On Friday at 4pm, set your radio to 104.4fm if you live in London and your browser to http://resonancefm.com/ if you don't. That's when the pilot for programme i've recently recorded for Resonance104.4fm, London's edgy, radical, art radio is going to be aired. The focus of the programme is art & science/technology.
Critical designers Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen were kind and kamikaze enough to join me in the studio for the first episode. We've discussed topics as diverse as the beauty of life support machines, pigeons that poop soap, using design to infiltrate synthetic biology, collaborating with scientists and communicating the complexities of a projects that explore the impact of science on society.
The last part of the broadcast takes the form of a quick agenda of exhibitions to see in and around London if you're interested in art&tech/science. I'll update this post with a podcast of the show if you can't catch it on Friday afternoon.
Futures episodes won't be aired before next month. A new one will be broadcast every week, last 30 minutes and focus on an artist or collective whose work i admire such as London Fieldworks, Anna Dumitriu, Zoe Papadopoulou, Ruairi Glynn, Thomas Thwaites, Tom Keene, c-lab, Semiconductor, etc. I've also been sent on a mission to get Bruno Latour.
The ten last minutes of each programme will be dedicated to the agenda, and once in a while i'll add audio snippets from the festivals i attend as a speaker or blogger.
So if you are curating, organizing or participating to an art&tech/science event in the UK in the coming months, do get in touch and i might plug it in the agenda.
The same goes for anyone who'd have a great idea for a title, i'm far from happy with the current one, Artists in Laboratories.
Finally, i'd like to thank Tom Besley and Richard Thomas of ResonanceFM for trusting me with a microphone. I know i wouldn't want to listen to my silly voice and silly accent on the radio.
Featuring over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography,Brains: The Mind as Matter follows the long quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.
As the intro to the exhibition says, the works displayed include real brains. Complete brains, bits of brains, brains that have been freeze-dried, dessicated or galvanized. The slices of Albert Einstein's brain seem to gather much attention from the press and visitors alike. I doubt the fascination would have filled its original owner with euphoria. He had indeed expressed the wish to be cremated intact.
The remains of the physicist are in awkward company. They are shown next to a phial of tissue allegedly coming from William Burke's brain. With his accomplice William Hare, Burke made a living from murdering poor people and selling their bodies to Dr Knox's anatomy school. He was hung on 28 January 1829. Ironically, Burke's body was dissected, exhibited to the public in the Edinburgh University Museum and souvenirs were made and sold from his skin.
Other brains on show includes the one of suffragette Helen H Gardener, the left hemisphere of mathematician Charles Babbage's brain, and the segment of a suicide victim, with a bullet lodged in it. This one came with a text explaining that bullet wasn't "the fatal one".
Unlike previous exhibitions such as Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life,High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture or War and Medicine, Brains: The Mind as Matter has a seemingly very specific, very narrow focus: the brain. Not even the mind, just the physical organ. Yet, the exhibition branches out into issues of ethics, history, and reminds us that while some of the moments in the history of neuroscience are glorious, others are downright disgraceful. The exhibition displays a number of instruments designed to measure the brain. The one below was developed by Sir Francis Galton, the 'father of eugenics'. Using a variety of 'anthropometric' devices, Galton sought evidence of links between physical appearance and the supposed evolutionary progress of different population groups.
This kind of discourse was particularly well received during the Nazi period. A series of photos and letters document the case of 3 brothers, Alfred, Gunther and Herbert K. aged 3, 7 years old and 15 months. They suffered from a rare hereditary neural disease and were likely murdered in 1942 and 1944. Their mother was told that they had died of pneumonia. Like many other people suffering from neural disease, they have probably been gassed or drugged, their brains harvested and examined by neuropathologists who went on to continue eminent careers long after the war. As for the specimens taken from the victims, they were used by researchers until recent decades.
The quest to understand the functioning of the brain is as grandiose and challenging as the one to send men in outer space. Brains: The Mind as Matter can keep you in the rooms of the Wellcome Collection for hours on end. It's an absorbing, educational and at times disturbing exhibition.
Many of the patients in these photographs presented with much more advanced tumours than would normally go unchecked today. The 15-year-old subject of this photograph suffered years of headaches, nausea, convulsions, restricted development and impaired vision before being referred to American neurosurgeon and pioneer of brain surgery Dr Harvey Cushing. She was in and out of hospital for the next 12 years, although the final letter in her file, from her father in 1931, strikes an optimistic note and thanks Cushing for his care.
An excess of growth hormone caused by a tumour of the pituitary gland in the brain can result in acromegaly and gigantism, where the person grows very tall and suffers a coarsening of the facial features, enlarged hands and feet, and thickening and wrinkling of the scalp. Unfortunately, this patient died after his second operation; his skeleton was preserved and photographed in comparison with a normal specimen.
More images from the show:
Spanish Nobel Prize-winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose pioneering research at the turn of the 20th century gave us an understanding of the microscopic structure of the brain. Cajal had aspired to be an artist, but his father had insisted he follow the family tradition into medicine. He nevertheless made hundreds of drawing to illustrate brain structure.
English mathematician Charles Babbage donated his brain to be analyzed. He is regarded as a "father of the computer", having invented in 1822 the 'Difference Engine', a mechanical computer complete with printer. One of his assistants was Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace.
Trephines are the surgical devices used for trephination, or trepanning. The basic practices and tools have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Among the trephines themselves, with their cylindrical blades, are a large brace to hold the trephines during drilling, two rugines to remove connective tissue from bones, two lenticulars to depress brain material during surgery and a brush to remove fine fragments of bone.
Brains: The Mind as Matter remains on show at Wellcome Collection in London until 17 June.
Previously at the Wellcome Collection: Mind Over Matter, Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life, Art, bricks, domestic dust, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, Exquisite Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.
There's only one week left to head to Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough and visit AV Festival, a biennial of contemporary art, music and film which main theme this year is As Slow As Possible.
One of the works on show is the extremely long-term project that sees Agnes Meyer-Brandis training a flock of young geese to fly to the moon. The whole training started last Spring and according to her schedule, the birds will go on their first unmanned flight to the satellite in 2024. However, the artist plans to accompany them on a later flight, most probably in 2027.
Meyer-Brandis' scientific experiment is inspired by The Man in the Moone, a story written in the early 17th century by English bishop Francis Godwin, a believer in the Copernican heliocentric system and of the latest theories in magnetism and astronomy. The book tells how Domingo Gonsales flies to the moon and gets to meet an advanced lunar civilization. The adventurer managed to escape the 'magnetic attraction of the earth' by harnessing a flock of birds called gansas, specifically trained for the purpose. Some critics regard the story as the first work of science fiction in English.
Since it has become so difficult to locate moon geese, Meyer-Brandis breeds her own moon geese. She acquired the eggs last April, named each of them after an astronaut, placed them in an incubator, watched over them, witnessed the hatching and imprinted herself on to them as their stand-in mother, just like Konrad Lorenz did with greylag geese.
The surrogate mother had to spend the weeks following the hatching in close contact with the eleven geese. The astronaut training started almost immediately, the young birds were encouraged to walk in a V-shape --the formation used to tow Godwin's chariot-- taken on expeditions into the mountains for high altitude training, taught how to use morse code devices for improved interspecies communication, and given lectures about astronomy and navigation.
The birds are currently continuing their training at Pollinaria (Italy), in an analogue that simulates the conditions of the Moon. Visitors of the show The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility in Newcastle can see a scaled model of the remote analogue site, admire the portraits of the astronauts, watch a documentary of the experiment and follow the birds daily life through the screens in the control room at the back of the gallery.
Documentation of the project and installation The Moon Goose Analogue:
Agnes Meyer-Brandis: The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is part of the AV Festival and you can see the film and installation at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle through 31 March, 2012.
Also on view at the AV Festival: Slow Motion Car Crash.
The Architecture Department at the Royal College of Art had some thought-provoking projects at the work in progress show. Architectural Design Studio 1's exhibition was looking at how a dense and vertical architecture can bring back food production and consumption in the city.
One of the students of the course, André Ford, looked at the intensification of the broiler chicken industry. Each year, the UK raises and kills 800 million chickens or 'broilers' for their meat. Broiler rearing might be unethical and unsustainable but it is now the most intensified and automated type of livestock production.
Broiler chickens spend their 6-7week lives in windowless sheds, each containing around 40,000 birds. They are selectively bred to grow faster than they would naturally which often causes skeletal problems and lameness. Many die because their hearts and lungs cannot keep up with their rapid growth. Information about the atrocious conditions in which they are raised can be found online.
Philosopher Paul Thompson, of Purdue University is a proponent of The Blind Chicken Solution. Chickens blinded by "accident", he says, "don't mind being crowded together so much as normal chickens do." He adds that while most people would think that creating blind chickens for the poultry and egg industry is an abomination, it would nevertheless be more humane to have these blind chickens.
Sadly, the demand for chicken is rising and methods of production will need to intensify in order to meet this increase. André Ford proposes to adopt a 'headless chicken solution'.
As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious.
The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume.
Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner. Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each 'leaf', which forms part of a moving, productive system.
The model in the exhibition showed the system in which a chicken would be grown at The Centre for Unconscious Farming. Feed lines provide sustenance, excreata lines remove waste, electrodes stimulate muscle growth.
Questions to the architect:
First of all, i found your project extremely shocking. Shocking because of all the cruelty it reveals -the way chickens are raised in windowless sheds is brutal- but also shocking because the solution you suggest -while it is not as atrocious as the way these poor animals are raised- might sound cynical. So how much provocation is there in Farming the Unconscious? Is the idea mostly an invitation for people to reflect on what they are buying and eating?
The project is almost effortlessly provocative because it is dealing with a subject matter which the majority of people are aware of, complicit in and culpable to varying degrees. The mass media is saturated with documentary films, books and celebrity chef hosted exposé's that document the plight of animals bred for our consumption and I don't wish to add to the plethora of information readily available. The information is there, but the majority of people don't care to know or purport they can't afford to care.
In the past six years we have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the demand for meat. Higher welfare systems are available but this project looks at addressing the inherent problems with the dominant system that produces the majority of our meat - the system that will be increasingly relied upon to cope with the ever-increasing demand for meat.
I think it is time we stopped using the term 'animal' when referring to the precursor of the meat that ends up on our plates. Animals are things we keep in our homes and watch on David Attenborough programs. 'Animals' bred for consumption are crops and agricultural products like any other. We do not, and cannot, provide adequate welfare for these agricultural products and therefore welfare should be removed entirely.
Earlier in the project I was proposing the chickens would be rendered unconscious, or desensitized by complete removal of the head but this has since been revised. Desensitisation will be achieved by a surgical incision that separates the animal's neocortex, responsible for sensory perceptions, and its brain stem which controls its homeostatic functions. The head remains intact.
So in short, I would refer to this solution as pragmatic, not cynical and if the project does cause anyone to reflect on his or her dietary habits then that's great.
How have people reacted to your idea so far? Did they raise the issue that this is not a 'natural' way to raise chicken?
Mostly disgust, but it varies. When meat eaters express disgust I put to them this argument, borrowed from Jonathan Safran Foer, in Eating Animals:
One piece of flimsy logic that we omnivores employ to justify our dietary choice, is that our superior intelligence and greater ability to comprehend the world, verifies our position at top of the food chain. So, if for the sake of the argument, our planet became occupied by a species that was more intelligent than our own, what would our argument be for not being eaten? If you are a meat eater, you might not have an argument, or if you did, you'd run the risk or being a hypocrite. So then you have to ask yourself, how would you like to be farmed?
An ancillary part of my proposal is to use the blood of the chicken posthumous, to hydroponically feed a nursery of rare orchids. The rationale behind setting up this unlikely mutualism is to display the similarities between these two organisms once the chicken has been desensitised. The unconscious chicken is just a different expression of the same chemical elements as in the orchid.
To answer the second part of your question - The project is overtly a hybridisation of nature and machine which is how I see the future of farming. Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced. The monocultures and intensive farming systems upon which we rely are technological landscapes, harvested and processed using high-tech, and increasingly robotised machinery.
Could you describe the system the new farming system would be based on?
The system does not subscribe to contemporary intensive farming models, which are not nearly productive enough and are incredibly wasteful with regards to land and resources. This system would be closed-loop and looks to achieve density through verticality and a layering of programmes within these productive spaces.
Did doing the research for this project influence your relationship to animal products, whether it's chicken, eggs, ham or dairy?
Absolutely. I have had a full reassessment of the choices I make as a consumer, in all products that have a welfare factor. I am in denial about my impending return to vegetarianism but I could never be a vegan.
How do headless chicken produce the muscles that will end up on people's plates?
The brain stem of the chicken which remains intact, is responsible for the metabolic systems involved in muscle growth. The muscles will need exercising in order to grow and this could be done physically by providing some sort of resistance, or as I am proposing, using electric shocks as in 'in-vitro' meat production.
Last question is about a detail really. you wrote on the blog of Naturoids that the coloured light used in batteries 'has a calming effect on the birds and reduces cannibalism.' Cannibalism? Why does that happen?
The exact etiology is unknown, but essentially they are bored. There is a greater propensity for it to occur in barren environments that restrict or limit natural behaviors like nesting, perching and foraging. This coupled with overcrowding and/or a lack or resources and flock behavior takes over.
Thank you André!
Related story: The Meat Licence Proposal.
The premise of Raphael Kim's project at Design Interactions' work in progress show --which closed a couple of days ago at the Royal College of Art-- contained all the ingredients to intrigue me: The falling cost and increase in speed of DNA sequencing has given rise to two extreme scientific worlds: giant pharmaceutical companies who trawl the Arctic Ocean in search of potent genes that would profit them in a lucrative cancer market; and DIY biologists who try to beat the system.
The device would rely on rotifers, tiny animals capable of absorbing environmental DNA, that have been genetically programmed to start glowing as soon as a target gene is spotted in their environment. The rotifers sit inside a chamber attached to the gene hunting device, and wait for the targets to come near. This kind of "LED switch" can be obtained by fusing a commercially-available fluorescent gene with a part of rotifer's own DNA (see image on the left).
A motor spins at high speed to draw the air onto the sampler while the outer mesh of the device protects the delicate samplers and filters out large, unwanted particles.
In-line with biohacking philosophy, these actions can be done, in theory, using an open-source data and hardware available to the public. Ever since the complete DNA sequence of human has been made public, genetic maps of other organisms have been published gradually, including those of rotifers, on free online database such as GenBank. Many other pieces of biohacking equipment can either be made at home or can be purchased on eBay.
Unsurprisingly, i left the show with many questions for Raphael:
The description of your project in the show mentions the 'falling cost and increase in speed of DNA sequencing', so how cheap and how fast can this be done nowadays? do you mean 'cheap' for corporate labs or do you mean 'so cheap that anyone can do it'?
This is a 'Carlson's curve' that monitors cost of DNA sequencing over time (see blue line). At the moment, my understanding is that for each base of DNA it would cost you a fraction of a penny. The cost of DNA synthesis (the act of actually creating new strands of DNA) is falling as well, albeit relatively slower (red and yellow lines).
If we think about sequencing the entire genomes of organisms, the cost can be huge for an average biohacker. Humans, with three billion base pairs of genomic DNA, would cost just below $20,000 using the latest sequencing technology, and even a relatively simpler E.coli bacterial genome would be costly. However, most biohack projects do not need to involve the entire genome, but a selection of few genes from its massive catalog. These are in the regions of hundreds to thousands of bases, which brings the cost down to a manageable level, and they can be sequenced by commercial companies that can take your sample away and sequence them for you on your behalf.
Some companies even offer an overnight sequencing service, that would allow them to sequence around 1,400 bases of your sample through the night. So yes, the speed is there, and also affordable for ordinary people to carry out.
This is already happening in citizen science. DIY bio groups in Europe have already started to create microbe maps - by collecting samples from various parts of a city and analyzing them they are trying to paint a picture of microbial diversity in a given area.
It is also important I think that whilst low cost of sequencing and synthesis is a significant trend that allows biohackers to explore the genetic contents of their environment, it is only a part of a bigger economical landscape in which 'biohacking' practice as a whole, sits in. In fact, most biohack projects do not involve DNA sequencing at all, as they can buy cheap, ready made DNA components and templates for use (think of it as components of an electric circuit board - resisters, amplifiers, LEDs etc), as well as cheap second hand lab equipment bought from ebay, sold by pharma companies who are going bankrupt from the credit crunch.
The gene hunting device you're showing would thus be used by a citizen to do their own gene hunting. Does it look in any way like the tools used by pharmaceutical companies? Do you know which kind of instruments they use to discover new genes?
If we think about what kind of genes we are looking for, what kind of organism these genes sit in, and where they might live, the design of the collecting device can be extremely diverse. At present, most gene-hunting is targeted at micro-organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa and planktons, which narrows it down a little.
For solid surfaces (e.g. skin, soil etc), the 'device' would simply consist of a cotton swab which is enough to pick up microbes. These swabs would then be sealed and taken to a big machine in laboratory for analysis. For water samples, they would use some kind of filter/net system to filter out biological samples according to size. The Craig Venter research group use specialized equipment which can be found here.
As for sampling air, which the device that I am showing at the moment is doing, simple machines called rotorod samplers are used in industry, as shown below:
They consist of rotating rods powered by motor. The rods are covered in sticky material for the microbes to land on, which can be analysed.
The story I am working on is a device based on this technology. The idea is that the biohackers gather around a fish market, trying to pick up exotic microbes that become airborne from drying and decaying fish. And the rotating rods are found at the end of the device as shown below.
The air is a seemingly-unlikely source of microbes, but recent studies show that it contains abundance of them, and who knows if these could come from different parts of the world? The bacteria that coexist with fish - either living/found on its skin, or inside their stomach (ingested as food) or simply in contact with parts of the ship etc. or any other possible sources could possibly become airborne once it reaches the fish market.
A bit of imagination was used to design the rest of my object - how long should they be to reach pallets of fish in the market, how could they imply a notion of a 'hunting tool', and also additionally, could they use some kind of a bait to help them capture the gene that they want? Where will the bait be positioned, how will it work?
Bait, here, is the rotifer, which leads me to your next question.
What made you think that rotifers would be the best ally of the bio hacker?
Many reasons behind this:
* Also - perhaps most importantly, rotifers are used because they are able to absorb environmental DNA. This is known as horizontal DNA transfer - and rotifers do this first by eating the source of DNA (eg. oncoming bacteria, plankton, yeast etc). The rotifer then needs to undergo some kind of stress - eg. heat, dryness, etc. This produces an unknown mechanism in which the rotifer 'patches' the DNA content of its stomach into its own genome. Using this mechanism, the hackers try to engineer a switch that can be incorporated into the animal so that when gene horizontal transfer occurs, the organism lights up as shown below:
The book that is in the exhibit is a journey and experiments that were undertaken to produce this switch.
Japanese love hotels go out of their way to satisfy the most outlandish fetish: some rooms offer the feeling of being inside a subway carriage, a class room, or a Hello Kitty SM room, others locks you into an alien abduction nightmare (/dream).
Ai Hasegawa, second year student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London, proposes to close loving couples into an even more extraordinary fantasy.
Her Extreme Environment Love Hotel simulates impossible places to go such as the Earth of three hundred million years ago (during the Carboniferous period), or the surface of Jupiter by manipulating invisible but ever-present environmental factors, for example atmospheric conditions and gravity.
Our bodies would survive if we were propelled back to the Carboniferous period but they would need to adapt if we'd stay over long periods of time. It is estimated that during that time, the peak oxygen content of the atmosphere was as high as 35%, compared to 21% today. This oxygen level resulted in insect and amphibian gigantism--creatures whose size is constrained by respiratory systems that are limited in their ability to diffuse oxygen. For example, the ancestor of the dragonfly, the Meganeura, grew up to seventy-five centimeters due to the huge concentration of oxygen in the air.
Life on Jupiter doesn't sound very pleasant for us either. The atmospheric environment of the largest planet within the Solar System is one of strong gravity, high pressure, strong winds, and extremely cold temperatures.
How might our bodies change, struggle or even adapt with varying conditions around us?
The first of Ai Hasegawa's Extreme Environment Love Hotel room, the carboniferous one, is currently on view at the work in progress show of the Royal College of Art. The prototypes show how couples would have to carry a suitcase containing higher levels of oxygen that recreate the atmosphere of the Carboniferous period, they would also be surrounded by plants similar to the ones that proliferated in the warm and humid climate: large trees covered with bark and huge ferns growing in swamps.
The designer's work is of course a bit eccentric but it also propose to reflect on how making love inside an Extreme Environments Love Hotel room might give rise to new evolutions and mutations of the human body and sex and give it a brand new role away from our biologically-programmed needs and inclinations.
Why did you decide to explore new frontiers in Love Hotels?
Love hotel is a utopia to serve the people's dream and fantasy.
We are able to go to space or have a hyper gravity experience at NASA , but that is only for chosen people, the rich or some elites.
A love hotel, however, is opened to all adults. I could have worked on a 'Fun fair/ amusement park' type of attraction, but these gives us only short time experiences that don't last more than 5 minutes.
I wanted to have an experience longer than a funfair ride, an experience that would last until our body could feel slight changes and adapt to them. You can stay at the hotel for one hour, for a week or a year. Also sex is a hard form of exercise, and a "love" hotel is the perfect place to challenge the limit of our body in extreme environmental conditions.
Also from critical point of view, Love hotel is designed for sexual urge. It is a place for desire and pleasure, probably not for love nor reproduction.
I feel sex isn't motivated solely by life instinct, by the need to reproduce and make our species survive. Sexual urge can make us take some life-risking actions such as HIV infection.
I wonder if our DNA might need to be modified in order to redesign the strategy of reproduction... In other words, why not have some evolutions?
To trigger evolutions, we might want to use a technology to modify our DNA, of course. But before that, we need to study our body potentials with basic elements, invisible factors, such as atmosphere, gravity, temperature, electromagnetic waves, etc. We need new environments, new frontiers.
I chose places where 'we are not able to go to' for a romantic or melancholic reason. We don't have any strong reason to go to Jupiter. Moreover, we are able to have a time-trip to the future (possible in theory, but it's only a one-way trip), but not to the past (the theory hasn't been proved yet, i think). The love hotel would be the ideal place to serve such dreams and fantasies.
What does their body risk if the lovers keeps the breathing mask for a long time?
There is no risk. If healthy people breath 100% oxygen for long time, they would have lungs problem, but this Carboniferous portable room portable supplies only 35% oxygen under usual atmospheric pressure. A real chamber, thus not the "portable" version will be higher atmosphere, but still it will be fine. This real chamber will be similar to Hyperbaric medicine. It would probably be slightly easier to breathe and recovering energy would be faster than usual in this room.
You're also working on a Jupiter room. What will it be like? And feel like?
Customer might need to wear a harness to support the weight, they might also need to wear a bone protector, just in case. You have to be careful with the position you chose. If you want to adopt a 'woman on top' position, then your body might be too heavy to climb up. Besides, the man's hipbone might break under the weight. But if you stay for a week or a month, maybe after a while your body will adapt and become more masculine.
In a Hotel room, you also need to have a toilet and a shower. The water in the Jupiter room would fall 2.35 times faster than usual. One day lasts only 9 hours and 55 min in this room.
If you want, you might probably be able to make a baby under the hyper gravity...
Check out The Extreme Environment Love Hotel: Carboniferous Room at the Student Work-in-Progress Show, Royal College of Art, London. The exhibition end on Monday afternoon.