Because he is interested in the ethics and dilemmas of eating meat, John O'Shea is looking into schemes to achieve a more compassionate meat consumption. Since 2008, the artist has been working on Meat Licence Proposal. Under the law proposal, citizens willing to buy or consume a certain type of meat would need to obtain a licence to do so first. And the only way to acquire the licence is to slaughter the animal yourself.
If you happen to be in The Netherlands right now, head to Stroom in The Hague where O'Shea is showing two works related to The Meat Licence Proposal as part of the Food Forward, an exhibition presenting scenarios for the future of our food based on the work of artists and designers.
The first work in the show features the responses recorded on the streets of Manchester to The Meat Licence Proposal. The audio fragments are presented within a bespoke technological interface (developed in collaboration with artist and developer Tom Schofield) which makes connections between the recordings and actual written legal documents which support but also sometimes contradict claims that people made in response to the proposal for a new law.
The second piece is Black Market Pudding, a real and ethically conscious food product of a new type. The project involves making the traditional blood sausage but this time using blood from a living pig. Black Market Pudding is also supported by a business plan that would ensure a fair deal for farmer, animal and consumer.
O'Shea is currently working within the Clinical Engineering department of the University of Liverpool in collaboration with Prof. John Hunt on Pigs Bladder Football , a football ball grown from living cells, for Abandon Normal Devices Festival as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Plenty of reasons to be willing to interview John, then!
Hi John! You have been working on the Meat Licence Proposal since 2008. After 4 years developing and presenting the proposal, do you think you're getting closer to seeing it accepted?
I can positively say that, following several consultations, dinners and public meetings, I think that many of the ethical and legal challenges for implementing a law like the one being proposed have been fleshed out.
The Meat Licence Proposal is a much more developed discourse than when it began as a web dialogue in 2008. Since then, there seems also to have been a steady increase of alternative ideas around meat consumption and production entering the mainstream consciousness in the UK, particularly through television programmes focusing on the origins of meat products and celebrity chefs advocating nose to tail approaches and so on, so I think that the cultural environment is more ripe than ever for this kind of law to work.
However, despite any small successes The Meat Licence Proposal may have had in terms of consciousness raising around apparent discrepancies between the products and processes in our food supply, I really don't think that we are any closer to making the proposed meat licensing law an actuality for the UK. I think that I would have to take responsibility for this lack of progress in terms of actually getting the law accepted, which has mostly been down to a failure on my part to properly understand how our laws are made within our democratic society.
Fortunately, through research with Newcastle University (and the Law School there) I have begun to get a more proper understanding of the actual way in which food producers, supermarkets and other large corporations actually relate to the legal and democratic process of lawmaking around food. As I understand it now, the way things really work is pretty much the opposite to what one might expect: where The Meat Licence Proposal has started from a position of principle (people who are comfortable eating meat should be comfortable with killing animals) and attempted to extrapolate a policy from there, our actual laws and regulations around food, rather than being pro-actively constructed based upon an existing value system, are in fact developed quite subversively, in reaction to particular products and trends which emerge and are successful within the free market.
How have ordinary meat-eaters but also lawmakers and politicians reacted to the proposal so far? How much support/opposition has the proposal encountered?
One of the pieces on show within the Food Forward exhibition (entitled "The Meat Licence Proposal, 2012") features a whole series of short audio pieces which are recordings of people on a Manchester High Street giving their opinion and gut-reaction to the law as it is proposed. These views vary wildly but most people seem very apprehensive about the idea that they would have to get involved with animal slaughter in order to consume meat. There is a great deal of skepticism too about how a proposed meat licencing law could work in practice; however, these logistical questions are for the most part already dealt within existing parts of UK and European law and this is what the work attempts to demonstrate, through literally using a video projector to "shed light" on over a hundred different legal statutes.
My practice is, of course, as an artist, and, to begin with I wanted to wait until the proposal had reached a reasonable level of development before approaching "professionals" and "specialists" in government and law. My justification for this quite oblique strategy is that, having been subject to innumerable laws for my whole life, I thought it would be interesting to have a go myself, on my own terms. More recently, I have been in contact with legal scholars at Newcastle University Law School and for them, The Meat Licence Proposal presents and intriguing case, since it does not operate in a way which we might expect laws to behave - it is an object of curiosity.
A few years ago I also had a brief conversation with a high ranking UK government minister about the proposal and their view was, regardless of his own opinion on it, any law which might be seen as unpopular in the short-term presents a difficult case for government (hence the very long consultation period before the inevitable implementation of UK wide bans on smoking in public places.)
What was the inspiration for the proposal?
The Meat Licence Proposal in itself is not a particularly original idea - I had discussed this kind of thing many years previous with friends and it crops up sporadically on internet forums, at dinner parties and down the pub. I think the element which distinguishes this work is my decision to actively work towards making the idea for a law which would control meat into a legal reality. That strategy didn't come from a moment of "inspiration", as such, but like most of my work, actually emerged from a much more sustained period of anxiety around a blatant contradiction (at the time I ate meat pretty much every day, but had never killed an animal) and also the claustrophobic legal infrastructure which appeared to me to be impenetrable. I just wanted to get involved in these two parts of my daily experience and, to begin with, an activist approach seemed most appropriate.
If the proposal is enacted as law one day, how would it be put into effect? Would there be specially designed slaughter houses that anyone can enter to kill a pig and get a license? Would the killing be made following a special ritual? Using special weapons or tools? How would the law affect the distribution of meat?
These questions are very important, and I think that the suggestions you have made are probably not far off the mark. Discussions around the actual logistics of making a workable meat licencing law are still very much at the centre of this public research and development. To take the points you have made specifically: In my opinion slaughterhouses would not require very significant physical changes in how they work - instead changes would be needed at the level of policy.
At the moment you or I would typically not be permitted to enter the majority of slaughterhouses in the UK, even to see what is happening, since these are private enterprises. The right of entry is one of the first things which would have to change and I would see this as being in a similar realm to laws enabling citizens to enter courts of law and witness legal process. I think we should have similar guarantees of transparency around hidden processes in society since, at the end of the day, we are the consumer of these products and should be allowed to witness how they are made if we choose. Regarding taking part in the act of slaughter - again, there are various systems in place which allow subtle, often religious, variations on how the slaughter takes place and I think much could be drawn from existing regulation of special allowances around these methods. An illustrator, Chris Rodenhurst, with whom I have worked on several elements of how the proposal has been presented to date, produced a lovely set of sketches to suggest potential new tools for citizen slaughter. Like anything else, once this engagement with killing is happening on a national scale it will be in the hands of designers and marketers to determine exact specifications for new kinds of execution devices.
When i read about your proposal, i thought 'great! the emotional stress of killing an animal might put people off meat' but recalling the sad story of Marcus the sheep, i'm not so sure anymore about how much people can be moved by animals.
In your opinion, how would the law affect the way people see animals and consume meat?
Yes, I remember this Marcus the sheep story being all over the media at the time; for the "animal loving" (and mostly meat eating) British public it seemed to pose a kind of conundrum i.e: "Why has the killing of this particular animal caused such outcry?" I think the answer lies in part with the peculiar cultural and emotional distinctions made, across the world, between animals kept as "pets" and animals kept to be slaughtered for food. I think, even more important, in this case, is the act of giving the animal a (human) name which demands an identification at the level of the individual animal which would not be usual in the context of slaughter, where animals are numbered. "We are going to butcher Marcus..."
The aim of The Meat Licence Proposal is to facilitate a more coherent engagement with both animals and meat. Those people wishing to eat meat would obtain their licence by actively taking part in the slaughter of an individual animal (which would correspond to the type of meat which they would like to eat.) I think that there is a strong likelihood that some people may be put off, but this it important to keep in mind that this is certainly not a pro-vegetarian law and, surprising as it may seem, some people may find that they actually enjoy killing.
Can you tell us about the Black Market Pudding that you're showing at Stroom in The Hague? Will it really be manufactured using blood from a living pig? The description on Stroom's page says "In purchasing and consuming Black Market Pudding we are keeping the animal from slaughter - no animals are harmed!" How would this ensure that the animals won't suffer?
Black Market Pudding is my own culinary invention. It is a subtle variation on the traditional black pudding which is a blood sausage dish of the UK and Ireland made using congealed pigs blood, oats and different herbs and spices. I have devised my own special recipe for what I call Black Market Pudding where, crucially, the key ingredient (pigs blood) is obtained without any animals being slaughtered; this is the unique selling point: No animals are harmed.
I worked with Stroom over several months prior to the Food Forward show to establish a supply-chain in the Netherlands in order to obtain blood from living pigs in a way which is legal, humane and safe. For the show I made several Black Market Puddings in the kitchen at the gallery, using blood from the living pigs and these are presented within a refrigerated deli-counter as "real" proof-of-concept products. An important aspect of this work is that it is not speculative or representational in a way which might be expected within a future oriented show: Black Market Pudding is already "real".
Of course the true reality for Black Market Pudding would be for this delicacy to be for sale on the open market and this is an aim about which I have spoken at length with Karen Vershooren (curator of Food Forward). Over the course of this year I will be attempting to set up a legitimate production and sales operation for Black Market Pudding within Europe and I have made a simple website where people can register their interest. The challenges in bringing Black Market Pudding to market would be quite great I think, especially within the UK (where I am based) because it is difficult to work with animal blood in the food chain since the BSE crisis (where dried pigs blood found within animal feeds was seen to be a contributing factor). If the product were to be sold, it would be necessary that it be subjected to all of the regulations which would face any food innovation for human consumption and perhaps in this instance (where the process is different to the normal order - the animal is not killed) perhaps new laws would have to be developed for this.
I hope that Black Market Pudding can be seen as a continuation of consumer trends towards food products which contain not only their intrinsic value as foodstuffs and sources of energy but also a kind of additional ethical value which is quite difficult to quantify. If we think about the "fair trade" and "free range" labels, people are paying extra to opt out of a system which they believe to be exploitative; with Black Market Pudding I am proposing a similar business model. The name "Black Market" hints at the fact that this product operates outside of the normal order of things and the idea would be that the Black Market Puddings are sold at such a premium that, not only are you buying a delicious product, but also you are buying the animal out of the regular supply chain and ensuring it will not be slaughtered. This business model presents a fair deal for the producer (who is compensated) the animal (which gets to keep its life) and the consumer (who has this unparalleled piece of mind).
There is I suppose one caveat with Black Market Pudding and that is, by going outside of the regular carnivorous foodchain, where humans, as flesh-eaters, would consider themselves to be at the very top - here we are taking blood from an animal which is alive and so our own position in the hierarchy changes - as animals consuming the blood of another living animal we are explicitly "parasites" and so the real question for the market is whether people would be comfortable with that designation.
What are the MLP next steps?
At the very beginning of January 2012 I made a statement on the front page of The Meat Licence Proposal website explaining that there would be a change of strategy. Over the last several years I have focused my energies on a democratic approach, engaging directly with processes of law-making and suggesting that a new law could (and should) be developed in a public and transparent way, by citizens themselves, in a similar way to open-source development models which operate within software culture.
These kinds of initiatives can continue I think but it is my view now that the overall approach needs to be much more market-oriented and, once Black Market Pudding is established, I will be looking to identify more products and strategies which can close the gap between product and process (especially in meat production).
I'll leave you now with an anonymous quote from one of the participants of a 2010 consultation exercize:
"Ultimately, The Meat Licence Proposal must engage and identify with the values of 'the market' where production (killing animals) is about making money, and consumption (eating meat) is about getting what we want."
Check out The Meat Licence Proposal at the Food Forward exhibition, Stroom, The Hague, NL. The show is curated by Karen Verschooren and remains open through April 1, 2012.
Related story: Solo exhibition of Adel Abdessemed postponed.
If you're in London you might want to swing by the Architectural Association School and check out H.O.R.T.U.S. (which stands for Hydro Organism Responsive to Urban Stimuli.) To be honest i'm not sure what to think about this one but it's been a slow week art-wise for me so i'll throw the information in this post in the hope that it will help me make up my mind about the project.
With HORTUS, the architects from ecoLogicStudio are inviting the public to become cyber-gardeners and "invent new protocols of urban biogardening."
There's a bright green carpet on the floor and hundreds of intravenous-style bags are suspended above our heads. The bags are in fact photo-bioreactors and they form a 'greenhouse' that hosts nine different species of algae, from chlorella to algae found in London's canals. Visitors can blow into flexible plastic tubes, fostering the growth of the algae with their carbon dioxide and activating the oxygen production.
The plastic bags carry a QR code. You hold up your smartphone, scan the code and are directed to a page of information about the algae you've just 'fed' with your breath. Large containers are distributed between the algae bags, they host bioluminescent bacteria that automatically fed through a pump with air from the oxygen released.
The greenhouse cohabits with a virtual garden that feeds on visitors' scans and tweets about the exhibition. Their 'interaction' with the algae shape a garden rendered in real time on a screen.
I wasn't much impressed with the QR codes and the virtual garden created by tweets but it turns out that the project is much more than just another demonstration of how 'nature meets buildings meet the virtual.' H.O.R.T.U.S. is one of the manifestations of ecoLogicStudio's exploration into the role that algae might play in our future life: to produce nonpolluting hydrogen-based energy, to filter water or take a more important role in our alimentation.
The architects recently had the opportunity to try and test their idea on a larger scale in Simrishamn in Sweden. The Swedish Municipality is in need of new urban ideas to help boost its economy: the fishing industry is declining and young people are leaving the area.
ecoLogicStudio came up with an Regional Algae Farm plan that involves a series of algae-related urban activities and architectural prototypes.
H.O.R.T.U.S. enables the public to engage directly and simply with ideas and systems that might form a larger part of our life in years to come.
Some researchers have observed that apes held in captivity watch tv programmes. Some of them are fond of the Teletubbies, others favour emergency room dramas or Disney cartoons. But is it possible to script, shoot and screen cinema just for primates? That's what Rachel Mayeri set out to discover with her work Primate Cinema: Apes as Family.
The artist worked with Stirling University comparative psychologist Dr Sarah-Jane Vick to identify which kind of action, narrative or images a group of chimpanzees from the Edinburgh Zoo were most receptive too. The scientist and the artist observed how monkeys reacted to documentaries, cartoons, dramas screened inside a research pod where the animals could pop in and out as they pleased. The monkeys would spend a few minutes in front of the images then go away, come back, sit down for a moment, get up and bang violently against the wall that protect the tv screen, etc. Unsurprisingly the monkeys reacted more strongly to scenes featuring sex, food, violence but they were also interested in drumming and seemed quite fascinated by humans dressed as monkeys and by humans removing their monkey masks.
The result of the artist's research is a 20 minute movie. The video installation juxtaposes two screens. The right screen shows the movie for apes, its stars are actors dressed as and acting like monkeys. The second half displays the reactions of the ape audience when the film was shown on a chimp-proof screen at Edinburgh Zoo last August.
The hero of the film for monkeys is an actress wearing an animatronic suit with motorized eyes that are controlled by a puppeteer. She enters a house, gets a soda from the fridge, goes upstairs and falls asleep in front of the tv. Soon, a group of chimpanzee intruders enter the house as well and start misbehaving: they help themselves to the bananas and carrots in the fridge and basically trash the house. The clatter wakes up our chimp heroine. She gets up and goes downstairs to see what's the tumult about. That's when the plot thickens. Because chimpanzees also appreciate to watch social and sexual dynamics on screen.
Rachel Mayeri told us a few thought-provoking facts during her presentation:
- chimps might like to watch tv but that only happens when they are in captivity. Left in the wild, they have far more interesting things to do than watch tv.
- even the zoo is not the most suitable place to study the reaction of monkeys to moving images as the chimps' backgrounds may vary dramatically: some were rescued from poachers, others used to be mascots, some were born in captivity, etc.
- it's not correct to say that we descend from chimps as they haven't stayed exactly the same while we were evolving, our closest cousins have evolved too.
- chimps don't focus solely on the images appearing on the TV, they regularly check the changing social situation around them. They monitor each other ("who around me is sexually available?" for example) just like we do on facebook. Two of the most 'avid' tv watchers were a mother and daughter. During the research, the females were the ones who spent most time watching the tv screen. On the day of the screening of the finished movie for chimps at the Edinburgh Zoo, they were in rut, distracted and the center of male attentions.
- The artist is conscious that she made a film that reflects her own, very human prejudices and ideas of what a film should be like. She therefore asked herself "If a chimp director had to do a film for humans, would it have done the same mistakes and made a film for chimps rather than one for humans?"
Rachel also showed an extract of her first Primate Cinema video experiments, Baboons as Friends. In the two channel video installation, field footage of baboons are shown next to a reenactment by human actors, shot in film noir style.
The work was inspired by primatologist Deborah Forster who, unlike most people, can watch babboons for hours as if they were actors in a soap opera. The artist attempted to translate the plot of lust, jealousy, sex, and violence into the human world.
Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is at The Arts Catalyst in London until 13 November 2011.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!