Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image courtesy Steve Rowell


As i mentioned this morning, The Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh has recently opened The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an exhibition that takes the famous "Doomsday Vault" as its starting point.

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) preserves seeds from nearly every nation on Earth in an underground cavern engineered to withstand catastrophe. It is located on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, on the arctic island of Spitsbergen, Svalbard Archipelago, halfway between the North Pole and Norway.

The seeds stored in this biological safety deposit box are duplicate samples held in seed banks worldwide. The facility is about 130 meters above sea level to protect it against any rise in sea level as a result of global warming, nuclear attack, and earth quakes. The vault itself has been tunnelled 120 meters into the mountain, in order to guarantee stable permafrost.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

The exhibition currently on view at the Center for Postnatural History is a joint research and extrapolative project by artists Signe Lidén, Annesofie Norn, and Steve Rowell. Together, they examine the meaning and function of the world's largest and most well-protected collection of agricultural diversity.

The artists traveled to Longyearbyen in February, August, and September 2011 and came back with hundreds of photographs, videos, and audio recordings. The collaborative work also includes an experimental garden, field guide, and map from a survival kit designed to help future generations successfully locate this critical cache of seeds.

Bigger version. Courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "The map above reveals the speculative geopolitics of the territory surrounding the vault, in a possible future-scenario in which China, Russia, and NATO have established military bases and industrial sites there. The document includes locations of navigation hazards, beacons, and other points of interest: emergency food/fuel caches, communication towers, weapons dump sites (radiological, chemical, even biological), wind turbine farms, ship wrecks, ruined oil platforms, undersea communication cables, etc. Since a treaty was signed in 1925, Svalbard has been officially demilitarized. But, WWII saw the sacking and burning of Longyearbyen by German troops and covert intelligence activities by both the US and USSR. Evidence of this can be found in historic photos and declassified documents and maps in the Cold Coast Archive exhibition."

Steve Rowell, In the Best of All Possible Worlds

The Cold Coast Archive project investigates and explores human beings' efforts to preserve civilization and defy the inevitability of its demise. We look at the vault as a whole: its practical, political, historical and symbolic structure, its arctic location, as well as its infrastructure and cultural nuances, with all the research concentrated at this site, as a backdrop to explore the human relationship to time between now and eternity.

I spent several hours yesterday clicking through the website of the project. It contains sound files that gives us a feeling of the atmosphere in the area as well as video interviews with the people who live there: from the world´s northernmost surfer to the miners working in the coal mine, from volunteers attempting to protect the coast from oil spills to experts in plant breeding and genetics. And of course there are dozens of stunning images. I've asked Steve Rowell to comment a couple of them for us:

Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "This is an artist's billboard mural (not sure who) on the road between the airport and the Sval Sat earthstation on the plataeu above the Seed Vault. The whole region is historic and active coal mine country. There's an active mine a few hundred meters down the road from this sign and the seed vault is situated between two closed mine shafts."

Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "We did drive these snowmobiles on a tour of the Advent valley and Temple Fjord / glacier. Typically we drove a 4x4 van (white one in one of the pics) or walked. There are no roads between the 3 active towns on Spitsbergen. Besides Longyearbyen, there are two mining towns: Barentsburg (Russian and Ukranian almost exclusively) and Svea Gruva (Norwegian). Remote Pyramiden was a Russian town, but now completely abandoned. The northernmost Lenin head is there as well as baby grand piano in an empty Russian hotel building. In the winter, when I went, travel outside of Longyearbyen was a pretty serious task and involved a mandatory guide who was licensed to carry a rifle, and trained to shoot and kill a polar bear if need-be. Anyone who leaves town MUST carry a rifle for self defense, along with a trailer (dog-sled or snowmobile) with enough supplies, food for 3 days."

Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "These are the doors to the inner vault where the seeds are being stored. There are three inner vaults. Only 1 of the 3 is being used now."

Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "Yeah, pretty amazing how wrong that one is. This is one of many that I found at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC in their maps collection. Did you notice the CIA map? There was no note of this being declassified, but I'm sure it is. The yellowish coloration in my photo isn't from a hi-lighter marker, but residual adhesive from tape that I removed. I noticed two white pieces of tape in both corners and peeled them back to reveal that the CIA had designed and printed this. All that Arctic strategizing is now coming to fruition. Russia was in the news this week about a deal that they just signed with Exxon-Mobil to explore the Russian Arctic for oil, incl the area to the East of Svalbard. "

Image courtesy Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: "A peninsula on Spitsbergen between Longyearbyen (the vault) and Barentsburg. Incredible how many shades of blue exist up there in the winter, long blue spectrum wavelengths reflecting infinitely between atmosphere and snow. "

SvalSat. Photo by Steve Rowell

Steve Rowell: This one is an "Aerial view of the SvalSat facility."

SvalSat. Image by Signe Lidén

Svalbard Satellite Station, aka SvalSat, is a large satellite earth station located on the island of Spitsbergen, above the Seed Vault. In a mountain nearby, the only remaining coal mine in operation provides power to the Seed Vault. On the mountain top above it, a research station monitors aurora borealis. As the website Cold Coast states, So here we have dramatically contrasting manifestations of space and time at an immense scale: on the mountain tops, instruments that reach deep into space and measure the present and predict relatively close future; deep underneath in the ground, two cavities - one harvesting the energy of fossilized rainforest created millions of years ago and the other protecting life into eternity.

Antenna array in Adventalen, near Longyearbyen. Image by Signe Lidén

And finally, Steve Rowell was kind enough to send me some views from the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History:

View of the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

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View of the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

View of the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

View of the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

View of the exhibition The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the Center for Postnatural History. Image courtesy Steve Rowell

The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is on display at the Center for Postnatural History until August 15th, 2012.
See also Alexander Rose's account of his visit to the Vault with Steve Rowell.

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As announced last week, i've started a programme about art and science for ResonanceFM. The second episode is broadcast today Monday 28 May at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course there will be podcasts.

Image courtesy of Richard Pell, Center for PostNatural History

The guest of today's edition of #A.I.L. (Artists in Laboratories) is Richard Pell, the founder and director of The Center for Postnatural History in Pittsburgh, the first museum that seeks to research, document and exhibit man-made biological systems. I interviewed him on the blog last year as he had just opened the museum and the radio show looks at how the center's doing right now, its challenges, its projects, the spider silk-producing goats and the english bull terrier.

Steve Rowel joins us at the end of the show to give us a super quick tour of the Center's new show: The Cold Coast Archive: Future Artifacts from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. That exhibition is so fascinating that i'll come back online tonight to post images and information about it. Yes! that would be 2 posts in a single day when i usually don't even manage to publish two stories in a week.

Photo on the homepage: Naval Labe Mice.

The first episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the radio show about art & science/technology i'm recording for Resonance FM is broadcast today Monday 21 May at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course there will be podcasts.

This week i'm talking with the lovely and lively Anna Dumitriu, visual artist and respected founder and director of The Institute of Unnecessary Research. She explains how she finds herself locked inside university laboratories to collaborate with scientists on major projects. We're talking about bacteria and how the problem is not that they exist but that they keep talking to each other, we're talking panda blood transfusion ahead of the Paris edition of Trust Me, I'm an Artist and there's even a mention of the robot that steals your face.


Anna has a show opening this Wednesday at The Barn Gallery in Oxford. Normal Flora: Bioart Responses to Modernising Medical Microbiology blurs the boundaries between art, textile crafts, and science. It uses a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, projections and textiles. I'll be going on Wednesday, expect blurry images on my flickr stream.


Yesterday i was in Manchester for the FutureEverything festival. Mostly to see the art exhibition. The festival is up until Saturday but the exhibition remains open until June 10. It's a good show. Small but smart and with a sharp focus on artistic and political potential of new participatory technologies. I'll come back to it over the weekend.

0Ant Ballet testing, Barcelona, August 2011. Image Ollie Palmer 3.jpg

Right now i wanted to have a look at Ollie Palmer's Ant Ballet.

Because of their decentralized organization (swarm intelligence), ants are a good model for the kind of participatory projects the exhibition is exploring this year. In the designer's work however, the behaviour and navigation of the insects are manipulated for artistic purposes. Palmer has spent 2 years observing the Argentine ant, aka Linepithema humile to build the Ant Ballet Machine, a system that enables him to direct ants and make them move in a choreographed fashion.

Using synthesised pheromones and computer vision system, a robotic arm sprays out pheromone powder trails that cause the ants to follow artificial trails in preference to the route they would normally take in search of food.

Ant Ballet

The project is separated into four phases referencing the 1974 scifi movie Phase IV. In the film, scientists are puzzled by the complex designs that ants have started building in the desert. The ant colony have in fact undergone rapid evolution as a result of a mysterious cosmic event.

Phase I of the Ant Ballet (2010-2012) is the one documented at the FutureEverything exhibition, it covers thorough research into ants and control systems, synthesis of ant pheromones and testing of systems with live ants in Barcelona. Phases II-IV (2012-2015) will develop further technologies, chemicals and mechanisms. In 2013 the first public ant ballet performance will be presented at Pestival Sao Paolo.

The designer has tested the system in Barcelona because the UK regards the Argentine ant as highly invasive species (which they are) and wouldn't allow him to bring live ones with him. So what you can see in Manchester are computer-simulated ants laying pheromone trails on a round table, only to be disrupted by the robotic arm spraying synthetic pheromones.


Views in the exhibition space


Check out the documentation of the Ant Ballet at the 1830 warehouse, the world's first railway warehouse, part of the MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), Liverpool Rd, Manchester. Entrance to FutureEverybody art exhibition is free. The show remains open until 10 June 2012.
The project is also on view at Pestival @ ZSL London Zoo, until June 2012.

On Friday at 4pm, set your radio to 104.4fm if you live in London and your browser to http://resonancefm.com/ if you don't. That's when the pilot for programme i've recently recorded for Resonance104.4fm, London's edgy, radical, art radio is going to be aired. The focus of the programme is art & science/technology.

Revital Cohen, Guilt Adjuster from the project Genetic Heirloom

Tuur Van Balen live hacking of yoghurt on stage at the NEXT NATURE Powershow

Critical designers Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen were kind and kamikaze enough to join me in the studio for the first episode. We've discussed topics as diverse as the beauty of life support machines, pigeons that poop soap, using design to infiltrate synthetic biology, collaborating with scientists and communicating the complexities of a projects that explore the impact of science on society.

The last part of the broadcast takes the form of a quick agenda of exhibitions to see in and around London if you're interested in art&tech/science. I'll update this post with a podcast of the show if you can't catch it on Friday afternoon.

Futures episodes won't be aired before next month. A new one will be broadcast every week, last 30 minutes and focus on an artist or collective whose work i admire such as London Fieldworks, Anna Dumitriu, Zoe Papadopoulou, Ruairi Glynn, Thomas Thwaites, Tom Keene, c-lab, Semiconductor, etc. I've also been sent on a mission to get Bruno Latour.

The ten last minutes of each programme will be dedicated to the agenda, and once in a while i'll add audio snippets from the festivals i attend as a speaker or blogger.


So if you are curating, organizing or participating to an art&tech/science event in the UK in the coming months, do get in touch and i might plug it in the agenda.

The same goes for anyone who'd have a great idea for a title, i'm far from happy with the current one, Artists in Laboratories.

Finally, i'd like to thank Tom Besley and Richard Thomas of ResonanceFM for trusting me with a microphone. I know i wouldn't want to listen to my silly voice and silly accent on the radio.

Helen Pynor, Head Ache (detail), 2008

Featuring over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography,Brains: The Mind as Matter follows the long quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.

Examination of the skull and brain: method of removing the brain after it is severed from the body. Henry W. Cattell, 1903. Wellcome Library, London

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Katharine Dowson, Memory of a Brain Malformation, 2006

As the intro to the exhibition says, the works displayed include real brains. Complete brains, bits of brains, brains that have been freeze-dried, dessicated or galvanized. The slices of Albert Einstein's brain seem to gather much attention from the press and visitors alike. I doubt the fascination would have filled its original owner with euphoria. He had indeed expressed the wish to be cremated intact.

The remains of the physicist are in awkward company. They are shown next to a phial of tissue allegedly coming from William Burke's brain. With his accomplice William Hare, Burke made a living from murdering poor people and selling their bodies to Dr Knox's anatomy school. He was hung on 28 January 1829. Ironically, Burke's body was dissected, exhibited to the public in the Edinburgh University Museum and souvenirs were made and sold from his skin.

Other brains on show includes the one of suffragette Helen H Gardener, the left hemisphere of mathematician Charles Babbage's brain, and the segment of a suicide victim, with a bullet lodged in it. This one came with a text explaining that bullet wasn't "the fatal one".

Installation view of 'Brains: The mind as matter'. Courtesy: Wellcome Library, London

Unlike previous exhibitions such as Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life,High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture or War and Medicine, Brains: The Mind as Matter has a seemingly very specific, very narrow focus: the brain. Not even the mind, just the physical organ. Yet, the exhibition branches out into issues of ethics, history, and reminds us that while some of the moments in the history of neuroscience are glorious, others are downright disgraceful. The exhibition displays a number of instruments designed to measure the brain. The one below was developed by Sir Francis Galton, the 'father of eugenics'. Using a variety of 'anthropometric' devices, Galton sought evidence of links between physical appearance and the supposed evolutionary progress of different population groups.

Headspanner, c.1896. The Galton Collection, University College London

This kind of discourse was particularly well received during the Nazi period. A series of photos and letters document the case of 3 brothers, Alfred, Gunther and Herbert K. aged 3, 7 years old and 15 months. They suffered from a rare hereditary neural disease and were likely murdered in 1942 and 1944. Their mother was told that they had died of pneumonia. Like many other people suffering from neural disease, they have probably been gassed or drugged, their brains harvested and examined by neuropathologists who went on to continue eminent careers long after the war. As for the specimens taken from the victims, they were used by researchers until recent decades.

Daniel Alexander, Children's cemetery: the grave of Alfred, Günther and Herbert K (2003)

The quest to understand the functioning of the brain is as grandiose and challenging as the one to send men in outer space. Brains: The Mind as Matter can keep you in the rooms of the Wellcome Collection for hours on end. It's an absorbing, educational and at times disturbing exhibition.

I was particularly fascinated by the photos amassed by American neurosurgeon Harvey Williams Cushing. Taking pre- and post-operative photographs were part of his practice. Two examples below:

Pre-operative photograph of female patient with craniopharyngioma, 1919. Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Many of the patients in these photographs presented with much more advanced tumours than would normally go unchecked today. The 15-year-old subject of this photograph suffered years of headaches, nausea, convulsions, restricted development and impaired vision before being referred to American neurosurgeon and pioneer of brain surgery Dr Harvey Cushing. She was in and out of hospital for the next 12 years, although the final letter in her file, from her father in 1931, strikes an optimistic note and thanks Cushing for his care.

Pre-operative photograph of male patient with pituitary adenoma, 1914. Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

An excess of growth hormone caused by a tumour of the pituitary gland in the brain can result in acromegaly and gigantism, where the person grows very tall and suffers a coarsening of the facial features, enlarged hands and feet, and thickening and wrinkling of the scalp. Unfortunately, this patient died after his second operation; his skeleton was preserved and photographed in comparison with a normal specimen.

More images from the show:

Electrode head board, Bristol, England, 1958. Courtesy: Science Museum

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Parasagittal section of the cerebellum, 1894. Image courtesy of Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid

Spanish Nobel Prize-winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose pioneering research at the turn of the 20th century gave us an understanding of the microscopic structure of the brain. Cajal had aspired to be an artist, but his father had insisted he follow the family tradition into medicine. He nevertheless made hundreds of drawing to illustrate brain structure.

Corrosion cast of blood vessels in the brain, 1980s. Gordon Museum, King's College London

Daniel Alexander, 'Haus 40, interior', Brandenburg State Hospital, 2011

Installation view of 'Brains: The mind as matter'. Courtesy: Wellcome Library, London

Left hemisphere of the brain of Charles Babbage. Wet specimen (human tissue), 1871. Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London

English mathematician Charles Babbage donated his brain to be analyzed. He is regarded as a "father of the computer", having invented in 1822 the 'Difference Engine', a mechanical computer complete with printer. One of his assistants was Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace.

Trephination set. Sirhenry, Paris, 1771-1830. Science Museum, London

Trephines are the surgical devices used for trephination, or trepanning. The basic practices and tools have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Among the trephines themselves, with their cylindrical blades, are a large brace to hold the trephines during drilling, two rugines to remove connective tissue from bones, two lenticulars to depress brain material during surgery and a brush to remove fine fragments of bone.

Installation view of 'Brains: The mind as matter'. Courtesy: Wellcome Library, London

Brains: The Mind as Matter remains on show at Wellcome Collection in London until 17 June.

Previously at the Wellcome Collection: Mind Over Matter, Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life, Art, bricks, domestic dust, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, Exquisite Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

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