Last week was the School of Design students work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art, that's probably my favourite show at RCA because everything is still gloriously wild, promising and unpolished.
Marcel Helmer from Design Interactions had a very puzzling display showing sketches of an audio recorder inside of a walnut that squirrels would then bury in enemy territory, nuclear landmine warmed up by live chickens, military equipment for insect related units, etc.
He called these scenarios Technocratic Fables. They tell the tales of machines depending on, cooperating with or being defeated by animals. The work looked closely at animals in military use. Some of his examples came from the past (believe it or not, in the 1950s the UK seriously planned to put chicken inside landmines to regulate its temperature), present and looked at how engineered animals might shape the future of warfare.
These fables show potential of putative simple organisms in the past, present and future. What if invasive species become a weapon? What if the next danger is an engineered physical insect, not a digital one?
The designer kindly accepted to answer my questions:
Hi Marcel! Why did you decide to present the work as 'fables' and not as just 'projects' like most other works in the show?
Technocratic fables are a collection of stories. All of them based on animal/technology interaction inside the field of military purposes. They are placed between the 1930 and the not too distant future, embedding the most sophisticated technology of each specific time into the tale. Showing its vulnerability, dependency or cooperation to/on/with animal behaviour.
Traditional fables use anthropomorphised animals not only to tell fantastic and entertaining stories, but to teach and exemplify sociological human behaviour. My idea is to use animals and technology not to explore the human/human interaction, but the human/technology side of society of a specific time. Specific time for the reason, because of the idea that a relationship of course changes throughout history, whether it actually does may remain unanswered though. It is certainly not about finding new uses for animals in warfare, even though it mentions the possibility of invasive species used as weaponry.
Can you walk us through some of those animals used for military purposes?
My favourite story so far: During the cold war Germany was separated into the soviet east and the allied forces' west. The western forces were seriously concerned about the possibility of the soviet army conquering western Europe, therefore they developed a plan B. Burying nuclear landmines to make central Europe inhabitable in case of an invasion. The only problem they had, German winters can be quite rough, and the electronics of the time weren't made for those temperatures. The proposed solution: burying live chicken with the bombs to use their body heat to keep the sensitive electronics alive. The soviet reaction to this plan was the attempt to train foxes, not only to track down the bombs but to "defuse" them by killing the chicken.
This is one example of the past, more recent ones include squirrels captured by the iranian government because they were "carrying espionage equipment", jellyfish fields blocking passage ways for multi million dollar nuclear submarines or moths distracting sonar controlled homing missiles.
Why did you associate a particular animal with a particular military use? Are they already used for similar purposes?
This is the twist: the stories i just mentioned are true! Design fictions like to use fantastic narratives to communicate scenarios, encasing and presenting them as realistic as possible, perfect renderings, tables and facts to create plausibility. I'd like to go the other way around, i cloak the stories as fictions to surprise with the truth, stressing once more that reality can be stranger than fiction! My design is the communication of the story and the speculative next step of these truths, what if this really happened and became the standard of warfare? What are countermeasures to chicken bombs? What does a squirrel use to spy on you? How can jellyfish become a weapon? It is an alternative century of animals in warfare.
Are animals still used in warfare?
Absolutely. But today its usually less spectacular and experimental, since computer technology supposedly became the answer for most problems. It is no more necessary to use pidgeon as pilots for "intelligent" missiles (again, true story!). We still cherish the advanced sense of smell of dogs, or recently even rats to find hidden landmines. One of the more fantastic approached is the research of the U.S. navy using dolphins to find sea mines. On the other side, who knows what's happening behind closed curtains? The "chicken bomb" was a rumor, until it has been proven in the early 90s by secret documents, which became open to the public after the fall of the Soviet Republic. It definitely leaves enough space for speculations of future stories, especially in regard to engineered organisms, which will be part of the "near future story" i develop.
These factors are also part of the reason why i choose to place it in the realm of military technology. It's the secret, yet fantastic nature that evolves out of the almost blind trust into technology inhabited by this area. Pushing the boundaries of technology with only limited emphasis on ethical or moral restrictions.
Are you planning to push the project further?
Yes, it is definitely going to be one of my main projects i'll be presenting in the Summer show. While i personally appreciate the idea of mixed media installations to offer the audience artefacts to explore the fables, i'd like to work closer to the expectations of classic fables in literature. Whether this is going to be a book, including the fables and the research or another traditional form of storytelling is still to be determined. I certainly have a lot more fantastic stories written not only by me, but history itself i can work with.
The Work in Progress show of the design school is over, alas! but the School of Architecture Work-in-Progress Show opens in a few days in the Kensington building.
I don't normally blog about calls or upcoming events. Mostly because as breathtaking as they are, press releases 'copy/pastes' are not my idea of an appealing content. I do like to make exceptions to the rule though. One of them is the Bio Art & Design Award. It used to be called the Designers and Artists for Genomics award but its objective remains unchanged: the award invites designers and artists interested in life sciences to propose projects that push the boundaries of research application and creative expression. Each year the three most remarkable ideas are awarded a 25,000 euro grant to bring the project to life and exhibit it.
To be eligible for the award you must have graduated no longer than five years ago from a design or art program (at either the Masters or Bachelors level). Applicants are encouraged to relate their proposals to recent advances in the Life Sciences, including those within specialties such as ecology, biomedicine and genomics.
The deadline is 2 February 2014.
The selection process is rigorous, the research institutes associated seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about the collaboration and the results of the partnership are usually so exciting that i've blogged about them relentlessly in the past (check out in particular: The Living Mirror, Ergo Sum, the now iconic 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin', etc.)
I took the call for proposals as an excuse to chat about the award with Angelique Spaninks and Wilma van Donselaar. Angelique is the head of MU, the art center which is going to exhibit the winning projects next Winter and Wilma, who works at the the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, has been working on the Award from the beginning.
Designers and Artists for Genomics is now Bio Art & Design Award. Why did the name change? Does it involve any modification in the award? The way it is organized, its purpose, the spirit, the organizations involved?
Angelique Spaninks : The change of the name is partly due to a shift in organizational parties. The Netherlands Genomics Initiative that has set up the award has ceased to exist per January 1 of this year but it has managed to guarantee a budget for a similar award. This has been brought under care of ZonMW, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, that is now in the lead. The other new partners are NWO (the Dutch Research Council) and MU, one of the leading art foundations in the Netherlands with a hybrid program reaching from contemporary art to design, media art and popculture.
MU will take care of coordination towards the exhibition of the three winning projects, combined with other new bio art and design projects. De Waag is still on board and so are several leading universities and research centers for the Life Sciences that provide teams of scientists that will closely collaborate with the artists and designers that will be selected to work on their proposals. In that sense the purpose and spirit have not changed, and neither has the prize money.
I'm, as always, impressed by the quality and quantity of scientific organizations the award got on board. Why do you think they accept the challenge to work with an artist or designer? What does the collaboration with a creative individual with an entirely different background and -i suspect- perspective bring to their research activities?
Wilma van Donselaar of ZonMW: At first the only scientific organizations that participated were funded by the Netherlands Genomics Inititiative and they had to be persuaded a bit in the beginning, but quite soon they thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration. The artists bring in completely new ideas and often challenge them into exploring new technological possibilities. There has to be a connection of course, but that is something that already becomes quite clear during the matchmaking event at the start of the competition. The only reason why it is difficult to keep scientists on board year after year is that it takes a lot of time. That is why we also bring in fresh research groups. But since we can show the results of previous award rounds now, that is not so difficult anymore.
Who should apply to the award? Is it mostly interactive designers and media artists or could a more 'traditional' artist/designer get a chance provided he's passionate enough about the possibility to engage with Life Science materials and ideas?
AS: We don't exclude anyone with an exciting but also viable proposal, who has graduated no more than five years ago in the field of art and design. Of course it will be more easy for artists/designers with some experience in working with Life Science materials and ideas, but the award is also there to stimulate young creatives to explore new territories and enhance the options for collaboration between creatives and scientists. All this to broaden and deepen the interest in and debate about the Life Sciences through the arts and examine it's social, cultural and ethical contexts.
How is an artistic/design proposal paired with a scientific institute? What is the process?
AS: Each participant can submit only one application before February 2. This application consists of a preliminary idea, portfolio and filled out registration form. Only 16 applicants will be selected for a matchmaking meeting in The Hague in March, where the creatives have to find a match with a team of scientists from one of the participating Dutch Life Science institutes. A list of the participating research groups of the 12 Dutch Life Science institutes can be found on the website www.badaward.nl. Once the matches are made artists/designers and scientists write a joint full proposal for the Award before end of April. Then mid-May all teams have to present their final proposals to the international jury which will then select the 3 winners. All proposals will not only be presented to the jury that day but also to the public. From June till November the Award winning proposals are realized by the artist/designers and scientists together and will be exhibited in MU art space on Strijp S in Eindhoven for 2 months starting from November 28, 2014.
Also I was wondering how the winning projects get accepted (or not) by the design and/or art world? Are they seen as hard to grasp and comment on pieces or does the art press and the art public embrace them as valuable and challenging expressions of creativity?
AS: The Award functions as a springboard, either for new nominations or Awards, new or extended collaborations, grants, positions or new publications. Experience with the first 3 years and 10 Award winners has learned that there is a growing interest in bio art and design in press and society but the art and design world themselves are lagging behind a bit. By presenting the winners in a respected yet hybrid contemporary art space like MU and in a leading art, design & technology driven city like Eindhoven we are convinced this will gradually change.
Thanks Angelique and Wilma!
From the back-cover: Every second year the Finnish Society of Bioart invites a significant group of artists and scientists to the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland/Finland to work for one week on topics related to art, biology and the environment. "Field_Notes - From Landscape to Laboratory" is the first in a series of publications originating from this field laboratory. It emphasizes the process of interaction between fieldwork, locality and the laboratory. Oron Catts, Antero Kare, Laura Beloff, Tarja Knuuttila amongst others explore the field and laboratory as sites for art&science practices.
I was about to add this book to the list of books i liked in 2013 but i decided at the last minute that i might as well give it its own space.
In 2011, the Finnish Society of Bioart organised the Field_Notes - Cultivating Grounds laboratory. Five working groups led by Oron Catts, Marta de Menezes, Anu Osva, Tapio Makela and Terike Haapoja developed various art and science projects while in contact with nature and ecology in Kilpisjärvi, a rural area in Lapland, Finland.
The book contains seventeen articles (in both English and Finnish) that report and meditate on the research, reflections and activities that took place during the scientists and artists' stay in Lapland. Field_Notes offers one of the very few residences that allows people who engage with art&science to work and experiment directly in a natural environment and not exclusively in laboratories or galleries.
I wouldn't say that this is a book for anyone who's interested in bioart. It's not the kind of crazy sexy pop bioart you read about in Wired magazine (or in my own blog.) It is sober and at time theoretical, but not less surprising and thought-provoking than any razzle-dazzle bioart works you've read about in the past.
Field_Notes offers is a great mix of essays by scientists and lively stories of experiments by artists. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura Beloff's essay on how experience is a key aspect (and sometime even the main objective) of art practices that use organic materials or has some affinity with science. Professor Antero Järvinen wrote about the icon of global warming that is the Arctic charr and more generally about the difficulty of drawing simple conclusion of complex material systems and phenomena. Oron Catts came with the most unexpected essay about a piece of plexiglass from a German aircraft that had crashed in Kilpisjärvi in 1942 and how the discovery led him to explore 'new materialism in action'. Andrew Gryf Paterson has a great piece about berries foraging and a proposal to set up Berry Commons which sounds trivial until he makes you realize the politics of berries. Maria Huhmarniemi looked at the dilemma of preserving the endangered Capricornia Boisduvaliana butterfly or building an hydroelectric power plant.
I'll close with two of the many projects i discovered in this book:
A Unit is a miniature green area an individual would wear on their shoulder. A Unit speculates on the concept of green environment and its beneficial impact. It experiments with an idea of wearable miniature green space that becomes part of ones everyday existence and asks if this can be considered as natural environment with potential health benefits?
A Unit contains a GM-plant or other primarily human-constructed plant and as such acts as a training device for our changing relation with organic nature for the future when both humans and nature are artificially modified or constructed.
Niki Passath took his touristic robots for walks around Kilpisjärvi and soon found out that fungi and bacteria had adopted them as a habitat. Traces of moss and lichen started to grow on the structures.
So there you are: a serious, solid book for anyone who'd like to go beyond the easy reductions, the fast conclusions and simplification that sometimes characterizes articles and books about bioart.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guests will be designers and artists Michiko Nitta & Michael Burton.
Michael works on the edge of speculative design, arts, and as a researcher. His works investigate the choices we face in our evolution as a species and in redesigning life itself. Meanwhile, Michiko's interests are in the relationship between nature and humans, often taking extreme vantage on how humans can change their perception to live symbiotically with nature.
You might have heard of Michiko and Michael's work already. Last year, they were at the Victoria and Albert Museum with a performance that showed how opera singers with powerful lung capacity might produce food in a future world where algae have become the world's dominant food source. And in Spring they were at the Watermans cultural center to explore the possibility of a city that would be isolated from the wider environment and where food, energy, and even medicine, are derived from human origin and man-made biological systems. Obviously, you're in for a weird ride with two charming people...
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 6 November at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.
Last week, i mentioned my quick trip to Leiden to see the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, an international competition that gives artists and designers the opportunity to collaborate with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the winning works is The Living Mirror, a 'bio-installation' that combines magnetic bacteria with electronics and photo manipulation to create liquid, 3D portraits. The piece was developed by Laura Cinti & Howard Boland from the art-science collective C-Lab in partnership with AMOLF, a research institute focusing on nanophotonics and physics of biomolecular systems
Living Mirror involves cultivating magnetotactic bacteria, a group of bacteria able to orient along the magnetic field lines of Earth's magnetic field. The artists collected the bacteria and used an array of tiny electromagnetic coils to shift the magnetic field, causing the bacteria rapidly reorient their body that changes how light is scattered. The resultant effect can be seen as a light pulse or a shimmer. Taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, [C-Lab] programmatically harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.
I had a quick Q&A with the artists:
Hi Laura and Howard! The Living Mirror, to me at least, almost belongs to the world of magic.It uses software, hardware and wetware. It is a particularly complex project. How did you know it would work out in the end? And what were the biggest challenges you encountered during its development?
Indeed, as a work it has been a very ambitious undertaking that integrates quite complex processes of wetware, software and hardware. We had to work very closely with various types of engineering disciplines and work as engineers ourselves. Over the past few months we built several prototypes to help us understand how a magnetic culture of bacteria might work. In the beginning when we worked on pulling biomass our biggest challenge was to generate enough bacteria and have a system that could produce a significant magnetic pulling force.
The interactive art installation was aimed at producing real-time images using living bacteria - but pulling biomass was slow. When we discovered that these bacteria produced a shimmering effect in real-time we were intrigued and felt that this was a better phenomenon to pursue and also allowed us to work with much lower magnetic forces. By changing the magnetic field we were seeing bacteria rapidly switching direction in a synchronic rotation causing light to scatter and producing a visible shimmer. So the major challenges we have encountered so far has been cultivating these bacteria and producing the electronic boards needed for approximately 250 individual magnetic coils.
There are many unknowns in the project which is what makes it quite exciting for us - having living bacteria respond in real-time is not something we experience on a visual scale we are accustomed to and finding out whether this system will be able to produce shimmering pixels that can form a portrait image is to be seen in the weeks to come.
To see the shimmering effect we observe, please see these videos below:
In LIVING MIRROR, multiple pulsating waves of bacteria are made to form a pixelated image using electromagnetic coils that shift magnetic fields across surface areas. By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, LIVING MIRROR programmatically attempts to harmonise hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture.
In the proposal you wrote for the competition, you say that "Recent years have seen the human body reconfigured as an ecosystem of mostly non-human bacterial cells. Together with fungi and human cells, these form our complex 'superorganism', an image the work seeks to renegotiate by literally reflecting and fleshing out these ideas." Could you elaborate what you mean by that?
Until recently, our understanding of human 'self' was, at least biologically speaking, thought to be 'human' cells. This perspective is now understood to include microbial communities and interestingly, these microbial cells not only outnumber our own 'human' cells but our bodies contain significantly more of microbial DNA than our own genome. (Our bodies contain a mere 10 per cent of human cells and 90 per cent microbial cells). In this sense our bodies can be seen as a 'superorganisms' - working collectively as a unified organism or an ecosystem.
As a liquid biological mirror, LIVING MIRROR draws on the idea of water as our first interface predating today's screen-based digital technologies. It points to the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image by believing it was someone else in the water reflection. Drawn into the image, he tragically drowned - a reminder of how we continue to immerse ourselves in similar mirrors as we extend our identity into the virtual. Simultaneously, the work highlights how contemporary science has shattered the idea of our own body by recognising that we are mostly made up of non-human bacterial cells. These ideas have shaped digital and biological understandings of our human self and are technically and conceptually reflected in LIVING MIRROR.
A living mirror is a very seducing idea. Do you see possible applications for it? Or was it just an artistic experiment?
Throughout the project we have been in communication with many leading researchers and there are certainly some specific technological overlaps (i.e. possible use of shimmer as a magnetic measurement or methods for orienting or guiding cells). As a display what can be seen is certainly different to existing technologies and LIVING MIRROR remains a research-based artwork.
Thanks Laura and Howard!
The Living Mirror and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands.
Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.