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!
Last week Matter of Life, an exhibition that showcases exciting new works of bioart and bio design, opened at MU in Eindhoven. And a few weeks earlier, MU had also hosted the launch of the FATBERG which, as its name suggests is a floating island made of fat.
Mike Thompson and Arne Hendriks are behind this project of a lump of lard that wants to be as big as an oil rig. The designers were directly inspired by last year's story of the London fatberg, a solidified mass of grease and oil, baby wipes, and other sanitary items thrown into the sewage system.
While fatbergs are clogging in sewer systems in cities around the world, they have also been identified as a source of fuel. According to Thames Water, the London sewage fat could be burnt and used to produce enough electricity to power just under 40,000 average sized homes.
Hendriks and Thomson are looking at fat under a different angle though. They are planning to use pure fat to build a structure as big as an oil rig. Not as a speculative design project, but as a process that will generate insights and tools that facilitate a paradigm shift through the creation of the FATBERG itself - "inspirational data" to stimulate the imagination.
The issues explored involve the bad reputation of fat (fat used to be something useful in our cultures. Nowadays, it's an invader we need to fight and annihilate), the physical and biological constitution of fat, its reactions to the immediate environment, the many challenges posed by the increase in scale, the possibility of having it float over a canal in Amsterdam, etc.
The ingredients for Fatberg so far consist of a mix of 70% beef fat and 30% pork fat as so far this blend creates the optimal material for building. The designers are, however, planning to be do further experiments with fats of a variety of sources and compositions.
Thompson and Hendriks are popping by regularly at MU to inject fat over the fatberg and see it grow in its glass 'incubator' and tip over when its balance is unsettled. They are also planning to organize a "Fat Drive" in the new year at MU, where members of the public are invited to donate their fats for the creation of FATBERG. Follow their blog for the upcoming details about the event.
FATBERG: Chapter 1: Beginning To Build An Island of Fat is part of the Matter of Life | Growing Bio Art & Design exhibition at MU, Strijp S, in Eindhoven. The show remains open until 22nd February 2015.
At first sight, there's something inherently funny in a headline that claims: Warning as alien mussels found near Heathrow airport. But it turns out that these molluscs not only sit on top of native mussels and smother them to death, they also threaten thousands of other native animals and habitats. If that were not enough, they are also accused of disrupting water supplies by blocking pipes and causing flooding.
These mussels are only one of the many invasive species that are identified by environmental departments as posing danger to biodiversity. These invasive plants and animals are often eradicated using drastic measures. Authorities can infect them with a virus, for example. Or they can use chemicals, hunting, fires, birth control, etc. These measures are expensive and they also create a dilemma for citizens who are caught between a desire to preserve the eco-system and a reluctance to kill animals.
Lisa Ma identified and fleshed out this dilemma in her work Invasive. The project brought her to Ghent in meat-loving Belgium. Ghent is often called the "Vegetarian Capital of Europe." In 2009, it became the first city in the world to adopt a weekly vegetarian day. Restaurants now offer at least one vegetarian menu item, every Thursdays (the city "vegetarian day") schools serve entirely vegetarian meals and maps listing the places selling fries fried in vegetable oil circulate (that might not seem extraordinary to you but as a Belgian i grew up eating fries cooked in beef fat.)
Ghent prides itself on being animal-friendly thus. Yet, Lisa soon discovered that the city is spending tax payers' money to kill thousands of invasive Canadian geese every year. The animals have taken advantage of the well-preserved ecology of the city and of the absence of competition or predators. The heavy birds constantly push the soil into Ghent's canals and literally blocking a city already below the sea level.
The city deals with 'the problem' by eradicating the Canada geese at great cost. The animals are round up, individually injected with poison and incinerated. People would also take eggs from the nests and throw them in the river. They make sure to keep one egg though. They shake it and put it back in the nest, so that goose parents would continue to nest the 'dud' egg all summer instead of starting a new batch.
Collaborating with cultural organisations Timelab, FoAM, Vooruit, the newly formed food council and a series of local experts, Lisa Ma suggested that the citizens of Ghent ate the invasive animals, rather than leave them for governments to poison at huge public costs.
Unsurprisingly, the idea spurred an intense debate in the media. But it also led to some pretty unusual experiences: volunteers jumping into rivers to fish out freshly thrown eggs, vegetarian chefs crying when they cooked their first gosling pie, making feather plucking machines from cement mixers, etc.
The Invasive project also attempted to tackle the notoriously invasive Japanese Knotweed. A local cake store used the plant (which tastes like rhubarb 'without the laxative effects') to bake cheesecakes. Invasive grew into a real movement that even launched the first ever food council in the city.
These last two paragraphs which sum up some of the lessons learnt in the process were written by Lisa:
The project also addressed a new shift in our believes and values. Vegetarianism used to be a form of activism, what now when it's become a status quo and no longer addressing the dilemma between our believes and our values?
There is no such thing as perfect solutions, even this story of eating invasive animals has its potential pitfalls. Equilibrium doesn't last forever, so activism must be iterative to reassess it's relevance to the dilemma. This project is a real-life case of how even the most aspirational of political communities have a need to further challenge a status quo, even when it had become the pride of their own city.
Image on the homepage: Edward Vercruysse.
I already mentioned the exhibition Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future in a number of posts (in particular this one which focused on clouds) so i won't bore you with repeating myself too much. The artworks on show invite the public to think about today and tomorrow's weather with the gravity that befits the topic but also with lightness and humour, asking questions such as:
Should human culture be reshaped to fit strange weather or should we reshape weather to fit our strange culture? Who is going to take advantage of climate chaos and how will strange weather benefit me? How will you choose to work, celebrate, live and die when weather gets weird?
Since so many pieces in the shows got my attention, i thought i should write on last post about Strange Weather. This one will include plastic flowers modelled on the alien species that have started to invade the Arctic, an instrument that monitors 'space weather', HazMat Suits for kids and more.
The Raindrop machine works like a mini open wind tunnel and it is both a continuation of the scientists original experiment and an artwork exhibited in a very different cultural context.
Scientists and ecotourists visiting the Arctic are bringing in thousands of seeds that were attached to the sole of their shoes or are falling off from their pockets. It wasn't a problem until a few years ago but temperatures are warming up and the seeds are now taking root, potentially disrupting the ecosystems.
Tania Kitchell 's Occupy II is a representation of alien and invasive plant species that have been sighted in Arctic regions.
In Occupy II the plants are made of ABS plastic that have been formed with 3D modelling software and formed on a 3D printer. Photos were used as references to reproduce plant forms; there is an intentional disregard for a precise likeness as sizes and proportions are not adhered to, but there is a strong connection to the existing plants.
Does this disconnect between perception and reality in any way parallel our misconceptions about the Arctic?
This was one of my favourite works in the show. It is simple and elegant. Yet, there is something slightly disturbing in this assembly of 3Dprinted plants. Even before you even read the text that explains what they represent.
The Solar Wind Aeroscope is another subtle, unassuming but fascinating work.
Jonas Hansen and Lasse Scherffig built an instrument that monitors 'space weather', the environmental conditions created by the Sun and the solar wind and that ultimately influence our own atmosphere.
The system relies on global network of amateur HAM-radio stations known as WSPRnet to measure radio signal range. The signals from this network can travel for thousands of kilometers, by bouncing off of the ionosphere. Because the ionosphere and its reflectivity is affected by the solar wind, the activity of the WSPRnet echoes space weather conditions.
By monitoring radio signals and their origin, the Solar Wind Aeroscope can 'see' the current atmospheric conditions caused by the solar wind. To make these measurements perceptible, the instrument translates the solar wind into actual wind--transforming the gallery into a terrestrial weather station for extraterrestrial weather. The effect is actually very subtle, you need to place your hands on the Aeroscope to perceive the strength of the wind.
Archive of Old and New Events, by Jodi Newcombe and Tega Brain, imagines what festivals and gatherings will be like after climate change has seriously messed up with the seasonal cycles and local climate conditions that were at the origin of these revelries. Strange new cultural phenomena could take their place.
This speculative project, set in 2030, brings side by side two collections; The Collection of Lost Festivals holds materials from events that have fallen into oblivion. The other is The Collection of New Festivals which documents recent cultural phenomena that have emerged in response to new weather and climate.
How could anyone not covet these stunning 'Toboggan shorts' worn by 2028 race winner worn for the 5th Ave Toboggan Race in New York City:
Or this container of dried jellyfish snack that will be a staple of our diet when jellyfish overpopulates seas that are getting increasingly warm.
Creepy children-size mannequins wearing HazMat Suits are loitering around the Science Gallery.
The corporation DuPont patents their Tychem cleanup suits for hazardous materials, these outfits are used in petroleum industry disaster response to mitigate ecological disasters. Cleanups are thus conducted with the same materials that potentially harm us. Marina Zurkow hand-sewn little HazMat suits for children. These suits, however, are sealed to prevent them from ever being worn by a child.
CoClimate invited artists and scientists in STRANGE WEATHER to produce scripts about what weather forecast will be like in the future. And then they had the brilliant idea of installing a fully functional weather forecast set, complete with green screen, teleprompter and camera. Visitors are invited to step in and play the television weatherman, recording the futuristic forecast of their choice and share it on YouTube if they want to.
More images from the show:
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer from CoClimate and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
In the early 19th century, textile artisans started to break into factories at night to destroy the new labour-saving machines that their employers had bought. They saw the stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms as a threat that would make their skills obsolete and lead to lower wages.
The movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread throughout England over the following two years. The artisans who opposed the newly introduced machinery were called the Luddites. The origin of the name is uncertain but over time, the term "Luddite" came to describe people opposed to any form of technological progress. In the late 21st century, the neo-luddites emerged. They protest(ed) against the negative impact that technology has on individuals, their communities and the environment and aspire to a return to a 'simple lifestyle'.
Newspapers suggest that society is now facing the rise of a new type of neo-luddites. They don't fear for their jobs or for any damage to the ecology, they fear the loss of privacy brought about by drones and google glasses. In any case, the smartest form of luddism or neo-luddism is not one that commends violence, it's one that calls for a better understanding of new technologies and demands that people (all of them not just the ones who can afford to buy these technologies) have a voice in how they are to be distributed and used.
Speculative designer Lisa Ma, however, is pushing the discussion further. Over the past few month, she has been looking for the relevance of Luddism in the modern era by shifting focus from digital and communications technologies to the innovations of biotechnology industries. These biotechnologies which have started to pervade the food, health and ecological systems will undoubtedly attract their own forms of luddism. So who are the BioLuddites? Where are the group and individuals who ask for a demystification of biotechnologies and who are calling for a public debate about GMOs, systems ecology, hormone replacement, etc?
"Biotechnology, its beaucrocies, peripheries and implementation affect our everyday lives. There is a lot of work on the public engagement of emerging technologies, but there are gaps between where we believe science should cover and what is not yet covered. The recent ebola outbreak is an example of where the epidemic is actually one of fear, as society comes face to face with and area not yet solved by biotechnology or policy.
In digital technologies, we've seen an emergence of e-etiquettes and social manuals etc. of digital behaviour. These are what we refer to when society reaches the inner and outer limits of digital technology. Similarly, we also need guidances to reform our social relationships with biotechnology. Bioluddites is filling a necessary role in guiding the social and not just the ethical critiques of biotechnologies."
As part of her residency at Near Now, a programme which works closely with artists and designers to produce projects that explore the place and impact of technology in everyday life, Lisa Ma organised a panel titled Where are the Luddites - An Open Call for BioLuddites. The event took place on 4th June 2014, in Nottingham, birth place of the Luddite movement.
John O'Shea gave a compelling talk about his very funny adventures in proposing the implementation of a Meat Licence, and in bio-engineering a Pigs Bladder Football. Both are projects that catches the imagination of the public but the artist also discussed the legal, ethical and cultural questions that arose during the development of the works.
David King, who has a PhD in molecular biology, is the founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert, the founder of Luddite 200, and of the Breaking the Frame conference. He is also a frequent contributor to media debates on genetics and it is clear from his contribution to the panel that he has some strong and thought-provoking opinions about synthetic biology, three-parent babies, the need to engage in a dialogue with the powerful systems that control biotechnological innovations, etc.
Ben Vickers is a curator, writer, technologist and self-proclaimed Luddite. He talked about the functioning of unMonastery, a space that aims to develop a new kind of social space, akin to co-living and co-working spaces, drawing influence from both Monasteries and HackerSpaces, with a focus on the process of co-creation and co-learning between the community and unMonasterians. He is also a NearNow fellow.
An Open Call for BioLuddites was a great event and i can't recommend enough to watch the video of the panel:
Image on the homepage via BBC news.