I just realized that there is only a few days left to see the Degree Show of the Design Interactions department at the RCA so i'd better speed up and mention at least one projects i found interesting before the exhibition closes on Sunday.
Set in a medical context, Agatha Haines' project Circumventive Organs brings the whole "We are all cyborgs now" mantra into a new light. In the future, maybe the health and enhancement of human beings won't be entrusted solely to artificial pace makers and other embedded electronics or robotic parts. Instead, our bodies might one day be fixed and improved with the help of hybrid organs that will be custom-designed, printed and inserted into the body to overcome a specific illness.
With the introduction of bioprinting the possibility of new organs is becoming a reality. The ability to replicate and print cells in complex structures could mean different cells with various functions could be put together in new ways to create new organs we would take millions of years to evolve naturally. Frankenstein-esque hybrid organs could then be put together using cells from different body parts or even different species.
The organs are using animal parts to respond to the risk of suffering from a stroke (Cerebrothrombal Dilutus), a heart attack (Electrostabilis Cardium) or cystic fibrosis (Tremomucosa Expulsum),
I had a quick online chat with Agatha:
I'm curious about the shape these organs have: does the shape reflect their function? The exact space they can occupy in the human body? Why didn't you make them look more appealing to the human eye?
Yes, I researched how these cells and tissues exist and look in humans and other species already and how they might look when they are joined to things they aren't usually attached to. I then tried to design the shapes they are in based on the functions they have to perform. I also spent a long time testing colors that could give a sense of what the organ does. So I hoped the form might be slightly descriptive of the function. They are also lifesize to show how much space they may take up when inside the human body.
After looking at lots of viscera I felt people may believe in them more as objects if they look more disgusting like the weird and wonderful things designed by nature that already exist inside us.
Could you detail to me some of these organs?
Electrostabilis Cardium is an organ designed for people with heart problems and is designed to act like a defibrillator. It has a suction pad that attaches to the heart and then a tube, which has walls lines with cilia cells similar to that in the human ear. These cells can recognize vibrations, and if the heart goes into fibrillation (a heart attack) these cells will cause the muscular wall at the base of the organ to contract. Behind this muscular wall is a series of blobs which contain rows of electroplax cells, which are similar to those found in an electric organ of an electric eel. When the muscular wall contracts these cells discharge causing an electric shock to travel to the heart which then defibrillates it causing it to revert back to its normal beating pattern.
Tremomucosa Expulsum is an organ designed to help people who suffer from cycstic fibrosis. It is surgically attached to the trachea with holes that form walls between. The top of the organ has a similar muscular structure to that of a rattlesnake, which can vibrate vigorously without using much energy for long periods of time. This vibration causes any mucus on the trachea walls to become dislodged and to move down the tubes into the new organ, which then moves down into the bottom opening that is attached to the stomach. This allows the mucus to then be dispelled through the digestive system.
To me the project makes sense: having something organic rather than medical pacemakers that transform the human into a 'cyborg' seems to be more 'natural.' Yet, the organs would contain cells from leach, rattle snake or electric eel. Can these cells be made compatible to each other and of course to the human body?
There has been lots of research into using animal parts in our bodies and also a few noted existing procedures that have been successful.
Xenotransplantation (which is the transplantation of tissues or organs from one species to another) has become relatively famous with the possibility of transplanting a pig heart into a human. Yet there are problems with rejection, which are now being solved by genetically modifying the animal. This is a way of tricking the body to recognize these parts as human. So the possibility of altering the cells before they enter our bodies could mean they can be made compatible or at least our bodies may recognize them as compatible.
Does a human with these new, hybrid organ becomes a 'new cyborg' or something entirely different? Do you think it would be easier for someone to accept that these scary-looking new organs made with bits of animals will be part of their body instead of a clean, polished piece of electronics and metallic implants?
In a way the host may become like a 'new cyborg' as they are still being enhanced by a new technology, even if it is visceral rather than metallic. Another term often used for a human enhancement like this is 'transhuman.' Transhumanism is a movement that attempts to overcome the current limitations of the human body using emerging technologies.
Whether people are more likely to accept these organs is something that I am trying to question through doing the project. I have been interested in how people respond and relate to new body parts, whether it is a transplant or a prosthetic, and how sometimes it takes a while to accept this new part as initially it feels alien to the body. Yet I think if the organs are partly made from our own cells we may be more likely to accept them into our bodies.
If you want to know more about Agatha's work, you should check out Happy Famous Artists' take on Agatha's modifies babies or head to V2_ in Rotterdam on July 9, she will presenting her project at Test_Lab: The Graduation Edition.
The networked sound installation Biotricity No.5 uses a fairly new "green energy" technology called microbial fuel cell to explore the intricate relationship between nature and technology, biologic systems and electronic networks.
The installation consists of neatly aligned bacteria-fuel cells. Once they are connected together, the cells form a mini bio-power plant that turns into sound the process of generating electricity from bacteria living in mud and water.
>BIOTRICITY. Bacteria Battery No 5
Biotricity No.5 was also the starting point of a workshop organized by Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven during The Dutch Technology week. Participants learnt how to make a cell from bacteria living in soil and waste water and how to assemble a 'bacteria-battery' system. But because the event was as much about art as it was about science, participants were also invited to develope collaborative and conceptual ideas for "bacteria-battery" future design, tools for measuring and modulation that can be used for artistic interpretations, sonifications and visualizations.
Since i was curious about the possibility for 'everyday people' to create energy using mostly muddy water, and how the experimentation could translate into artistic concepts and projects, i asked Rasa Smite to talk to us about her experiments in bacteria energy. Rasa is a media artist-innovator and network researcher based in Riga, Latvia. She is chief-editor of Acoustic Space journal series, and organizer of the Art+Communication festival in Riga. She is also is an Associate Professor of New Media Art Programme and researcher at Art Research Lab (MPLab)/Liepaja University and the director of RIXC, The Center for new media culture in Riga.
Hi Rasa! During the Biotricity workshop at Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven, participants learned how to make a cell from bacteria living in water and to built 'bacteria-battery' system. How easy is this exactly? Do you need to use sophisticated tools and materials hard to find in shops or on the internet?
We are using so called microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology that generates electrical energy from living micro-organisms that can be found in the commonly available resources such as, for instance, waste water, soil or mud. Experimenting with 'bacterial energy', we intend to use readily available components in order to make this technology more accessible and realizable for everyone interested in green energy production. All you need for building these batteries you either can buy in shops or build yourself.
Could you tell us briefly about the kind of experiments participants developed during the workshop? Do you have photos of the process and of what has been made?
A workshop itself is an experiment in terms of how much electrical energy we manage to get from the self-built cells. There are several components behind this process. The most important are the bacteria themselves, who live in water sediments, namely, in mud. We are curious how powerful each time the specific mud will be. Collecting the mud as well as thinking and deciding from which site to do so, usually is also a part of the workshop. In Eindhoven we used our own pre-collected mud from the pond in Genneperpark next to the Dommel river, as it was suggested by local expert - workshop organizer Baltan Laboratories.
For building a cell, participants use 2 plastic containers (in size of about half a liter or one liter) - one with a mud and the other one with a (clean) water. We put inside electrodes in both containers, which consist of stainless steel mesh and carbon material (which participants can make themselves by burning any cotton-based material). Then we build agar or jelly bridge between both cells as we need semi-penetrable 'connector' between those two. In the dirt-container we pump out all oxygen, so the bacteria who are splitting organic matter into smaller substances are now producing hydrogen protons and liberate electrons (which otherwise would be 'taken' by oxygen). The protons are traveling through the jelly bridge to the clean water (towards the oxygen), while we can collect electrons from the dirt-container by using the electrode. Now we can get electricity in outer chain and to connect there LED light or other small-voltage consuming devices.
As the workshop in Baltan was related to our exhibition work, the second part of the workshop was led by sound artist and composer Voldemars Johansons. He introduced workshop participants how to sonify electrical signals and to make sound structures representing and interpreting electricity generation process.
How did you and the other artists you work with familiarize yourself with microbial fuel cells? Self-experimentation? Study with scientists?
We are used to say that we are artists-researchers and cultural innovators, who work with the science and emerging technologies. But as art has different aims then the science, then collaborative work with scientists is more important in the beginning. But then, at the certain stage, art has to fulfill its own tasks and it takes its own path. If we trace back to Renaissance, this path (of art) was not yet separated from the science then. Later, when science became the only mean of determining truth and explaining a 'real' world, art remain in the position of dealing with more uncertain phenomenon, emotional and subjective worlds. Just now, very recently, when our modern society has become even much more complex, it becomes clear that there are no any single discipline which could deal with this complexity. Therefore, art as research with its imaginative, intuitive, emotional and subjective approaches again is getting a recognition as a complimentary discipline to the sciences. More then that we would like to argue, that changing role of art in our society is the one of a catalyst - for social, scientific, and technological transformations.
Baltan will also exhibit an installation you developed together with sound artist Voldemars Johansons and video artist Martins Ratniks: BACTERIA BATTERY No.5. Could you briefly describe the piece and how it works?
For Baltan exhibition we use self-built 12 microbial fuel cells, each of which generates small voltage of electricity - 0,2-0,7 V. Connected together they create mini bio-energy power station. By using micro-electronics, the signals from bacteria electricity generation is being processed and interpreted into multiple channel sound structures. With sonification we also are aimed at exploring interrelation between biology and computing. In order to make visible the micro-environment, where the bacteria live, we also have made a video from images taken with the electronic microscope.
What exactly can artists bring to the discourse of green energy production? How different is their perspective and approach compared to the one of a scientist?
We, artists not necessarily have to make the models for batteries or prototypes for infrastructures - however we are also keen on doing so. More relevant is that artists are questioning and reflecting. Artists are approaching energy technology issues from social, cultural and ecological perspective, thus reaching more diverse levels in social structure of our society. For instance, as a part of our artistic research project on Bacteria Battery last year we organized series of collaborative working sessions titled "Biotricity" together with both scientists and local communities in very different settings. We did first bacteria battery tests in science laboratories at Latvian University.
Later together with artists the scientists participated in our temporary 'rural-labs' in country side of Latvia, where we explored Latvian vast lands and available resources there for future energy infrastructures (global-local, peer-to-peer, information-energy etc.). For instance, we organized "AppleThink" event where along with apple-juice-squizing workshops and an apple-market, young biologists where showing to local village people how to build bacteria battery from apple-waste.
But most exciting was our experiments to install bacteria battery outdoors, in the pond of our cottage. In the pond, one electrode is installed in the bottom in a mud, while the other one is floating on a surface, in clean water. Because of the larger surface in the water of lakes or oceans, it is more easy to get more power then in half a liter containers. For instance, this technology is used in deep ocean research. However, this technology is also used for powering very small medical devices, as these bacteria also are living in human blood. Yet, we think, that this technology is particularly unique because it contains a potential to be used in remote, rural and undeveloped areas, as well as for building autonomous and self-sustainable infrastructures.
While looking at the video of BACTERIA BATTERY No.5. i was surprised by the size and number of batteries. This form of green energy doesn't seem to be efficient. But is it because the research regarding bacteria batteries is still in its infancy or because you didn't have access to more sophisticated tools and materials to build them?
Well, both, in a way. Yet our primary interest with this project was to obtain a knowledge on how to build a mini bio-power station by ourselves. Also, we are not so much interested in 'instrumentalizing' this technology (in terms of how to make it more efficient) as it is rather the engineers' task. For us half a liter or liter big size cells of which the battery was built, seem just a right way to represent the alternative ways of our visions on future energy infrastructures, which can be produced from local resources, and connected as peer-to-peer networks - locally and globally.
For instance, this technology has been used already in rural Africa, where people for the first time could get in their homes could plug-in LED bulbs and and charge cell phones in five-gallon dirt-powered buckets. So, we really like that this technology is so robust, and that it has so minimal requirements such as mud, dirt, waste, water - at least some of which can be found anywhere on this world, even in the most remote and inaccessible sites.
More then that, we feel affected by the fact that the electricity in this technology is produced by living micro-organisms. Building our installations together with biologists, we realized that the bacteria electricity generation process is not so stable and not always predictable. It depends on the environment, for instance the level of heat, and most likely on some more not yet discovered reasons. And then it came to our mind that probably we should negotiate with the bacteria as we did in our Talk to me (2010-2012) project, where we invited people to talk to the plants encouraging them to grow faster, taller and more beautiful.
As bacteria are living organisms, very old ones and very important for global ecosystem, and if we want them to make more energy... may be we should learn to communicate with them? More pragmatically, but also scientists see the potential of this technology, as they are carrying out their research on how exactly the bacteria conduct an electrical charge and this will help them make this technology more efficient sooner or later.
Why is it called BACTERIA BATTERY No.5.? is this the 5th version of it? Are you planning to go further with the Bacteria Battery project? with a version number 6? How would it be like?
It just happened that our first exhibition was the fifth collaborative session with young biologists from the Latvian University. This exhibition, where we showed "Bacteria Battery" installation for the first time was RIXC's Art+Communication festival 2012 which with the title Art of Resilience took place in Riga, in October 2012. The installation was a result of four previous work-sessions, which took place throughout the year 2012 in different settings - in science laboratories as well in rural areas and local villages in Latvia. We still have used number 8 in the title at recent WRO2013 festival exhibition, but we stopped it. More relevant was the number 5 - as it was our first result after longer research process.
Currently we are preparing the installation for a forthcoming exhibition on theme of Synthetic Biology at Ars Electronica center. Organizers already have collected a mud for us from the dirt in the streets of Linz city after the recent flood. This Summer we also will be continuing experiments in pond. We will install several cells, which will be connected to the Internet, streaming live images and data from electricity generation process. Thus we will be monitoring electricity generation process in out-door conditions via the Internet all year long, and it seems, that we are the first ones, who has done something like this. What we experienced in the previous experiments is that the microbes actually prefer being in natural conditions, even in cold winter, under the ice, electricity generated by pond is more stable then one in containers. Minimal fluctuations we only could observe in the mornings and evenings. Live stream from the pond-battery is also a part of the installation in Linz.
More art projects using microbial fuel cell: Nomadic Plants.
An exhibition at the Design Museum is proposing a fictional future in which the United Kingdom is broken into four counties that function according to radically different techno-centered models.
Each of their 4 scenarios looks at how innovations such as research about human-powered helicopters, integrated biohydrogen refinery or robots with jelly-like artificial muscles translate into politics, economy and lifestyle.
The digitarians live in the East of England and are governed by digital technology. The Bioliberals are the biotech-freaks, they occupy the West corner. The Communo-nuclearist, whose fate lays in the hands of nuclear energy, relentlessly travel up and down a single strip in the middle of the nation. And North of the UK are the Anarcho-evolutionists, they have turned their back on technology and self-experiment on their own body to turn themselves into powerful machines.
The counties are 'live laboratories' set in a future that will probably/hopefully never come. They are nevertheless so plausible that you are drawn into the fiction and wonder where you'd belong if you had to chose where/under which regime to live. The scenarios are sketched rather than neatly detailed which allows you to bring your own narrative and fill in the gaps.
To make the project tangible, the project looks closely at the modes of transport that the different tribes would adopt.
The Digitarians move around their tarmac-covered land in pretty pastel-coloured, self-driven pods. To save space on the road, the driver has to stand, a bit like standing-only plane tickets that Ryanair was hoping to sell its travelers. Pushing further the no-frill airlines analogy, the routes they travel are suggested by a computer system that calculates the best, most economic route in real time.
The inhabitants seem to mean little more than data that needs to be tracked, controlled and processed by the system.
Residents of the Communo-nuclearist micro kingdom live on a 3 km-long train that moves constantly up and down the central strip of land they occupy. The giant carriages are powered by nuclear energy and each has been assigned a specific function: auditorium, factory, swimming pool, farm, etc. Communo-nuclearists are rich, entertained and their lifestyle is rather fancy. The downside is that they are under constant threat of a nuclear accident. Their complete reliance on nuclear energy makes them pretty unpopular and no one likes to have them around.
Bioliberals fully embrace biotechnology. Each person produces their own energy according to their needs. Bioliberals grow plants and food, but also products. Which sounds pretty exciting until you have a look at their vehicles: they are covered in lab-grown skin made from yeast and tea. They are powered by anaerobic digesters that produce gas. The cars not only look and smell revolting, they are also as little aerodynamic as possible and won't drive you fast anywhere.
This leaves us with the Anarcho-evolutionists who strength train and bio-hack their own body in order to maximise their own physical capabilities. They believe that humans should modify themselves to exist within the limits of the planet rather than modifying the planet to meet their ever growing needs. Some of them have massive thighs to help them power the local public transport system: the VLB, Very Large Bike. Others are long and extra-lean, the ideal silhouette to travel by hot air balloons. The animals living in the area are not spared. The 'hox" is the ideal beast of burden, a hybrid between a horse and an ox. The Pitsky is strong like a pit bull and amiable like a husky.
The discussion doesn't stop at the models and photos on show. There's also a small space with suggested readings that go from sci-fi novels to Bldgblog Book: Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation, Landscape Futures and Thinking: Objects - Contemporary Approaches to Product Design. The website of the project also contains links to all the research papers and articles that fed the 4 fictional futures.
General views of the exhibition:
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.)
Today i'm talking with Helen Pynor. You might have seen one of Helen's most striking photos in bookshops and on the tube last year, it showed a brain in all its organic glory and was on the book cover and on the posters advertising the exhibition Brains: The mind as matter, which opened last Spring at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Helen Pynor has a background in science but later studied visual art. Three years ago she also became a doctor of philosophy. Her practice combines biological science and visual expression to explore the inside of our bodies, and to investigate the relationship between the physicality of the human body and its culturally constructed status.
During the show we will be talking about how she managed to get her hands on a fresh human brain but Helen will also discuss some of her broader projects such as The Body Is A Big Place, a large-scale installation that explores organ transplantation and the thresholds between life and death.
Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor (sound by Gail Priest), The Body is a Big Place
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.)
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:
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 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.
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?
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?
Thanks Guy and Kirsten!
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.