As promised a couple of days ago, here's the second story about the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a competition launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. DA4GA invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.

Early sketch of the concept. Courtesy Jalila Essaidi

One of the winning projects is a bulletproof skin named 2.6g 329m/s. Jalila Essaidi is teaming up with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands to provide transgenic human skin with a layer of spider-silk embedded in between the epidermis and dermis. The work purposely asks whether this technological innovation is socially desirable.

'This spider dragline-silk is a product of transgenic research done by Dr. Randy Lewis at the university of Wyoming and Notre Dame and is produced by transgenic goats and more recently also by transgenic silkworms,' the artist explained me. 'This spider-silk is up to five times as strong as steel but still keeps the smooth properties of silk.'

The silk will be woven with special bulletproof vest techniques into a matrix that can be used for culturing human skin cells. Once the flexible bulletproof spider-silk matrix is done the dermatology department of Leiden university medical center (LUMC) will help Essaidi with the embedding process. Finally the skin will be tested at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) with real bullets and be recorded with a high-speed camera.

Hi Jalila! Is this the first time you are working with genetics? Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?

This is the first time that I get in contact with a new medium that is the result of high tech genetic research. I think that would be the most honest answer, because yes I am in close cooperation with the people who gave me the opportunity to work with this material, which is a direct result from ongoing research regarding transgenic modifications, but I can not claim that I work with genetics myself for this project.

I love the techy field, but I have to admit that all the jargon that came with it did scare me off at first. Luckily I've met the right people who can explain even the hardest concepts in common language, which is a rare gift.

I am really glad with DA4GA for making this "world" more accessible for me, I am pretty sure that without this award this project would not have been possible at all. But it also wasn't some magic wand that opened all doors, I had to work really hard to find the right partners that would be willing to help me with the embedding of the silk in human skin. I've been in contact with pretty much every major skin-related research center in the Benelux for this and they all told me it wasn't possible.

Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with the project 2.6g 329m/s? Is the skin going to repair itself after the shock or will it manage to completely repel the bullet?

The organic skin, made for protection, will be displayed in a steel, sterile life-support frame. Protection needs to be protected.

It will be showing the yet unknown result of the test on the firing range. I am aiming for it to actually repel the bullet, if not the spider silk has the properties to enhance the skin regeneration process.

image from the movie The Magnificent Seven

Where does the name of the project come from?

It is the performance standard for bulletproof vests. 2.6g 329m/s are the maximum weight and velocity of a traveling bullet, from which a Type 1 bulletproof vest should protect you.

The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on 2.6g 329m/s? How is the collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?

I am still in the planning phase of the project. I will get the spider-silk in cocoons made by the genetically enhanced silkworms. Currently I am testing how to extract silk from normal raw silk cocoons because I am terrified to fail this part with the actual cocoons because mass silk production hasn't started yet and there is a really limited supply for me to work with. (No one in the Benelux has any knowhow how to do this, processing raw silk is all done in countries outside Europe, I have to get my information from books and the internet.)

My collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands really helped me to get in contact with LUMC and NFI since they are both partners of the consortium. The most important part of our collaboration is the vision about safety that we share.

I could imagine DARPA working on bullet-proof skin for future soldiers. But i suspect that your project attempts to convey another meaning and message. Can you tell us how did you get the idea for this project? Which kind of social or ethical reflection do you try to raise with 2.6g 329m/s?

What I want to realize by displaying this installation, made to enhance protection & safety, is to let people realize that safety is relative.

Safety is a balance and when you go to the extremes with it like I'm doing with this project, this will become more visible. Think about complications during surgery for someone with this skin or the development of better weapons to counter this new safety technology. The possible reduced sense of touch? You always give up something else in order to increase safety; this counts pretty much for all forms of safety.

I am not saying that we should not embrace improvements resulting from technology; I am an advocate for increasing funds for all sciences that improve our lives. I am just trying to fuel the ongoing debate about how far we can go to improve safety, how much we can sacrifice in order to feel safe.

And last but not least I want too show the beautiful symbiosis between nature and technique. The organic soft human skin in contrast with the sterile steel life support frame.

Thanks Jalila!

Previously: The Microscopic Opera.

Image on the homepage: Yul Brynner in Adiós Sabata.

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DA4GA.jpgA few months ago, the Waag Society in Amsterdam teamed up with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics to launch the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award which invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of Life Sciences. The works selected were to be developed together with the country's most prestigious genomics centres.

You might have heard of similar initiatives in the USA or in the UK but mainland Europe doesn't have such a strong tradition of setting up collaboration between research centers and artists/designers. Hopefully, the DA4GA award will pave the way for more partnerships of the kind both in The Netherlands and in the rest of Europe.

The winning projects were revealed last month: a bullet proof skin, an ecological bioreactor and an opera performed by mutated worms. The winning proposals will be exhibited from mid-June until the end of December 2011 but the curious blogger in me wanted to have a sneak peak of the 3 projects before they go on show. In the coming days i'm going to dedicate several posts on the winning works as well as on the award itself. And i'm opening the series with the Microscopic Opera!

Matthijs Munnik is going to collaborate with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology on an audiovisual installation in which tiny, transparent mutated lab worms are producing sounds and images.

3D impression of the final installation

Hi Matthijs! I had a look at your portfolio and unless i missed something it seems that you haven't worked much with genetics so far. Did you find it difficult to get to grips with this rather techy field? How much of a challenge was it to approach genetics as a visual artist?

No, I didn't have any experience in this field. When I started working on this project I read Denis Noble's book The Music of Life, which I can recommend to anyone, to become a little bit more familiar with systems biology and genetics. For me as well as for the scientist from NCSB brainstorming on this project together was very interesting. I thought it would be a lot more difficult, but it turned out to work great.


Can you give us more details about what you hope to realize with this project?

In my project I'm using common research tools, but instead of using them for scientific research I use them to create an art piece.

The organisms I use in the installation are C. elegans, used extensively in scientific research, for a wide array of purposes. Often this research involves C. elegans that have been given a mutation that is not visible under the microscope. As a handy tool, researchers give these worms an extra mutation that makes them move in a different way; they are twitching, or moving like a corkscrew, or they become really obese. In my installation I use these handicapped mutants, and translate their movement into sound. The worms are projected in real time on screens behind them. I want to control the movement of the worms to a certain degree with temperature and vibration, to create a composition based on an opera. I'm working on making the worms control a synthesized opera voice, and I try to use the same image analysis algorithms researchers at NCSB use.

With this project I try to research the artistic value of some research tools, and shine a new light on them. On the other hand I'm also fascinated by the worms, who have no idea of the world above them. We are like gods to these little lab worms, following them from their first cell division to their death, manipulating their bodies and mutating their DNA. Are we really like gods, or are we like the worms, unaware of the things above us in a different dimension, the biggest thing becoming the tiniest.

How did you get interested in this humble worm?

C. elegans has been used extensively as a model organism and a researcher introduced me to them. Not only does it move in an elegant way, like its name suggests, it's also the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced. Besides these nice aspects they are also easy to keep and you can even train them to some extent.


The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started to work on Microscopic Opera? How is the collaboration with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?

Yes I've started expermenting with the worms and doing some programming. I've also done a lot of discussing with the NCSB team, mostly consulting me on technical issues, but I'll also be working some more in their lab, which I'm very looking forward to.

Thanks Matthijs!

All images courtesy Matthijs Munnik.

A very moving exhibition i saw yesterday morning in Amsterdam:

Every quarter of an hour Ton Grootes, the owner of Sex Cinema Venus in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, changes the Super 8 rushes containing porn films from the Seventies. He doesn't like nowadays's porn. Ladies have inflatable breasts and there's little scenario, actors just arrive on screen and almost immediately, as Grootes says, "Bang!"

Laatste Loodjes, 2009 (c) Jan-Dirk van der Burg

Sex Cinema Venus is well past its glory era. Only a handful of loyal customers come nowadays. People pass by, almost always look at the pictures outside the cinema but they don't come in. Still, Grootes opens the cinema every day. He hates to stay home doing nothing.

Sex Cinema Venus seems to be stuck in Super8 time. It is the oldest sex cinema in the Red Light District. Sadly, it will soon disappear as a result of Amsterdam's regeneration plans. It is expected that, soon, the city council of Amsterdam will issue a compulsory purchase note to the sex cinema and will stimulate high-end commercial developments in its place.

Venus, 2009 (c) Jan-Dirk van der Burg

If you don't dare to enter the sex cinema and meet its owner and reels, Jan-Dirk van der Burg can help. The young photographer interviewed the cinema owner and documented his work in a series of photos and a slideshow with extracts of the glorious 70s porn movies. You can see them (along with a few vintage posters which i photographed but canceled afterward by mistake from the memory card) at Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam exhibits

V1, 2009 (c) Jan-Dirk van der Burg

Sex Cinema Venus is on view at Foam in Amsterdam until December 16, 2009.

One of the rules of this blog is never to make announcements of events. Every rule comes with its exceptions... The November programme of the VASTAL workshops and lectures is out!

(image Deweer Gallery)

The VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd. is Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute on Art and Life Sciences. It's free, open to the public and i hope you'll allow me to remind you how much we enjoy them:

Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop
Image of the day
Tissue Culture Lab at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics (part 1)
Tissue Culture Lab at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics (part 2)

Wednesday 11 November

Body Art Lecture with performance artists: Kira O'Reilly, WARBEAR, Jeanette Groenendaal and Boryana Rossa.

The artists will speak/perform together about: the body in performance and stressed physiology as personal or public shock chemistry; pure culture technique in science and its effect on the making of clean and dirty bodies; artist's input on future body aesthetics during the present genetic reproductive redesign of the human form; erotic containment and the thrill of contagious patients exploding; experiments, lab animals and the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies, etc.

Thursday 12 November and Saturday 14 November

Body Art Lab which, i'm told, will involve blood and sex performances in the Glove Box. "Various performance artists will be ritually cleansed and enter the glove box one or two at a time. Various performance artists take turns in the box interacting with the public or other actors reaching into them with the gloves. This is experimental Body Art with a biological theme that references experiments, lab animals, the pure and the impure as well as the distance (or presumed distance) that objectivity implies. "

The Vivoarts Performance in the Glove Box, is a Mason Juday and Adam Zaretsky Production and will feature Boryana Rossa, Oleg Mavromatti, Zoot Derks, Jeanette Groenendaal and WarBear.

Tuesday 17 November

Animal Personality Art and Science Lecture and Lab with Dr. Kees van Oers or one of his colleagues and Koen Van Mechelen.

Dr. Kees van Oers studies the genetic background, physiology and fitness consequences of variation in avian personality. In 2005 he obtained a personal VENI-grant to study the evolutionary genetics of personality using a linkage study in a natural population. This work is currently extended in collaboration with the Animal Breeding and Genomics Center in an NGI-grant on songbird genomics.

Koen Vanmechelen is a Belgian conceptual artist whose work engages with issues of genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness. The artist is currently working on The Cosmopolitan Chicken project, an experiment to develop a super-hybrid chicken.

Koen Vanmechelen, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project

Koen Vanmechelen's The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project chickens will be installed from Nov 5 to Dec 6 at the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. Vanmechelen is also having his first solo exhibition in a U.S. gallery at Conner Contemporary Art in Washington.

Featuring live chickens, the exhibition also includes taxidermy and blown-glass sculptures, video, and photography, as well as drawings and paintings in tempera made from eggs laid by chickens bred by the artist.

Tissue Culture Lab at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics (part 1)

As promised yesterday here's a report on the Tissue Culture lab that took place on September 15 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., the temporary research and education institute set up by Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society in Amsterdam.


The Tissue Culture Lab was headed by Oron Catts of the SymbioticA and Tissue Culture & Art Project fame. In this hands-on wet lab for public practical and experiential tissue culture technique, we isolated primary tissues (mostly bone marrow, muscle and HeLa cells) in a custom-made sterile hood and then incubated them separately from their original corporeal context. but more interestingly we got to face and discuss some of the ethical issues that accompany tissue culture and the process of working with life in general.



Ours was a very basic and rough approach to tissue culture. We performed some very mundane tasks: we learnt the art of "pipetting", we mixed antibiotics, trypsin and other ingredients to create a solution that would provide cells with a body similar to the one they come from. We got to don huge green gloves and manipulate knives and tweezers.

The aim of the wet lab was not to have us run our own lab. The objective of the workshop was to present the general public with the technology and the dilemmas that accompanies it. A hands-on approach takes the technology beyond a strictly scientific approach and informs the debate on the ethical, cultural and social implication of tissue culture. What does it mean to work with living, semi-living or formely living beings? What does it mean to grow disembodied cells from a former organism? What's the meaning of tissue culture for artistic purposes versus health application? Or the development of a new weapon?

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

Amusingly, the whole operation took place under a reproduction of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson which graces the walls of Waag's Theatrum Anatomicum room.

First we worked with a recently slaughtered goat then with the HeLa cells that Adam went to fetch in Leyden and brought back in a box filled with ice. As mentioned in my previous post, Henrietta Lacks' doctor removed cells from her cervix and provided Johns Hopkins University with a sample of these cancer cells. It happened in 1951 and the patient was never asked if she'd agree to that. The HeLa cell cultures survived and multiplied so well in culture, that they were soon being shipped to research labs around the world. In 1975, the family of Henrietta Lacks learned that her cells still lived, spread all over the world.

The cells are controversial. Some people gained recognition for the papers they wrote and the research they made using the cells of this young black woman, other made money with her cells, they became mere commodities but her family was never consulted and they didn't received a cent.

Because we were working with the cells taken from a woman who died of cervical cancer, some participants to the lab asked whether they were safe to use. Apparently they are ok. These cells have been used throughout the world for decades without anyone being infected by them.

A Tasmanian Devil

The only known case of a continual line of cancer cells that had outlived its original host by year is the one affecting the Devil of Tasmania. The malignant cells are transmitted from one animal to another through bites, while feeding or mating. The disease apparently began with a single sick devil, probably in the mid-1990s, that directly spread the cancer cells by biting rivals in the face and around the mouth, which is natural devil behavior. Bits of tumor break off one devil and stick in the wounds of another.



During the workshop we also learned that very few cells seem to be able to grow very well without the blood plasma of a calf. The Tissue Culture and Art Project's famous Victimless Leather jacket was fed with that blood. The irony is thus that the project was not victimless at all. The same goes for the barely edible frog steaks that required the serum from two calves in order to grow.

Technology is getting better at hiding cruelty. Catts gave the example of a trip that he and Ionat Zurr made to Spain where they observed that opposition to bullfighting had intensified, but Spanish people are eating more and more at McDonald's.

Taxonomical crisis. What we see now in labs is life but not life we were used to. Linné's system is still used but it had to be modified.

If life isn't the same anymore, neither is the notion of death. TC&AP performs killing rituals after they've exhibited a piece in a show. They would grow a living or rather 'semi-living' piece using parts of a dead animals, then they grow it, giving the public the feeling that the new entity is living. As a result, some people complain about the 'slaughter' of an entity that used to belong to a dead body. Wonder if anyone is still following me here?

There are various ways to incubate the cells. You can either use an incubator:


Or your own body. No one was up for the fleshy option. Except Adam who got Oron Catts to tape the flask containing the cells on his thorax:


One might believe at first sight that making things out of living stuff would be more environmentally-friendly but it's not. Mostly because of the colossal amount of waste required by scientific practice. Take glass pipettes for example: they have to be washed several times, sterilized and individually packaged in plastic before they can be used again. Plastic used to replace glass is always wasteful because it has to be wrapped in plastic too and can only be used once before it is binned. Each day bags and bags of laboratory waste have to be incinerated.

At the end of the workshop, Adam generously invited us to join a barbecue were we would eat the remains of the goat we had scavenged in search for living cells. I wonder if anyone had the appetite for it.


Next sessions of VASTAL labs and talks: November. We'll keep you posted on that one too!

Previously: Image of the day, September programme of the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics and Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop.
And if you read dutch, Waag has a blog post about Huub de Groot and Rich Pell's presentations at VASTAL.

A couple of week ago, i was back at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics Ltd., Adam Zaretsky and Waag Society's temporary research and education institute in Amsterdam.


On the menu that day was a Tissue Culture Lab headed by tissue engineering artist Oron Catts. Catts is the co-founder and Artistic Director of SymbioticA, the Art & Science Collaborative Research Laboratory, at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, UWA. He is also the founder, together with Ionat Zurr, of the Tissue Culture & Art Project.

Wikipedia defines tissue culture as follows: the growth of tissues and/or cells separate from the organism. This is typically facilitated via use of a liquid, semi-solid, or solid growth medium, such as broth or agar. Tissue culture commonly refers to the culture of animal cells and tissues, while the more specific term plant tissue culture is used for plants.

I'll come back to the hands-on wet lab in an upcoming post. For now, here are some notes i wrote down during a talk that Oron Catts gave to kick off the workshop. His presentation, which put our workshop into a historical narrative, was titled An alternative timeline for regenerative medicine - A biased history.

As HG Wells wrote back in 1895, life is becoming something for us to engineer:

'We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, something that may be shaped and altered.' HG Wells, 1895

In 1885, Wilhelm Roux removed a portion of the medullary plate of an embryonic chicken and maintained it in a warm saline solution for several days, establishing the principle of tissue culture.

The first successful human transplant was a corneal transplant performed in 1905 by Eduard Zirm in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

In 1907 zoologist Ross Harrison successfully perform the first partial life entity. He demonstrated the growth of frog nerve cell processes in a medium of clotted lymph.

In 1913, surgeon, biologist and eugenicist Alexis Carrel grows cells in culture for long periods -fed regularly under aseptic conditions. In 1912, Carrel took tissue from the heart of a chicken embryo to demonstrate that warm-blooded cells could be kept alive in the lab. This tissue was kept alive for thirty-four years -- outliving Carrel himself -- before it was deliberately terminated. His experiments horrified his contemporaries. It has sometimes been said that his lab in Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research inspired Hollywood's Frankenstein.

Interestingly, this practice of fragmenting the body and keeping the cells alive was called "Artificial Life" at the time.

In 1913, Ross Harrison noted the epistemological contradictions regarding tissue culture:
' seems rather surprising that recent work upon the survival of small pieces of tissue, and their growth and differentiation outside of the parent body, should have attracted so much attention, but we can account for it by the way the individuality of the organism as a whole overshadows in our minds the less obvious fact that each one of us may be resolved into myriads of cellular units with some definite structure and with autonomous powers'

Eduard Uhlenhuth wrote in 1916 "Through the discovery of tissue culture we have so to speak created a new type of body on which to grow the cell."

Dr. Martin A. Couney's exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933-1934

The first premature baby wards in the US were part of a freak show called "Oddities of Life."

From the 1910 till the 1930, tissue culture starts to be regarded as science by scientists. They start to see an utilitarian end to it, it's not just a curiosity anymore.

1948 saw the first animal cell line established (mouse). Those cells tcan be considered the oldest living parts of a mouse.

0aahenreitett8.jpg1951 first immortal human cell line established. HeLa. The cell line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from involuntary donor Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer that year.

The cells were propagated by George Otto Gey without Lacks' knowledge or permission and later commercialized. There was no requirement to inform a patient, or their relatives, because discarded material, or material obtained during surgery, diagnosis or therapy was the property of the physician and/or medical institution. This issue and Ms. Lacks' situation was brought up in the Supreme Court of California in 1990 but the court ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.

HeLa cells are termed "immortal" because they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate. It has been estimated that the total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were actually in Henrietta Lacks' body. The cells traveled around the globe- even into space, on a satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity- and have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape glue, cosmetics, and many other products (source.)

Cell lines are usually dehumanized but the story goes that one night, a surgeon working with HeLa cells realized that he was working with a person's cell while he was having dinner with a relative of Henrietta. Neither Henrietta nor her family had given permission for the cell line. They wanted her contribution to science to be respected and her cells to be sort of 'rehumanised.'

HeLa cells

1954, the field of tissue culture becomes more standardized.

"I have sought to strip from the study of this subject its former atmosphere of mystery and complications. The grey walls, black gowns, masks and hoods; the shining twisted glass and pulsating coloured fluids; the gleaming stainless steel, hidden steam jets, enclosed microscopes and huge witches' cauldrons of the 'great' laboratories of 'tissue culture' have led far too many persons to consider cell culture too abstruse, recondite and sacrosanct a field to be invaded by mere hoi polio." P.R White, The cultivation of animal and plant cells, New York, Ronalds Press 1954.

Joseph Murray performed the first successful transplant, a kidney transplant between identical twins, in 1954.

Joseph Murray performs the first ever live organ transplant (image)

1978, Louise Brown, the world's first baby to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation.

Publication of Langer, R & Vacanti JP, Tissue engineering. Science 260, 920-6; 1993.

Eastern Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus

We are becoming salamanders: our bodies can repair themselves and regrow lost parts using their own resources. In the '80s, repairing the body was more mechanical, people would picture prosthetic limbs, heart pumps and mechanical organs. 10 years later, the image is the one of a body that relies on cells that have been engineered into 3D objects.

Previously: Image of the day, September programme of the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics and Day 1 at the VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics: Seed broadcasting workshop.

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