One of the most curious, amusing and thought-provoking projects of the Design Interactions graduation show this year asks questions that range from 'What is more important in making us who we are: our genes or the experiences we go through in life?' to Can a mouse be Elvis? and Does buying a pre-owned item gives one the legal right to another individual's genetic data?
The first online stop is Ebay where the designer bought a hair from Elvis Presley for $22. He sent it to a gene sequencing lab that advertise its services online. The scientists working at the lab are able to identify different behavioural traits (such as sociability, athletic performance, obesity or addiction) from one speck of hair. Koby then sent the data collected about the genes to another lab which is able to produce transgenic mice clones with parallel traits. The result is a mouse that is a genetically cloned model of Elvis.
In parallel to the works performed by these laboratories, Koby has been studying the scientific mouse model environments that have been used on lab mice over the past 100 years. The cages have been designed to study and manipulate psychological aspects of mice.
Koby then made his own cages. But his were intended to reconstruct some of the most influential moments in the life of Elvis. Each of these cages offers a specific environment that is designed to influence the psychology of the mouse and make it closer to Elvis'.
Some of the main themes that the designer identified as being influential in making Elvis are: his close relationship with his mother (and so the mouse is given a mouse companion), being the victim of bullying when he was a child (in this cage, the mouse is submitted to external stimuli that frightens it), the discovery of his talents, becoming a star (features a distorted mirror that makes the mouse appear bigger), the Graceland period (in every place the mouse pokes nose, it gets a positive reaction in the shape of food or toys and keeps filling the cage to the point making it anxious), the army, the death of mum, the divorce from Priscilla are events that are represented by a cage that functions as an isolation chamber. The last cage embodies the last three years of the life of Elvis, when he worked himself to death, that period is represented by a little treadmill at the top of the cages. The mouse would run, run, run and eventually fall down.
Koby didn't push the project to the point of having a genetically engineered mouse go though all these cages, that would have been far too cruel for the animal but his project do make us wonder if one day it will be possible to enter a new kind of pet shop and ask for a dog, a fish or a cat that no only has the same genetic traits as a pop icon or a historical figure but also behaves like them.
I had many questions for Koby when i met him at the show, here are the two that i later submitted him via email:
Hi Koby! Did you think of the ethical aspects of manipulating a mouse through this series of experiences that reflect the life of a celebrity? Or more generally of having one day the possibility of 'creating' a dog through a series of experiences so that it will behave like Madonna or Lady Di?
I think that the distance between producing purebred animals like dogs and cats and a "Elvis mouse" is unfortunately not to far. In approximately 70 years of experiment - Dmitry K. Belyaev showed how we, by selection, made a domestic dog out of an aggressive wild fox. I think that the only different with making genetically modified pets to fill some human needs (loneliness, compassion, social class etc. or pure entertainment ) is the time it takes.
Of course to my perception both are distorted and equally unethical, but what is more interesting to me is that by creating something like a "Madonna dog" we might develop bigger problems. In a society that imitate it's celebrity models, having your own living model of Madonna might start blur the borders between the two. Madonna as a model vs. Madonna's model. And this is, for me, the most important ethical question that seats in the heart of this project: Do we become our models or do we make them to become ourselves?.
To develop your project, you contacted several scientific advisers. How did they react to your idea of making an Elvis mouse through genetic manipulation and a series of experiences that mirror the most significant moments of the life of Elvis?
All the scientists I was in touch with made a clear distinction between the scientific aspects of the project and the philosophical and entertaining qualities of it. For scientists, making an Elvis Presley mouse model is just a way to play or communicate some possibilities or processes but it has nothing to do with fixing a "serious" human problem. Some looked at the Elvis model and were amazed to see models that they have been working with, making them re-think and wonder for a short second...
The project takes advantage of different uncertainties to produce what seem to be a "fact", so all the answers were left open. In terms of the legal aspect of owning a DNA they didn't want to take any chance - In a lab you cannot use human DNA without his agreement. But as a lawful owner of one of Elvis Presley's hairs I would argue that I should make this decision. As for the Nature Nurture issue, It is an endless loop of debates that no one can give a clear and satisfying answer. For example, one of the scientists I worked with told me of a talk she had with a tennis instructor after our experiment showed that "Patient X" didn't have the ability to be an athlete (ACTN3 gene). The Tennis instructor insisted that anyone can be a great athlete if they'll make the effort, and she, looking at the molecular side of it said that he can try but the physiology would allow it. The work is a reflection of this never ending battle between genetic, epigenetic, psychology and circumstances.
And because i believe that no one will ever be as cool as Elvis...
For this episode, i went to Battersea to interview the new graduates of RCA's Design Interactions. The department has 16 graduates this year. Each graduate is showing 1, 2 or even 3 works in the exhibition. I selected only a handful of them which i introduce briefly before letting the graduates give more details about their project.
In order of appearance: Koby Barhad will talk gene sequencing and Elvis Presley (more about that project in the coming days), Rapahel Kim is still working with rotifers but this time he designed a farm for them, Ai Hasegawa talks about the next frontier for Japanese love hotels and Angela Bracco who is from Design Products (platform 13) is of course answering my questions about If You Can Smell It It Has Mass.
The radio show broadcasts today Monday 25 June 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 we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!
As announced previously, i've started a programme about art and science for ResonanceFM. The third episode is broadcast today Monday 4 June 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 we will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)
Howard Boland is in the studio today. The artist and mathematician co-founded C-LAB, an interdisciplinary art platform that explores the meaning and idiosyncrasies of the organic and the synthetic life.
7 years ago, I interviewed them about cacti that grow human hair and interstellar plant species. The radio programme catches up with their current interests, mostly magnetic nanoparticles and bacteria that might or might not smell like bananas.
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 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.
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."
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:
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."
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."
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."
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. "
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. "
Steve Rowell: This one is an "Aerial view of the SvalSat facility."
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.