Another project from the Design Interactions work in progress show!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Michail!

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, i took the bus with the Arts Catalyst in the direction of Southampton to see Transformism, an exhibition and symposium that explore the new forms and systems of life that men have devised in the past and even more dramatically in present days, using the latest advances in science and technology.

The exhibition space is occupied by 2 new pieces commissioned by the Arts Catalyst to Melanie Jackson and Revital Cohen. The works investigate with radically different results how cultural archetypes and ideas interweave with science and technology to create new shapes, visual forms and structures.

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (amateur breeder)

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (domestic farm)

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (domestic farm)

The most moving work in the show is Kingyo Kingdom which continues Revital Cohen's research into animal design and more explicitly the reasons why some animals are regarded by men as being more of an object or a 'living product' than a pet. Two years ago, Revital looked at the SERT Knock-out rat, a laboratory rat genetically designed to be constantly depressed. This new work investigates the culture surrounding the Ranchu fish, an exotic goldfish developed over centuries in Japan to present strict aesthetic criteria. Bred with meticulous attention as if they were Bonsai, the fish are designed to be viewed from above. For that reason, they were cultured to have kimono-like tails and no dorsal fins. Any fish that does not correspond to the strict aesthetic criteria (the vast majority of the fish) are simply thrown away.

The project questions the definitions used to indicate living creatures. Does one denominate a manipulated organism as an object, product, animal or pet? What consequences does this entail for our feelings and behaviours?

The documentary Kingyo Kingdom shows the first stage of the research, it depicts the economy, ceremonials and culture that turn Japanese goldfish into ornamental and prized objects. The most striking images (at least for me) show goldfish being bagged, packed and sent away to be shipped and sold.

Kingyo Kingdom - preview from COHEN VAN BALEN on Vimeo.

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (annual goldfish competition)

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (annual goldfish competition)

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (annual goldfish competition)

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Kingyo Kingdom, 2013 (annual goldfish competition)

The other work in the exhibition is Urpflanze (Part 2), part of Melanie Jackson's investigation into mutability and transformation that takes its lead from Goethe's concept of an imaginary primal plant, the Urpflanze, that contained coiled up within it the potential to unfurl all possible future forms.

The Crafting Life - Materiality, Science and Technology symposium accompanied the opening of the exhibition. And hurray! the talks have been uploaded on vimeo.

The first speaker was social scientist Dr Emma Roe whose research explores 'how things become food.' You'll never look at a piece of pork in your plate the same way after you've heard what her talk.

Crafting Life: Dr Emma Roe 26 Jan 13 from The Arts Catalyst on Vimeo.

Prof Susanne Kuechler gave a brilliant brilliant talk about immanence, societies living in the Pacific, textures of the landscape and other topics i don't usually get to hear about.

Crafting Life Prof Susanne Kuechler 26 Jan 13 from The Arts Catalyst on Vimeo.

Finally, Prof Raymond Oliver talked about materials that become intelligent and damn! that went fast and furious. I was particularly surprised by the slide that brings side by side the year in which a new technology was conceived and the year in which it was effectively realized.

Crafting Life Prof Raymond Oliver 26 Jan 13 from The Arts Catalyst on Vimeo.

You can download the catalogue of Transformism.

The exhibition is at John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton until 9 March 2013.

Related stories: The seratonin knock-out rat, Life Support - Could animals be transformed into medical devices? and How to design an Elvis mouse.

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

My guest in the studio is artist and film maker Charlotte Jarvis.

Over the past few years, Charlotte has worked with scientists to bio-engineer a bacteria with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encoded into its DNA sequence, she developed performances that showed the public what could happen if one day, synthetic biology was used to eradicate greed, lust and anger from a group of children.

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Ergo Sum performance at the Waag Society in Amsterdam

But today, Charlotte is going to dispel a few myths about stem cells and discuss her award-winning project: Ergo Sum.

A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte donated parts of her body to stem cell research. Her tissue and blood samples are now in a lab where they will be transformed - medically metamorphosed - into induced pluripotent stem cells and from there into a range of completely different substances. A second self will be created, a self-portrait, a dopplegänger, made from a collage of in vitro body parts. Brain, heart and blood vessel all biologically 'Charlotte', yet distinctly alien to her.

The project has received a Designers and Artist's for Genomics Award. It will be exhibited this Summer at Naturalis in Leiden, The Netherlands.

The show will be aired today Thursday 7st February at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photos by James Read and Arne Kuilman.

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

Zoe Papadopoulou is an artist whose work looks at emergent technologies and speculates on their future uses to help the public imagine and discuss what these innovations might hold for us in the coming years. In the past, Zoe has baked nuclear cakes, sold ice cream flavoured clouds and drafted the merger between the island of Cyprus and Intel corporation.

But the work we are going to focus on today is called Reproductive Futures. Zoe has spent the past year on a project sponsored by the Wellcome Trust exploring the scientific and technological developments in Artificial Reproductive Technologies. She particularly looked at questions such as "Will the techniques themselves have the potential to fundamentally change the way we perceive parenthood and reproduction? How will the stories we tell children evolve?" Her research will take the form of 3 books that address different scenarios of future reproduction through children's stories.

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The story of the "Goldfish Boy'. Illustrated by Matt Saunders

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1677: Invention of the microscope - 1694: Homunculus (tiny person already formed inside a sperm) illustrates the theory of Preformationism

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Timeline charting the history of assisted reproduction technologies exhibited at the festival Abandon Normal Devices in Manchester

In the show, we will be talking artificial uterus, the orphan child who had 5 parents, artificial gametes, and premature babies exhibited in freak shows.

The show will be aired today Thursday 31st January at 19:30. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Previously: Reproductive Futures.
Image on the homepage: Wellcome Collection.

The last episode of 2012 of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 18th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 20th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.

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Ant Ballet. Photo Ollie Palmer

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Collecting ants. Photo Ollie Palmer

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Robotic arm. Photo Ollie Palmer

This week i'm talking with Ollie Palmer is a designer, artist, a tutor at Bartlett but he is also the guy who's so interested in dancing insects that he's embarked on a 6 year project to choreograph and stage an Ant Ballet.

Developed with the support of scientists from University College London and the Institute of Zoology in London, the work uses a robotic arm which sprays synthesized pheromone in artificial trails that the ants will follow in preference to their own natural foraging behaviour. The project will grow over several phases and one of them involves the creation of intercontinental ant telecommunication devices.

During the interview, Ollie talks ants and more precisely Argentine ants, a particularly invasive species that the UK wants nowhere near its shores. We also learn about the best way to collect ants, to synthesize pheromones and end the show with a few words about the Godot Machine, a device built for the sole purpose of preventing a single ant to move around.


Ollie Palmer, Ant Ballet at FutureEverything 2012

What a merry interview to end the year! The next episode of #A.I.L / artists in laboratories will be up at resonanceFM in mid-January.

Previously: An Ant Ballet at FutureEverything.

A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 4th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 6th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.

The host of this episode is conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen who has spent the past 20 years crossbreeding national species of chicken in order to create the ultimate 'Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.' You might or might not know it but each country has cultivated its own peculiar breed of chicken: the French, for example, have the Poulet the Brest. It's white and red with blue feet, the same colours as their flag. Americans like their chicken to be big and powerful. The Chinese have created a chicken covered in silky feathers.

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Koen Vanmechelen, 'Golden Spur' at Parallellepipeda, M - Museum, Leuven (part of the Cosmopolitan chicken project)

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Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Silky 14th Generation - C.C.P., 2011

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Koen Vanmechelen, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project

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Koen Vanmechelen, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project

I've been admiring Vanmechelen's work for several years but i only got to meet him a few weeks ago at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt. That's where the interview took place. The conversation has moments of humour and moments of deeper reflection. There's something both humble and heroic about Vanmechelen's stories of the incestuous and infertile English Red Cap or of the rooster that underwent surgery to be fitted with a new golden spur. But Koen's research project is not just about chicken and egg. His work encroaches on the fields of science, philosophy and ethics to ask questions about biocultural diversity, identity, evolution and freedom of movement.

For a sneak peek of his work, check out this short video of Koen Vanmechelen summing up the Cosmopolitan Chicken:

Or this other one, showing the artist at work in Venice:

Image on the homepage: Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse (M) x English Redcap (F), 2007

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