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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

It's been too long since i've blogged about a project supported by Symbiotica (although they did get their fair amount of mentions and praises in #A.I.L., the show i present on ResonanceFM.)

The new project -developed by researcher and artist Guy Ben-Ary and by artist and academic Dr. Kirsten Hudson- looks into stem cell technology and more precisely Induced pluripotent stem cell, a cell re-programming technique able to reverse-engineer any cells from the body, coerce them back into their embryonic state and then trick the resulting stem cells into becoming any cell in a fully developed body. Regardless of the original tissue from which they were created.

For the In-Potentia work, the artists grew cells that were taken from human foreskin cells purchased from an online catalogue. The cells were then re-programmed by genetic manipulation and bio-engineered to become a neural network.

This functioning "brain" is presented in a sculptural incubator containing custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system as well as an electrophysiological recording setup.

The work is more clearly explained in the video below:

In-Potentia exposes, in the most limpid and absurd way, how science is blurring what we are used to regard as clear-cut categories, such as where life begins and ends or what constitutes a person. Or in Guy Ben-Ary's words:

What is the potential for artists employing bio-technologies to address, and modify, boundaries surrounding understandings of life, death and person-hood? And what exactly does it mean culturally, artistically, ontologically, philosophically, politically and ethically to make a living biological brain from human foreskin cells?

The artists have kindly accepted to answer my questions:

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

In Potentia is without doubt a very powerful and thought-provoking work. What is the state of the scientific but also cultural debate around liminal forms of life? where could i read more about it (in a not too daunting, hi-tech language if possible)? do you have simple examples of these 'uncertain lives' at the border between human/non-human, coherent/hybrid, etc.?

Liminal lives are creating a great degree of conjecture and debate in many areas of discourse in science, life sciences and the humanities. Liminal lives come in many forms, basically, anywhere where there is a physical entity on the threshold of change ie an entity that sits somewhere between one form or thing and another, that could be on the threshold of life and death but could also be on other thresholds such as human/machine, human/non-human, or occupy a more moral ambivalence where an understanding of consciousness or sentience is attributed to a live physical entity which we had previously only regarded as being "merely an object" ie the space between object/being. Basically liminal life is any form of life that challenges and alters the very nature of the concept of the human being, but also the contours of human life.

Liminal lives can be "brain dead" or coma patients who are only being kept alive due to machinic intervention, or severely pre-term newborns kept alive with external life support systems, or embryos (both within or outside of a female host body) whose status as "pre-beings" disrupts our understanding of "life" as being conscious, independent and "useful". Liminal lives could also be humans with animal (or other human) organ transplants, genetically modified/manipulated (human and non-human) lives that challenge the ontological status of where and how "life" starts, or even non-humans that exhibit "human-like" characteristics of consciousness etc etc. A liminal life can therefore be found anywhere that our traditional western understandings of what it means to be human is challenged, altered or transgressed. If you were only going to read one thing on liminal lives, I would suggest Susan M Squire's 2004 seminal text: Liminal Lives - Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine.

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

I like the humour behind 'project dickhead' as you nicknamed it but i've been wondering if you're not worried that certain journalists (and bloggers) will jump on the opportunity to depict the project in a simplistic light? Your choice was quite bold because you could have avoided potential simplistic headlines by choosing to use other cells than the ones of foreskin?

The use of foreskin is deliberate and although may evoke simplistic readings, does not take away, I hope) from the ability of these cells to offer an accessible point of entry into an art/science work for non- art or non- science savvy viewers in way that starts to evoke ideas to do with gender, waste, body modification/manipulation, western capitalist opportunism and the role biomedicine and scientific rationalism plays in determining the moral status and hierarchy of all beings.

The idea or research strategy was to try and problematise the technology by putting forward an absurd scenario (make a brain from foreskin) and ask the views to consider it...

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Could you briefly explain me the audio-soundscape that exposes the electrical activity of neural signals or synaptic output? It is just the electrical activity from the neural network being amplified? Did you modify the sound in any way to make it more 'evocative' of what the activity of a brain might sound like?

When we thought about exhibiting the project, its aesthetics or shall I say the visual/sonic language we needed to develop to show something like a neural network we decided not to visualise the network using a camera. Rather, we chose to grow the neurons on a multi electrode array or an electrophysiological set up that allows us to amplify the electric activity of the neurons so that the viewers could hear the neurons rather than seeing them. We felt that this sonic element will complement or support the aesthetics of the incubator. We believe that together they support the reading of the artwork. We also chose not a modify the sound of the neurons (even though not such a popular decision) due to our desire for authenticity and integrity. In my mind this way the focus is on the neurons and not programming or musicianship... I think that the blurry, noisy signal (that really needs analysis algorithms to decode it) also adds to the absurdity of the whole work in a way that it is a functional network but really what does this statement mean ?

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Thanks Guy and Kirsten!

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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Designers and biohackers Raphael Kim and Funk are in the studio with us today to talk about the London Hackspace, a community owned, non-profit organisation where members come to meet, create and fix things individually or together. A hackerspace obviously involves much coding but there's a lot more going on: there's also laser cutting, soldering, drilling, woodworking, sewing, 3d printing, learning, tinkering, repairing and pizza eating. The space even welcomes a small bio-hacking lab.

A few weeks ago, the London Hackspace moved to a new, brighter and much bigger location on Hackney road. HSL is the largest hackerspace in the UK, with hundreds of members. And if you're not one of them the space opens its doors to visitors every Tuesday evening.

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Image by Raphael Kim

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DI Biohack Workshop 2013 at the (old) LHS. Image by Raphael Kim

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DI Biohack Workshop 2013 at the (old) LHS. Image by Raphael Kim

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New space for the LHS, just before moving in. Image by Raphael Kim

The show will be aired today Wednesday 1st May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

1tu8549.jpgThe new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today we will be talking with the flamboyant Adam Zaretsky, a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts, a researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world. If you've been following this blog for a while you probably know that i LOVE Adam Zaretsky.

Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact that the rather camp music had on the bacteria. More recently, the artist has worked with materials that include surgically manipulated pheasant embryos and a preserved turd of the deceased writer William S. Burroughs.

So that's what we are going to discuss in this episode of #A.I.L., turds from a famous writer but also eyeballs in armpits. And ethics, biotechnological materials and ''Full Breadth Genetic Alterity.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 24st March at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired tonight.

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Pipet exercise at Aalto BiofiliA Lab during the First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

My guest at Resonance will be Ulla Taipale, a curator and creative producer whose main role in the art world is to act as a bridge with the scientific community, enhancing and facilitating collaborations between artists, creators and scientists.

Ulla is one of the founders of Capsula which since 2005 has been organizing workshops, talks and events related to art, science and nature. She also initiated the Capsula Curated Expeditions which periodically invite artists to embark on artistic exploration and research linked to natural phenomena.

Today, however, we are going to talk about Ulla's latest endeavor: her work as a Project Manager of Biofilia - Base for Biological Arts. This brand new a biological art unit interweaving artistic and bio-scientific explorations opened at Aalto University, Finland in January of this year and i've been looking forward to hearing more about Biofilia ever since.

Aalto Biofilia is unique in the world as it has the only fully equipped biological lab that is operated by an art school and based in an electrical engineering building. It offers unparalled reseach capacity for the growing field of biological art. The programme consist of research projects and a series of courses, lectures and hands-on workshops in the laboratory and natural environments exploring the interfaces between biosciences and art.

Biofilia was set up as a collaboration between the University of Western Australia, Perth, and Aalto University. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from SymbioticA -The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts are consulting and contributing to the development of this new learning and research environment.

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First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Assistants are students of Art&Life Manipulation Course - with special guests Corrie Van Sice and Christopher Salter. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Assistants are students of Art&Life Manipulation Course - with special guests Corrie Van Sice and Christopher Salter. . Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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Ionat Zurr with students at Aalto BiofiliA Lab, Otaniemi Campus, Espoo, Finland. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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Melliferopolis -Honeybees in Urban Environments. Helsinki. Ravintola Savoy. Photo: Susanna Kekkonen

The show will be aired today Thursday 28 March at 17:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

I should add that if you're curious about Biofilia and the projects developed there, you might want to follow the live streaming of the lecture that artist, researcher Dr. Ionat Zurr from Symbiotica will be giving about Semi Living Muscle actuators as evocative "matter"
on the 11th of April at 11:00 (Helsinki time.)

Previously: Interview with Ulla Taipale, Herbologies/Foraging Networks at Pixelache Helsinki, Herbologies/Foraging Networks.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired tonight.

My guests at Resonance today are creative technologists Asa Calow and Rachael Turner, the founders of the MadLab. Madlab is the short name for Manchester Digital Laboratory, a remarkably active community space for science, technology and art located in Manchester Northern Quarters. Luckily for me, Rachael and Asa are currently in London, where they are heading a series of workshops and events as part of their residency at The Arts Catalyst.

The events explore in a hands-on way the world of DIY Biology. Participants learn how to build their own labs using LEGO and affordable materials, create microbe-powered LED lights using local mud, go on a hunt for water bears and participate to a feast of cellular gastronomy. Yesterday night, i participated to the workshop on genetic modification for beginners. It was eye-opening and fun (although scientific protocols tend to be a bit repetitive.) Many of the events are already sold out but some have bigger capacity and there's still a few spots to grab. So have a look at the website of artscatalyst.org for more details.


Shoestring Biotech workshop. Photo: The Arts Catalyst

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The show will be aired today Thursday 21st February at 17:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Another project from the Design Interactions work in progress show!

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This one is smart and thought-provoking and i'm looking forward to seeing how it will shape up for the graduation show.

Michail Vanis's project suggests that our romantic ideas and ideals regarding nature - a nature that has to be preserved exactly as it is- are holding us back from finding new ways to interact with the world surrounding us. Vanis' Neo-nature project invites us to reconsider our relationship to nature and adopt a more rational but also more daring and more techno-mediated approach to ecological thinking and to conservation.

The first chapter of the work, Animalia, deals with the animal kingdom and proposes three alternative ways to conserve coral reefs. In all three alternatives, the humans speed up the coral's evolution by genetically modifying it to adapt to the new environmental conditions that put the species in danger. The motivation behind why each coral is created illustrates how humans can donate, protect, or exploit.

The first scenario envisions a coral colony, a Stonehenge-like monument, that conservationists have generously financed and donated in order to save the species from extinction. The corals pass plankton efficiently between each other, creating a temple of nature, a celebration of marine life, and a spectacle for visitors to witness.

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The second scenario sees a coral species seeded in areas where tsunamis might hit. In case of tsunami, the coral takes 70% of the impact. Most of the colony would die in the process but the humans would be saved.

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The third scenario sees coral being exploited for the benefit of corporations. A hydrodynamic coral would be bio engineered to efficiently slipstream and merge water currents into powerful single streams. At the end of the coral colony, a convenient jet of water is exploited by the creators of the coral to harvest electricity.

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I asked Michail (who, i should add, means the pandas no harm whatsoever) if he could tell us more about Neo-Nature:

Hi Michail! You wrote an essay that bears the cruel title of "Let the Pandas Die" to accompany or rather introduce the Neo-Nature project. In this text, you suggest that we might have to adopt alternative thinking in ecology and conservation. Could you briefly explain why traditionalist view of ecology and conservation might not be enough to save ourselves and the environment?

There is a lot of paradoxical thinking in ecology and conservation at the moment. Large sums of funding go towards programmes which aim to sustain organisms that are arguably at the end of their lifetime. We accept evolution and the cyclical nature of ecology, yet we try to halt nature from changing, from progressing. In a way, the nature that we are experiencing now is the perfect nature. Any other alternative seems to spoil the romantic, pure nature that we have created in our heads. Slavoj Zizek puts it very nicely: "[Ecology] is a balanced world which is disturbed through human hubris".

The ideology that we have created to define nature as human beings actually stops us ethically from experimenting with new technologies. For example, if we collectively agreed to save a species from extinction, maybe we could genetically modify it to survive the new conditions that we have introduced. This seems far from possible at the moment because you have two parallel schools of thought: the scientists and the romanticists. The scientists are prepared to take risks and talk openly about modifying organisms, the climate, the natural world. On the other hand, the romanticists protect the ideological, paradoxical nature that they believe in truly on ethical, emotional and guilt-driven grounds. This disagreement is a huge problem in conservation.

Has your research been inspired by existing scientific or commercial projects?

One big influence of mine is the Weather Modification Office in China. What I find fascinating is that China provides a cocoon of moral freedom in which scientists can experiment with controlling the weather. Officials regularly seed clouds to combat the draught in Beijing without worrying about the influence that their actions might have on the natural world. A lot of the time they get it right. But sometimes, they get it really really wrong. Recently they accidentally caused a snowstorm that covered Beijing in snow. And in a way, that's okay. They get it right 90% of the time, but when they get it wrong, it doesn't stop them from trying again. This is the kind of experimental practice that has inspired my project.

Another interesting scientific project is the modification of male mosquitoes to combat insect-borne diseases. When these newly modified mosquitoes try to reproduce, their offspring dies immediately. Doing this to insects is acceptable, but try to imagine if you had the same scenario with a more loved animal. It would be completely unethical! Deciding what is okay to modify and what isn't is completely subjective.

And more generally, have you talked to bioengineers and other scientists about the Neo-Nature scenarios?

I've been working with a fluids mechanic to actually shape the corals. He's been very interesting to work with because he doesn't treat the corals as an animal, but he treats it as a material. For the next chapter of Neo-Nature, I'm working with a climate scientist and a mechanical engineer to explore the domestication of weather control. I am also going to an interesting discussion in April, which is titled "The Future of Nature" and is organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Half of the audience are synthetic biologists and the other half are conservation scientists and policy makers. I think this project generates its full potential of discussion when it is debated with scientists as well as romanticists. I'm trying to make that collision happen with a series of debates and talks in the coming months.

Why did you chose to illustrate the project with corals? Is it because these marine animals are easier to manage and modify? Or because they are not 'cute' so we might be less concerned by their fate than by the one of the pandas?

The coral is a very fragile animal that is dying quickly, but there is a lot of opportunity to manipulate it. Corals are more important than other endangered animals because they provide a living environment for a plethora of marine life, yet they receive less funding. I also chose the coral because it's not as sacred as the panda. It's an animal that is usually compared to plants, not to other animals. This emotional distance makes it easier for people to consider the possibilities of modifying coral to fulfill human desire, but to also conserve it in a more artificial way.

You showed 3 models of modified corals at the WIP show. Are you planning to push the project further?

This chapter of Neo-Nature is almost complete. I wanted to suggest three new alternative strategies for saving the coral. I'm putting it in the background for now until the other chapters of the project are complete. I will be testing the coral models at the Imperial College wave tanks to test their shapes and record some videos of the water flowing through them. I'm now working on the next two chapters, which are arguably more megalomaniac! I don't want to reveal too much though...

Thank you Michail!

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