Last weekend i was in Leiden, a short train trip away from Amsterdam, for the opening of an exhibition of the winning projects of the third edition of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award.
The DA4GA give artists the opportunity to develop ambitious projects in cooperation with life science institutions carrying out research into the genetic makeup of people, animals, plants and microorganisms.
One of the recipients of the award is Charlotte Jarvis who used her own body to demystify the processes and challenge the prejudices and misunderstandings that surround stem cell technology.
Ergo Sum started as a performance at the WAAG Society in Amsterdam. In front of the public, the artist donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Blood, skin and urine samples were taken and sent to the stem cell research laboratory at The Leiden University Medical Centre iPSC Core Facility headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Mummery.
The scientists then transformed the samples into induced pluripotent stem cells, which in turn have been programmed to grow into cells with different functions such as heart, brain and vascular cells.
The whole process used the innovation which earned John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka a joint Nobel Prize last year. The two scientists are indeed behind the discovery that adult, specialised cells can be reprogrammed and turned back into embryo-like stem cells that can become virtually any cell type and thus develop into any tissue of the body.
The pluripotent stem cells offer an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, removing the ethical questions and controversies that surrounded the use of embryonic stem cells.
But let's get back to Charlotte's stem cells. Copies are now kept by the university for scientists to use in their research. And because the cells can be stored for an unlimited period, they are immortal. The ones that are on view at the exhibition in Leiden right now have to be kept alive by a team of scientists who regularly visit the exhibition space to care for the cells.
The synthesized body parts (now brain, heart and blood cells) are kept in an incubator made especially by a company specialized in museum displays as traditional incubator don't have a window that would allow the public to have a peak inside. The cells are accompanied by videos, prints of email exchanges, photos and other items that document the whole story of the project.
Ergo Sum is a biological self-portrait; a second self; biologically and genetically 'Charlotte' although also 'alien' to her - as these cells have never actually been inside her body.
You first idea was to donate your eggs for the project but the scientists told you this might not only be illegal but also unnecessary. Could you explain why the eggs were unsuitable for the experiment and what the lab used in the end?
In the first instance I was unable to donate an egg because of the birth control I take. I have a three monthly injection (the DEPPO) which works by stopping egg production. It can take a year for your body to start producing eggs again after stopping the DEPPO, so I would not have been able to produce an egg in time for the project.
However, there were also ethical reasons for not donating an egg. I believe fervently in the use of embryos for scientific research, as of course do the scientists I work with. They have to fight for the right to use embryos in their research and under no circumstances would I do anything to jeopardise that. The use of embryos for artistic purposes is a different moral question. I felt that it would have been wrong (and potentially damaging to the scientists working on the project) to confuse those two ethical questions by making an art project utilising the scientific method for making embryonic stem cells.
What we used instead was stem cells derived from adult tissue. These are called Induced Pluripotant Stem Cells (IPSCs) and it is this technology that won the Nobel Prize last year. I donated skin, blood and urine to the lab. The lab was then able (using this new and wonderous technology) to send those cells back to how they were when I was a foetus - to turn them back into the stem cells they had been roughly 29 years ago. You could call it cellular time travel! I find our ability to do this completely awe inspiring.
Now that you've finally met your 'second self, your dopplegänger, do you feel you have some kind of connection to it?
Seeing my heart cells beating was a unique experience - especially the first time I saw it. There is something that feels distinctly 'alive' about the beating heart cells and something quite extraordinary about seeing part of your own heart beating and living outside your body. But in general I would say that I feel no more connected to my second self than I would any other self portrait. I do not feel that these parts of me are sacred in some way, or even that they really belong to me in anything other than the genetic sense. That is really the point of the project - to question how we build our identity as humans and how that might change in the future. This may sound obvious, but I have learnt that I am more than the sum of my parts; that just because something has my heart, my brain and my flowing blood it is not 'me' and it is not a human.
Ergo Sum and the other winning projects of DA4GA are on view until 15 December at Raamsteeg2 in Leiden, in The Netherlands. Ergo Sum is funded by the Netherlands Genomics Initiative.
Today i need something silly to cheer me up: i'm in Turin, it's August and the whole place is inert. All the art galleries are closed. Half of the cinema are 'on holiday pause' and even the postman hasn't brought any bill nor urgent (sigh!) parcel for two weeks at least. I'm in need of a distraction so let me tell you about the Poo Printer....
Fabrizio Lamoncha entrusted a group of male zebra finches to be the main makers and actors of the Poo Printer, an analog generative typography printer using bird-poo to slowly trace the Latin alphabet characters, poo pixel by poo pixel, over a large paper roll placed under the cage.
The Poo Printer consists of a wooden cage sized 170x120cm and 100cm high with a removable tray in the center. This tray has interchangeable parts looking like tree branches with integrated food dispensers. According to the order of placement of these pieces it creates the shape of each of the characters of the Latin alphabet. The birds will hang out there most of the day, eating, pooing and even eating and pooing simultaneously.
The Poo Printer webpage said too much or not enough and i'm curious. So i asked the artist and designer to tell me more about the poo printing experiment:
Hi Fabrizio! What made you develop the work in the first place? A desire to bring humour to generative typography? A passion for male zebra finches? What were you researching exactly?
The first idea was to make this project outdoors with wild birds, but I had to find out if the project would work or not, so I simulated this process with captive birds. The conceptual idea was questioning technological development in relation to the current definitions of nature, inquiring the response of the audience to this topic. I decided to document the research very rigorously to be able to give detailed information about my work with the finches, just as rigorously as any experimentation with animals should be.
Why did you chose to work with male zebra finches specifically?
Zebra finches are one of the most common and known captivity birds worldwide. They are small birds and that allowed me to reduce the size of the prototype. Something that also made me decide for the finches and no other species of birds is that although the finches have adapted very well to the captivity conditions, they are still afraid of humans. On the other hand we still consider them as pets, and when they are exhibited, the visitors, whatever their opinion on the project is, still inevitably empathize a lot with the birds. This natural engagement of the audience was very positive for my research.
Now for a short list of trivial technicalities:
During the research period, I worked with four of them. Currently, I am exhibiting the final version of that first prototype. This one is sent empty, together with instructions and tips for the correct care and adequate environment for the birds, such as the light conditions, ventilation, etc. In this case, the contractor is the one in charge of finding the birds and taking responsibility for their welfare. Last time, for example, the curator borrowed the finches from a nearby animal shelter and at the end of the exhibition, they brought them back.
The description of the project says that "The observation of this group of non-breeding birds in captivity and the experimentation with induced behaviors has been rigorously documented for this task." Could you explain and maybe give examples of the observation and research you're referring to?
This project simulates a product performing generative typography with bird droppings. My goal as the producer was achieving maximal efficiency, which means finding the ways to make the birds focus on the feeding - the more they eat, the more they poop. This variety of birds have different daily routines, such as times for feeding, sleeping, pecking, grooming, etc. But these routines can be modified according to their needs. For example, finches are hierarchical animals. It´s part of their nature, and as I said before, part of their daily routine is to peck at each other to move up the hierarchy. This is not an act of violence, but just a role game. My work was to transform this power structure into a peaceful flat hierarchy. Since I was documenting their routine 24/7, I found out that their perception of human presence stimulated their social bonds. Human presence represented a threat for them, and their reaction to that was to come together. On the other hand, as soon as they were alone again, the pecking would continue. Since I was not able to stay around them all of the time, I researched the ways I could simulate human presence. I researched on their abilities to form concepts, and recalling 1984, I tried placing severe human portraits, and playing recordings of political speeches. The funny thing is that everything worked -but only for a while.
How long does it take for the birds to print a letter?
It depends on the amount of birds and surface area of the letter. I just can tell you that with four finches you can make an I in one day, or an A in a bit more than two days, it all depends on the shape of the symbol.
Did everything go according to your plan? Or did the birds manage to surprise you?
From the perspective of the development of the project itself, I have to say that everything went surprisingly well from the beginning. I documented myself a lot before, but I still think that I am very lucky. From the personal experience, I guess whoever has shared a part of his life with animals could tell you the same. Taking responsibility for the welfare of a living being is a transforming experience.
Are you going to keep the birds as pets?
To be honest, I was never a big fan of keeping animals in captivity. When I decided to start this project, I weighed the pros and the cons of developing an artistic research under these conditions and I finally decided to put my moral issues aside and go for it. It has been an invaluable experience from all perspectives and I am very happy with the result. Of course, after sharing all that time, I became very attached to them. I wish I could have kept them all, but this was not an option.
Is this good for them to be kept in strictly male company?
Actually, I read that if you are not interested in breeding them it´s better to keep males and females apart, because during the breeding, the male can be very aggressive to the female. Finches are social animals, but as long as they are more than one per cage everything is fine. When they are just males, they still gather together in couples for grooming, and they are happy and peaceful with each other. It´s worth seeing!
The work has received an incentive for production from the VIDA competition. So how are you planning to go further with the project? Try all the letters of the alphabet? Do other type of research in how to use birds in typography?
VIDA14.0 was a great surprise and it meant a lot to me that they considered my work. In the last months, I finished the letters and the documentation and as far as I am concerned, the research is finished. Now I am focusing on the exhibition, but I wouldn´t turn down working with living animals again, it´s a very interesting topic.
Any upcoming project, exhibition, areas of investigation you'd like to share with us?
I keep working on the pooprinter and at the moment I am developing the instructions for an outdoor version, so people interested in the project can CNC the parts, build their own and install a pooprinter outside in their garden or wherever they want. No more bird cages.
The Weather Underground -also called the Weathermen- were a 1970s American radical left organization characterized by positions that included the opposition to the Vietnam War, the achievement of a classless world, a marked sympathy for the radical Black Panthers, etc. Their strategies included active recruitment in schools and violent militancy.
The Weather Underground inspired The New Weathermen, a fictional group of activists at the center of David Benque's investigation into the interrelationship between ideology and science. The New Weathermen are equally dissatisfied with the state of the world but the focus of their demands is climate crises rather than capitalism and racial privileges. Their weapon is not the bomb but Synthetic Biology.
Their ideas to achieve radical environmental change are neither the ones of the Bio-Conservatives who argue for a curbing of consumption, a return to an unadulterated Nature and are suspicious of new technologies. Nor are they the ideas of the Techno-Progressives who enthusiastically embrace progress, and see technological and scientific developments as the solution to modern problems.
Instead, The New Weathermen are looking into possible alternatives for the relationship between environmentalism and science. Among these are the DIYBIO or Biopunk movements and the campaign for open access to science, as well as efficient, headless and cell-based networks of activists such as Anonymous.
Challenging the borders between activism and crime, The New Weathermen's actions aim to disrupt the status quo and propagate an ambitious vision for the greater good. Deliberately radical and ambiguous, they provide a starting point for discussion about our existing beliefs and ideologies.
The whole ethos of the New Weathermen is based on the idea of the symbiosis (see the PDF of their manifesto):
The New Weathermen's ambitions are represented in their testing rigs and small scale experiments that reflect much more radical ambitions and are designed to make people aware of the group's larger mission. Their plans are slightly delusional (some are very seducing though.) Here are 3 of them:
The first one is The Pirate Pollen Club which targets the perfectly manicured lawn of the suburbs and golf courses. The New Weathermen would use Open Source GMO weed able to remove the gene responsible for the grass resistance to herbicide and ultimately outcompete it.
The action makes use of TALENs Transcription activator-like effector nuclease which uses enzymes for genome editing in situ, cutting DNA strands at a specific sequence when they are introduced into cells.
The scheme reminded me of Heath Bunting's SuperWeed Kit, a DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed, designed to be resistant to current herbicides and thus threaten corporate GMO monoculture.
And now for my favourite plan: PalmOPS, an oil press that zeroes in on the increasing use of palm oil in the food and biofuel industries. Although the rush to palm oil is motivated by the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the irony -as Greenpeace writes- is that the effort could make things worse because the growth of the palm industry is often accompanied by deforestation, displacement (without compensation nor consultation) of indigenous people occupying the land, loss of natural habitats for endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, increased greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
The New Weathermen's oil press inserts a lypase inhibitor in the kernel of the palm fruit that will make it impossible for you body to digest the oil.
PalmOPS is inspired by the inky caps, common mushrooms that are edible but become poisonous when consumed with alcohol. Inky caps contain coprine, a chemical which blocks the action of the enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde in the body, leading to violent hangover symptoms. Coprine was studied by scientists who wanted to use it to make alcoholics averse to drinking.
Finally, Bioccupy Diesel, attempts to sabotage fossil fuel. The project was inspired by an existing bacteria responsible for the diesel bug that creates a biofilm that separates oil from water and and creates waste. Over time, the (existing) bug is responsible for a sediment which forms in the tank. These build-ups will not pass through the filters of the car and can eventually damage the vehicle.
New Weathermen would optimize the bacteria using synthetic biology. The modified bacteria would then contaminate car after car through petrol stations. To be effective, the infection would have to start with just one petrol station. All the cars refueling there would become infected.
On 12 July, the Arts Calalyst organised one last evening of discussions in its Clerkenwell Road HQ.
The Language of Cetaceans brought together two men who share a passion for whales. One is environmental scientist and marine biologist Mark Peter Simmonds who investigates and raises awareness about an issue that is far away from our sights: the threats to the life of marine mammals caused by the increasing emissions of loud noise under water. The other is artist and inventor Ariel Guzik who has spent the last ten years looking for a way of communicating with cetaceans.
The evening started with Nicola Triscott, Director of the Arts Catalyst, showing us the Field Guide To UK Marine Mammals. I had no idea there were whales, dolphins, seals and sharks sharks on the coast of the UK!
We might think that oceans are silent but they are filled with noises and animal conversations. First of all, marine mammals, fish, and a few invertebrates depend on sound to locate food, identify mates, navigate, coordinate as a group, avoid predators, send and receive alert of danger as well as transmit other types of information. It's very dark deep in the ocean so hearing is the sense they rely the most on.
Nowadays, however, whales and other mammals cannot hear with each other because of all the man-made noise intruding on their habitat.
Some of these sounds are so loud, they are driving the animals away from areas important to their survival, and in some cases injuring or even causing their deaths. The intense sound pulses of mid-frequency military sonars, for example, have been linked to several mass whale strandings. But it's not just the military that is to blame. The fossil fuel industry is firing loud air guns fusillades to detect oil buried under the seafloor, undersea construction operations drive piles into the seafloor and blast holes with explosives. Add to the picture, the dramatic growth in shipping traffic that generates a constant noise.
Whales are particularly vulnerable because they communicate over vast distances in the same frequencies that ship propellers and engines generate. The whales are not only unable to communicate with each other but they also panic when the noise gets too loud. When they are hit by a blast, the creatures flee, abandon their habitat and with that the source of their alimentation.
NGO Ocean Care has launched the Silent Ocean campaign. Have a look at their video, it explains the issue with more clarity and details.
And here's the video of Mark Peter Simmonds's talk:
Ariel Guzik then presented his attempts at creating instruments that would mediate the communication between cetaceans and humans. One of his latest instruments is currently shown in the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The devices that the artist developed over the course of his career go from Laúd Plasmaht which uses the electric variations of Mexican cactuses to make a concert for plants to Nereida, an underwater capsule that doubles as a musical instrument to establish contact with cetaceans.
Here's Ariel Guzik's talk. It is not as fast-paced and entertaining as the one by Mark Peter Simmonds but Guzik is one of those 'crazy' visionary artists whose work involves biology, physics, music and a deep respect for the environment. His work, i'm sure, will fascinate you:
The rest of Ariel Guzik's talk is over here!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
Also part of the exhibition: In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to 'biological brain'.