I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.

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Photo by Katherine Cuningham, during the graduation preview show at Hoop Gallery in Den Haag, May 2011

Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.

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Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'

If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?

Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?

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Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?

The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).

Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:

Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.

You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?

At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.

I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.

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You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?

While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.

Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?

Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.

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Estúdio Móvel Experimental. RJ - Brasil, 2009. Photo by Silvia Leal

What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?

I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.

Thanks Ivan!

This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
Also at ArtBots: The Noisolation Headphones.

If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.

Sponsored by:





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Anne Brodie, 'Bee Box', 2011. Credit C-Lab

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Anne Brodie, 'Bee Box', 2011. Credit C-Lab

Summer is back in London and dozens of bees have now settled in the middle of Spitalfields. Real bees passersby don't try to wave away. They are dead and hang on fishing lines as if they were caught in mid flight inside a giant glass case, surrounded on all sides by office blocks.

The work is called BEE BOX and was created by artist Anne Brodie to remind us of the overlooked disappearance of the pollinators. Bees, like us, form communities of workers capable of generating intelligent social interactions.

"There is also a very strong and perhaps more obvious analogy between both human and bee society's, particularly in the heart of the working city," the artist told me. "Both are fragile systems capable of working harmoniously and productively, but what happens when the balance becomes unstable? It seemed particularly poignant the week before beebox was installed, London had to deal with some of the worst riots in recent history."

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Anne Brodie, 'Bee Box', 2011. Credit C-Lab

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Anne Brodie, 'Bee Box', 2011. Credit C-Lab

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Anne Brodie, 'Bee Box', 2011. Credit C-Lab

BEE BOX was curated by Howard Boland and Laura Cinti of C-LAB with the support of the European Public Art Centre, a collaboration between European organisations to exhibit in public space works that explore relations between art, science and society art-science artworks. The work will remain on view on the square until November 1 and will be recreated in Helsinki in October, using Finnish bees.

More images in the flickr set: European Public Art Centre: in London with C-LAB and Spitalfields - Anne Brodie's Bee Box 2011.

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KresseKunst

Ever wondered how to turn a simple webcam into a microscope, safely cultivate GFP bacteria, hack DVD burners to make your own nano and bio experiments, or how to use other cheap, easy to come by material in order to build an hydrometer (instrument to measure the relative density of a liquid), an incubator or even a bat detector? Then you should check out the DIY pages on Hackteria's wiki or enroll into one of their workshops.

Hackteria is a collection of Open Source Biological Art Projects started in 2009 by Andy Gracie, Marc Dusseiller and Yashas Shetty. They have since been joined by Anthony Hall, Urs Gaudenz, and a growing community of people keen on making experiments and developing their own projects in the field of biological art and science.

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The wiki is an online resource for scientists, garage scientists, hackers and artists alike. It is also offers them the opportunity to combine their expertise, write critical and theoretical reflections and share simple instructions on how to work with life science technologies following an open source collaborative model.

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HackteriaLab2011

I discovered the project in June at the Making Future Work conference in Nottingham where Andy Gracie was presenting his work. Because i made it my duty to interview Andy almost every single year since i started the blog, he's the one i contacted in order to get more information about Hackteria. It's not only getting embarrassing, but it also means that i'll have to wait till 2012 to interview him about his robots that send him on dangerous missions to collect samples for them to analyze.
Here's our conversation, with contributions from Yashas Shetty and Špela Petrič:

Hi Andy! If i understood well, the activities of Hackteria.org revolve mostly around workshops. Which kind of people register to these workshops and what are they looking for?



We get a very broad selection of people coming to the workshops, although it also obviously depends on the context of the workshop. In general we'll get a few artists, maybe a scientist or two, or people who are just into the whole hacking / DIY / FLOSS scene and are looking for new adventures and working methodologies. Its probably quite safe to say that the majority of participants share a general interest in finding ways to perform scientific activities without spending silly money and without having to get access to a conventional lab. Probably many of the people who take part in our workshops are looking for that kind of hands on access and experimentation. I think also that owing to the fact that our standard workshop involves the making of a USB video microscope participants are genuinely excited about accessing a world and a scale that they have never had access to before. Its always interesting to see how transfixed people become when they see micro-organisms for the first time with a device they have built themselves.


Some of the artist participants that attend seem to be looking for a way into working with biological subjects, or a kind of door into bio-art. We've never set ourselves out as offering bio-art for beginners but its clear that our workshops provide a first hands-on experience of working with microorganisms for many people.




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Hackteria in Medellin, Colombia

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DIY Laser microscope

Could you tell us about some of the most quirky, interesting or meaningful projects that have been developed during the Hackteria workshops?


As I mentioned, up until now our workshops have mostly focused on the development of webcam based microscopes, and we have probably seen the making of over 200 completely unique and quirky interpretations of what this could be and how it could work.

Given time we try to then encourage the participants to begin to build some kind of micro-scale interactive environment which they will be able to observe through the microscope. This can involve micro-fluidics, electrical or magnetic stimulation or whatever else comes up.


In some of the workshops that Marc has run recently we have seen the development of an Arduino shield for growing cress, cyber ears and a nematode tracker hacked from an optical mouse. The latest workshop we developed called BioCyberKidzz was held at the Create Your World festival in Linz. It is an introduction to different natural phenomena for kids. We made jewellery with inoculated Petri dishes to observe the growth of bacteria and fungi from our hands, inflated balloons with gasses produced by yeast fermentation, and augmented the kids' sensoric perception with magnets and UV LEDs.


I think probably the most meaningful example of what we have been doing is when we did a microscope workshop in Indonesia with medical students and saw that this could be a very practical and affordable tool for under-resourced scientists.



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PDMS preparation

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DIY Micro Dispensing and Bio Printing - First approaches during HackteriaLab 2011

How was hackteria born? And why did you and the other founders of hackteria feel that there is a need for this hands-on approach to bioelectronix?

Hackteria was born when Marc Dusseiller, Yashas Shetty and myself met up at the Garage Science Interactivos? being run at Medialab-Prado in Madrid in 2009. The three of us all began to talk about an availability gap in information about real DIY alternatives to lab protocols and equipment. Marc and Yashas already had quite a bit of experience from their work Zurich and Bangalore so there was quite a bit of expertise already. Originally though, it was Yashas's idea to create Hackteria as an online resource - none of us really thought or planned that we would do so many workshops and meetings. In the end though, the workshops as a kind of 'roadshow' back up to the practical information available on the website seemed to be a good model for getting the ideas and information across.


It wasn't so much that we'd identified a need for a hands-on approach to bioelectronix (the 'x', by the way' differentiates our approach from the multi-million dollar industry of 'real' bioelectronics - the lab on a chip, etc etc), but a hands-on approach to simple, affordable and do-able biological techniques and protocols in general.



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I'm also curious about ethics in relationship to the animal kingdom the "Discourse" page of the website refers to. Which kind of discussions about ethical issues arise during the workshops?


In the course of our workshops we generally and thoughtlessly kill many thousands of organisms. It's all too easy to just rinse of a slide, or wipe it on your trousers, without realising that you are also destroying a host of microorganisms at the same time. We generally let people do this for a little while until they have become familiar with the organisms under the microscope. Once they understand the animals they are working with we can have a much more meaningful discussion about the ethics of how we treat them, and we often see a more careful approach after that.


Obviously, ethical considerations on the micro scale are different to those of the macro scale, but we aim to engage people in a thought process about it while they are working. We will often have a discussion at the end of the workshop where the usual wide range of viewpoints and stabdpoints get aired. The only change in peoples' minds is probably a slightly deeper awareness that microorganisms might just have rights too.


One of our goals is to reevaluate the relationships between the observer and the observed that have been handed down to us from traditional research institutes. Artists in our workshops who come from alternate, diverse contexts and cultures suggest an alternative paradigm - perhaps a more performative one.



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GFP bacteria

What are the next projects, dates, ambitions of hackteria?


We just had our second annual hackterialab in Romanmotier and Zurich in Switzerland with up to 30 friends and invited guests from the worlds of art and science. During this time we spoke a lot about what Hackteria should be where it should go and what it should be. I think we pretty much reimagined what workshops can be, and what formats they can take, so I think there will be a lot of experimentation on that front - the actual format, content and duration of the workshops themselves.


We should also note that the answers to these questions are probably very different now - post Hackterialab2011 - than they would have been beforehand. A lot of very interesting developments took place during that period that will take some time to settle and establish themselves.


We also spoke a little about making something for ourselves (seeing as Hackteria is always for other people). Maybe this would be an exhibition of our own DIY experiments, or the development of some new protocols. In Zurich we also staged a 2 day combined conference, workshop and exhibition. There seems to be potential in that format for getting across the Hackteria idea, although we would like to avoid typical art world formats - Hackteria should always offer something a little bit more unusual, provocative and surprising.





Thanks Andy, Špela and Yashas!

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The Killifish lives in puddles, sometimes in the middle of a road, where trucks drive through. These habitats provide little competition for food, and are disregarded by predators, especially since water is brown and unclear. The obvious disadvantage is that puddles are highly unstable habitats. One of the strategies killifishes have developed to cope with this is to jump out of the puddle, maybe landing in a new one. Many don't make it.

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Jump technique composite

Because puddles are different, the populations evolve into new species rather quickly. The kamikaze behaviour and the multitude of subspecies have triggered the interest of a community of killifish collectors, who travel to puddles in the tropics, collect live specimens and bring them home where they will breed the fish with a self imposed ethic: the killifish must stay exactly as they were found in the puddle, and not change between generations.

For artist Mateusz Herczka, the killifish behaviour and culture reveal a new relationship between nature and people, as if the killifish have infiltrated culture, and are now part of the cultural evolution rather than the biological. He followed the example of the killifish and infiltrated the killifish keepers community, learning, exchanging information and tactics.

Because the way killifish jumps from one puddle to another remained to be properly documented, Herczka flooded his studio and captured this spontaneous jumping in HD video. The video material shows jumps under various conditions and still frames have been composited to show the jumping technique and the trajectory. The fish always jump in the middle of the night when nobody is around.

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Reconstructing the puddle at the Verbeke Foundation

To understand how fish can survive in a puddle with trucks driving through it, the artist set up a digital simulation using software which simulates liquid, and rolled a virtual tire through a virtual puddle. Finally, an ambitious reconstruction of the puddle is being built at the Verbeke Foundation, to be completed in the next coming months. Unsurprisingly, recreating a South American puddle in an unheated Belgian space was quite a technical challenge. The huge cube of glass and metal contains a reconstruction of a puddle found in the middle of a road in Guyana, with a truck wheel rolling through it.

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The Verbeke Foundation isn't easy to reach if you don't own a car but the result of Mateusz Herczka's research is documented and presented with plenty of visual material and also aquariums containing fish, worms, artemia and springtails in the exhibition Puddle Drive-Through Simulation currently open at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE).

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Diving under the puddle platform at the Verbeke Foundation

I hope to be able to visit the show when i'm in Belgium next month. In the meantime, i asked Mateusz to answer my many questions:

How did you first encounter the Killifish? But even more importantly, what made you want to spend more than 3 years working with them?

There is a two-floor basement near my studio in Stockholm. The upper floor was a club for mini-z model car racing. A steel door leading to the lower floor says "Södermalms Akvarieaffär, kom in och titta", (South-side's aquarium shop, come in and have a look). One day I needed glass and thought maybe they could sell me some. Upon entering, I realized this is not a regular aquarium shop. The atmosphere was somewhere in between a laboratory, and a computer club I belonged to as a teenager. Passing a few normal looking aquariums and some merchandise, I turned a corner and saw rows of murky aquariums with carefully written labels showing Latin names and some kind of codes. The fish didn't look like any I had seen in other shops. Homemade devices, bubbling liquids in plastic bottles, cultures of little worms and jumping things.

I was approached by a guy who said "Amazing, isn't it? Janne only works with nature forms." He indicated the owner, Jan Wester, who turned out to be an architect devoting his life to killifish, a warm and friendly guy who loves to talk about killifish and keeping techniques. His strict ethic of fish origin and his refusal to stock more popular "plastic fish" turns a lot of customers away. The shop is his "fishroom". I visited him several times and listened to his stories. Later, I met other killi keepers around Europe, and found a rich scene on the internet.

What intrigued me was the complexity and level of involvement with what appears to be an insignificant fish species. Then I found the Jim's Basement Floor anecdote, and started to remember fragments of literature I read. A story by Polish SciFi writer Stanislaw Lem, describing a planet where the government decided that the fish was the most noble state of being, so the water level is raised a little every year. Or various books where someone travels to the jungle, it starts to rain, and "suddenly there are fish on the ground".

I started to wonder if these fish are quietly infiltrating culture - on a grassroots level in people's basements, in stories suggesting a merging of people/fish habitats. This links to the discussion of a possible end of biological evolution - the new evolution being cultural, the new fitness parameter being adaptability in culture. I was wondering if I, an artist, could bring something new to the killifish scene, but also infiltrate the killifish scene into the art community, to push the killifish even further into the realms of culture, using strategies from both science and art.

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Composite from video stills to show the jump trajectory

I was also intrigued by the existence of a killikeeper community. Who are they? Is there anything that sets them apart from other fish hobbyists? Did they give you any feedback about your Killifish art projects?

The people I met are all professionals in different fields. They are spread around the globe, communicate via internet, send eggs to each other via airmail, and sometimes meet at conventions. Some of them make field trips to the tropics, looking for fish in puddles, ditches, etc. Specimens are brought home for breeding and preservation in the fishroom. This requires dedication and ingenuity - the fish are quirky, jump out of the aquarium, some subspecies are very short-lived and lay eggs that need to be dried and re-hydrated several times. The community is bristling with clever technical DIY solutions that enables maintenance of a large aquarium count, live food culture in the everyday home environment, ecological "balanced" aquaria, automation, etc. A major contrast to domesticated species from the aquarium shop.

After speaking to several killifish keepers, and observing their interaction with the fish, I get an impression of a special kind of relationship with nature. Not keeping animals as pets, decoration, utility or food, but bringing content and meaning to your free time by actively interacting with an animal population, shunning commercial products in lieu of Do It Yourself methodology. It is especially interesting to note their killifish breeding ethic, to preserve the population as close as possible to the nature form, the exact look and behaviour of the original fish in the puddle. The community arranges regular contests where keepers show fish which are judged specifically on the nature form criteria. In the case of some subspecies, the original habitats are gone. The preservation ethic allows such populations to continue their existence in somebody's fishroom.

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Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, 2009

I have received a lot of help and feedback from the killi community. When showing Laboratory to Ascertain Plausibility of Jim's Basement Floor Anecdote, local killi keepers helped to arrange fish and care for them, and the installation became something of a meeting place. Many are intrigued by my video films showing the killifish jumping behavior, which was common knowledge but never properly documented. These films attract attention from the art community, but also bring something new to the killi keepers.

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

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The Verbeke Foundation

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The Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp

The introductory text of the catalogue, written by Simon Delobel, explains that you gave your aquariums and fish to a shop because "keeping killifishes at home or in his studio would have meant losing the artistic aspect of his creative activity." Can you tell us the reason for that?

When working with a project, my artistic strategies are based on theoretical research, but most importantly to "walk the walk and talk the talk". In this case, I had to learn the methods of killikeeping by maintaining some populations in my studio, their way. I discovered that it was extremely interesting, and found myself wanting to try some new killifish species, different methods, contacting some guy i Canada to get eggs from a rare Rivulus type...

After about a year, my studio was filling up with aquariums - I was "bitten by the bug". This is very relevant to the whole story - the killifish seem to combine just the right elements of complexity and accessibility to create and maintain interest with almost anybody. After an exhibition in Spain, I heard that one of the personnel had started to keep killifish. So one side effect of this project has been to promote a specific and positive model of interaction between people and nature. But as an artist I need to retain objectivity, and so I gave all my killifish away.

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Like some of your other works, this installation navigates between art and science. You asked for the advice of experts in various disciplines, read numerous articles and watched scientific videos in order to make your own as scientific as possible. Nowadays many people see art and science as two radically different fields. But what do they have in common for you? Why do you find that they can be intertwined? What does this intimate flirting with science (or amateur science) brings to your art practice?

There are many answers, not always coherent. In art school, I learned how to make things look like art, and art theory as an analysis tool for the work - there were no new media or art/science programs at the time. But artistic practice for me has always kept one leg in the process of discovery, both digital and wetware. In the 90's I participated in the generative graphics scene, which consisted of people publishing strange quicktime videos on the budding internet, projecting live graphics from laptops in artsy clubs, hacking video games to crash in an interesting way etc. This was very exciting and relevant stuff but the art world had no idea what to do with it, there were no proper contexts, and most of the material is gone today, the computers outdated, the operating systems deprecated.

I decided to abandon art theory as an anaysis tool for my work, and started to look for alternative artistic strategies. Having studied with conceptual artist Dick Raaijmakers in Den Haag, I started formulating projects that provided some kind of answer to questions. This in contrast to the common saying that "science provides answers, art provides questions". To provide answers, you have to look for them, which means genuinely trying to understand certain literature, formulating and recreating experiments, careful documentation and so on. And when embarking on a research journey, the mind has to be open for what comes out - the semiotics of the work don't always look like art.

Another strong component is Do It Yourself - I know scientists as discussion partners, but I prefer to work in such a way that I can do most of the initial work myself. This is one reason for plugging into communities, which often accumulate large bodies of informal knowledge of very high quality. Lately, I'm looking for ways to bring the DIY aspect to the audience as well. I'm increasingly considering the DIY aspect to be crucial to survival not only of art, but of the post-technological society, because it breaks down peoples dissociation with nature, science and technology, and connects them to the artistic experience.

For example, my Open Out Of Body Experience project uses recent science to let people experience an artificially induced OOBE, video game style, in a DIY format. The discussions that come from these sessions show an urgent need for problematization of the avatar concept, which recently cemented itself in our culture but whose morality has never really been discussed at street level. Or to take the point even further - if there was a DIY nuclear plant, Fukushima would have looked different today.

The art & science moniker is a buzzword that goes around right now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I am an artist who tries to understand things going on right now in the real world, using methods which can also be found in the scientific tradition. The process of understanding leaves a trail of images, objects, videos and ideas, which I call art. I get the question all the time: is your work art or science? Good question, but I don't have a good answer without engaging into a long discussion about semiotics....

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A group of visitors checking out the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation

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Does this project mark the end of your artistic relationship with killifishes or do you think you haven't quite finished exploring their world?

Returning to the nature form preservation concept of the killifish community, there is a tendency of aquarium bred species to become more beautiful. Not because of selective breeding by keeper (actually the keepers are very selective to prevent this). It's a principle in any species that relies on display for sexual selection - the more beautiful, the more visible for predators - which increases overall fitness. I'm planning a project inspired by the citizen science model which documents such change over several generations. Interestingly, a specific population from one subspecies of killifish seems to have abandoned display selection for another principle - forced copulation. Basically a rapist killifish. Further research is necessary to fully ascertain what's going on. But it's not certain if the research will lead me elsewhere. We'll see.

Thanks Mateusz!

PDF of the catalogue. More images of the work in progress at the Verbeke Foundation.

You can see Puddle Drive-Through Simulation at the Verbeke Gallery in Antwerp (BE) until 20th October 2011.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

The European Union defines "Invasive Alien Species" as those that thrive outside their natural distribution area and threaten biological diversity. One of the most dramatic examples of it is the one of the descendants of an original cargo of 24 rabbits that were shipped from Europe to Australia in 1859 for the pleasure of a man missing the joys of rabbit hunting. Within ten years of their introduction, they had become so prevalent that two million of them could be shot or trapped each year without any effect on the population being noticed. European rabbits have no natural predators in Australia and their impact on the ecology is devastating. The hunting prey quickly became nothing more than pest that has to be eradicated by all means. The poor creatures are vilified to the point that the Easter bunny has been replaced by the Easter Bilby.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Theatre maker and visual artist Kris Verdonck selected terrestrial plants, crustraceans, insects, fish, amphibians, birds and other organisms in the list of IAS that live in Belgium. Then he put them all together in one big luminous garden on the first floor of the contemporary art space Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

The result is an artificial jungle of bamboo, parrots, bullfrogs, Japanese knot weeds, parrots and little trees carrying blue berries. Before entering, however, you are invited to wear white rubber boots, a pair of gloves, and a lab coat. As if you were about to enter a contaminated space? Or maybe it's the space that shouldn't be contaminated by you? After all, men are ultimately, the ones responsible for any ecological damage caused by non native species. They are the ones who introduced them into the new habitat, intentionally or by accident (when exiting Z33 with seeds that would further invade the local fauna for example.) What is sure is that the pristine antechamber in all its whiteness and sanitariness offers a striking contrast to the garden, all messy and multicolored. No one could have orchestrated the effect better than a theater maker like Verdonck.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Once you're inside, it's easy to forget that these are 'invasive alien species.' Take the green parakeets. In 1975, they were only roughly 50 of them when the manager of an amusement park decided to release them in the wild. Thousands of them can now be found in Brussels parks and suburbs. They are seen as a threat to native species because they have the potential to outcompete them for nest sites as they begin nesting several weeks before most species. American bullfrogs --carriers of infectious disease and predators of native of molluscs, fishes and young water birds-- are seen as such a threat to biological diversity that their eradication was strongly recommended by the Council of Europe.

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

Verdonck's garden opened in May and looked like a little piece of Eden. All lush flowers, green parrots, colourful plants, cheerful amphibians and mysterious moustachioed fish. When i visited the show a week ago, the place was still jaw-dropping but in a rather post-apocalyptic way. It felt a bit desolate. Good care was taken of the fauna and flora but the flowers were perishing, the parakeets had to be taken away because they were wolfing on any flower or fruit they could get their beaks on, tadpoles were vanishing, etc.

Here's a photo i took, that should give you an idea:
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The sad outcome of the experiment was not planned but it certainly provides us with a lesson. This indoor garden explores alienation, men's relentless interference with nature. However, as the catalogue of the exhibition states, "EXOTE's aim is not to position itself within the scientific debate on biological invasions, but to be a metaphor to reflect on our interaction with the environment in which we live."

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Kris Verdonck, EXOTE, 2011. Produced for the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXHIBITION at #1. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

EXOTE is part of the exhibition Kris Verdonck - EXIBITION #1, on view at Z33 House for Contemporary Art until August 21, 2011.

The competition for Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (DA4GA) invites artists and designers to team up with the Netherlands most prestigious Genomics Centres and produce new artworks in the field of sustainability, food, health, bio-informatics, agriculture, and safety. So far the competition was only open to people living, studying or working in The Netherlands.

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Jalila Essaidi, 2.6 g 329 m/s (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Maurizio Montalti, System Synthetics (image Maurizio Montalti)

But the good news is that the first edition was so successful that The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, the Centre for Society and Genomics and Waag Society have decided to open up their second call for application to artists and designers from any country. Three projects will be selected and awarded € 25.000 for the realization of the final piece. The only condition is for you to have graduated in the past five years. Application form and other info, this way please!

A few weeks ago, i was in The Netherlands to see the result of the first competition. You might remember that i had interviewed the 3 winning artists/designers just as they were about to start developing their projects (The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics) so i was curious to see whether the final pieces lived up to their (and my!) expectations. The show is up until January 8th at Naturalis, the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity which is located in Leiden, a short train ride from Amsterdam.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (detail)

The best surprise for me was definitely the Microscopic Opera, developed by Matthijs Munnik in collaboration with Richard de Boer from the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this installation, the fluid movements of the humble lab worms C.elegans are turned into sounds and images. This tiny worm is used routinely as a model organism in research laboratories around the world. Its 'participation' to the artwork is particularly relevant to genomics since C.elegans is the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

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Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (de_buurman has much better images)

A software tracks and converts the movements of the worms into various sounds that range from abstract opera singing to dynamic soundtrack of background sounds. The public can follow the activity of the creatures on a series of screens, they display the images magnified by the microscopes installed above the petri dishes containing each from 100 to 1000 worms.

Microscopic Opera could have been yet another 'new media art' installation controlled by a living being but, somehow, the modesty of the performers, the pleasant sounds they generate and the control and dignity they gain in the process made for a surprisingly moving experience.

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Bulletproof skin stopping the bullet (image Jalila Essaidi)

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Bulletproof skin being pierced (image Jalila Essaidi)

The project that got most headlines in newspapers and blogs is 2.6g 329m/s, developed by Jalila Essaidi with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands. The objective of her project was to create a a bulletproof human skin, the kind DARPA would pay fortunes to get their hands on. Except that the project is first and foremost the trigger for a reflection about the many social, political, ethical and cultural issues concerning safety.

The rather unappealing result is a hybrid between spider's silk produced by transgenic silkworm and human skin cells:

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In an interview with Neva Lukic, the artist explained why her project explores the concept, relativity and borderlines of safety: Safety is relative. You can use multiple layers of this skin but there will always be something else that can harm you. A nice example is made by Lucas Evers, the initiator of this project, who told me that before there were no safety belts in the car, the child was protected only with his father's hand and that was enough for the child to feel safe... The question of this work is also about the border. Scientists are also thinking about that. So it has to become accessible to the whole society. Just as safety is relative, so is the word bulletproof. For example, I have recorded two impacts of a slower bullet, the same caliber but with a lower speed. The bullets didn't pierce the skin, but in both situations they showed very different results. One of them got embedded in the ballistic gel, wrapped in the silk-skin, much like an arrow in the silk vest of a warrior during the time of Genghis Kahn would have done. The other one was on a piece of skin with more spider silk layers and the bullet got embedded in the skin itself and not all the way inside the ballistic gel. Two entirely different results, both being bulletproof.

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Ballistic gel, used to simulate the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue (image Jalila Essaidi)

Jalila has recently posted on her blog, the extract of Sam Gaty & George Costakis' upcoming A Documentary Film about Synthetic Biology. The short video below gives a quick overview of the work being done in a farm in Laramie, WY whereby spider silk is being spun from goat milk.

The third project is System Synthetics, by designer Maurizio Montalti in cooperation with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The ambitious work attempts to study the possibilities of production of the bio fuel out of the degradation process of the plastic waste using two fungal organisms. A first type of fungi would break down plastic waste, a yeast would then take over and produce bio-ethanol out of it.

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Scanning Electron Micrographs (SEM), showing the interaction between fungus, yeast and plastic material

The final installation doesn't showcase the successful outcome of the project (the whole process would take years to complete) but it documents the intention, the experiments and points to the ecological burden that plastic imposes on our planet. There is a series of objects in a window that deconstruct the process from the moment plastic is broken down by men into smaller particles to phase when plastic waste would finally be transformed in an alternative energy source.

You might get a better idea of the whole project by watching this film:

The three works are on show at Naturalis, Leiden until January 8th 2012. The center has also uploaded videos that present the winning projects.

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Inside the Naturalis

Previously: The Miscroscopic Opera, 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and System Synthetics.

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