I'm sure you've heard about Jalila Essaidi's work before. She is an artist who uses biology as an artistic medium, the founder of the BioArt Laboratories Foundation and the author of one of my favourite books about bioart: Bulletproof Skin, Exploring Boundaries by Piercing Barriers. And yes, she is also the artist behind the famous Bulletproof Skin project.
Essaidi is currently participating to the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU in Eindhoven with a less headline-grabbing but equally fascinating work called A Simple Line. The installation looks at how the thin line between reality and abstraction is taking shape inside our brain and more precisely at the level of the 'simple cells' that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line.
With 'A simple line', Essaïdi attempts to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality by having a zebra finch look at its own brain cells in the form of a line. The result of her experimentation joins the organic (a bird inside a cage), the abstract (colour block lines) and even the conceptual.
A few words with the artist:
Hi Jalila! Do you have a link to the research about specific cells (simple cells) that are responsible for the formation and perception of the abstract concept of a line?
Information processing and specifically the functioning of simple cells find its origin in the research of Hubel and Wiesel. These cells were discovered in the late 1950s. It would be hard to pin point a specific article that would be interesting for your readers but I think the videos of Hubel and Wiesel's cat experiments say more than a thousand words. There are several available online.
Serendipity & discovering simple cells:
Simple cells & complex cells, tests that show* how the cells are reacting to orientation specific lines:
*What you are hearing are the cells -connected by electrodes placed in the brain- firing when stimulated
How does the installation work? What is it made of? What do we see in the two tubes?
I have the feeling this question is technical/practical in nature so I am skipping the intent of the work, which of course is a vital part to the question "how".
What you see is the setup needed to merge the abstract idea of a line with its most tangible reality.
The installation is a work in progress; inside the tubes a line made of simple cells is visible. The cells are attached to a thin floating horizontal structure, which acts as a scaffold. The entire installation is designed to offer an optimal environment by controlling the temperature and composition of the atmosphere inside the inner tube, containing the line.
The next stage of the work would be an exploration into golden support structures, how to preserve the line outside of its current environment, and how to combine these preserved lines into their final form.
Is there a particular reason why you chose a zebra finch? rather than any other bird, or even a mouse or a bug?
Zebra Finches are, just like Zebra Fish, a model organism in scientific research. At the Bio-Imaging Lab of Antwerp University they research plasticity of the Zebra Finch brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging. These studies give us new insights in for example Alzheimer's disease. My intention was to visualize the capacity of simple cells to detect lines using fMRI and make that the foundation of the project. This turned out to be not possible with current fMRI technology (of which they have at Antwerp the state of the art).
But even with fMRI out of the picture, the Zebra Finches stayed. Their brain being mapped out in histological- (for example http://www.zebrafinchatlas.org/)and digital three dimensional atlases simplified the entire process and of course their traditional birdcages -made mostly out of lines- charmed me and they felt like a natural choice for the project.
How did you get the brain cells of the bird?
The cells aren't from the actual birds in the birdcage, but from zebra finches that passed away due to old age.
Any upcoming project, research, event you'd like to share with us?
There will be an event on February 7th 2015 at MU Artspace where there will be a reflection on the work from the arts, philosophy and neurosciences. The evening will be in the format of a talk show.
I'm working on /researching a new project again with spidersilk which I hope to present at the end of 2015.
A Simple Line is part of the exhibition Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
Don't forget to send your proposals to the BIO ART & DESIGN AWARD. The three winning ideas will be awarded €25.000 to fully realize a new work of art or design that pushes the boundaries of research application and creative expression. They will be developed in collaboration with a Dutch research institution then exhibited to the public in MU Art Space in Eindhoven at the end of the year. The deadline for applications is 2 February 2015.
It flows throughout our bodies and yet some of us faint when they see a drop of it. It is a key features in stories of vampires and children fairytales. It is the fluid that is most closely associated to life but also to the Ebola virus, diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other life-threatening conditions.
The 25 artworks that make the exhibition BLOOD (Not for the faint-hearted) aptly reflect the complex space that blood occupies in our cultures. From the vampire killing kit to the video of stem-cell extractions, from the luminol dripped down onto a sculpture made of blood and resin to Hermann Nitsch's cathartic Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries, all grounds seem to be covered: history, pure science, crime, medicine, literary fiction, ethics and taboo.
A couple of works in the show might be upsetting for some and indeed the gallery recommends it to the 15+. Strangely enough, i had no problem visiting the show but writing about it makes me far more uncomfortable. I could not even watch the video of Maria Phelan's work MYTYPE.
One of the works that opens the show is a documentation of Que le cheval vive en moi! (May the horse live in me!), a performance in which Marion Laval-Jeantet was injected with horse blood plasma. This bold self-experiment continues the artistic duo's exploration of trans-species relationships.
In the months preceding the performance, Marion Laval-Jeantet built up her tolerance to the foreign animal bodies by being injected with horse anibodies. The artists called the process "mithridatization", after Mithridates VI of Pontus who cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same. Once her body was ready, she was injected with horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of foreign antibodies, without falling into anaphylactic shock, an acute multi-system allergic reaction.
In this Science Gallery interview below, Benoit Mangin explains how Marion was able to hide the eyes of the horse. A horse would normally react very violently to having his eyes covered but somehow, the animal didn't perceive her as being an entirely different organism.
Nearby, lies the apparatus used by surgeon Robert McDonnell on a fourteen year old girl whose arm was torn and lacerated while she was working in a paper mill. Robert drew 350 millilitres of blood from his own arm and syringed it back into Mary Anne. The girl's condition improved for a short time, but she died the day after. It was the first human-to-human blood transfusion performed in Ireland.
John O'Shea is showing a video recipe of his renowned delicacy, the Black Market Pudding. Just like we get milk from cows and eggs from chicken without the need to kill them, we could also get fresh blood from pigs and make black pudding, a type of blood sausage commonly eaten in Britain and Ireland.
The blood is extracted from living pigs via a routine veterinary procedure and the whole business model ensures that the pig grows old peacefully. Kind of. And because vegetarian suet is used to emulsify the ingredients, the black market pudding is branded as being an ethical animal product.
Quinn is participating to the show with a wax model of his baby son. The sculpture is made of wax mixed with animal blood and protein his son is intolerant to. The work is thus both tender and savage. It evokes the love for a child and the cruelty of appropriating the blood of a non-human animal.
Professor Peter Arnds is showing a fascinating collection of German children's books in which children come to harm and blood is shed, posters that detail the Nazis' obsession with blood and its purity, and a short video on the Nazis' ideology of blood.
It turns out that children's literature and folktales are quite at ease with the depiction of murder, cannibalism and other violent scenes. In Germany and elsewhere. One example of this is Charles Perrault's version of Little Red Riding Hood from 1697or the Grimm Brothers' original fairytales.
There is a lot of humour in the gallery as well. STAINS™ is a fake company that challenges the hypocrisy of marketers trying to sell female menstrual products while showing blue liquids and pretty girls laughing in the sunshine.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to take a selfie with one of the blood stain broaches made by STAINS™ and share the photo via the Twitter with the hashtag #periodpositive. You can also buy the blood stains as earrings or pendant.
More images from the show:
The exhibition was curated by curator and media studies scholar Jens Hauser, haematologist Prof Shaun McCann, Immunologist Prof Luke O'Neill, literary and cultural scholar Prof Clemens Ruthner and Science Gallery Dublin director Lynn Scarff. It remains open at the Science Gallery Dublin until tomorrow, Friday 23rd of January.
I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.
Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.
The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.
By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:
First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.
These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.
On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.
Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.
Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.
The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.
Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.
Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.
This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.
Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.
More images from the exhibition:
Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.
This week (or rather semester since i so seldom do proper interview nowadays), I'm talking with Svenja Kratz , an interdisciplinary artist who combines art practice with cell and tissue cultures to investigate the creative and critical dimensions of biotechnologies as well as their impacts on concepts of identity, life, and death.
Svenja has a background in art but she also holds a PhD in Contemporary Art and Biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology and worked at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovationin Brisbane, where she completed a PhD in bio-media art.
So far, the artist has worked with media as diverse as fetal calf cells, human blood, maggots, multi-component 3D Human Skin Equivalent (HSE) models or taxidermied insects. She is currently participating to Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art with an ever-changing face mask that uses DNA from Saos-2, a cell line that originally came from the bone cancer lesion of an 11 year old girl who most likely died in 1973 due to the aggressive nature of the cancer. The cells of the little Alice can now be found in science laboratories around the world. Their presence in an art installation highlights the transformative capabilities of Alice's cells but also the oddity of using living fragments of a human body that died 40 years ago.
The work is called The Contamination of Alice: Instance #8 and since i can't travel to Melbourne to see it, I thought the next best thing would be to write Svenja and interview her via email:
Hi Svenja! Your work Afterlife "looks at the ethical ambiguities and challenges that accompany the use and manipulation of organisms, in particular the use of Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) in cell and tissue culture." What are those ethical ambiguities and challenges? And how does the work addresses them?
The work Afterlife was a starting point for the development of The Immortalisation of Kira and Rama, a project researched and developed during a three month residency at SymbioticA in 2010. The work developed from my engagement with cells and tissues and particularly the materials that are used in biotechnology such as FBS - a protein rich nutrient supplement used in the media to sustain cells in culture. The serum is derived from the blood of fetal cows. While the idea of draining unborn calves of their blood may sound horrifying, the calves are essentially a bi-product of meat production and while their blood is harvested to produce serum, their bodies are discarded, deemed unfit for consumption.
This work does not aim to demonise the meat industry or the use of FBS, but rather comments that there are victims at every level of consumption, and that the boundaries between good and bad are always blurred. For example, the common practice of slaughtering pregnant cows, and subsequent availability of fetal calf blood, has enabled great advancements in cell and tissue culture and contributed to the development of new medical technologies and treatments for humans and other organisms. This is the same for many cell lines, such the HeLa cell line, isolated from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Establishment of this, the first human cell line, was a medical breakthrough, contributing significantly to the development of vaccines and scientific research. However, the HeLa line also caused significant distress to the donor family, as the cells were used without the knowledge or consent of Mrs Lacks.
My work aims to draw attention to the often unseen donors or victims of processes of consumption and advancement, but also the shifting boundaries between how we understand life and death. I feel we need to understand that that there are always positives and negatives, and that our technologies and attitudes often reflect current cultural values.
You work with living matter. What are challenges of exhibiting your works? How do you keep them alive for the whole duration of a show for example?
One of the most demanding aspects of working across art and science, and particularly preparing living work for exhibition, are the ethics, biosafety and risk assessments that must be completed to ensure that the work follows ethical guidelines, all risks are minimised and the work is non-hazardous for viewers and installation staff.
You also work with fairly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage to communicate both artistic ideas and scientific innovations that are not that well-known to the public without overwhelming them with complex explanations?
In trying to communicate my ideas, I often focus on storytelling, interweaving scientific concepts with personal experiences and observation, cultural narratives and philosophical ideas. However, this is something I need to continuously work on. When I first started working across art and science, I think I was actually much better at communicating underlying scientific ideas, as my understanding was limited and I was only familiar with lay language. As my knowledge has developed, I sometimes include scientific terms without thinking. Consequently, I often ask my arts colleagues to read my work to ensure the key ideas are clear and understandable, and that I have not included too much superfluous jargon.
You are showing Contamination of Alice #8 at the Experimenta Recharge biennial of media art. For this piece you used human DNA to explore the transformative capabilities of cancer cells. Could you explain us what this involves exactly?
The Contamination of Alice, refers collectively to a series of individual works originally inspired by the experience of my Saos-2 cell (bone cancer cell line originally isolated from an 11 year old. girl, Alice) cultures becoming contaminated by a fungus when I was working in the laboratory at IHBI in 2009. While this resulted in the required disposal of the cultures, to minimise the risk of further infection - something that was initially devastating - it really got me thinking about how different organisms take advantage of environmental opportunities, as well as the difficulty of maintaining ongoing containment and control over nature. The loss of the cell cultures also encouraged me to consider the creative potential of the experience and how contamination could be perceived positively as unexpected growth and discovery, rather than something unclean or unwanted. The contamination of the cells was actually a trigger to start exploring microbiology.
The latest instance within the series which was commissioned for Experimenta forms part of this ongoing exploration and connects to Alice's cells, my lab experiences and notions of becoming, transformation and the interconnections between organism and environment. Through the inclusion of Alice's DNA (isolated from her cultured cells), the work also starts to engage with genetics and the fact that DNA is not a fixed code, but subject to environmental influence through gene switching. While all Agar faces are made of the same material, the display of the work at a new location will result in different bacterial and fungal colonies, based on the microbes in the new environment.
How did you get to work with the Tissue Repair and Regeneration Group at Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology?
I started working with the TRR group as part of my PhD research which aimed to explore the creative and critical potentials of cross art-science practice. I was very fortunate in finding a scientific supervisor willing to take me on, train me and fully integrate me into her research group. The support from my supervisor and the entire TRR team enabled me to complete my own lab work and gain first-hand insight into biotechnologies, particularly cell culture and tissue engineering.
I read that in 2013 you undertook a 5-month residency at Leiden University and the Art and Genomics Centre in The Netherlands to explore mutagenesis and bioengineering for future energy production. Could you tell us about this research?
Thanks to the Premiere's 2012 New Media Scholarship from QAG/GOMA, I had the opportunity to complete a six-month residency at Gorlaeus Laboratories at Leiden University in The Netherlands from July to December 2013. The residency formed part of the large-scale Biosolar Cells research programme, which focuses on the potential of solar energy for long term sustainable energy production. While the programme encompasses a variety of research areas, I was integrated into the Solid State NMR group led by Professor Huub de Groot under the supervision of Professor Wim de Grip and PhD candidate Srividya Ganapathy. The project I worked on aims to increase the absorbance spectrum of light powered protein pumps, which are proteins used by Archaea (single-celled microorganisms) to convert sunlight into chemical energy. If successful, the increase in absorbance spectrum enable the proteins to use more of light spectrum to create energy with strong implications for biofuel production. During the residency, I was fortunate to take part in site-specific mutagenesis experiments in which we made highly specific changes to the DNA sequence of the protein in order to induce a shift in absorbance spectrum. I am one of the few artists that can legitimately claim: "I helped make a mutant".
Why do you think it is important for an artist to get in close contact with science like you do?
I personally have found that working closely with research scientists and engaging with new and emerging biotechnologies has enriched my practice and understanding of biology, new and emerging biotechnologies and the complex ethical issues involved in working with living organisms. Being able to work closely with research scientists has also challenged many of my own assumptions and revealed that artists and scientists, despite governed by different objectives and methodologies, rely on tacit knowledge and understand that discovery is emergent and requires an openness to the unexpected. The combination of art and science is also important as it enables the subjective to enter into scientific discourse and research arenas traditionally dominated by a search for 'objective truth'. By drawing on, and incorporating, personal experiences, speculative potentials and historical events, the work makes room for multiplicity and can help reveal the way in which knowledge is always situated, provisional, and intimately connected to personal, social, and cultural values.
What's next? What are you working on right now?
At the moment I am developing a series of holographic display chambers in collaboration with micro-electronics engineer Michael Maggs, based on my 2013 residency in The Netherlands, that engage with ideas surrounding real and imaginary biotech mutants. I am also working on a series of individual works that operate as thought experiments regarding the idea of genetic legacy, and how, as single woman in my 30s, I might use biotechnologies to ensure my genetic line continues without having children. I am also interested in exploring the emerging field bio-fabrication and am hoping to secure funds to create responsive 'bio-robots' using 3D bio-printing techniques. What can I say...the future is exciting!
Experimenta Recharge, the sixth international biennial of media art, remains open until Saturday 21 February 2015. In Melbourne.
For over 60 years, scientists have been deliberately exposing plants and seeds to radiation in order to mix up their genetic material and speed up mutations. The results are unpredictable and only the mutated plants that show useful or otherwise desirable attributes (stronger, tastier, bigger, more resistant to disease, etc.) are reproduced, creating a mutant variety from the original one.
The technology is called radiation breeding. It emerged in the early 1950s, as part of Atoms for Peace, a program to develop "peaceful" uses of fission energy after WWII. So-called Gamma gardens were planted in laboratories in the US, parts of the former USSR, India, Japan and even in GMO-phobic Europe. A number of plant varieties were commercialized and some of their offspring can now be found in your local supermarket.
The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, an art think tank that investigates food controversies and prototypes 'alternative culinary futures', was concerned by the lack of research on radiation-bred edible plants and their possible impact on our health and on the environment. CGG founders Zack Denfeld & Cat Kramer worked with Heather Julius to create a barbecue sauce that contains some of the most common radiation-bred ingredients: Rio Red Grapefruit, Milns Golden Promise Barley, Todd's Mitcham Peppermint, Calrose 76 Rice and Soy.
The peppermint is a mutation of Mentha piperita, it is able to resist a particularly nasty fungal disease and can be found in chewing-gum, candies and toothpaste. The modified barley is used to make beer and whiskey. As for the grapefruit, it was developed to produce the deepest red. Hundreds of mutation-bred varieties of soy and rice have been registered in the International Atomic Energy Agency database. Now the name of the sauce is a reference to Cobalt-60, the radioactive source gamma gardens are submitted to.
Cobalt 60 Sauce is part of the exhibition Matter Of Life: Growing new Bio Art and Design at MU in Eindhoven. A big sauce dispenser is at the disposal of visitor who'd like to taste the recipe. It's very dark, very yummy and a bit sweet.
Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design exhibition at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
Here's one last post about a work i discovered at BIO50, the 24th Biennial of Design that closed in Ljubljana a few days ago (at the bottom of this post, you'll find links to stories i wrote about some of the projects developed for the biennial.)
One of the eleven themes explored at BIO50 brought design into the realm of life sciences. I was thus expecting one of those futuristic, speculative and over-serious projects that explore scenarios of a life mediated by biotechnology. However, what designers Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič came up with didn't meet my expectations at all. And that's always a good thing.
Their Plant Sex Consultancy is exactly what its title suggests: a series of design interventions aimed at 'augmenting' the sex life of plants, through long discussions with 'plant clients.'
Take the cyclamen, for example. The particular species of bees that pollinate the flower by shaking it with a specific frequency has gone extinct. PSX designed a vibrating pod with a sensor that gently grasps the flower. When triggered by an insect, the pod shakes with the exact frequency needed to release the pollen onto the insect. PSX has devised a total of six gadgets that meet the specific sexual needs of plants. Some flowers were outfitted with a vanity lace to prevent the spread of STDs, others were given an algae-containing dildo or a vibrator.
By applying human-centered design methodologies onto plant life, PSX ends up serving its own agenda, creating objects that are familiar to the human and that bear a meaning to the human only. Not the plant.
Besides, the legitimacy of intentional anthropomorphism depends on the viewer's cultural context. The method is effective if the designer employing it subscribes to the Eastern philosophy, which grants an equivalent status to all entities, living and inanimate, but irrationally unpalatable to designers stemming from the Western Cartesian tradition, which ascribes true individuality and sentience solely to human beings. The inherent antagonism, absurdity and humor apparent in the augmentations also manifest themselves in the design process, which stems from West, but is in this context more congruent with the Eastern world view.
What made you want to design artifact for the sexuality of plants?
Within the framework of this year's BIO50, intended to test the limits of incidental interdisciplinary collaboration while taking a critical stance towards contemporary design practices, we (Dimitris Stamatis, Pei-Ying Lin, Jasmina Weiss, and Špela Petrič) wanted to push the envelope by proposing a project that wilfully transgresses common sense, good taste, and the purpose of design as a branch of applied art with utility at its core.
For all empathic and philosophical purposes, plants are the incomprehensible aliens living amongst us, which we experience daily but perceive through their ubiquity, their slow pace, immobility, at best as a source of food and their potential applicability to reduce our detrimental environmental impact. We see, taste, smell and touch the otherness of plants, but spend very little time daydreaming to comprehend it. And even if we did, we'd hardly find a point of identification, of justifiable commonality between humans and plants that would spark a comparison, which would release plant agencies from the murky bottom of the anthropocentric valorization of living beings.
Then, there is sex. In the abstract realm of biological sciences, which seeks commonality in processes across the living world, sexual reproduction stands out as a staple principle of natural selection. Using a gastronomy facsimile, sex results in genetic cocktails of individuals. It is one of the crucial steps in the recipes of species under pressure to suit the changing taste of the environment. This applies to all organisms, from bacteria to humans and, of course, plants.
We recognized the uncanniness of likening plant and human sexual reproduction as an agora to juxtapose conceptions of "unique" human cultural practices to cross-species biological necessities, and the design process, promoted (by BIO50 amongst others) as a widely applicable approach, to the limits of its meaningfulness.
Prosthetics to enhance the 'natural reproductive strategies' of plants! Even the term 'consultancy' sounds ironic because it implies having an actual face to face conversation with a plant. The whole project actually doesn't sound very serious, more like a parody of design project. However, while i was listening to your presentation of the project in Ljubljana, i was surprised by how much 'sense' these little sex toys and gadgets might have. They are a bit ridiculous but they also respond to a perceived need or shortcoming of the plant reproduction system (for example: a bee going extinct.) So how do balance the credible and the fanciful? How seriously should we take the project and the various problems these plants have when it comes to reproduction?
The PSX Consultancy presents a hybrid manifestation of tongue-in-cheek discourse stemming from established concepts; it is conceived using artistic and design approaches in response to a body of knowledge provided by science. The identified reproductive problems of plants and the proposed solutions are as serious as they can be, but are coined using a methodological twist during the process.
The PSX's research of reproductive problems of the plants is based on scientific papers, meticulously interpreted by the team, two members of which have a scientific background, one of them a biologist with a PhD. We applied the scientific reference overview towards the construction of a "profile" for each plant, which included their adaptation to indigenous habitats and the issues they face during their ongoing evolution and introduction to non-native bioregions, all from the perspective of plant reproduction. We then synthesized the background knowledge gathered around each "client" in the design process and by doing so considered the factual biological elements in a cultural way. Solving the interactions of elements (criteria or issues) led the PSX Consultancy to an original but miniscule fraction of all possible answers to the reported problems of particular plants. Freed from design's usual imperative of utility, we found ourselves facing an abyss of options. To collect a wide spectrum from meaningful to meaningless augmentations, we purposefully decided on a very flexible criterion for acceptability - the proposals had to poses bio-logic and preferably allude to human sexual practices.
The results are feasible to varying degrees. For example, the Cyclamen vibrator is quite rooted in reality, as a similar device is agriculturally used in the pollination of tomato plants, which have a mechanism of pollination analogous to the Cyclamen. On the other hand, the carnation's vanity lace preventing the spread of STDs, or the helium balloon-assisted mutation of turmeric roots, primarily outline lesser-known facts about plant reproduction but are "a bit of a stretch" when it comes to their applicability.
In the context of BIO50's challenge to designers, artists, architects, and scientists to collaboratively undertake "Designing Life", the credible and the fanciful continue to wade in the "punny" cesspool delineated by the curators of the biennial. The plant sex toys' uncertain and obscured position in relation to fact and fiction hopefully stimulates the viewer's critical perspective on the design process at hand, which can be applied to many similar endeavors undertaken and advertised as truthfully applicable. It seems that the message was successfully transmitted, winning the project an honorary mention at the biennial.
Once you outfitted the plants with these little devices, did you observe how they reacted? What happened? Did the plant accept the devices, were they useful to the reproduction and well-being of the plants?
We found it oddly effortless to transfer the human experience and sexualize the prototypes we envisioned for the plants. Our first test was the insertion of the "algae-containing" dildo into the carnivorous leaf of the pitcher plant. It's difficult to describe the awkwardness of the anthropomorphic projection the moment the dildo slid into the pitcher. Mounting the other devices provoked a similar estrangement, even producing giggles of embarrassment. We succeeded in materializing a cross-species taboo that never existed; because of their assumed soullessness, sex with plants, unlike bestiality, was never in the milieu of cultural debauchery. Does the instigated proximity of human and plant reproduction facilitated by these devices fetishize plant reproduction, banalise human sexuality, or does it incite an association quickly disregarded as obscure?
Keeping in mind the project is currently in its conceptual phase and that the prototypes produced thus far were plastic, non-functioning proposals, the augmentations were innocuous to the plants. If we were to progress to technology-enabled functioning gadgets, we are confident the sex toys would have surprising (favorable or detrimental) effects, which are impossible to predict without actually trying them out.
How did you select the plants you worked for?
After the initial sweep of candidates based on personal preference, oddity/familiarity, scientific interest, and general popularity, we had to pragmatically narrow our selection based on plant availability in Slovenia and the timely expression of their reproductive organs during the biennial from September till December. Further, we focused on plants with unique reproduction issues, which resulted in most of the clients being species originating from the tropics and making do in temporal climates, often due to human intervention. Humans indirectly caused many of the problems the PSX consultancy is attempting to fix.
What is next? Are you planning to push the project any further?
Since in the context of an exhibition, the legibility of individual augmentations depends on the presence, traditional use and symbolism of a particular plant species in the specific cultural environment, we hope to expand the collection by conceiving augmentations for different locally important plants, reaching a wider audience. In the process we also realized the project somehow mirrors the differences between the Western (European) / Eastern (North East Asian) mentalities, making it an interesting point of conflict and resolution to culturally dependent artistic practices.
Thanks Spela and Pei-Ying!