered animals at all- allowing scientists any freedom in experimentation during this time without the costly procedures of ethics committees. For the first 5 days of their life the Zebra Fish still holds onto the yolk of its egg for nutrients as it develops from embryo to adult. However, the definition of a living animal is that it must be free moving and able to sustain itself independently by eating. So the Zebra fish is considered 'Organic Material' rather than an Animal.

This is protected under the 15th amendment of the EU constitution. Interestingly enough, this amendment protects against animal testing in rodents and apes and also ensures abortion rights. Bound up in this is the definition of what we consider to be life itself.
Genetics research on zebra fish plays upon emergent stages between life and death. If we carry the religious tone of the Fish Bone Chapel these fish exist within what is akin to the doctrine of Limbo.

The forms which I am using from the Zebra Fish are the outcomes of the genetics research itself- in this way I hope to bring this emergent situation as the general framework for my artwork.

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Fish Printer lab

For the project, you are teaming up with the Netherlands Toxigenomics Centre. What form does the collaboration take exactly? Is it you dictating what needs to be done and they execute your instructions or is the experience more hands-on from your part?

My collaboration with the NTC takes a few different forms. I do most of the work hands on- visiting the labs, collecting samples, attending the CT scanning, and this all informs my own production when I bring the materials into the studio which becomes a kind of extension of the Lab. Even the act of looking through the microscope at embryos is an important experience and there is a difference at looking through the mirrored micro scope of the scientific illustrators at Naturalis. Naturalis has also become a good collaborator in this work.

Since I am not trained as a geneticist each conversation I have informs my work and I am often in a crash course on genetics research which adds new complexities to my project. Often times these details are mundane to the scientist themselves however, they occupy a specialized place that very few people see or experience and yet affects us all and increasingly so as biotechnology and synthetic biology develops in the coming years. Close collaboration with the director Dr. Jos Kleinjans is key in getting things done and getting informed.

The NTC is primarily concerned with the way that long-term exposure to toxins may affect the very genetic composition of humans and animals alike. For example in the Netherlands people drink a long of milk and consume a lot of dairy products. Accepting the milk of another animal itself is a relatively new feature of human biology- however cows eat quite a lot of pesticides which we in turn take in. How will this alter our physiology at the level of DNA and cell replication? There are high stakes for example with Thalidomide- a sleeping agent prescribed to pregnant women in the 1970's resulting in severe birth deformations.

I am working with materials that the NTC is already generating and specifically at their Zebra Fish Lab at the RIVM run by Dr. Aldert Piersma and research conducted by soon-to-be-Dr. Sanne Hermsen. A range of toxins are tested on Zebra Fish embryos and from here certain bio-markers in the fish are measured to see what has been altered. Is it longer or shorter, is its spine curved or straight? Does it have big eyes, small eyes, or no eyes? and so on.

To me it is important to work within the bounds of the research conducted towards making a kind of critical mirror of it and I believe that more can be done with these resulting forms than the particular results sought by the researchers.

More generally, are there existing examples of use of genomics in architecture?

As far as I can see there is very little carry over from genomics to architecture. There are a few categories where they meet- for example the category of Morphology is used both in design and in genetics. It allows one to see change over time. So the chair 'evolves' as a species of bird might- or might now. this is a way of looking at the world in terms of form and shape grammars. In the 19th century there was a more explicit relationship between biology art, and architecture for example in the canonical tests of Karl Blossfeldt: Art Forms in Nature, Owen Jones' The Grammar of Ornament, or Ernst Haeckel's Sea Life drawings in Art Forms in Nature. This expressed itself in ornament much fundamentally- as we see in Rococo and its tendrils and shells.

I am currently advised by Nimish Biloria at the HyperBody Studio in TU Delft who are kind of successors of this tendency after the introduction of the computers to produce dynamic architecture and with a purely functionalist bent. Though the movement of the Blobject (Greg Lynn, Xefirotarch, the whole architecture school of SciArch in LA) has been much discredited I find this futurism fascinating in the idea that one's body might become co-extensive with the architecture however I still prefer the alienation from a space brought by brutalist architecture. Why do we want a building to react to us?

Today there are some novel ideas that imagine utopian futures where one might Grow their own homes like that of Mitchell Joachim or Rachel Armstrong's vision. I think my work is situated in this scenario however within the field of computational architecture I see my role as making a critique of eco-tech ideology. I make this explicit in using the same tools as they do i.e. digital fabrication. That being said I do think that developments in the field of synthetic biology should be redirected for use in art if not architecture. Art must address the status of technology that defines our world- if art hopes to address that world at all. Function of architecture often gets in the way. The fish bone chapel is at the scale of architecture but it is an artwork if this distinction is important. In my mind artwork allows for a wastage that is visible for all to see without any clear legitimations.

Thanks Haseeb!

All images courtesy Haseeb Ahmed.

Previously: The 2011 edition of DA4GA, Charlotte Jarvis talked to me about the Ergo Sum project recently.

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