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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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

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Helen Pynor, Head Ache (detail), from red sea blue water series, 2008

Today i'm talking with Helen Pynor. You might have seen one of Helen's most striking photos in bookshops and on the tube last year, it showed a brain in all its organic glory and was on the book cover and on the posters advertising the exhibition Brains: The mind as matter, which opened last Spring at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Helen Pynor has a background in science but later studied visual art. Three years ago she also became a doctor of philosophy. Her practice combines biological science and visual expression to explore the inside of our bodies, and to investigate the relationship between the physicality of the human body and its culturally constructed status.

During the show we will be talking about how she managed to get her hands on a fresh human brain but Helen will also discuss some of her broader projects such as The Body Is A Big Place, a large-scale installation that explores organ transplantation and the thresholds between life and death.

Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor (sound by Gail Priest), The Body is a Big Place

The show will be aired today Wednesday 22nd of May at 16:00. 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.

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

It's been too long since i've blogged about a project supported by Symbiotica (although they did get their fair amount of mentions and praises in #A.I.L., the show i present on ResonanceFM.)

The new project -developed by researcher and artist Guy Ben-Ary and by artist and academic Dr. Kirsten Hudson- looks into stem cell technology and more precisely Induced pluripotent stem cell, a cell re-programming technique able to reverse-engineer any cells from the body, coerce them back into their embryonic state and then trick the resulting stem cells into becoming any cell in a fully developed body. Regardless of the original tissue from which they were created.

For the In-Potentia work, the artists grew cells that were taken from human foreskin cells purchased from an online catalogue. The cells were then re-programmed by genetic manipulation and bio-engineered to become a neural network.

This functioning "brain" is presented in a sculptural incubator containing custom-made automated feeding and waste retrieval system as well as an electrophysiological recording setup.

The work is more clearly explained in the video below:

In-Potentia exposes, in the most limpid and absurd way, how science is blurring what we are used to regard as clear-cut categories, such as where life begins and ends or what constitutes a person. Or in Guy Ben-Ary's words:

What is the potential for artists employing bio-technologies to address, and modify, boundaries surrounding understandings of life, death and person-hood? And what exactly does it mean culturally, artistically, ontologically, philosophically, politically and ethically to make a living biological brain from human foreskin cells?

The artists have kindly accepted to answer my questions:

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

In Potentia is without doubt a very powerful and thought-provoking work. What is the state of the scientific but also cultural debate around liminal forms of life? where could i read more about it (in a not too daunting, hi-tech language if possible)? do you have simple examples of these 'uncertain lives' at the border between human/non-human, coherent/hybrid, etc.?

Liminal lives are creating a great degree of conjecture and debate in many areas of discourse in science, life sciences and the humanities. Liminal lives come in many forms, basically, anywhere where there is a physical entity on the threshold of change ie an entity that sits somewhere between one form or thing and another, that could be on the threshold of life and death but could also be on other thresholds such as human/machine, human/non-human, or occupy a more moral ambivalence where an understanding of consciousness or sentience is attributed to a live physical entity which we had previously only regarded as being "merely an object" ie the space between object/being. Basically liminal life is any form of life that challenges and alters the very nature of the concept of the human being, but also the contours of human life.

Liminal lives can be "brain dead" or coma patients who are only being kept alive due to machinic intervention, or severely pre-term newborns kept alive with external life support systems, or embryos (both within or outside of a female host body) whose status as "pre-beings" disrupts our understanding of "life" as being conscious, independent and "useful". Liminal lives could also be humans with animal (or other human) organ transplants, genetically modified/manipulated (human and non-human) lives that challenge the ontological status of where and how "life" starts, or even non-humans that exhibit "human-like" characteristics of consciousness etc etc. A liminal life can therefore be found anywhere that our traditional western understandings of what it means to be human is challenged, altered or transgressed. If you were only going to read one thing on liminal lives, I would suggest Susan M Squire's 2004 seminal text: Liminal Lives - Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine.

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

I like the humour behind 'project dickhead' as you nicknamed it but i've been wondering if you're not worried that certain journalists (and bloggers) will jump on the opportunity to depict the project in a simplistic light? Your choice was quite bold because you could have avoided potential simplistic headlines by choosing to use other cells than the ones of foreskin?

The use of foreskin is deliberate and although may evoke simplistic readings, does not take away, I hope) from the ability of these cells to offer an accessible point of entry into an art/science work for non- art or non- science savvy viewers in way that starts to evoke ideas to do with gender, waste, body modification/manipulation, western capitalist opportunism and the role biomedicine and scientific rationalism plays in determining the moral status and hierarchy of all beings.

The idea or research strategy was to try and problematise the technology by putting forward an absurd scenario (make a brain from foreskin) and ask the views to consider it...

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Could you briefly explain me the audio-soundscape that exposes the electrical activity of neural signals or synaptic output? It is just the electrical activity from the neural network being amplified? Did you modify the sound in any way to make it more 'evocative' of what the activity of a brain might sound like?

When we thought about exhibiting the project, its aesthetics or shall I say the visual/sonic language we needed to develop to show something like a neural network we decided not to visualise the network using a camera. Rather, we chose to grow the neurons on a multi electrode array or an electrophysiological set up that allows us to amplify the electric activity of the neurons so that the viewers could hear the neurons rather than seeing them. We felt that this sonic element will complement or support the aesthetics of the incubator. We believe that together they support the reading of the artwork. We also chose not a modify the sound of the neurons (even though not such a popular decision) due to our desire for authenticity and integrity. In my mind this way the focus is on the neurons and not programming or musicianship... I think that the blurry, noisy signal (that really needs analysis algorithms to decode it) also adds to the absurdity of the whole work in a way that it is a functional network but really what does this statement mean ?

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Image courtesy "Where DogsRun"

Thanks Guy and Kirsten!

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Designers and biohackers Raphael Kim and Funk are in the studio with us today to talk about the London Hackspace, a community owned, non-profit organisation where members come to meet, create and fix things individually or together. A hackerspace obviously involves much coding but there's a lot more going on: there's also laser cutting, soldering, drilling, woodworking, sewing, 3d printing, learning, tinkering, repairing and pizza eating. The space even welcomes a small bio-hacking lab.

A few weeks ago, the London Hackspace moved to a new, brighter and much bigger location on Hackney road. HSL is the largest hackerspace in the UK, with hundreds of members. And if you're not one of them the space opens its doors to visitors every Tuesday evening.

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Image by Raphael Kim

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DI Biohack Workshop 2013 at the (old) LHS. Image by Raphael Kim

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DI Biohack Workshop 2013 at the (old) LHS. Image by Raphael Kim

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New space for the LHS, just before moving in. Image by Raphael Kim

The show will be aired today Wednesday 1st May at 16:00. 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.

1tu8549.jpgThe new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today we will be talking with the flamboyant Adam Zaretsky, a Doctor of Philosophy in Electronic Arts, a researcher and art theorist whose work focuses on Biology and Art Wet Lab Practice. He has been lecturing and doing research in some of the most prestigious institutes around the world. If you've been following this blog for a while you probably know that i LOVE Adam Zaretsky.

Zarestsky has co-habited during one week in a terrarium with E. Coli bacteria, worms, plant, fish, frogs, mice, flies and yeast. He has dedicated part of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to playing Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits to fermenting E.Coli continuously for 48 hours and observing the impact that the rather camp music had on the bacteria. More recently, the artist has worked with materials that include surgically manipulated pheasant embryos and a preserved turd of the deceased writer William S. Burroughs.

So that's what we are going to discuss in this episode of #A.I.L., turds from a famous writer but also eyeballs in armpits. And ethics, biotechnological materials and ''Full Breadth Genetic Alterity.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 24st March at 16:00. 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.

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.

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Pipet exercise at Aalto BiofiliA Lab during the First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

My guest at Resonance will be Ulla Taipale, a curator and creative producer whose main role in the art world is to act as a bridge with the scientific community, enhancing and facilitating collaborations between artists, creators and scientists.

Ulla is one of the founders of Capsula which since 2005 has been organizing workshops, talks and events related to art, science and nature. She also initiated the Capsula Curated Expeditions which periodically invite artists to embark on artistic exploration and research linked to natural phenomena.

Today, however, we are going to talk about Ulla's latest endeavor: her work as a Project Manager of Biofilia - Base for Biological Arts. This brand new a biological art unit interweaving artistic and bio-scientific explorations opened at Aalto University, Finland in January of this year and i've been looking forward to hearing more about Biofilia ever since.

Aalto Biofilia is unique in the world as it has the only fully equipped biological lab that is operated by an art school and based in an electrical engineering building. It offers unparalled reseach capacity for the growing field of biological art. The programme consist of research projects and a series of courses, lectures and hands-on workshops in the laboratory and natural environments exploring the interfaces between biosciences and art.

Biofilia was set up as a collaboration between the University of Western Australia, Perth, and Aalto University. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from SymbioticA -The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts are consulting and contributing to the development of this new learning and research environment.

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First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Assistants are students of Art&Life Manipulation Course - with special guests Corrie Van Sice and Christopher Salter. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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First lab session in BiofiliA lab lead by Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts. Assistants are students of Art&Life Manipulation Course - with special guests Corrie Van Sice and Christopher Salter. . Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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Ionat Zurr with students at Aalto BiofiliA Lab, Otaniemi Campus, Espoo, Finland. Date 12th Dec, 2012 Photos: Susanna Kekkonen

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Melliferopolis -Honeybees in Urban Environments. Helsinki. Ravintola Savoy. Photo: Susanna Kekkonen

The show will be aired today Thursday 28 March at 17:30. 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.

I should add that if you're curious about Biofilia and the projects developed there, you might want to follow the live streaming of the lecture that artist, researcher Dr. Ionat Zurr from Symbiotica will be giving about Semi Living Muscle actuators as evocative "matter"
on the 11th of April at 11:00 (Helsinki time.)

Previously: Interview with Ulla Taipale, Herbologies/Foraging Networks at Pixelache Helsinki, Herbologies/Foraging Networks.

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