Bio Art. Altered Realities, by writer, teacher, and curator William Myers.


Find it on amazon UK and USA

Publisher Thames & Hudson writes: In an era of fast-paced technological progress and with the impact of humans on the environment increasing, the concept of "nature" itself seems called into question. Bio Art explores the work of "bio artists," those who work with living organisms and life processes to address the possibilities and dangers posed by biotechnological advancement.

A contextual introduction traces the roots of bio artistic practice, followed by four thematic chapters: Altering Nature, Experimental Identity and Mediums, Visualizing Scale and Scope, and Redefining Life. The chapters cover the key areas in which biotechnology has had an impact on today's world, including ecology, biomedicine, designer genomes, and changing approaches to evolutionary theory, and include profiles of the work of sixty artists, collectives, and organizations from around the world. Interviews with eight leading bio artists and technologists provide deeper insight into the ideas and methods of this new breed of creative practitioners.

Anna Dumitriu performing Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon

Bioart* is an umbrella term that covers a host of practices. For Myers, not all of them involve 'getting your hands dirty' by doing tissue culture or using synthetic biology to create glow-in-the-dark plants and other novel biological systems. Bioart practices have often been reduced to the medium and this book liberates them from the use of living material by arguing that bio artists are the ones who use biology either as a medium or as a subject in order to investigate how science is shifting cultural perceptions of identity, nature, life, and environment. Artists can do so by reverse engineering genetically modified flowers or organizing competitions between two people's white blood cells duel but also by using more 'traditional' practices such as manipulating photography, sculpting grotesque life forms in silicone or speculating on the ecological soundness of reducing the human populations to 50 cm high individuals. You might agree or totally reject this expansion of the field but the idea is certainly worth a debate.

Because they cover a series of art practices but also scientific innovations and their ethical dilemmas, books about bioart often excel in either the art or the science part. Bio Art. Altered Realities shines at both: bioart's place in art history, its significance and challenges are skilfully presented and scientific concepts such as epigenetic, synthetic biology, or bacteriology are explained with clarity and efficiency.

One thing i found less pertinent is that the name of each artist is immediately followed by their nationality. I would also have given more than an ultra brief mention to SymbioticA as i think their work and ideas have inspired pretty much any bio artist or designer.

Other than that, Go! Get that book. Make some space in your life for an art field which i believe has great cultural significance. The author often compares bio artists to the surrealists who, during the first half of the 20th century, tapped the unconscious mind and attempted to explore the traumas of wars. Bio artists are similarly interested in engaging with the contradictions and dramas of their times. It is an art that challenges our understanding of what it means to be alive but more importantly, it is an art that is often firmly rooted into the Anthropocene. And i don't think that there are many issues more dramatic nowadays than humanity's harmful impact on the planet.

Some of the works i discovered (or rediscovered) in the book:

Azuma Makoto, Water and Bonsai

Water and Bonsai is an aquarium containing a piece of Sabina chinensis deadwood that has had java moss attached to it to look like the tiny tree foliage of a bonsai. A closed ecosystem made of filtration pumps, LED lights and CO2 emissions is created in order to recreate the photosynthesis.

Maja Smrekar, BioBase: risky ZOOgraphies. Aksioma Production, Installation, 2012 / 2014. Photo: Janez Janša

Developed in close collaboration with a team of scientists, BIOBASE: 45° 53' 28.20"N, 15° 36' 9.18"E explores the issue of invasive species in Europe and in particular a crayfish featuring an unusual mutation that allows it to reproduce asexually. Because i can multiply rapidly, they threaten ecosystems wherever they are introduced. Smrekar has choreographed and recorded encounters of the new species with the more "natural" crayfish. This sort of interaction may be one that we humans will repeat in a far-off future when we compete and conflict with dramatically mutated versions of humans adapted to new environments.

Transgenic specimens under lock and key at Center for PostNatural History. Photo: Andrea Grover

Carole Collet, Biolace, Strawberry Noir - the roots of these black strawberries with high levels of anthocyanin and vitamin C, would produce black lace

Biolace is located in a future where all grown food is 'enhanced' and where sustainable manufacturing is compulsory for an overpopulated planet. 'Biolace' proposes to use synthetic biology to reprogram plants into multi-purpose factories. Plants would grow in hydroponic organic greenhouses and become living machines. In this scenario, we would harvest fruits and fabrics at the same time from the same plants.

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Homo Stupidus Stupidus, 2008

Homo Stupidus Stupidus is a human skeleton taken apart and put back together again in a different way, disregarding our knowledge of human anatomy.

Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Things in the World (the Llareta plants in South America that grow 1.5 centimeters annually and live over 3,000 years)

Since 2004, Rachel Sussman has been researching the history of the planet through the photos of living organisms that are at least 2,000 years old.

Mark Dion, 300 Million Years of Flight, 2012 (photo)

Mike Thompson, Susana Cámara Leret and Dave Young (in collaboration with the Netherlands Metabolomics Centre), The Rhythm of Life. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

The Rhythm of Life investigates the potential of sensory data experiences. Participants are offered the possibility to listen in on the electro-chemical messages transmitted by their own bodies, in exchange for donating their personal biodata to scientific research.

Sonja Bäumel (in collaboration with Manuel Selg), Metabodies, 2013

Metabodies visualizes aspects of the microbiome of a subject at three distinct times: after sex, after a shower, and after an athletic activity. The artist used E. coli to visualize the communication that occurs in the bacterial populations through chemical signaling.

Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph)

In the most recent stage of Corrupted C#n#m# , Madagascar hissing cockroaches were transformed into 'cyberinsects' capable of disrupting video data.

Views from inside the book:







If you are in London on Thursday 26 November, Bio Art author William Myers and artist Anna Dumitriu will be at Tate Modern to discuss 'the ethics and aesthetics of artists working with living organisms and life processes.'

Image on the homepage: Angelo Vermeulen, Corrupted C#n#m# (Entomograph).

*Sorry i like to write bioart in one word.

Sponsored by:

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, by historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.


Pre-order on amazon USAand UK

Publisher Verso writes: Scientists tell us that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. We are not facing simply an environmental crisis, but a geological revolution of human origin. In two centuries, our planet has tipped into a state unknown for millions of years. How did we get to this point?

Refuting the convenient view of a "human species" that upset the Earth system unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes a new account of modernity that shakes up many accepted ideas: on the supposedly recent date of "environmental awareness," on previous challenges to industrialism, on the manufacture of consumerism and the energy "transition," as well as on the role of the military in environmental destruction.

Through a dialogue between science and history, the authors draw an ecological balance sheet of a developmental model that has become unsustainable, and explore paths for living and acting politically in the Anthropocene.

Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim, via Vantage

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that recognizes that humanity's imprint on global environment rivals some of the greatest forces of nature. The authors suggest that the Anthropocene started with James Watt's improved steam engine designs in the late 18th century which kicked off the industrial revolution and thus the 'carbonification' of our atmosphere. From that time on, human activities started to have a significantly damaging impact on the Earth's ecosystems: high levels of air pollution, ocean acidification, out of control climate, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, modification of continental water cycle, etc. As the authors note, the Anthropocene is a sign of both our power and our impotence.

The book attempts to comprehend this new epoch but also to dispel a few misconceptions. I found particularly interesting the one about the sudden 'awakening' to our responsibility in climate change and the one that claims that only scientists possess the knowledge and wisdom necessary to save the planet.

The Anthropocene is often presented as an 'awakening' as if we were the first generations that realized the damage that burning fossil fuels, overfishing and other human activities have done to the earth atmosphere. But as the authors easily demonstrate, men knew what they were doing 200 years ago and environmentally damaging actions regularly met with criticism, challenge and struggle right from the beginning of the Anthropocene.

The book also states that today's scientific knowledge is put on a pedestal. On the one side is a small elite of scientists who appear as the spokespeople for the Earth. On the other is the uninformed mass of the world population awaiting to be saved or at least shepherded in the right direction. If we believe the experts, serious solutions can only emerge from further innovations in the labs, rather than from alternative political experiments in society as a whole. Besides, as the authors write, to position humanity (or just its elite) as a pilot means that the earth is little more than a cybernetic machine that can be dominated from the outside. They conclude that what we need right now is not a rescue plan made of geo-engineering prowess but more narratives, types of knowledge, a variety of civic initiatives and popular alternatives which explores the outlines of living better with less.

Chemical and biological warfare trials during Cold War in 1956. The masks had to be worn to allow the collection of proxy warfare substances that had been sprayed from aircraft (image via The Independent)

A visualization of satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth on Stuff in Space (image via Hyperallergic)

The book also demonstrate convincingly that the responsibility for the Anthropocene doesn't rest on the shoulders of every single human beings. Fressoz and Bonneuil explain at length the role that the military, capitalism and two hegemonic powers (Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th Century) play in the Anthropocene. Some thinkers even used the word 'Oliganthropocene' to define a geological epoch caused by a small fraction of humanity.

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is well written, impeccably researched (the authors quote all the relevant thinkers you might imagine from Marx to Piketty, from Gandhi to Hannah Arendt) and its discourse brings the Anthropocene into a wide historical and societal context. But above all, it is a book that shows that in the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of past, present and coming political choices. Even though people running the political sphere seem to royally ignore that fact. I've always found it a bit strange to see how low ecological concerns and promises figured in electoral campaigns.

One of the most important lessons the book has to offer is that we should probably all stop talking about an ecological 'crisis'. It's too late for that. A crisis can be overcome, the anthropocene can't. We've reached a point of no return.

Photo on the home page by Marco Gualazzini, Coltan mining from R.D. Congo- The War of Minerals.

The quality of groundwater is heavily affected by modern life: industrial discharges, urban activities, waste disposal and other human activities contaminate drinking and irrigation water with undesirable pollutants.

Looking for innovative ways to supply agricultural fields with clean water, artist Rihards Vitols is currently experimenting with a new type of agronomy that relies on "cloud-farming". In his scenario, farmers will raise thousands of helium balloons above their land to collect water from the cloud. Demonstration in the video below:

Rihards Vitols (artistic concept, video editing) and Janis Jankevics (video)

akA is part of the Transformative Ecologies exhibition which will open this week at the Maison du Design gallery in Mons, Belgium. The show features the result of the "techno-ecological" researches initiated by Latvian and Belgian artists who are exploring sustainable food and energy futures.

Right before the show opens, i caught up with the Vitols to get more details about his first prototypes and experiments:



Launching the first balloon to collect data (with Eva Bukevica)

Launching the first balloon to collect data

Hi Rihards! How did you get the idea for the project?

In the beginning the project was about clouds. I wanted to collect and archive data from clouds over my great-grandparents land, which I did using weather balloons and attaching humidity and temperature sensors to them. After a while I started to notice that balloons are slowly losing height. I took one of them down to check if there was a leak. But instead I noticed that small water drops are all over the balloon surface. Then the winter came and I had some time to think about how I could work with this process. During the Autumn a lot of people around me were talking about the future of water and then the idea about akA and Cloud Farming came into my head.

I was surprised at how low-tech the mechanism was. It looks so simple. But are there tricks and secrets to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible? Or challenges you had to overcome while developing the project?

It is simple. But it is not fast. You need to wait while the water lands on the balloon and it can take some time. One of the challenges is the wind. If it's windy it's harder to get it up in the sky. Wind is just blowing it away diagonally. The second challenge is to launch multiple balloons in one field. I am still thinking about methods so that they would not get entangled with each other. Water collecting is still in progress and I am looking for the best solution. I used a sponge but obviously it`s not the best way, because some part of the water stays in it. At the moment those are all only ideas and i will be doing some further testing next spring.

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Sketch for farming

Could you walk us through the ideal scenario for akA? it would have to be implemented at large scale with thousands of balloons, right? But what is the process like on a large scale? Would the balloons have to be operative non-stop? Or just be deployed when there is a need for more water? How would a farmer use it exactly?

Farm size depends on the land size. But the ideal would be 1000+ balloons of 3 meters in diameter. All balloons would be lifted at once and connected in a network so they stay in place. Water gathering would need to be automated and at the moment I'm thinking about using a waterproof paper material to create a funnel which then would be attached to the balloon. I'm also considering using a lightweight tube from funnel to farm so that water can safely make its way to the purification station. A daily task of the farmer would be to check if all of the balloons are okay, also to fill the balloons with helium at least once every 2 weeks, fill bottles with water and send them out to shops or private buyers. I would like to automate it so far that all of the work takes only 2-4 days per month. One of best things is that the ground under the balloons can still be used for other things.

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

View of the prototype at the Virtuous exhibition at the RIXC gallery in Riga

Is the water from the clouds really as pure as it should be? Aren't clouds submitted to industrial pollution as well?

During the winter kids are eating snow - during the summer they are running around with their mouth open trying to catch the falling rain, at least in Latvia they do so. No one has gotten sick of it. Of course in a larger amount and in a bigger concentration it may not be so healthy. So all of the water needs to be checked before selling it further.

Sketch for data collecting

You have started to collect moist and temperature data about the sky over your land. Could you tell us what you found out?

Data collecting helped me to find the moistest place and time around the property. All data collection was before the water collection and at that moment there was no reason to find out something just to get data. Now I can use this data to show how fertile the sky over my property is for the potential cloud farmers who would like to rent my land for water collecting, if I would choose to stop collecting it by myself.

What's next for the project?

Together with a designer Reinis Nalivaiko I`m building a webpage about the project. All information on the project will be available in the webpage, along with the data about the sky where the water and its analysis are being collected from. The concepts of the water collection systems will be also there along with the documentation from their appliance.

Next spring I want to get the cloud water tested and compare this data with tap water, rain water and borehole water. And then based on these data I would be able to find out what kind of purification system I need for the farm.

With a help of an architect Ivars Veinbergs that would allow me to make an architectural project and maybe in the next 2 years I will be able to create the first Cloud Farm.

Thanks Rihards!

Rihards Vitols holds a master's degree in new media art from Liepaja University where he is now teaching. And in a few weeks the artist will start a second masters degree at KHM (Academy of Media Arts Cologne).

Check out akA at the Transformative Ecologies exhibition on 19 to 30 August at Maison du Design in Mons, Belgium. The show is curated by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits from RIXC Center for New Media Culture and is accompanied by a 3D BioLab symposium on August 20th and 21st in Cafe Europa.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Robots are transforming surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System, for example, allows long and complicated procedures to be performed with super human precision and dexterity. All while decreasing patient trauma and providing a more comfortable experience for the surgeon.

Costing up to $2.000.000 however, a surgical robot represents large capital investments and only becomes cost effective after intensive use and thus fits into a more "market driven" concept of healthcare that indirectly contributes to the overall rising medical expenditures.

da_Vinci_action_024003 5x7_150dpi.jpg
A surgeon sitting in an ergonomic control console, a few meters removed from the operating table, uses specialized joysticks to control a variety of tiny surgical instruments attached to robotic arms

One of the corollaries of expensive professional healthcare is the rise of communities of uninsured Americans who share videos on Youtube to demonstrate how they performed medical hacks on themselves.

Henry Knoll, How to make your own dental fillings to performing minor amateur surgery, $5 DIY Cosmetic Dentistry, 2009

Designer Frank Kolkman, a new graduate of the Design Interactions course at the Royal College of Art in London, wondered if a compromise could be found. His OpenSurgery project investigates whether building DIY surgical robots, outside the scope of healthcare regulations, could provide an accessible alternative to the costly professional healthcare services worldwide.

There have been several attempts within the robotics community to come up with cheaper and more portable surgical robots. The RAVEN II Surgical robot, for example, was initially developed with funding from the US military to create a portable telesurgery device for battlefield operations. The machine is valued at $200.000 and all of the software used to control the RAVEN II has been made open source. However, The Raven doesn't have the (often costly) safety and quality control systems in place, required by regulation to allow it to be used on humans meaning that it might take a while before the RAVEN II will be fully embraced by regulatory and commercial worlds. In any case, most medical hacker communities would still be unable to afford its $200.000 price tag.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

For the past five months, Kolkman has thus been trying to build a DIY surgical robot for around $5000, by using accessible prototyping techniques like laser cutting and 3d printing and by sourcing as many ready-made parts as he could find.

Designing a surgical robot that could perform laparoscopic surgery (a surgery so minimally invasive that it is also called keyhole surgery) presents a number of challenges. The designer found an answer to each of them:

- the many laporoscopic tools that the robot would have to handle can be ordered directly from their Chinese manufacturers using Alibaba.
- these tools are usually sterilized in an autoclave, a machine that uses high pressure and hot steam that is not very likely to be accessible to many people. The bulky machine could be replaced by a domestic oven (for stainless steel instruments) or a microwave (for plastic parts.)
- Kolkman also replaced the trocar, a medical device that functions as a portal for the subsequent placement of other instruments, with a design that uses 3d printed parts controlled by DC servo motors that rotate around a central pivotal point.

Opensurgery_Domestic sterilization.jpg
Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery (domestic sterilization), 2015

The electronics to control the robots were copied from designs used in 3d printer communities, while the software was build with Processing.

The main challenge the designer encountered however was intellectual property. In a bid to make the project open source, Kolkman tried to develop his own mechanisms. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the fundamental concepts that allow robotic surgery have already been patented. Fortunately, he also found out that as long as you make parts protected by intellectual property in private and for non commercial purposes they are theoretically exempted from patent infringement.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

After five months of iteration, the robot does move. The designer concludes:

And based on my experiences the concept of a DIY surgical robot is surprisingly plausible. If you would be able to build a community of makers who bring the same amount of attention and dedication to building surgical tools as they do to designing 3d printers and cnc machines these days, I believe accessible DIY surgery equipment would be within reach.

And of course you still need a trained surgeon to operate the machine.

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Frank Kolkman, OpenSurgery, 2015

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

For a number of years, artist Gilberto Esparza has been using recycled electronics, alternative forms of energy and other modern technologies to investigate the action of human beings on the environment. His Urban Parasites are small robotic insects made of recycled consumer goods. They climb, crawl and hang over the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. In 2010, he developed Nomadic Plants, a robot hosting living plants and microorganisms. Whenever its 'guests' need to be fed, the autonomous robot will move towards a contaminated river and drink water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cells, the elements contained in the water are transformed into energy that powers its circuits. The cleaned up water is then sprayed onto the plants.

Like Nomadic Plants, but on a larger scale, Esparza's new research project makes use of microbial fuel cells technology to produce electricity and improve the quality of water.

Autophotosynthetic Plants takes the form a hybrid, self-regulating organism. Part machine, part organic ecosystem, it feeds on organisms found into the sewage water of Lima, Peru, in order to create its own light, energy and be self-sufficient.

As any living organism, Autophotosynthetic Plants features a central system where microorganisms, crustaceans and algae live; a digestive system where bacteria feed on polluted water and transform it into cleaner water that can be used for photosynthesis; and a nervous system made of an electronic network that monitors the activities of the organic parts.

The process is probably better explained in the video below:

The modules create hydraulic network that administers bio-filtered water to the central container, creating an optimal environment where producer species and consumer species from different trophic levels (protzoans, crustaceans, micro algae and aquatic plants) can achieve homeostatic equilibrium. The electricity produced by the bacteria is released as intervals of luminous energy, enabling photosynthesis by the plants that inhabit the central container which thereby complete their metabolic processes. When the organic material present in the microbial cells has been entirely consumed, an electronic monitoring networks pumps out the byproducts generated by the species that inhabit the nuclear ecosystem to the modular cells, restoring the cycle.

The ambitious project not only suggests that polluted water can be used as a source of energy but it also stands as a model that could potentially be applied to other cities, communities and industries.

I contacted the artist to know more about the project (Scroll down if you prefer to read the interview in Spanish):

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Fundación Telefonica

Hi Gilberto! Where do the electricity-bacteria come from? Did you find them existing already in the contaminated water? Or were there introduced from another source? Are they the same bacterias as in Plantas nomadas?

The bacteria come from the rivers where the samples are taken. One of the bacteria commonly found in organic waste is the Geobacter which has been used in various studies to generate energy by microbial fuel cells. It is the same system that Nomadic Plants is using.

The obvious question is: could the system be implemented on a large scale? Going thus from the scale of an art installation in an exhibition room to a fully functional system used for a whole area of the city?

Yes, all the research centers that are working with this technology have that possibility in mind. The idea is to implement the use of microbial cells in wastewater treatment plants to reduce the power consumption that the plant requires.

Does the system require a lot of maintenance and attention? Or does it pretty much manage itself without any help from you or from scientists?

The installation has analog electronics and multiple sensors that auto-regulate the functioning of the installation. The only maintenance consists in aliment it with wastewater each time a biodegradation cycle ends.

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014. Photo: Christian Sánchez

In the video, you explain that you took water from various parts of the city and that each zone of the city had its own level and type of pollution. Could you explain a bit more? How does that translate in the installation? Do the various types of polluted water require different bacteria? produce different intensity or types of energy?

It depends on the area where the samples were taken. In industrial areas, for example, you can find a higher amount of toxic waste that sometimes inhibit bacteria. In other sectors of the city, household waste generate more organic matter. In those waters bacteria feed on this waste and produce more energy and this energy is reflected in the installation in the form in flashes of light that are more intense and that make aquatic plants perform their photosynthetic processes better.

In the video, we see visitors entering the room of Plantas autofotosintéticas wearing a mask. Is it because the installation has a bad smell? Or is dangerous to breathe in?

The installation emits bad smells and presents a source of infection for visitors, so we decided to protect them. I find this approach to the work interesting because those same conditions are found in the urban area bordering polluted rivers and their inhabitants are exposed to them all the time.

Thanks Gilberto!

And now for the spanish version of the interview:

¿De dónde provienen las bacterias que se alimentan de electricidad? Ya existían en el agua contaminada? O lo habías introducido desde otra parte? ¿Son las mismas bacterias en Plantas nómadas?

Las bacterias provienen de los ríos de donde sacan las muestras, una de las bacterias que es muy común en donde se presentan desechos orgánicos es la Geobacter con las que se han estado haciendo diversos estudios para la generación de energía a través de celdas de combustible microbianas. Es el mismo sistema que utiliza Plantas Nómadas.

¿Se podría llevar a gran escala el sistema? Yendo solo así de la escala de una instalación de arte en una sala de exposiciones a un sistema totalmente funcional utilizada para toda una zona de la ciudad?

Sí, todos los centros de investigación que están trabajando con esta tecnología tienen presente esa posibilidad. La idea es implementar el uso de las celdas microbianas en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales para disminuir el consumo de energía que la planta requiere.

¿El sistema requiere mucha atención, mantenimiento? ¿O más o menos se maneja por sí mismo sin ninguna ayuda de usted o de los científicos?

La instalación tiene una electrónica análoga y múltiples censores que autorregulan el funcionamiento de la instalación, el único mantenimiento es proveerle de aguas residuales cada que termine el ciclo de biodegradación.

En el vídeo, se explica que le "tomó agua de diversas partes de la ciudad y que cada zona de la ciudad tiene su propio nivel y tipo de contaminación. ¿Podría explicar un poco más? ¿Cómo se traduce en la instalación? ¿Los distintos tipos de aguas contaminadas requieren diferentes bacterias? produce diferentes tipos de energía o la intensidad?

Depende de la zona en donde se tomaron las muestras, se presentas distintos contaminantes por ejemplo en las zonas industriales se presentan mas desechos tóxicos que algunas veces inhiben a las bacterias. En otros sectores de la cuidad, se presentan más materia orgánica por desechos domésticos, en esas aguas las bacterias se alimentas de estos desechos y producen más energía y esta energía se manifiesta en la instalación como destellos de luz más intensos que hacen que las plantas acuáticas que habitan en el núcleo realicen mejor sus procesos fotosintéticos.

En el video, vemos a los visitantes que entran en la habitación de las Plantas autofotosintéticas con una máscara. ¿Es porque la instalación tiene un mal olor? ¿O es peligroso para respirar?

La instalación despide malos olores y representa un foco de infección para los espectadores, por eso se decidió protegerlos. Esta aproximación a la obra me interesa porque esas mismas condiciones se encuentran en las zona urbanas que colindan con los ríos contaminados y que sus habitantes están expuestos todo el tiempo.

¡Muchas gracias Gilberto!

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring. Photo: Carina-Hesper

In the South of Spain runs a river so red and so alien-looking that the Spain tourism board is marketing it as Mars on Earth. NASA scientists even came to the area to investigate the ecosystem for its similarities to the planet Mars.

Due (mostly) to the intense mining for copper, silver, gold, and other mineral in the area, the Rio Tinto is highly acidic, its water has a low oxygen content and it is made dense by the metals it carries in suspension. Its deep reddish hue is caused by the iron dissolved in the water.

Cecilia Jonsson visited the region to collect some of the wild grass that grows on the borders of the Rio Tinto. The name of that grass is Imperata cylindrica. It is a highly invasive weed and its other particularity is that it is an iron hyperaccumulator, which means that the plant literally drinks up the metal in the soil and stores high levels of it in its leaves, stems and roots.

The artist harvested 24kg of Imperata cylindrica and worked with smiths, scientists, technicians and farmers in order to extract the iron ore from the plants and use it to make an iron ring. The innovative experiment brought together the biological, the industrial, the technological and even craft to create a piece of jewellery that weights 2 grams. The project also suggests a way to reverse the contamination process while at the same time mining iron ore from the damaged environment.

While "green mining" aims for a more ecological approach to mining metals, The Iron Ring explores how contaminated mining grounds may benefit from the mining of metals.

Cecilia Jonsson's mining adventures are detailed in the e-book of the project but i found her investigation into the overlaps between nature and technology so fascinating that i contacted her in the hope that she'd agree to an interview. And lucky me, she did!

Hi Cecilia! I am very curious to know more about the way you, as someone who was primarily trained to be an artist, approach the science/technology side of your projects. Do you typically work with experts to assist you in your research? Or do you just learn the skills and work on your own? Or maybe a bit of both?

My constructions are a combination of hypothesizing outcomes plus trial and error, especially within parameters of biology, physics and technology. Informed by methods used in the natural sciences and empirical material in a site-related context. Mostly they take the form as installation which are the result of intense field work.

The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier claimed that the great error of the Surrealists was their own lack of faith: they tried to create the marvelous without really believing in it. "Objects" are often a living metaphor of their own history, their formation. To follow their trace through a wide flow of informative perspectives captures a reverberant relation of objective and subjective distinctions in a sort of intermingled morphology. Built on this quantitative data, the cluster eventually starts to web. When the notion of reality shifts into real it has become a concrete term. Which directs me to sites, material, methods and technologies including disseminated collaborations within other disciplines.

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring. Photo: Carina-Hesper

The Iron Ring is an incredible project. You extracted iron from plants and made a ring from what you collected. How did you discover the existence of those iron-containing plants?

Since iron is not the most toxic pollutant, has a low economical and symbolic value and can be virtually scooped up from everywhere, it was tricky to apply the idea to the knowledge base of present-day remediation processes. The research started around five years ago, from my interest for iron in its intrinsic qualities and paradoxical changes. I was looking into experiments of electro-culture, plant communication and how plants can be applied as analytical filters, as a mirroring of their own environment. I found some plants that are more tolerant to iron and are able to grow on this type of contaminated soils. But, most coherent plant studies about efficient iron uptake mostly targeted the human perspective in relation to high organic iron content as an effective adjunct in the treatment of iron deficiency and anemia.

The research was conducted for the project The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra from 2012. The installation shows an ambiguous process of an iron hyperaccumulating plant taking up magnetized iron particles that have been scraped of from a reel-to-reel tape of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. On a later stage the iron was extracted again, glued back to the tape and played, resulting in a reinterpretation of The Four Seasons. This work is a predecessor to The Iron Ring were I was interested in taking a more straight functional and site-specific approach to the grass unique ability to extract and encapsulate iron.

The defined iron hyperaccumulating plant with a minimum required amount of 10000 mg/kg Fe revealed in research articles on plant physiology and biochemistry from the university in Madrid. The constructive study had been conducted on the naturalized weed Imperata cylindrica. Collected from the highly acidic (pH 1.6-2) riverbanks of the Rio Tinto in the mining district Rio Tinto in South-western Spain. That model presented me results and a first equation for the calculations of the Iron Ring.

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra

The original arrangement was for a solo violin and a string orchestra. Iron absorption: I. cylindrica, root - Spring concert. Scanning electron microscope: 5.00 KX-10 ?m. Collaboration with; Irene Heggstad and Egil Erichsen at the University of Bergen, Laboratory for Electron Microscopy

What was the most challenging aspect in the project? Were there moments you thought it was a mad idea and you'd better give up on it? Or did you know right from the start that everything would go according to plans?

I had actual figures on an expected iron content from the grass in Spain. I knew how to extract iron from organic material and had read about iron reduction and deoxidization processes. It was possible. The next step was to figure out the practical weight of how much bio-ore was actually needed for the process of making a ring of 2 grams. I made some calls to traditionally trained smiths to discuss my idea and I got suggestions on possible processes and an "about" quantity.

The greatest challenge was always the restricted iron quantity to create one ring. The problem isn't the metal but its proportion of mass (quote). The thin ring is a complex form to cast even with industrial produced iron. Cast iron is very susceptible to loss of metallization at high temperatures, such as the melt temperature required for the cast. A consequence of this is that with each new attempt we made there was a continuous formation of slag and an equal loss of iron. The inclusion of even small amounts of some elements can have profound effects. Because of the impurities in cast iron and its crystalline structure, it is a strong material in compression but weak in tension and very brittle. As a result, when it fails, it does so in an explosive manner, with little warning.

Cecilia Jonsson, The Iron Ring

Exhibition of The Iron RIng at V2_ Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo; Jan Sprij

The project starts with humble plants and end up with a tiny little ring. But what I found amazing was the amount of craft, heavy industrial processes and knowledge required to go from plant to ring. What have you learnt about the flow of organic matter while working on the project?

From working with iron as material, the matter itself as well as on its interaction with the living. The Iron Ring has really broadened my understanding of the complexity of ecosystems. From the field to the laboratory-scale to craftsmanship and industry, I have had a proper opportunity to build collaborations with proficiency on a wide scale. Their engagement to think out of the box and the connectedness to sort of re-invent and re-discover iron production in our industrial age, has really made a strong impression.

The Iron Ring also highlights the toxic impact of mineral exploitation on the environment. However, you write in the description of the project: "The result is a scenario for iron mining that, instead of furthering destruction, could actually contribute to the environmental rehabilitation of abandoned metal mines." Could you elaborate on this rehabilitation of the abandoned mines? How would that work? What would it be like?

The abandoned mines in Rio Tinto are a no man's land. Apart from tourists who come to visit the unworldly sites, the area continues its forgotten glory to slump and erode. Rio Tinto has a dark, long history of being exploited for ferrous and non-ferrous minerals, copper, gold, silver and lead and due to its historical perspective the rightful ownership of the excavated mess is undefined and beyond present laws of remediation. To stabilize or reduce contamination of sites like Rio Tinto, you first need to analyse the soil and from that result, plant several different types of hyperaccumulating and tolerant green plants.

The project elaborates on this possibility to utilize the cleansing process of the naturalized grass, which overlooked ability is left unutilized. The project proposes to harvest the grass for the purpose of extracting the ore that is inside them. The idea of the ring is to complete the circle, to maintain the clean-up commitment. So that when the soil is stabilized, other native plants can be introduced to restore the biodiversity and help bring back the heritage of flora that was lost through the human activity.

There are many layers behind the "rehabilitation" statement. Which under controlled conditions could include the naturalized grass: Imperata cylindrica in a remediation process where its biomass is utilized for iron production. A larger harvest would also contribute to less complications and a more refined iron production with less slag and more iron in just two steps. Going back to the complexity of ecosystems and my second connotation of the "rehabilitation". Which is to utilize the already inhabited weed to be able to control its spread in the environment. Imperata cylindrica is an aggressive fast-growing perennial grass that can and has become an ecological threat. It's listed as one of the ten worst weeds in the world and is placed on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weed list, which prohibits new plantings. The grass does not survive in cultivated areas but establishes along roadways, in forests and mining areas, where it forms dense mats of thatch that shade and outcompete native plants.

The enigma of use- and exchange-value enchants me as well as the perspectives on precious matter and how it earns its cultural weight. Something that I think Ralph W. Emerson beautifully formulates in What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare and on account of its material nature and rarity, the high value is linked to its cost of extraction.

How long did the whole process take? From the moment you found the plants to the final realization of the ring?

From when the first plant community was found in Spain to the ring had become one continuous solid, 5 weeks of intensive work.




Could you explain what we can see in the photos of the installation Stratigrafi? What is the strange metallic sculpture?

Stratigrafi is a work developed in collaboration with colleague Signe Lidén. Thematically, we were exploring cavities, man-made places and fundamental changes of the landscape. Exploring the mine as an in-between space a geographical cavity between nature, ideas and technologies and how history works way through its forms. Signe had been in Kakanj in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bytom in Poland to explore coal mines. I had gathered material in relation to iron from re-vegetation institutes and large-scale surface mining in the region of the Iron Quadrangle, southeast Brazil. The installation intertwined our works where one was taken inside and introduced to impressions from these places. Representations, imitations, scent, recordings, objects and photographs from the sites.

The metal sculpture is a propane driven apparatus, a citrus distiller. The steam was forced through the citrus material and transported onward through the condenser where the temperature is lowered and consistently forms refined acidic drops and erosion. In the windows scorched wood were piled up and filling the room with intense scent. A video without sound projected an exotic landscape in one meeting with passing carts filled with iron ore. The light table consisted of oscillating reversal film, archive material, seeds, a small projection and an exhibition text written by Roar Sletteland. The visitor obtained an auditory access to these sceneries by putting their heads into listening boxes.

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009

I'm also fascinated by the work Water extraction, Geneva. The work seems to be about global warming. Could you explain the installation?

Water extraction, Geneva - Rhône: 02.11.2009 / Rain: 02.11.2009 / Arve: 02.11.2009 was a site specific work consisted of three water extracts, three modified found light bulbs and one light sourced bulb. For the installation, the wooden planks in the floor of the exhibition space were removed, uplifted and were then used to create a platform and a bridged island to the work.

The work looks at the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and the changes it brings with it. A glacier is important for freshwater storage, while glaciers also can be regarded as reservoirs for the production of electricity through their seasonal water flow. The project focuses on the melting of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland, which over the past ten years has lost 6% of its mass. The raising temperatures in the region have a strong influence on the seasonal runoff regime of the alpine streams. Where the Rhone glacier runoff with the residues it brings with it, is the main water source for the largest freshwater reservoir in Europe, Lake Geneva.

You are currently in Venice for a residency at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. What are you working on over there? What is the residency about?

It's a three months residency from February to mid May supported by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway. I'm here to develop a new work, a hydrodynamic analogy that acoustically transcribes an interdependent exchange between external forces and internal positive feedback. The Venice lagoon is a delicately balanced natural system that combines to produce one of the largest wetlands in the Mediterranean. Land and water are intermingled. An urban Lagoon, a natural Venice as Marcel Proust captures the reverberant paradox relationship. The project explores the Venice Lagoon's sedimentary environment, its dynamics and composition and is developed in collaboration with the University of Padova at the Hydrobiological Station in Chioggia in the Veneto region.

Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us?

After Venice, I will be in Helsinki for a collaborative project on magnetotactic bacteria as part of my participation in a research platform for Art and Synthetic Biology at Biofilia, Alto University. In the fall I will undertake a three-month's residency in Marseille at Triangle France. Let's say there are a few larger research projects under development and works that are more in the making for planned venues.

Thanks Cecilia!

The Iron Ring was made possible through the support of Production Network for Electronic Art, V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Arts Council Norway.

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