A few weeks ago, i was intrigued by the description of a work presented at the grow_ability exhibition in RIXC Gallery in Riga, Latvia. The art show explored sustainability in relation to our planet's ecology from a "food as energy" perspective.
One of the three works on show was Erik Sjödin's Super Meal which investigates whether an aquatic plant called Azolla could become a key ingredient of the fast food joints of the future. Azolla is cheap and easy to cultivate, it grows super fast and is rich in nutrients. Yet the possibility that this fern could become a staple of our meals has received very little interest so far. Recent research, however, are considering the potential of azolla for space agriculture, in particular in the event of a colonization of planet Mars.
Interestingly, azolla is believed to have had a significant role in reversing the greenhouse effect in the middle Eocene period, some 49 million years ago. The fern colonized the region around what was then a hot, tropical Arctic Ocean. Because of its outstanding nitrogen and carbon fixing capabilities, azolla caused the atmospheric carbon dioxide content to drop from 3500 ppm (parts per million) to just 650 ppm, eventually turning the Arctic Ocean into its present icehouse state. This biogeological event is known as the Azolla event.
Sjödin experimented with farmers, chefs and scientists to experiment with azolla in the kitchen but also to reflect on how our food is being produced today and how it can be produced in the future.
So far the artist has presented his Azolla cultivations and experimentations at Färgfabrikensin Stockholm, at Kalmar konstmuseum, RIXC Gallery in Riga, at Kultivator in rural village Dyestad, on the island Öland (Sweden) and of course on his own balcony in Stockholm.
If you can't make it to Norway or Finland, here's a short interview with Erik about Super Meal:
I'm interested in the way you try to engage the public into your research about azolla. You have already exhibited this project in several art spaces. How does the azolla project take shape? Do you change strategy each time you exhibit it? cooking at Färgfabriken for example and doing something else in Riga?
What I end up doing is shaped a lot by the circumstances. At Färgfabriken in Stockholm I exhibited in the summer and they had a courtyard so it was possible to grow azolla outside. RIXC's exhibition in Riga was too early in the spring for it to be possible to grow azolla outside and the room I exhibited in didn't have any windows so I had to grow the azolla under artificial lights. I also try to find people to collaborate with around the exhibitions. At Färgfabriken I got the chef at Färgfabriken's café to experiment with azolla cooking with me. When I exhibit in Finland in September I will collaborate with a local gardener who will be growing azolla which we will cook on the opening weekend. I exhibit Super Meal as a work in progress because I think that an ongoing process can be more interesting and engaging than the conclusion. The project has always been more about the process than the result, but it's not that I don't care about the result. I'm hoping to arrive at something, but the result is the outcome of the process and in that sense the process is everything. I guess that finding new ways of working, or living if you want, is very much what the project is about for me.
You are going to exhibit Super Meal again in end of May / June at Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger. What will the work look like exactly in Stavanger? Will you be cooking, growing azolla?
I'll exhibit photo documentation of the project and I'll be making an installation inside the gallery where I'll be growing azolla. There will also be a reading corner where a draft of the Azolla Cookbook and Cultivation Manual I'm working on will be available along with some literature that relates to the project. Two texts that I'll include are Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address by John Todd from the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) and the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour's text An attempt at a "Compositionist Manifesto". The NAI was a research center that did
Bruno Latour takes interest in the so called nature / culture dichotomy and argues
This is what I know will happen in Stavanger. I'm also trying to involve the Norwegian Gastronomic Institute in Stavanger in the project. I'm hoping that we can make a larger outdoor azolla cultivation somewhere and experiment with azolla cooking together but nothing is set yet. Throughout the summer I will also be working with Oloph Fritzén, farmer at Hästa gård, a 180 hectare urban farm in Stockholm. We'll try to make some kind of azolla installation on the farm and grow azolla to use as mulch and as fodder for the farms animals. In September I'll exhibit Super Meal at the Halikonlahti Green Art Trilogy in Finland. For that exhibition I'm collaborating with Tiia Pau, a gardener who will be growing azolla in Salo during the Summer. During the opening weekend of the exhibition I'll be facilitating an azolla kitchen where people can drop in and experiment with azolla cooking.
Azolla has been used for biological fertilizer and as animal fodder. At some point in the booklet, you call it 'not super tasty' and you even add further on "To sum up you eat azolla on your own risk. It might be healthy and it might not." That was quite a warning! So what is your aim with the Super Meal project? To convince people that it's a valuable food resource? Or rather to enter in a broader discussion about the future of food and food production for example?
I'm trying to find out if there is any real potential in azolla as a food for humans but I haven't reached any conclusions yet and I want that to be clear. As far as I know no studies have been carried out on the effects on humans of azolla consumption so no one really knows weather it's healthy or not. But I will rewrite that sentence before the booklet is published. I don't want to overemphasize the risks either. Apart from potentially being a new foodstuff azolla has many applications, as biological fertilizer, animal fodder and for biofuels for example. I want to disseminate this information so that people can find appropriate uses for azolla but I don't want to "sell" azolla or give any illusions that it's a panacea.
I'm interested in how we produce our food today and could be producing it in the future and I try to get some insight into this by looking at how azolla can be used in agriculture. When I started to work with Super Meal I knew very little about agriculture. Now I know enough to be convinced that the industrial agriculture we have to day is a dead end and that we ought to move towards an agriculture based on a diversity of species working together in stead of ever larger monocultures dependent on fossil fuel driven machines, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The way I see it this isn't a matter of going back to a pre-modern agriculture but of putting together both old and new knowledge of how the world functions and creating something that we've never had before. Azolla has been used as an organic fertilizer in rice paddies for thousands of years in parts of China, but it isn't until recently that this practice has started to spread to other parts of the world.
Experiments with azolla in rice cultivation has for example just started in Italy where rice producers have problems with pollution and depleting soils. Using azolla as an organic fertilizer in rice paddies is great, but when it becomes really interesting is when even more species are introduced in the paddy. A farmer in Japan, where azolla commonly is regarded as a rice paddy weed, has recently shown that if rice is co-cultured with azolla, fish and ducks in the same paddy you can get greater rice yields than with conventional rice farming while at the same time getting fish, duck meat and eggs. I think that systems like these are really promising and that what we need to do is to develop an agriculture with both a a great diversity of systems and great diversity within the systems themselves.
How does the public react to your project?
Most people I've met are really curious and enthusiastic about the project. It's fun to
I'm interested in our notions of what is "natural", how these notions are connected to language and aesthetics and how they are tied to how we relate to the past, the present and the future. I think we need to look beyond appearances at how things actually function and consider both new and old practices.
The nickname of azolla is super plant. How come i read all those health magazines full of 'super food' articles and i've never heard about azolla? Could it become the new tofu one day?
I don't know why the health food industry hasn't picked up on azolla yet. My guess is that they just haven't heard of it, though it seems strange. I don't think it would be difficult to market azolla as a health supplement, like spirulina, and make a profit from it. I've been contacted by people who have been interested in growing azolla as health food and I have been asked if I have intentions of doing this myself, which I don't.
Tofu and in particular Quorn are interesting foodstuffs. Many people don't know what they are made of or how they are made but they still eat them. Quorn is also interesting because it's a newly invented foodstuff. In the 60's it was predicted that by the 80's there would be a global famine and shortage of protein-rich foods. Quorn is the result of research that was done in response to this. The fungus that Quorn is made from was discovered in 1967. After it had been evaluated for ten years the company that makes Quorn got permission to sell it for human consumption in the 80's. The global famine never happened but Quorn ended up being a great vegetarian substitute to meat. I don't find it unlikely that azolla could be turned into a foodstuff like Quorn or tofu with the right processing, but a lot more research has to be done.
In the introduction of your booklet 'Super Meal' you thank Masamichi Yamashita at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in because his work, you write, has inspired this project. What did JAXA make with azolla? Did they manage to successfully include it in a diet? What was in it in JAXA research exactly that triggered your idea to work on a project about azolla?
I was impressed that by designing systems similar to the rice-fish-azolla-duck system I mentioned earlier, and including azolla in a human diet, it would theoretically be possible to grow all the food a human needs in an area of 200 square meters. That's less than a hundredth of the area the average Americans food production occupies today. This made me curious of what azolla tasted like and since I couldn't find any azolla recipes or satisfying accounts of what azolla tasted like anywhere I decided to try to grow it and cook it myself. For many people space and the future are synonymous so I thought it would be interesting to look into how we produce our food today and could be producing it in the future using space agriculture research as a starting point. I think a lot of valuable knowledge can come out from research on space colonization but at the same time I find our fascination with it kind of peculiar. I recently watched Werner Herzogs' The Wild Blue Yonder where a researcher talks enthusiastically about how in the future we'll be living and working on asteroids and going to Earth on vacation. Why would we want to do that? Living on an asteroid and eating azolla doesn't sound that appealing to me. I'd rather see that we try to find ways of co-existing with the diversity of species that we still have left here on Earth so we can continue to have varied food.
More images of the Super Meal project.
So far, explaining children how babies were made involved quite often storks, cabbages, bees and other fantasies. Science, however, has added new modes of reproductions to the discourse. From in vitro fertilization in the 1970s to today's research into artificial gametes from stem cells or somatic cells that would allow sperm and eggs to be created from anyone's cells, regardless of age, gender or sexuality. At the time, New Scientist described the research as 'male eggs' and 'female sperm'.
How will the stories about human reproductions evolve as our methods of reproduction become increasingly more diversified?
Designer Zoe Papadopoulou collaborated with Dr Anna Smajdor, an expert in the ethical aspects of science, on a multidisciplinary project that investigates how scientific and technological developments influence historical stories and narratives, explaining 'where we come from'. By exploring new reproductive scenarios, this project aims to create the space for a broader discussion on artificial reproductive technologies (ART) that can engage people in the possibilities these advances present.
The work, called Reproductive Futures, is still very much in progress but the first results of the project are on view right now at the Science Gallery in Dublin as part of an exhibition that considers the future of our species. The final outcomes of the project will be a series of books accompanied by objects featured in the narratives.
Hello Zoe! Sorry to ask you something so basic but is "artificial reproductive technologies" a different way to say "assisted reproductive technology"? Or are they two different things?
The two terms refer to the same thing - often abbreviated to 'ART'. They incorporate currently available treatments such as IVF, and treatments in development, as well as future possibilities such as artificial gametes.
Apart from gametes which ART does Reproductive Futures take into account?
There are also a number of different scientific techniques that are being pursued. One involves the creation of gametes from embryonic stem cells; other scientists are working on making sperm from bone marrow stem cells. Another method is 'haploidisation' where a normal body cell is stimulated to become a gamete by splitting and ejecting half of its chromosomes. Work is also underway on induced pluripotential stem cells, where normal body cells are treated with chemicals that stimulate them to behave as though they were embryonic stem cells. It's not certain which if any of these is likely to succeed first, or which would be safer. One of the interesting ethical questions is about how we establish whether it's safe or not, without actually allowing it to happen in a human being. Even if it works in animals we can't be 100% sure - it will be experimental. This is what happened with the first IVF baby, scientists really had no idea what the long term implications would be, so this was very much an experimental procedure.
I read a couple of articles about the use of artificial gametes in reproduction that the text on your project page refers to. They date back to 2008 and most of their authors had their doubts about the validity and safety of the technology. Is it still the case? How far away are the "female sperm" and "male eggs" from reality?
Some scientists are very optimistic about how soon this will work. Others are more cautious. When I started researching this about 7 years ago, some scientists were claiming artificial gametes would be available in 5 years. Clearly that hasn't happened! But often in science, breakthroughs can be unexpected, so I don't think it's a question of being able to put an exact timescale on it. What is clear is that scientists in many areas are working on getting cells to change their function. Creating cells that will function as gametes is just one part of this, so it's not totally cut off from other aspects of research. The ultimate goal is to be able to understand and control all these processes so that any human cell can be reprogrammed to fulfil whatever function we want it to...
We are currently showing the work in progress at the Human+ exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, previewing four stories of hypothesized reproductive futures: from genetics ('multiple biological mothers' - where more than two people's DNA is part of fertilization), through to more "practical" near-future scenarios like the possibility of full term gestation in artificial wombs.
We really should mention that 'Reproductive Futures' is still in its development phase. We are delighted to have just been awarded a Wellcome Trust Arts Award grant which means the next couple of months will be focus on exploring all the possible opportunities that will arise from ART.
Some ART would bring part of the reproduction into the hands of scientists. There could even be no sexual intercourse involved and therefore, i suspect less taboo or embarrassment in explaining how a baby was born. So does it mean that they will generate narratives that could be completely free from the cabbage and cork-type of "mythology"? Would parents explaining to their kids where they come from be more open about the scientific process than they would be about one that take place in a bed?
That is very possibly right, but perhaps that's all the more reason why we might need to re-imagine those "mythologies". Deliberately, the tales you refer to that were once told to children bore no resemblance to how or why conception happened. This ambiguity was embedded by the use of fantasy, and they referred to a world very different to that of children, or of their everyday lives. Fantasy in and of itself has a role to play in this project, yet as developments in science makes the descriptions of 'how' and 'where' babies come from more complicated, there must be truth and integrity in what we narrate. This project needs to be neither too factual and scientific, nor based on expedient story-telling. It must instead find a way of making understanding both accessible and enjoyable to children and adults.
Thanks Zoe and Anna!
All images courtesy Zoe Papadopoulou.
As i mentioned a few weeks ago, designers Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen are having a double exhibition at the Z33 art center in Hasselt, Belgium. The Unnatural Animal, explores progress in bioscience and biotechnology but also their impact on our norms and values. This is the last week to visit the exhibition so i'm going to try and convince you that you should take the bus/train/bike and make your way to Hasselt before Sunday evening.
Just like Tuur, Revital is presenting both finished and 'in progress' research projects at Z33. There's Life Support of course but also The Phantom Recorder and a rather fascinating Electrocyte Appendix, an artificial organ that could be implanted into the body to allow people to turn themselves into electric organisms.
While watching the interview that Jan Boelen, the artistic director at Z33, made with the designer, i got very intrigued by one of the projects she briefly discussed. Titled Ready-to-use Models, this work in progress involves a SERT Knock-out rat, a laboratory tool genetically designed to be constantly depressed. The rats, which can be ordered from online catalogues, are manipulated to not be able to absorb serotonin, the hormone responsible for feelings of contentment and happiness.
Revital designed a big play cage that attempts to bring some happiness to the morose little rodent while questioning the exchange of roles between animal and object.
Ready-to-use Models attempts to question the current definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What consequences does this choice of definition entail for our perceptions, feelings and behaviours regarding living creatures?
I asked Revital to give us more details about this particular project:
I was shocked and intrigued by that poor seratonin knock-out rat. How did you find about its existence? I'm sure my question will sound naive but is this legal to engineer a rat so that it will lead an anxious and sad existence?
This installation is the beginning of a large project I am developing around the subject of animal design. I have been researching the existence of 'living products' for years, and stumbled upon Genoway while looking into the legalities of transgenic species in Europe. Since these services/products exist it must be legal, but to my understanding within a scientific experimental environment only. I assume the design principle behind the engineering of these rodents was that it is justified to make an animal unhappy if it may lead to the abolishment of unhappiness in humans. I am not sure that I agree with this sentiment, but I find these designed creatures fascinating for raising all these bioethical questions.
Your design attempts to create an environment where the rat would be able to get some relief from its anxiety. Along you seem to be aware all along that this generous attempt to make the rat 'happy' is doomed to fail. So why did you build this entertainment park for the rat? What did you want to communicate with this project?
I am very interested in the language used around the production and trade of designed animals, which is really the language of commerce and marketing of objects. I wanted to see what might happen if I take this biological product and treat it as an animal? This has led me to the very naive attempt of trying to cheer up the rat, an empathetic sentiment which we reserve to living beings. The predictable futility of this attempt highlights the essence of this creature as a non-animal, a bio product, and opens up many questions about the nature of these species and how we are meant to perceive and relate to them. To me the installation forms the start of defining a new taxonomy of creatures which blur the boundaries between object and animal.
Each compartment in the cage is based on a subversion of a common laboratory anxiety test: forced swimming, elevated plus maze, open field, light dark tests. In this cage the maze has no dead ends, there are areas made for hiding and for gradual exposure training, the swimming pools are shallow and covered in climbing ropes and there is plenty of space, stimulation and serotonin-inducing exercise structures. The design of this object was inspired by DIY cages that people build for their pet rodents. I wanted to explore the space between treating an animal as pet and using one as a research tool, both are disconnected from nature and these contraptions are in a way a physical translation of our relationship with it.
At Z33, you are also presenting a video that shows the exact opposite of the commodification of the rat: a series of products designed to be treated like real pets, from Tamagotchi to Fur Real Friends robots. Just to get a better idea of what this is about, could you point us to some of the videos that you are using?
Find more about the exhibition in the Z33 video interview:
Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal is part of Alter Nature, an overarching project by Z33, the Hasselt Fashion Museum and CIAP in collaboration with the MAD-faculty, the University of Hasselt, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), KULeuven University and bioSCENTer. Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal is running until 1 May 2011, at Z33 - house for contemporary art in Hasselt, Belgium.
Other works by Revital Cohen: Life Support - Could animals be transformed into medical devices? and The Phantom Recorder.
Related: Cat Fancy Club..
If you want to see a penguin, you go to the zoo. If you're curious about dinosaurs and dodos, any natural history museum will enlighten you. But where do you go if you want to learn about spider silk-producing goats, anti-malarial mosquitoes, fluorescent zebrafish or the terminator gene?
Right now, you can only rely on good old internet. But in June, the Center for PostNatural History will finally open its doors to anyone interested in genetically engineered life forms. This public outreach organization is dedicated to collecting, documenting and exhibiting life forms that have been intentionally altered by people through processes such as selective breeding and genetic engineering.
The center maintains a collection of living species when it's possible. Otherwise they welcome the dead bodies of organisms of postnatural origin and in the absence of postnatural corpses, they present video and photography.
Along with its permanent exhibition and research facility for PostNatural studies, the center organizes traveling exhibitions that address the PostNatural through thematic and regional perspectives.
The center wasn't open yet when we visited Pell. All the images below were taken in the temporary studio where the collection is stored until the grand opening.
Hi, Rich! The Center for Postnatural History (CPNH) looks pretty unique to me but do you know if there are any center, organization or groups doing something similar anywhere else in the world?
We wouldn't want to stake our merit on claims of being first. There are in fact several natural history museums that have mounted exhibits that address issues of postnatural interest, such as the origins of domesticated Horses exhibit produced by the American Natural History Museum in NYC, or domesticated crops, such as the Seeds of Change exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, or the transgenic bull Herman, who is on display at the Naturalis in the Netherlands. However, these are the exceptions to the rule. None of these museums are actively collecting, or interested in collecting, domesticated or otherwise genetically modified organisms. The evolutionary history that begins with the dawn of agriculture and the domestication of animals and continues on towards genetic engineering and synthetic biology is documented in bits and pieces, but not in any central location. To our knowledge there are no other museums that take as their mission to collect and exhibit the lifeforms that have been intentionally altered by humans.
It's easy to understand why one can be fascinated by these modified organism but what made you decide to open a Center for Postnatural History? It's a huge commitment.
Around seven years ago I was introduced to the emerging field of synthetic biology by Chris Voigt. At the same time, I was researching evolutionary biology and was struck by the fact that there is such resources devoted to documenting the natural world, but that the participation of humans in altering that living world is so rarely presented to the public. When I began looking at the collections of natural history museums I noticed that newly engineered organisms were not only absent from the collections, but that there was little interest in collecting them. The rare exceptions of Herman the Bull in the Netherlands, or Dolly the Sheep in Scotland, both point to the symbolic roll that these organisms can often play as icons, while the vast multitude of genetically engineered organisms remain undocumented. This seems like a significant blind spot in the public consciousness worth addressing.
When you start reading about the Roundup ready corn, the Triploidy Atlantic Salmon or other modified plants or insects, it is hard not to be judgmental. Some of the modifications are quite positive of course such as the mosquito that doesn't transmit malaria. Still, i didn't detect criticism in your discourse so far. So what is your position/strategy? Do you plan to be as neutral as possible in your presentation of the information and let the public join the dots?
We take it as our mission to allow for people to have the experience of arriving at an idea on their own. Personal discovery can be an incredibly transformative experience. Language that comes with a predefined worldview can get in the way of a person finding their own language and framework of understanding. As a strategy we make an attempt to describe the postnatural world without using the language of industry, academia or activism. In practice, this is not always possible, but it remains the ideal goal. Forming one's own opinion can be a frustrating experience. We are sometimes contacted by people, months after coming across one of our exhibits, who are still wrestling with an issue. For us, this is encouraging. The issues are too important and too complicated not to be questioning our own assumptions and re-framing our own ideas in new ways.
When i visited what is going to be the Center in Pittsburgh, i noticed a short presentation of the CPNH hanging on the wall the text ended with the names of some of the people who helped you set up the exhibit at some point. I recognized a few names of artists. What is the role of artists in Postnatural History? Which place will you give to their work in the center?
Artists on the whole play a similar role in the creation of a postnatural history museum as they do in natural history. There are experiences to be created, things that must be documented, stories to be told. The difference is that some artists are also altering the living world as a part of the artwork that they make. In some of these cases, if the changes they are making are heritable and thus "in-play" evolutionarily speaking, then specimens of these lifeforms may be collected by the CPNH and cataloged alongside the organisms produced by universities, corporations and other individuals.
How would you define your own role at the CPNH? Is still the one of an artist? Or rather a curator?
The word "curator" is commonly used in natural history museums to refer to the people who manage the various collections of the museum, such as "Curator of Mammals", "Curator of Mollusks" and so forth. Until such time as the collection becomes large enough to require more than one curator, I will hold the title of Curator of PostNatural Organisms.
I discovered your center at the Alter Nature exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt. I took with me some of the cards and they are colour-coded. 'green' is for 'transgenic', lila is for 'mutant', orange is for 'hybrid', etc. can you explain us the distinctions briefly? some are clear, others are more confusing to me...
These distinctions are significant, but not always separate or exclusive. Some may occupy more than one category. Some new categories may be added. Transgenic refers to a genetically engineered organism that has had DNA from one or more different species intentionally inserted into its genome. This kind of alteration is not possible with traditional breeding and was developed in the mid-1970's. A mutant has had its DNA altered through the use of chemicals or radiation to induce largely random changes to its genome. Mutations occur all the time in nature, but are sometimes artificially selected for or induced by people. Most of the traditional vegetables we eat are very different in appearance and taste from anything we find in nature. These are the result of spontaneous mutations that were selected for by people over many generations, in the case of corn, thousands of years.
Did you talk about the Center for Postnatural History to more 'traditional' natural history museums? How is the reaction of the curators and conservators over there about your own center? Would they invite you to set up a temporary exhibition in their space for example?
The response from natural history museums has been quite welcoming. We have been invited to meet with several of the largest natural history museums in the world. A common response from them is, "Why isn't anyone else doing this?" However, none are willing to devote their own limited resources towards this area. Generally speaking, the biologists who curate natural history museums have a strong interest in natural ecology and the environment. The idea of studying the human-created habitat of an organism that has been raised in captivity is generally seen as profoundly boring by them. However, we have received invitations to exhibit specimens from our collection within their museum and are currently in negotiations regarding this.
The Centre will have a permanent exhibition as well as temporary shows. What will the opening temporary show be about?
Our first temporary exhibit will be a regional survey entitled, "Cultivated, Invasive and Engineered: PostNatural Plants of the Appalachian Region". This will feature three themes. Indigenous medicinal and food plants that were cultivated by Native Americans and European settlers which have been collectively shared over time, such as Ginseng, Black Cohosh and Wild Yam, the direct ancestor of modern hormonal birth control. Secondly, invasive or "opportunistic" plants such as Kudzu, which was brought to North America as an ornamental plant from Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and is now, lacking necessary predators, spreading rapidly across the continent. And lastly, newly engineered crops that are nearly ubiquitous in the US, but are highly controlled by the private corporations that own their intellectual property rights.
Are there specific safety regulations you need to comply with to open the center?
We follow the law. There is nothing within our collection that requires any kind of special permit. We have no special access as compared to anyone else. There are many things we might like to exhibit in their living form but are unable to do so. We see this however as an opportunity, and find ways of exhibiting the absence of the subject as a way of building a discourse around the issues of regulation, containment, secrecy and intellectual property.
Are you free to show any kind of modified species?
Newly engineered transgenic organisms must pass a regulatory process maintained by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service before they can leave the lab. As a result we are limited in what living organisms we are able to exhibit. For instance, the only transgenic vertebrate which we are able to exhibit are the commercially produced GloFish™ that expressed green, red and yellow fluorescent protein and thus glow under black light. These however can be purchased in many pet stores. We are however able to exhibit genetically engineered organisms that are dead. These were killed while at the lab with the support of the researcher in charge. Preserved specimens are not considered a contamination risk and are therefore not regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.
I was reading through the blog that documents your Smithsonian Research Fellowship and read this: 'There appears to be an interesting relationship between military incursion and specimen acquisition. Particularly amongst the rodent collection, one can see the location and approximate start and end dates of most of the major American military projects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Reasons for this appear to be numerous and will be explored further during our stay here at the Smithsonian.' Can you give us more details about this?
What makes the Smithsonian unique among museums, is that it is The National Museum of the United States of America. In some respects, the National Museum of Natural History is the biological memory of the State itself. One of the first things I noticed while there, was that there was a strong bias within the rodent collection towards places that our military has had a presence. The sites of wars, occupations and military exercises are all thoroughly represented. The reasons for this are many. In some cases they are collected by the military when they enter a new environment and are concerned about potential disease vectors, and the specimens eventually find their way into the National collection. But in other cases they are collected by Smithsonian researchers who are working in coordination with the military. Some of the larger collections of animals are from these situations and include: Fish and small mammals collected during the Operation Crossroads atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946; A large assessment of biological diversity at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site following the suspension of atmospheric bombing in 1964; And a large collection of birds and mice collected during the Project SHAD germ warfare tests at Johnston Atoll in the mid-60's. There are also a number of white lab mice and rats that were donated to the Smithsonian by the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Cancer Institute who were developing them as model organisms to study the effects of radiation in the 1940's. These specimens all quietly tell stories of the movements, fears and aspirations of the United States. They serve as examples of how deeply intertwined our cultural history is with our natural history and are reminders of how the project of science is never divorced from the cultural context in which it is conducted.
The Center for PostNatural History will open its permanent space in June 2011 at 4913 Penn Ave. in Pittsburgh, PA.
* In case anyone was wondering, the book's not ready yet, apparently it takes more time to proof read it than to write it.
Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen are having a double exhibition show at the Z33 art center in Hasselt, Belgium. Presenting both finished and 'in progress' research projects, the exhibition titled, The Unnatural Animal, explores progress in bioscience and biotechnology but also their impact on our norms and values.
You might remember some of Revital's previous projects such as The Phantom Recorder and Life Support - Could animals be transformed into medical devices?. Hopefully i'll manage to catch up with her before the Z33 show closes.
In the meantime, this post is going to focus on Tuur Van Balen's most recent work, Cook Me - Black Bile, which saw him cook with his own blood with the help of leeches. Have a look at the video and see if you can stomach more details about the project:
If you understand dutch, head to Cobra, their video crew followed the designer during his experiment. Smakelijk eten!
Cook Me - Black Bile proposes to make synthetic biology and the new interactions it can trigger within our body part and parcel of a recipe for controlling the feeling of melancholy.
As Tuur explained to me, "by 'programming' the DNA of the yeast used in the recipe, the yeast becomes a biosensor. So when it is used to marinade the leech, it can measure a variety of hormones and chemicals in your blood that relate to your mood. On top of that, the yeast can be programmed to also bio-synthesize serotonergic agents (chemicals that alter the levels of serotonine) according to what it senses."
The advantage this bespoke yeast has oven pills prescribed by doctors to alter levels of serotonin, is that the drugs offer similar amount and composition of chemicals for every individual. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, allows to tailor this (emotional) experience for a specific person at a specific time.
Now back to the recipe. An instrument specially designed by Tuur allows the leech to feed on the forearm and is then used to cook a blood mousse. The parasite's body reacts with the marinade and with the laughing gas to make the blood mousse.
The blood mousse is accompanied by oyster mushrooms, a redcurrant sauce and blood sorrel.
The recipe is inspired by Hippocrates' Four Humours theory that sees the body as an entity comprised of four basic substances: yellow bile, blood, phlegm and black bile. This theory inspired bloodletting, a medical practice aimed at restoring both physical and mental health by bringing these bodily fluids back into balance. Each substance is linked to a specific temperament, black bile (gr. melan chole), the fictional of these four fluids, evokes the humour of melancholy.
Cook Me - Black Bile examines the space between ancient beliefs and future unknowns, between nonsense and science, the kitchen and the pharmacy.
Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal is part of Alter Nature, an overarching project by Z33, the Hasselt Fashion Museum and CIAP in collaboration with the MAD-faculty, the University of Hasselt, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), KULeuven University and bioSCENTer. Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal is running until 1 May 2011, at Z33 - house for contemporary art in Hasselt, Belgium.
Related: Cat Fancy Club..
While the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis can sometimes be questioned in courtrooms, genetic evidence is still widely regarded as the forensic gold standard.
Or the deep embarrassment of European police when they found out that a mysterious serial killer known as the The Woman Without a Face had in fact never existed? The only clues that the criminal had left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs and supplied to the police in a number of European countries. The police later discovered that the DNA had very probably been left by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.
There's more in the case against the fail-proof quality of DNA evidence. Three years ago, a crime lab analyst found out that DNA "matches" are not always as trustworthy as one might believe. While a person's genetic makeup is unique, his or her genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.
And in Israel, scientists have demonstrated that DNA evidence can be fabricated. "You can just engineer a crime scene," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of a paper published in 2009. "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."
Paul Vanouse is doing just that with his latest work, the Suspect Inversion Center. Together with his assistant Kerry Sheehan, the biomedia artist set up an operational laboratory at the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Using equipment anyone can buy on the internet as well as Vanouse's own DNA, they (re)create in front of the public identical "genetic fingerprints" of criminals and celebrities.
The solo exhibition features two other biological artworks by the American artist: a series of Latent Figure Protocol lightboxes and Relative Velocity Inscription Device, a cynical molecular race reflecting on biologically legitimized racism, in which bits of DNA, instead of bodies, compete by testing their "genetic fitness". The work uses DNA samples from Vanouse family and directly references Charles Davenport's book Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black populations.
The press release for the exhibition says:
Vanouse's biotechnological installations do not only challenge the codes and images of contemporary knowledge production but also question the methods behind (natural) scientific findings in general: What do uncritically accepted commonplace catchwords such as "genetic fingerprint" conceal? To what extend does the technical construction of alleged naturalness notarize clichés and prejudices? Vanouse diverts biotechnologies and scientific imaging techniques from their intended uses, and amalgamates auratic iconography with technical images. Employing gel electrophoresis as artistic medium, he intentionally applies a method that bears analogies to photography: while photography allowed viewers to draw seemingly objective conclusions about human qualities based on physiognomic characteristics of the body, today, increasingly questionable social conclusions are derived from ontologized body fragments such as genes.
Curated by Jens Hauser, Paul Vanouse: Fingerprints... remains open at the Ernst Schering Foundation (google map) until March 26, 2011. The foundation, which aims to promote science and art, was showing the wonderful work of Agnes Meyer-Brandis last year: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.