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 guest tomorrow will be Marco Donnarumma, a young performer and sound artist who gained fame across the world for a series of performances and instruments that use open biophysical systems to explore the sonic dimensions of the human body. His interactive instrument Xth Sense won the first prize in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and was named the 2012 "world's most innovative new musical instrument" by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, US. 

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Xth Sense, 2011

We'll be talking about Xthe Sense and also about a work that intrigued me a lot: Nigredo, a 'private experience of altered self-perception and biophysical media' that uses Xth Sense. One visitor sits in a blacked out room facing a mirror and wired to sensors that capture the low frequency sound pulses of their heart, muscles and vein tissues. The signals are augmented, and fed back to the subject's sensory system as auditive, visual, and physical stimuli. Marco will tell us more about the effects the installation had on the public during the show. It includes sensory deprivation, feeling of being physically touched, etc.


Nigredo, 2013

The show will be aired this Wednesday 17th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photo on the homepage: Marco Donnarumma, Hypo Chrysos. Image Chris Schott.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could visit a new exhibition showing 'bio tech artworks' every second month. These days are over. At least in Europe. But it's a different story in Australia where semipermeable (+) opened last month in the context of ISEA2013. semipermeable (+) looks at the membrane as a site, metaphor and platform for a series of artistic interventions and projects, some commissioned specifically for the exhibition and others selected from the many projects developed at SymbioticA (an artistic laboratory located within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) since 2000.

I haven't seen the show so i'll let Oron Catts, curator of the exhibition, present it in the interview he did with RealTime:

realtime tv @ ISEA2013: semipermeable (+), SymbioticA

Some of the works in the show have been developed by artists while they were in residence at SymbioticA in the past. Others were especially commissioned for semipermeable (+). This is the case for Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste, or SPPS, by sculptor and sound artist Dr Nigel Helyer.

Helyer's work is rich and manifold. Behind its alarming aspect, SPPS considers selectively permeable structures under lenses that range from the molecular level to the macro scale.It explores the (xenophobic) history of immigration in Australia and more generally current infrastructures that define socio-political boundaries. It also looks at the history of biowarfare, from Antique Chinese gunpowder rockets carrying poisonous material to virus injected into chicken eggs.

There was much to talk about and ask Nigel Helyer. hence the email exchange i'm copy/pasting below:

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

What makes your work particularly attractive is the menacing steel weapons. They look like missiles. What inspired their shape exactly?

Two things, firstly the long tradition of Chinese gunpowder rocketry which is documented from the C10th. These were used for both festive and military purposes and there are accounts of "bio-hazardous" material being included in the payload (for example excrement or putrefying remains). The second strand is primarily morphological - the profile of the rockets is based upon an elongated "Bacteriophage" a virus that locks onto bacteria, injects its DNA and in effect turns the bacterium into a virus replicating factory. This resonates with the concept of genetic and/or ethnic mixing within national borders.

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Nigel infecting eggs

One of the phase in the development of the project involved infecting eggs. Can you take us through this process? What did you use to infect them? Is it the 'omnisexual bacterium' your text mentions?

As the work is designed for public museum display the work had to be relatively innocuous. Thus I used chicken eggs which I first 'blew' I.e. emptied them if their contents, and then lacquered and sealed at one end. Next the eggs were injected with a small amount of a lab strain of E.Coli bacteria (common in the human intestines) suspended in a polymer. These were left to dry out in a lab facility and samples tested for viability. Once the samples showed no further growth possibility the eggs were sealed and then double contained in scientific glass (making them safe for the Museum context). The omni sexual bacterium in the text actually refers to the structure of Metaphor. In essence the idea that in the work several apparently desperate strands if thought, history and biology are bought together to 'mingle' - I parallel this to the omni sexuality of bacteria which can exchange genetic material quite freely, mixing and matching, as with ideas as with metaphor.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

The work, you write, pays an "ironic homage that reprises the origins of modern bio-warfare research, where chicken eggs were the bio-reactor of choice at the Chemical Defense Establishment of Porton Down near Salisbury UK." I've never heard about the role of eggs in biodefense. Could you tell us more about it?

Well rather simple really. eggs are obviously natural incubators and were chosen as the original bio- reactors in most Chemical and Biological Warfare labs prior to the development of artificial (and therefore more standardized bio- reactors.) Eggs components are still used in the production of many serums and inoculations for regular medical use.

What makes your work 'semipermeable'? What gets in and what is left outside?

This relates more to the socio-political reading of the word, the border, the frontier, the policing of who may pass and who is turned away.

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Dictation test exemption certificate

There is also a sound component to the work, if i understood correctly. Can you explain it to us? What it is and which role it plays in the whole work.

This relates to the above, the national border, and the "Dictation Test" as applied to Asian immigrants to Australia between 1901 and 1958 under the "White Australia" policy. Asian migrants were made to take a 50 word dictation as a test of English skills. In reality many English speakers would fail and the system was a thin disguise for a racist policy for refusing entry to anyone other than Caucasians.

The scrolling text on the LED board contains just three of the hundreds of examples (to be found in the National archives) and the audio component is a Chinese translation of these three texts.

Ultimately, your work looks pretty dangerous. How do you get to exhibit a work that looks like a weapon and contains infected eggs? Are there special rules to comply to show the work in an art exhibition?

Again simple common sense from the museum team, I ensured that the bio hazard was reduced to less than a Big Mac Burger (actually a sample from a MacDonalds Cafe table could well be more harmful) and then the museum was okay with just a simple discreet wire barrier - so far no fatalities!

Thanks Nigel!

Semipermeable (+) semipermeable (+) at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney until 21 August 2013.

Also part of the exhibition: In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to 'biological brain'.

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Social Teletext Network

During the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, governments restricted the access to the Internet in an effort to hamper online peer networking and thus self-organization. Could other governments ever operate a similar media shutdown and cut their citizens off the internet?

What would we do if ever an Internet kill switch was implemented in our country? Not necessarily to prevent us from orchestrating riots but to protect the internet "from unspecified assailants".

At the latest graduation show of the Design Interactions department in London, Philipp Ronnenberg was showing 3 methods to prepare for the time after a cyberwar. The Post Cyberwar Series proposes an alternative open navigation system, a makeshift wireless communication infrastructure as well as a novel data storage.

The Teletext Social Network enables people to bypass network providers and governmental institutions and communicate using the analogue television broadcasting which was freed last April in the UK.

OpenPositioningSystem relies on the seismic activity, produced by generators in power plants, turbines in pumping stations or other large machines running in factories to provide an open navigation system. I interviewed the designer about it a few months ago.

Finally, Sewer Cloud is a bit more complex. The system is inspired by the current research on the storage of data into DNA. 1 gram of DNA is capable of storing up to 700 terabytes of data.

People living in urban areas could use the Sewer Cloud as a living, self-reproducing data network. This living network would be located in the sewerage system and use the algae species Anabaena bacteria for the insertion and extraction of data.

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Member using the Social Teletext Network

I contacted Philipp again to ask for more details about his project:

Hi Philipp! When i first interviewed you about the OPS, you didn't mention the kill switch. How did it go from one project about positioning system to a more complex scenario in which internet has been killed off? Were you inspired by any particular events from the recent news? I'm thinking of the NSA data collection: isn't controlling the internet and surveilling our every click enough for States?

The kill switch scenario stands for "killing" the Internet. But the Internet is only one network which is under control of companies and governmental institutions. The kill switch particularly is about the Internet, but other networks such as GPS navigation and mobile phone networks can be affected as well. In all three cases, the GPS navigation network, the mobile phone networks and the Internet, the control is in the hand of companies and governmental institutions.

I wanted to create three independent network alternatives. The body of work wrapped in the series Post Cyberwar is a reflection of how dependent we are today on the authoritarian structures of the networks we are using day to day. It is not only about surveillance and tracking down activity of users, it is also about content which becomes increasingly restricted, censored and monitored. The installation of controlling instances (i.e. kill switch) within these networks is justified with cyberwar and cyber-terrorism.
The recent news of the NSA data collection came just about right for the project. I have been working on the Post Cyberwar series since we last met. For me, it was always obvious that the NSA or any other governmental institutions are monitoring, but I was surprised about the dimension. Nowadays the perception (in the public) of surveillance has slightly changed, thanks to the main stream media and whistleblowers like Snowden. When I talked 5 years ago about surveillance and tracking, I often heard words like paranoid and being mistrustful.

Controlling the Internet and surveilling our every click is enough for getting an insight. But as we saw in Georgia, Egypt and sometimes China, shutting down the Internet and mobile phone networks (or at least parts of it), is a powerful way to prevent communication and the circulation of undesirable information.

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OpenPositioningSystem. Sensor prototype


OpenPositioningSystem

Speaking of OPS, how much has it grown since we last talked about it? Have the prototype and software improved and has the project given rise to attention and interest?

The OPS has grown a lot. First it got attention through your first blogpost and it was reblogged by some bigger blogs. I got very diverse feedback from "this comes out when art students try to be engineers (theverge.com comments)" and people asking me to get actively involved. I have 80 registered members on the website so far, but there is not much activity yet. I want to spend more time soon to bring new content on the website and therefore activate the registered members. The prototype and the software have slightly improved being more accurate and I worked on better tuning to seismic frequencies.

I gave two talks (#geomob London and W3C Open Data on the Web workshop) about the OPS so far where I tried to convince people to come on board. There is a third presentation at OHM2013 planned.
I applied for funding to bring the OPS to a working prototype stage in a small scale test area. I think, if I can build up a solid working prototype, the project will come to the next big step. There is still a lot of work to do.

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Social Teletext Network. Profile page of Zoe Johnson

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Social Teletext Network

Is the Social Teletext Network installation at the show a working prototype? Which part of the communication would it replace exactly? I can't believe it could replace all internet communication, it seems to be so rudimentary.

The Social Teletext Network in the show was showing a demo. But I have the hardware and the software ready to switch it on. The demo in the show was created with the help of the same software which is used in the real setup. Unfortunately it is highly illegal to broadcast your own TV signals, therefore I decided to show a demo in the show. I could apply for analogue (VHF) frequencies, but it is very expensive (too expensive for a student project).

It is not meant to replace the entire Internet. The technical limitations for this task are too high. The Social Teletext Network is capable to provide wireless information streaming, using the old obsolete teletext technology, which makes it harder to track or to monitor. I tried to port some comfort which we know from computer interaction to the Social Teletext Network. For example: You can zoom into specific regions on a map and visualise user locations and other information.

The Teletext specifications provide a very limited resolution and it can only display text and graphics programmed with single pixels. Overall, the strength is that you can send and receive information wireless and over a distance (5km and even more possible with the right hardware and a high antenna).

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Sewer Cloud. Stench pipes provide access points to the sewerage system

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Sewer Cloud. Accessing the sewer system and obtaining algae

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Sewer Cloud. Data extraction from and insertion into algae at the local corner shop


Algae circulation in London's sewer system

Could you explain me with more details the process of the data insertion and extraction from algae? Because if i want to retrieve some data, how do i know which algae i should fish and where?

Text, images, video and any piece of digital data is written in binary code (110011110). These 1's and 0's are then encoded to the four base-pairs of DNA (Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine). The new base-pair string will be synthesised to a complete DNA string and inserted into living organisms. To read data out of a DNA string the base-pairs would be decoded to 1's and 0's again and from that to human readable information.
In the beginning of each DNA string, there is an address block which indicates what kind of information is in each string. With this method you could know what you will find in a specific piece of algae.

As 1 gram of DNA can hold up to 700 terabytes (700.000 gigabytes), the amount of data what you can find in a single piece is very high.

If you would insert data into algae and hide the algae at a specific site, the chance that it stays there is high. It would reproduce itself and the following generations would go on a journey. But if the conditions are good, the origin would stay at the same spot and you could still find the same data even years after you have put it somewhere. So the idea is more, that you would know by locations where you can find specific information.

More infos here: Writing the Book in DNA and Test-tube data.

Thanks Philipp!

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Electrostabilis Cardium - a defibrillating organ using parts from an electric eel that can discharge an electric current to the heart when it recognises it going into fibrillation (a heart attack.) Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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),


Electrostabilis Cardium being installed during surgery

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.

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Tremomucosa Expulsum - an organ that uses rattlesnake muscles to release mucus from the respiratory system of a person who suffers from cystic fibrosis and dispel it through the stomach. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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Tremomucosa Expulsum (detail). Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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.

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Cerebrothrombal Dilutus - an organ that contains cells from the saliva gland of a leech and releases an anticoagulant when it feels the pressure of a potential blood clot in the brain as a way of avoiding a stroke. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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Cerebrothrombal Dilutus (drawing). Image courtesy Agatha Haines

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.

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Electrostabilis Cardium, the defibrillating organ. Image courtesy Agatha Haines

Thanks Agatha!

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.

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Installing bacteria battery cells for the installation. Photo: Daina Silina

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 developed by Rasa Smite, Raitis Smits and Martins Ratniks together with sound artist and composer Voldemars Johansons and young biologists from the University of Latvia.

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.

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Bacteria Battery in the third day (after the installed was set up) -- already 3.22 Volts! Photo: Raitis Smits

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.

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Raitis Smits gives an introduction on the workshop "Biotricity -- generating energy from wastewater". Photo: Rasa Smite

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Raitis Smits is showing how to make electrodes and build containers for Bacteria Battery. Photo: Rasa Smite

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Voldemars Johansons introduces the "Biotricity" workshop participants how to sonify the electrical signals produced by bacteria. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

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.

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Pre-collected mud from the pond in Genneperpark next to the Dommel river in Eindhoven for the installation and workshop. Photo: Daina Silina

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.

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Bacteria Battery in the first day (after set up) produced just 2.24 Volts. Photo: Raitis Smits

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Bacteria Battery - networked bio-energy & sound installation by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits in collaboration with Voldemars Johansons. Photo: Raitis Smits

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.

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Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits at their Bacteria Battery installation in the exhibition organized by Baltan Laboratories during the Dutch Technology Week (May 31 - June 7, 2013) in the Schellensfabriek, Eindhoven. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

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.

We regularly are updating news on bacteria research process and results at Renewable network blog site: http://renewable.rixc.lv, and on Facebook: rixcriga.

Thanks Rasa!

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.

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The Kingdom of the Anarcho-evolutionists. Image Happy Famous Artists

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The Kingdom of the Communo-Nuclearists. Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne's latest project, titled United Micro Kingdoms - UmK, pushes to their --not so absurd-- extremes ideas brought forward by the latest advances in science and technology.

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.

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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.

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Image Happy Famous Artists

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Image Happy Famous Artists

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.

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Stefan Schwabe harvesting kombucha biocar covers

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.

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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.

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Image Happy Famous Artists

General views of the exhibition:

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Photo Luke Hayes for the Design Museum

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Image Happy Famous Artists

United Micro Kingdoms at the Design Museum in London until 26 August.

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